On Things I’ve Been Reading

I bought some comics recently.

Aetheric Mechanics
Avatar Press
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Gianluca Pagliarani

In the year 1907, England is at war with Ruritania on the Continent. France is besieged,and Grand Fenwick has been overrun by Ruritanian forces. England’s spacefleet is keeping London safe, while Ruritanian ships are sighted off Mars, and American privateers are making trouble for both sides. Meanwhile, every night Ruritanian reconnaisance planes buzz low over London.

Doctor Richard Watcham has returned invalided from the frontlines on the Continent. Before the outbreak of war, he ably chronicled the adventures of London’s consulting detective, Mr. Sax Raker. Raker is still ensconsed in his rooms in Dilke Street, and he has found a diabolical new case. An engineer in aetheric mechanics has been murdered, and according to witnesses, the murderer disappeared into the aether as he struck the killing blow.

Raker believes that the diabolical Prince of Crime is behind the murder. And when another body, likewise of another engineer of aetheric mechanics, turns up, Raker, Watcham, and “The Woman” Inanna Meyer find themselves in pursuit of a serial killer.

If this sounds remarkably like a strange sort of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, you’re correct. What if Sherlock Holmes existed in a world of aetheric mechanics, where the universe was filled not with vacuum but with aether, and great starships plied the spaceways? Sherlock Holmes in the steampunk world of Space: 1889, even.

Is Aetheric Mechanics any good?

My constant thought as I read Aetheric Mechanics was, “What’s the point?” Some new technology would be revealed, or some new shout-out to something out of modern pop or literary culture would surface, and the natural reaction is, “You have got to be kidding me.” Ruritania. Grand Fenwick. An early 20th-century Dan Dare equivalent. Steampunk robots. The Ford Model T as a hovercar.

Then, suddenly, it all makes sense. The mystery is revealed, and the method of the story’s madness becomes apparent.

There’s a reason why Sax Raker is and isn’t Sherlock Holmes. There’s a reason why Inanna Meyer is and isn’t Irene Adler. There’s even a reason why, when Raker springs his plan to capture the invisible killer that Ruritania chooses that precise moment to unleash their attack on London.

Here’s the thing.

To the characters inside the story, the story doesn’t make sense. It’s only to a reader outside the story, one who has even a surface understanding of anything the story’s villain talks about, that Aetheric Mechanics holds together.

I was expecting, based on the back cover blurb, something akin to a steampunk Sherlock Holmes. Instead, Aetheric Mechanics is something else entirely, something metaphysical, something in line with, say, Philip K. Dick, if Dick wrote steampunk near-Sherlock Holmes pastiches. ;)

I’ve said nothing about Pagliarani’s black and white artwork. He does a creditable job bringing the work of the alternate 1907 to life. Raker’s sitting rooms in Dilke Street look like Holmes’ sitting rooms in Baker Street. The characters are easily recognizable as their Holmesian counterparts — Raker looks a fair bit like Matt Frewer’s Holmes, and Watcham looks like David Burke’s Watson. It’s very pretty to look at, Pagliarani has a good sense for staging his scenes, though occasionally the characters, particularly Inanna Meyer, have a flat, slightly unreal appearance.

If this sounds like the sort of thing that appeals to you, Aetheric Mechanics is worthwhile. Some may balk at the price of $6.99, but I felt like Warren Ellis gave me my money’s worth here. It’s a challenging, thought-provoking work of metaphysical mystery.

Grant Morrison’s Doctor Who #1
IDW Publishing
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by John Ridgway and Bryan Hitch

For two months, IDW halts their reprinting of Doctor Who Magazine‘s fourth Doctor comic strips for this special two-issue set that collects Grant Morrison’s early Doctor Who comics work. Morrison wrote three stories for Doctor Who Magazine in 1986 and 1987 — “Changes” and “The World Shapers” for the sixth Doctor, and “Culture Shock” for the seventh. Grant Morrison’s Doctor Who #1 reprints “Changes” and “Culture Shock” in full-color for the first time.

“Changes,” with art by John Ridgway, is a sixteen-page story in which a murderous shapeshifting alien gets aboard the TARDIS and traps the Doctor, Peri, and Frobisher in the surrealistic landscape of the TARDIS interior. Ridgway’s sixth Doctor artwork was always top-notch (see [i]Voyager[/i] for some of the best examples), and that continues here. Peri doesn’t look a great deal like Nicola Bryant, however. There’s nothing remarkable or earth-shattering about “Changes.” In sixteen pages, there’s not a lot of room to be earth-shattering. :)

“Culture Shock,” with art by Bryan Hitch, is an odd little story. The TARDIS lands on an alien beach, the Doctor is feeling sorry for himself, and a telepathic contact leads the Doctor to save a colony of sentient bacteria. The bacteria saved, the Doctor no longer feels sorry for himself, and he sets off again for parts unknown. It’s a cute story, and Hitch’s artwork, which isn’t as polished as he later develops, works both in the Doctor’s macro world and the microscopic world of the bacteria.

Neither story is particularly profound, and doubtless the only reason this series exists is to cash in on the Grant Morrison name in light of his recent successes. Still, readers are getting some fantastic artwork from Ridgway (and just wait until “The World Shapers” and all its fanwankiness in the second issue), in full-color, too.

Perhaps, if this series sells well, we’ll see Alan Moore’s Doctor Who in times to come.

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