Friday, 13 April 2007

Old Flanagan's Blog of Impractical Cats

The next episode of Doctor Who on BBC1 (which should be broadcast on Saturday unless the FA Cup semi-final overruns) is set in New New York in the year 5 billion plus, and brings back the race of the cat-nuns from last year’s “New Earth”. Then, on Monday, 2Entertain will release the region 2 DVD of “Survival”, the last story of the 1963-1989 run, which is full of cheetah-people.

Cat people have had a long history in folklore and fiction. Gustave Doré produced this picture of one of the best-known, Puss-in-Boots, from the 17th century tale by Charles Perrault, in 1863.

Sadly, by this time Doré had given up creating comic books. (See the bottom half of this article by Patricia Mainardi on the 19th Century Art Worldwide site for more about his comics career.)

I was going to suggest that anthropomorphic cats made their way into comics with Tiger Tim, created by Julius Stafford Baker for The Rainbow in 1903. But Paul Gravett’s book, Great British Comics, says that Baker was inspired by a series begun by James Swinnerton in 1897. Here’s an example from Coconino Classics, signed 1918 and published in 1919. You may want to spend a while poking around that treasure trove of a site, but be sure to come back here, won’t you?

Swinnerton and Mr Jack were American, but Tiger Tim wasn’t even the first recurring cat character in British comics. That seems to have been Stripes, from the Chowgli and Stripes series in Illustrated Chips, which began in 1899. (Chowgli, an African boy, was presented with the appearance and speech patterns that late Victorian prejudices required, but he was still the hero of his own strip.)

The style of the cartooning is such that I’m not sure if Stripes was anthropomorphic or not. Probably not. But he did speak, which counts for something.

Cat people turned up early in science fiction comic strips, with Buck Rogers (and, in the panels below, Wilma Deering) meeting the Tiger Men from Mars in 1930.

Flash Gordon proceeded to meet the Lion Men of Mongo in 1934.

The Doctor has met a few cat people in comic strips. Here he encounters Big Cat of the Freefall Warriors, a team of stunt pilots.

The strangest story to feature the Doctor and cat people was probably “Menace on Metalupiter”. It appeared in the Doctor Who Annual 1977 (published in 1976), when the publishers, World Distributors, were attempting to minimise costs by hiring artists who had not only never seen Doctor Who, but appeared to be unfamiliar with the concept of comics too. At least they had a few publicity stills of Tom Baker to work from.

The Doctor has decided to visit his friends on the planet Metalupiter. He thoughtfully shows Sarah and Harry a photograph.

Can’t work out what that picture is supposed to show, even if you have clicked to enlarge it? Me neither, and I’ve been puzzling over it for 30 years. Off and on, that is. I don’t want you to get the impression I’m obsessive, or anything.

The TARDIS arrives, and the crew go off to look for the locals.

No, I can’t work out what happened in that panel either. The Doctor then captures one of the local Metalupitrons, described as “cat-faced robots” and soon finds the trouble.

The cat-faced robot, called Puskeet, is soon able to explain what is going on. The planet has been invaded by aliens, who want to turn the whole world into fuel crystals.

I think we all know how it feels to have our memories replaced with rubber, don’t we?

The Doctor tries to stop the aliens, but is held back by their brain-scrambling ray (which the writer and artist may have tried on themselves first). But don’t worry, Puskeet turns up to save the day. Note that although the captions describe Puskeet, the pictures are of the alien invader. Or, at least, so I assume. A caption describes the alien as “four-armed”, but this chap seems only to have two.

No, I’ve no idea what happened in that last panel. The tale concludes with a masterpiece of bad storytelling.

Why the sudden close-up of the Doctor’s eyes? Why does Sarah conclude that the Metalupitrons are charming? Why is every single figure facing the wrong way to lead you through the panels? Who knows?

The good thing about this story is that it provides such an absolute low of incoherent storytelling that everything else pales by comparison. Whenever I find myself annoyed by bad panel progression and narrative non-sequiturs, I ask myself, “But is it as bad as ‘Menace on Metalupiter’?” and I feel much more at ease.

Panels and pictures from:
Perrault’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Gustave Doré, 1863, reprinted in The Doré Gallery: His 120 Greatest Illustrations, Dover Publications, 1998

Escapades of Mr Jack by James Swinnerton, 1919, from Coconino Classics

Chowgli and Stripes “Chowgli and Stripes Take a Dangerous Ride”, from Illustrated Chips issue 467, 12 August 1899, reprinted in Denis Gifford Victorian Comics, George Allen & Unwin, 1976

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century “Tiger Men of Mars” by Phil Nowlan (writer) and Dick Calkins (artist), 1930, reprinted in Robert C Dille (editor) The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, A&W Visual Library, 1969

Flash Gordon “On the Planet Mongo” by Alex Raymond, 1934, reprinted in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon volume 1, Checker Book Publishing, 2003

Doctor Who “Doctor Who and the Freefall Warriors” by Steve Parkhouse (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist and letterer), Doctor Who Magazine issue 56, September 1981, reprinted in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw, Panini Books, 2004

Doctor Who “Menace on Metalupiter”, uncredited, in The Doctor Who Annual 1977, World Distributors, 1976

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