John Ostrander on DOCTOR WHO (and the Kids!)

doctorwho-peter-capaldi-the-thick-of-it

by John Ostrander

Doctor Who, the long-running BBC TV series about a humanoid alien transversing through time and space with his companions, has wound up its current season, its tenth since it’s return following a long hiatus. The current actor playing the part, Peter Capaldi, is the fourth actor (or the fifth depending how you number it) since the show returned or the twelfth or thirteenth since the show’s inception. The numbering differential is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey thing.

The show has sparked a discussion among the fans lately because, well, that’s what fans do, especially of a cult science-fiction show such as this one. There’s great passion and great heat as usual with these things along with the absolute conviction of one side that they are right and that those on the other side are wrong. It doesn’t matter which side of a debate you’re on, the other guy is wrong. There’s a lot of passion and maybe some thought and that’s what happens with a fan disagreement.

The current issue under debate is that Doctor Who began as a children’s show back in 1963 and it should always be a children’s show. The position of some is that the current monsters are often too scary for children, the continuity has become too complex for children, the relationships are inappropriate for children.

There’s some truth to all this, and there’s a lot of bullshit as well. The current show-runner, Stephen Moffat, also writes a number of the episodes and his fingerprints are usually all over the ones he doesn’t write. I started out as a big fan of Moffat, especially in the seasons before he became the show’s producer. At his best, Moffat writes very clever episodes with great heart. At his worst, Moffat is just being clever. I’m less impressed with those episodes than he seems to be.

Are the Doctor Who monsters too scary for children? The show has always scared children. Part of its initial burst of popularity, indeed its initial survival, rested on the Daleks, a group of alien cyborgs. They’ve been described as deranged pepper shakers, bent on conquest and the death of any species inferior to themselves which they consider all other races to be. They’re catch phrase is “Exterminate!”

They scared the bejabbers out of British tykes since their first appearance. I’ve read reminiscences of Brits saying they watched the show from behind the couch or through their fingers. The world can be a scary place and all children know this. Being afraid and then seeing the monsters defeated is, I think, very healthy. Many of the classic fairy tales do this. Scaring the little bastards is a good idea. It’s part of growing up.

Should Doctor Who have remained a children’s show? I’ve worked for a long time in a medium (comics) that was considered the bastard child of children’s lit. It was off in a ghetto of its own despite the fact that elsewhere in the world, the comics medium wasn’t considered to be only for children. I’ve never considered my work to be primarily for children and, in fact, have several times steered a parent away from my work. We’ve since broken out of that artistic straightjacket with works of art such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus showing what the medium is capable of being.

That said – there haven’t been enough comics for children any more. The medium has catered to the fan and the cult without paying attention to where the next generation of readers are going to come from. That’s short-sighted. Given the multiple versions of the characters that exist, the two major publishers – DC and Marvel – should publish versions of their main characters to attract the young reader. As the kids grow into adults, you could introduce them to the more grown-up editions of the characters. That’s investing in their own characters and the future of the medium.

The question for the comics – and Doctor Who – is not just what they are but what they can be.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

John Ostrander Ponders Heroes and Their Origins

Nero-Wolfe

by John Ostrander

As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.

(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)

Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.

That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.

Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.

I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”

Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?

When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.

The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.

An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.

I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.

One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that readerhad to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.

I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.

One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.

With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.

The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.

For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

John Ostrander Ponders “Christmas Anti-Heroes

Anti-hero? Or out and out villain? Hiya,k Grinchy!
Anti-hero? Or out and out villain? Hiya,k Grinchy!

by John Ostrander

T’is the season for Christmas related columns, fa-la-la-la-etc. I could write about Star Wars: The Force Awakens but that came out Friday so now it’s old hat and, besides, I haven’t seen it yet and, given the crowds, may not be able to see it until after the first of the year so let’s talk about something else, shaaaaall we?

Christmas is a time of peace, love, and goodwill to all unless you’re doing last minute shopping, running from store to store, and in a life and death struggle with some other harried shopper for the last iteration of a particular item that you both must have. So why is it that, aside from Baby Jesus of course, the most identifiable characters connected with the day are anti-heroes – the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Mr. Potter (from It’s a Wonderful Life)?

