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Drawing the Doctor

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2015-04-05 Rutland Daily Herald.jpg


Vermont artist brings 'Doctor Who' to the comics pages

Blair Shedd has trouble grasping his popularity. The Fairlee artist found success and fulfilled a childhood dream in 2009 when he started working on the "Doctor Who" comic book series.

The gig seemed to come to an end when the license to produce the comic series based on the quintessential British television show went to another company, but an outcry from the fans found him hired by the publisher Titan Comics to draw the first series to depict the ninth incarnation of the title character. The first issue of the new series came out last week.

Shedd, 36, was born in the Philippines when his father was stationed there with the Navy. His family was from Vermont — he has relatives in Rutland and Wallingford as well as farther north — and his parents settled in Fairlee when his father left the military for a job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

He wanted to be a comic book artist early on.

"It's one of those silly childhood dreams you have," he said. "At 8 years old, I said to my parents I wanted to be a rap star or a comic artist. ... They never told me 'no, you can't do that,' or 'you shouldn't do that.' My natural lack of rhythm took care of one."

In the earliest part of his youth, Shedd was all about Spider-Man. He said he only read other comics if Spider-Man was making a guest appearance.

"I still have some of those," he said. "Somewhere in middle school, someone brought in Eastman and Laird's original Ninja Turtles."

While they are best known today as a kids' show and movie franchise, the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" were the subject of a dark comic book, with black-and-white art and mature themes.

"I was amazed they were telling those kinds of stories in comics," he said. "By high school I was reading 'Sandman,' The Crow.' ... I realized these comics I was reading — someone was doing that as a job."

Taking his childhood dream seriously, Shedd enrolled in the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic art in Dover, NJ.

"It's three years of illustration where they try to overpower you with the homework, as if you were actually on a deadline," he said. "It had a pretty good attrition rate."

Shedd said he started his first year with 150 fellow students but graduated in 1999 with only 25.

"I think less than 10 of those did anything in comics," he said. "They didn't want to tell us we were playing the lottery the whole time."

Shedd didn't win that lottery right away. He said he submitted to publishers after graduating and was told he wasn't good enough. He took what jobs he could — sales, data entry, gofer for the graphic design department at a marketing company.

An indie comic he was recruited to write for imploded when the writers had a fight and disappeared. A screenplay he wrote at a friends' urging got him some pitch meetings, but no work.

Success would not come until he found an opportunity that merged his career aspirations with a second childhood love.

"Doctor Who" aired on British television from 1964 to 1989, was brought back for an American TV movie in 1996 and then returned as a BBC-TV series in 2005. It follows the adventures of an alien called The Doctor and his human companions as they travel through time and space, running into trouble that they try to set right.

When the health of William Hartnell, the first actor to play The Doctor, began to fail, the producers came up with the idea to have the character "regenerate," or change form, when he would otherwise die. Since then, 12 (or 13 depending on how you count — it's complicated) actors have held the role in the series.

Today, it airs in the U.S, on BBC America, but in Shedd's youth, "Doctor Who" was a staple of Saturday afternoons on public television.

"We had two channels — WNNE and ETV," he said. "When they were first showing, to my knowledge, 'Robot,' the first Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) episode, I remember my father saying, 'Oh, yeah, we used to watch this on base — you should check it out.'"

Shedd said he was hooked.

"Those special effects don't hold up," he said. "But, when you're 8 years old, and you're watching that and everything's dark and creepy, and your hero has a big Afro and big saucer eyes, and a long scarf for some reason ... and there's a robot trying to kill him — that's good enough when you're 8."

Shedd was so taken that he organized his friends to do their own fan episode of the show.

"Of course, summer came, and I never did anything for it," he said.

Not long after the show returned to television, publisher IDW got the license to create an official "Doctor Who" comic book. However, they were not taking any submissions.

"I started posting fan art and hoped somebody would see it," Shedd said.

It worked, when a colorist for the company saw Shedd's work on and brought it to the attention of the editor. In 2009, Shedd was offered a two-issue stint that was quickly expanded to a four-issue stint.

Shedd had achieved his life's ambition, and in some ways it was even better than he expected.

"When I dreamt of getting into comics, my dream was to be able to sit in a room, draw my comic and then go to the corner store and buy my comic," he said. "My first Boston Comic-Con, where I had a table, a girl asked to take a picture with me. That was never part of it. There are people I've watched on TV now who are fans of my artwork. I don't understand it."

