16 March, 2013

The Origin of The Vampire Plants

'The Vampire Plants' is a six-page Doctor Who comic strip featuring Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. It first appeared in The Dr Who Annual for 1970 (published in 1969), and was later reprinted in the omnibus collection Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space in 1981.

A synopsis for 'The Vampire Plants' follows:
The Doctor receives a message from his old friend Dr Vane and arrives on Venus, where Vane has experimental botanical gardens. The Doctor leaves Zoe behind in the TARDIS but takes Jamie with him to visit Vane. Vane is troubled by the recent mysterious disappearance of a newly-discovered plant, the galea tentipocus, found in the Galea galaxy. Vane’s assistant, Regan, is tasked with finding the thieves believed to have stolen the plant. Regan finds the tree in the wilderness but it grabs him and shoves him off a cliff. The injured Regan is looked after by Vane while the Doctor and Jamie go in search of the plant and discover that it has grown to an enormous size. It traps the pair in its branches. The Doctor has the idea of setting fire to the grass, and they escape from the plant’s clutches as it is engulfed in flames.
 When I reviewed this story in The Comic Strip Companion I observed that the comic strip was: “… a brazen recycling of the idea behind ‘Freedom by Fire’ from the previous year’s annual…” A few months after my book was published I became aware that 'The Vampire Plants' strip was actually an example of even more “brazen recycling” from an entirely different source.

Spaceman: Comic of the Future was a British science fiction comic that premiered around March 1953 and lasted for 15 issues. One of the ongoing strips in this short-lived comic was a series of stories featuring a character called Bill Merrill, who worked for the Scientific Investigation Bureau.

One of the Bill Merrill stories published in Spaceman was ‘Rockingham's Tree’. This was an eight-page, black and white comic strip.

A synopsis for 'Rockingham's Tree' follows: 
Bill Merrill and Velma, members of the Scientific Investigation Bureau, learn of the discovery by Professor Rockingham of a tree on Mercury. He has brought the Mercurian Tree, as it is called, it to Earth and puts it on public display in his botanical gardens in England. Over night however the gardens’ nightwatchman is killed and the tree goes missing. Merrill, Velma and Rockingham investigate the mystery. A butterfly collector, Colonel Butterworth, finds the tree in the countryside. The tree grabs the colonel and shoves him over a cliff. Butterworth survives the fall and relates his story to Merrill and his team. The Bureau begin a search of the countryside but a year passes before the tree is located in Epping Forest. Merrill, Velma and Rockingham race to the forest and discover that the tree has grown to an enormous size. It traps the trio in its branches. Merrill has the idea of setting fire to the grass, and they escape from the trees’ clutches as it is engulfed in flames.
The descriptions of these two comic strip stories share some remarkable points of similarity, but a comparison of the artwork removes any lingering doubt that the Bill Merrill story was indeed the source of the Doctor Who strip.

The similarities first start to emerge on the third page of the Bill Merrill strip (top) and the second of the Doctor Who story (bottom). The Nightwatchman, seen in the original is replaced by Dr. Vane, in the exact same pose, and the plant/tree gets a name-change, but other than that the artwork is very similar indeed.

The next page in both strips has three panels with features common to both strips. In the first of these panels, the body of the Nightwatchman is removed (no one dies in the Doctor Who version); Rockingham becomes Dr. Vane (complete with same hands-on-hips pose); lastly Bill Merrill is removed from the picture, and the Doctor is added.

This is the very next panel in both versions. Rockingham is removed and Merrill is replaced by the Doctor, situated on the opposite side of the panel.

Colonel Butterworth the butterfly hunter from the original strip becomes Vane’s assistant Regan in the later version, armed with a stick rather than a butterfly net. Note that the plant has added suckers in the Doctor Who version that are not present in the original.

Moving on to a new page in both versions, the sequence continues with the tree / plant breaking the butterfly net / stick.

Butterworth / Regan is then seized by the tree / plant…

… and falls off a cliff.

A jump ahead in both stories brings us to the beginning of the final confrontation with the tree / plant. In the original Bill Merrill, Velma and Rockingham discover the tree, whereas in the redrawn version Jamie and the Doctor are seen encountering the enormous plant.

The final page of both strips, showing just how closely the composition of the panels, as well as the artwork, was copied. Only the first and last panels on each version are entirely different.

There is no doubt that 'The Vampire Plants' story was adapted from the Bill Merrill strip. But how and why did this occur? 

Was this blatant plagiarism, or was the Doctor Who strip developed with the consent of the creator of the original story? Was the unidentified artist responsible for 'The Vampire Plants' perhaps the same person who drew the Bill Merrill strip and therefore was simply adapting his own work?

The Bill Merrill series was created by Ron Embleton very early in his career. Embleton later became established as a prolific and acclaimed British comic strip illustrator. The Doctor Who strip however looks nothing like the work Embleton was producing in the 1960s.  There is also some doubt over whether Embleton was responsible for drawing the 'Rockingham’s Tree' story. This might have been the work of another artist.

Unfortunately the revelation of the source of 'The Vampire Plants' strip alas brings us no closer to identifying the artist or indeed the writer of that story. 

If anyone can shed any further light on this, I'd love to hear from them.

With grateful thanks to Lee Moone for the 'Rockingham's Tree' strip and Shaqui Le Vesconte for additional input.

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