Anti-heroes are what we used to call outright villains until it was found that we may identify with them more than perhaps we should. They’re bad guys who have a hint of good guy in them and these days we may sympathize with them more than the erstwhile heroes of the stories that they are in. They’re usually the most interesting and usually have the best lines.

Take the Grinch, for example, especially the Grinch found in the Chuck Jones directed and Boris Karloff voiced cartoon. He even has a song about how bad he is. Some of my favorite lyrics in it go: “You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch! You’re a nasty, wasty skunk! Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch!” Admit it. You now have the whole song running through your head. Merry Christmas.

The Grinch lives up the mountain with his dog Max, but is assaulted by the noise coming from Who-ville every Christmas and it is driving him just bat-shit crazy. So he hatches his evil plan: he’ll dress up like Sanity Claus and steal every present from the Whos and every scrap of food including the last can of Who-Hash. (That particular delicacy always troubled me; it implies that the hash is made up of ground up Whos which suggests that the village is a town of cannibals which might make them more interesting than they otherwise appear.)

Instead of tears, the Grinch hears a song of joy from the Whos on Christmas Day. Xmas came all the same. So he has a change of heart (it grew three sizes that day) and returns everything and even joins them for dinner, slicing the roast beast.

The change suggests a desire to change, deep down. Let’s be honest though – the Grinch is funnier and more interesting before his change.

And then there’s Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the Grinch’s literary grandfather. Dickens describes him as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” His very name is a synonym for miser (look it up). When Carl Barks was looking for a name for Donald Duck’s rich and miserly uncle, what else would suit but the name Scrooge?

Ebenezer is a gold mine for bad Christmas attitude. Dickens says of him “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.” Scrooge is famous for his “Bah! Humbug!” attitude on the season. Early on, he declares: “Out upon merry Christmas. What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

When Scrooge is asked for money to help the poor, he says they should go to the poorhouse since that is what he pays his taxes for. Told that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge snaps, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Oh, that’s cold.

Scrooge, however, saw himself as simply a good man of business and I suspect many on the Right today would see him as the put-upon hero of the story, just another entrepreneur trying to make his way past all those grasping freeloaders with their hands out.

Scrooge gets visited by four ghosts (including his dead partner, Jacob Marley) and, of course, gets reformed. By the end he vows, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Still, there’s enough of the old devil in him to play a rather mean trick on his clerk, Bob Cratchit, on the following day. Thank goodness.

That leaves us, then, with Mr. Potter of It’s A Wonderful Life. Let’s be honest; there’s nothing redeeming about him. He is a miserable old miser like Scrooge; of him it can be sung that he’s a mean one. He has the best – or worst – of the Grinch and Scrooge in him.

Here’s a sample of some his best line and worst attitudes: “I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.

“Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me ‘a warped, frustrated, old man!’ What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.

“He [Peter Bailey] was a man of high ideals, so called. Ideals without common sense can ruin this town.

“Ernie Bishop, you know the fella who sits around all day on his brains in his taxi?”

When Peter Bailey asks him why he is so miserly when he has so much money: “Oh, I suppose I should give it to miserable failures like you and that idiot brother of yours to spend for me!”

“You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas!”

I’m surprised that Mr. Potter isn’t running for the Republican presidential nomination. Or maybe he is and just has gotten lost in the pack. Maybe he’s changed his name to Trump.

Potter gets ahold by mistake of a deposit that belongs to George Bailey and the Savings and Loan he heads up. Knowing this will mean financial ruin and disgrace for Bailey (whom he describes as a boil on his neck), he conceals the fact that he has it.

And he gets away with it!

George is saved by the generosity of family and friends but, by the end of the movie, Potter is not exposed and he never gives the money back. He’s unrepentant and unreformed. You can sort of root for the Grinch and Scrooge but you really just want Potter to die with a stake of holly through his heart. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s an asshole. He’s an outright villain. Die, Potter, die!

Anyway, may your Christmas be merry and bright, one and all. Enjoy the day and enjoy some of these classics. They do embody the feelings of the season.

Even if that feeling is… “Humbug!”


