Monday, 13 July 2015

The Comics Adventures of The Avengers (not those ones)

One thing I love almost as much as comics is old sci-fi/fantasy telly. And if someone asks me what my favourite TV show is I usually say The Avengers.

Rarely does one get a show which oozes stylishness and charm like The Avengers. A standard adventure drama that took place in bizarre world of outlandish deathtraps, clown contract killers, hypnotic toys and sleepy English villages hiding dark secrets. It could only have happened in the 60s and now looks like the perfect bridge between Bond and Batman. And the centre of it all was Patrick Macnee. 
 Macnee died last week at the impressive (and Christopher Lee-equaling) age of 93. It's fair to say that The Avengers would not have existed without him.

The series began with Ian Hendry as a doctor (if not a police surgeon) drawn into a world of drugs distribution by the death of his fiancee by a mysterious stranger, John Steed, who helps him track down the killers and (ahem) avenge her.

Hendry's character David Keel did not last beyond the first series as the writers became more interested in writing for Steed, entirely because of his charming, delightful persona. So in the second series Steed became the focus of the show as he used various other operatives to assist him on his cases depending on their skills (sort of like the Impossible Missions Force). It quickly emerged that the one the public really wanted to see more of was Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale.
She was the tough no-nonsense action hero, ready to use her fighting skills to get Steed out of trouble, which was a neat reversal of what was then the norm for gender roles. And, let's be honest, still is.

And when Blackman left to be in Goldfinger (she is wasted in that movie) after the third series we get the partner for which the series is best known: Diana Rigg's Mrs Peel.
At the end series four the show moves into glorious colour and even when Rigg leaves to be in a much better Bond movie (it's true, accept it) she gets to hand over to her replacement for the final series, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson.
"He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise."

The show ended in 1969 but was revived as The New Avengers in 1976 with Macnee now teamed up with Joanna Lumley's Purdy and Gareth "magic the beans" Hunt as Gambit. Perhaps not anywhere as good as its forebear it is nevertheless a fun show in its own right. And the pilot episode has them foiling a plot to bring Hitler back to life. *cough*
Macnee also made a cameo as Invisible Jones in the 1998 movie The Avengers. Least said soonest mended.

But this, I hear you cry, is a comics blog. How right you are. And like many long-running TV shows (especially those with a fantastical bent) its history on the comics pages is almost as long as the show itself.

The earliest I have found reference to (though have yet to see evidence of) is a 1962 "annual"-style hardback called TV Crimebusters, which has a strip with Steed and Dr Keel. Apparently the only tie-in merchandise ever to feature Keel, the cover also promises adventures with Dixon of Dock Green, 77 Sunset Strip and others.
The next example is a comic strip that appeared in various regional TV listings magazines in 1964, The Viewer, Look Westward and TV Post (a Belfast-published mag) as well as the Manchester Evening News. It featured Steed and Mrs Gale and seems to have been pitched as a rival to the James Bond strip or Modesty Blaise.
The Avenger sexed up a bit. But doesn't Steed look old? Reminds me of Wilfred Hyde-White.

Next came the legendary TV Comic (which ran from 1951 to 1984) where one could read adventures of Steed and Mrs Peel between October 1965 and September 1966.
And later, Steed and Tara King appeared in stories from October 1968 (less than a fortnight after her TV debut) to August 1972 (well after the series ended).
Like the TV show, these strips started like most other action-adventure stories...
...before embracing weirder, more extreme tales, using the limitless budget of the comics format.
But, in those in-between years, DC Thomson acquired the rights to The Avengers and published adventures in girls' comic Diana between December 1966 and June 1967 in FULL COLOUR! 
The impressive artwork was mainly by Emilio Frejo and still looks very impressive.
It's arguable that this strip starts to show the influence the then-current Batman TV show as one story even involves a hat-themed murderer referred to as the Mad Hatter!

Also published for the first four months of 1966 in another DC Thomson title, June (or June and Schoolfriend as it was at the time), was The Growing Up of Emma Peel. This was the adventures of a fourteen-year-old Emma Knight, kind of like the Young Bond books of the early 21st century.

One strip even sought to show us the "secret origin" of Emma's pants suits.
There are also three Avengers Annuals (1967-69) and two New Avengers Annuals (1977-78), all containing strips...
...but no more Avengers comics until 1990. Unless you count those other Avengers. You know. THOSE guys.
Then Eclipse Comics somehow got the rights to the franchise (I guess no-one else cared at the time) and Slipper favourite Grant Morrison wrote a three-part story, with a back-up story by Anne Caulfield and all art by Ian Gibson (of Halo Jones fame).