While Doctor Who is a cultural institution in Great Britain, it's fandom still lags behind franchises such as "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and Marvel Comics in the U.S., though it is growing.

"No one's tracked me down, but I've had people come up to me at conventions and talk my ear off about what they think is wrong with Doctor Who, not like I'm a fan, but like I can do something about it," he said.

Shedd has no contact with the production team for the show. The closest he has come was meeting actress Freema Agye-man, who played companion Martha Jones, and giving her a print he drew of her character.

"She was flabbergasted I gave it to her," he said. "She said she put it up on her wall — I don't know if that's true. She followed me on Twitter and sends me birthday wishes now and then. It's one of those things that I never thought would be part of the deal. I thought I'd be sitting in my Hobbit-hole scribbling pages."

Criticism, he said, is a downside.

"I can't tell you the good reviews I got of my first Doctor Who issues, but I can tell you one website said my art was jarringly annoying,"' he said. "It's sad the people who like the stuff remain silent."

When the license went from IDW to Titan, Shedd said he briefly made his peace with losing the "Doctor Who" gig. He had the profile to get other work, which included a series based on "The Wizard of Oz" and an issue of IDW's "Ghostbusters" series. However, he kept seeing new episodes of "Doctor Who" and wanted to draw more for the comic.

He also started getting questions from his fans about when he would draw "Doctor Who" again.

"I half-jokingly said if you want me over there, go tell them," he said. "They actually went on the Facebook page and said, 'How about Blair Shedd,' which I found hilarious and a little embarrassing."

And effective. Titan reached out and told him they might have something in about a year. Then they offered him a cover. He did it, and they offered him more covers. He asked what else they had, and they offered him the job writing their forthcoming series on the Ninth Doctor.

The Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, featured in only a single season of the show and has not been the subject of a comic book series until now. Shedd said he was nervous because he knew there would be a lot of fan anticipation surrounding this series, but he couldn't resist.

"It's still nerve-wracking, but I'm having fun with it," he said.

Shedd works out of his home, in a studio in the corner of his house. The room is littered with books — comics, Lovecraft collections, "Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials" — and toys, most of them "Doctor Who" related. His own drawings, some signed by the actors he depicts, share the wall with drawings by his children, who range in age from 3 to 10. His oldest already draws his own comic books.

Shedd starts his day by walking his two older children to their school, which is right up the block. Then he works while looking after his youngest.

While he still has an old-style writing table in the back of his studio, he says he only uses it for the penciling of covers and pages he expects might serve as collector's items, which he then scans in for inking and coloring. Most of what he does is entirely digital, on a program called Manga Studio.

It usually takes him about a day to do a page.

"That's just for the black and white lines," he said. "Colors usually take about half a day, but I do those on a second day."

Since the characters he draws need to look like the actors playing them on television, Shedd works from photographs and video frames.

"If someone is going to look surprised ... I want to see what that actor looks like when he's surprised," he said. "I went through the episodes and sometimes I'm going frame by frame looking for a surprised expression on The Doctor or Captain Jack. ... I admit, I don't get it 100 percent of the time. If I get it 90 percent of the time, I feel I'm doing pretty good."

While Shedd would like to do more writing and wouldn't mind something of his own creation finding success, he said he is happy to keep drawing "Doctor Who" as long as he can. He said he isn't getting rich, but he's doing well enough to be happy.

"It's a living," he said. "The bills are paid. The lights are on. The heat is on. The power is on. I can't complain. We were living hand to mouth for a while, but now we have savings and stuff. It's very odd to me. Stereotyped as it might sound, I'm afraid I might wake up at some point."

Caption: Blair Shedd works in his small home studio in Fairlee. Below is a panel in his new Dr. Who comic.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Dritschilo, Gordon (2015-04-05). Drawing the Doctor. Rutland Herald p. B1.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Dritschilo, Gordon. "Drawing the Doctor." Rutland Herald [add city] 2015-04-05, B1. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Dritschilo, Gordon. "Drawing the Doctor." Rutland Herald, edition, sec., 2015-04-05
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Drawing the Doctor | url= | work=Rutland Herald | pages=B1 | date=2015-04-05 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 June 2024 }}</ref>
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