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

John Ostrander: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

OStrander Art 130728 John Ostrander: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

by John Ostrander

There are certain films I’ve discovered just by channel surfing; likewise, there are films that I know and when I come across them (again, channel surfing), I may stay to watch a given scene and then find myself watching the film through to the end. Most of the OT Star Wars movies are like that; so isCasablanca. This morning my Mary and I came across another, Miss Pettgrew Lives For A Day.  I found it first on TV, bought a copy, and today watched the movie through to the end anyway.

The 2008 film stars Amy Adams, Frances McDormand, Ciaran Hinds, Lee Pace, Mark Strong and Shirley Henderson, among others, and it was directed by Bharat Nalluri with a screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy adapting the 1937 novel by Winifred Watson.

I suspect you’ll already know Amy Adams’ and Frances McDormand’s work. Bharat Nalluri may be more known to ComicMix readers as the man who directed episodes of MI-5 and Torchwood: Miracle Day. Writer David Magee wrote Finding Neverland (another film I love) and Life of Pi. Simon Beaufoy won an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire and has also scripted the upcomingThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire as well as The Full Monty.

Ciaran Hinds has a mixture of films to his credit. He played Dumbledore’s brother in the final Harry Potter film, was also in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well asJohn Carter and Game of Thrones. I thought he was very hammy in Political Animals, the Sigourney Weaver TV miniseries but he’s wonderful and understated in Miss Pettigrew.

Mark Strong was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and John Carter as well and also played Sinestro in the Green Lantern film as well as Lord Blackwood in theSherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr. Lee Pace is in all three Hobbitmovies and will be playing Ronan the Accuser in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film.

Why do I tell you all this? To drive home that Miss Pettigrew has a really good pedigree and it lives up to it.

The story is gossamer light for all that it’s set in London in 1938 on the eve of World War II. That gives the film an underlying shadow; we know what’s waiting in the wings. So do some of the characters and it adds a poignancy to the story.

The story? Imdb does a nice job of summarizing the story so I’ll quote it: “War threatens London as Miss Pettigrew, a destitute governess, filches a client’s card from her agency and presents herself at the door. A singer named Delysia Lafosse wants a social secretary as she seeks a West End role by sleeping with a feckless producer in the bed of Nick, a smarmy nightclub owner with whom she also dallies. She ignores Michael, her piano player, who loves her and has tickets for New York on the Queen Mary. Miss Pettigrew’s job is to make sure Delysia gets the part. Over 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew is also called upon to help an ambitious and unfaithful fashion editor patch things up with her older fiancé, a lingerie designer. Has Miss Pettigrew found her calling?”

Amy Adams is Delysia and she’s perfection. She has superb comedic timing and shows real heart in a character that could otherwise be described as flighty and manipulative. The character is a fake but there are reasons why and a past that comes up at key moments. There’s an innocence to her. And it’s a brave performance. At the emotional climax, when she sings “If I Didn’t Care”, there are notes where Amy Adams shows us that Delysia is a good singer but not a great one. She’s not as good a singer as Amy Adams proved in Enchanted. You canhear that song on YouTube.

Listen to how the real character breaks through as she sings the song and discovers where her heart truly lies.

Frances McDomand’s performance as Miss Pettigrew is a lesson in underacting. The character starts very cold and distant, with a very set idea of what is right, and it all gets turned upside down as she encounters Delysia. Her heart, her warmth, opens up as she deals and helps the chaos that is the younger woman.

All the actors are wonderful and the movie itself could have been made in the 30s – all the period details seem so right. It’s a beautiful film to look at and the costumes and the cars and the sets all establish a reality – one that you know is soon to vanish. I never escape the underlying threat of war that runs through the film.

Just wanted to share a film that has become one of my favorites. Will you like it? Beats me. But if you’re a tad tired of superheroes right now and explosions and all that, you might want to give it a try.

The Most Important Self-Realization Tip Ever

…Especially if you’re a fan of ARMY OF DARKNESS, THE EVIL DEAD, BURN NOTICE et al:

bruce campbell poster

A tip of the TVWriter™ hat to the great John Ostrander