The story sees Steed contacting Mrs Peel to help him rescue a kidnapped Tara and having to play deadly versions of board games to do it, in a manner very much influenced by the TV show, which is nice. The art is quirky in a way that suits the overall Avengers style. I suppose I expect something much more interesting from Morrison but this is a fun addition to the canon.

By 2012 Boom! Studios, a publishing house which has done fun things with its licences, acquired the Steed and Peel rights and reprinted the Morrison/Gibson story as though it was new. *cough*

It then commissioned a follow-up from another Slipper favourite, Mark Waid (arguably the most under-rated comics writer of all time) with art by the excellent Caleb Monroe.
More than any other story thus far this one riffs on elements of the TV show and ups the stakes. The inheritors of the Hellfire Club (from the episode A Touch of Brimstone) and the Cybernauts (from... er.. The Cybernauts) are key plot elements and then London is destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Yep, that happens. Or does it (trying to keep this spoiler free)?

Most recently Boom! have kept the franchise going with Steed and Mrs Peel: We're Needed, by Ian Edginton and Marco Cosentino, which has been okay. 
Whilst writing this article I remembered an Avengers (and by that I mean Marvel's Avengers, not the others, Grodd, this was a difficult article to research with Google) Annual I read as a kid where the heroes (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Vision, Giant Man and Black Panther; not the greatest line-up ever) attend a costume party where someone mistakes them for our Avengers. I now know it was a reprint of Avengers 83 and the guests were writer Roy Thomas and his then-wife.
I didn't get it at the time. In fact, this being one of my first encounters with superhero comics, I didn't understand half of what was going on. One of them could have been called Mrs Peel for all I knew. There is also a mention of Dr Pepper at one point and I assumed he was an Avenger too.

This then reminded me of other unofficial appearances by our heroes over the years. For example when the Toyman made his first post-Crisis appearance in John Byrne and Karl Kesel's Superman 13 he is presented to us by two British agents. I guess the idea of an evil genius exacting revenge through murderous toys just seemed so much like an Avengers plot. 
And in Doctor Who Magazine 173 (1991) a visit to a pan-dimensional birthday party gives us the opportunity to see lots of characters from disparate franchises interact. Here you can see Ace in the background watching Captain Britain hoist up Steed while Emma prepares to hand his arse to him. On the left you can see Professor Kettlewell's Robot and (I think) Absalom Daak punching out a robot from The Mind Robber. Story by Gary Russell, art by Mike Collins and Steve Pini.
I didn't notice this next one at the time, but here is Steed and Peel at a bar with Future Superman in Kingdom Come by the aforementioned Mark Waid and Alex Ross. 
And I once got very excited when reading DC's weird miniseries based on The Prisoner, by Mark Astwith and Dean Motter, when they were spotted at the funeral of an agent.  
Incidentally, according to the official biography of John Steed he went to Eton with James Bond. He didn't like him. And in Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, a younger "Emma Night" is assigned to recapture the titular document from Alan Quatermain and Mina Murray alongside "Jimmy Bond" and Bulldog Drummond.
 She and Bond do not get on... 
However, LOEG Century 2009 we find the older "Em" is in charge of the secret service (and looking a lot more like Judi Dench).
And now that Ralph Fiennes is playing M in the Bond movies I can sort of imagine that Steed is now in charge of British intelligence. And the boss of Bond.
The Avengers influence can be seen elsewhere in comics. There's Wonder Woman's "mod" look that ran from 1968 to 1973. One Diana influences another.
There's bowler-hatted heroes like Big Ben from Warrior, Max Normal from 2000 AD and, of course, Mark Millar's Secret Service agent Kingsman (I have very mixed feelings about that).

There is also a strip from Judge Dredd Mega-Special 6 (1993) by Robbie Morrison and Paul Grist about some familiar-looking shoe fetishists being hauled in by Dredd with the words "There's nothing kinky about THE LAW!" I was unable to source any images from that (which is a shame; but if you can help...) but the story was called....

Next time: A thorough review of The Avengers stories from the TV Comic Annual 1968! Please come back!

Addendum: I started writing this over two weeks ago when the opening statement of the third paragraph was true. IT problems (and tedious day job) meant it took me till today to finish. So this is not the timely tribute I wanted. However I found out TODAY thanks to a press release via San Diego Comic Con the DC have announced a crossover between their Batman '66 and Steed and Mrs Peel (the article says it's by IDW not Boom!, which I assume is a mistake but who knows?) and I could not be happier about that. Batman '66 (comics based on the style and continuity of the Adam West-starring TV show) have been a consistently entertaining read based on one of my favourite TV shows (particularly Jeff Parker's writing) and I can't wait to see that world interact with its British contemporary. We live in magical times, y'all!


  1. Voldemort in a blonde Merseybeat wig. I'll leave you to decide which panel that is.

  2. It's a public service to collect all these in one place. Thank you.