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Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson’s Avengers – Steed & Mrs. Peel (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I feel a little bit cheeky describing this as “Grant Morrison’s Avengers.” After all, it’s this sort of confusion that led Disney to somewhat clumsily try to rebrand last year’s Avengers as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in Ireland and the UK, afraid that easily-confused cinema-goers might be confused by the absence of the character my better half describes as “umbrella man”, while those more emersed in classic Britannia will recognise him as John Steed.

In fact, the comic was actually branded as Steed and Ms. Peel to avoid confusion, both in the original 1990 Eclipse miniseries and in the recent BOOM! studios reissue. That said, while legal matters prevent the release of a comic called “The Avengers”, BOOM! have hardly been shy about the original television show, with advertisements for Mark Waid’s recent revival teasing “the original Avengers” and “the original Hell Fire Club.” (Which is a little misleading itself, since the Hell Fire Club is actually a much older (real life) institution. Ah well.)

Still, Morrison and Gibson’s Steed & Mrs. Peel is a delightfully fun romp very much in the style of the original show. It is, by no means, the smartest or most essential of Morrison’s work – but it’s still clever and betrays an obvious affection for the source material.

Wheel of misfortune...

Wheel of misfortune…

Although the original show ran from 1961 to 1969, allowing it to offer a pretty thorough coverage of 1960s Britain, it’s clear that Morrison and Gibson are drawing rather heavily from the later part of that extended stretch – in particular, the 1967 season. That year seems to be a focal point for the pop cultural awareness of the show. The show had been building towards this, figuring out a style and look that would become iconic.

While earlier seasons had been relatively serious affairs, the show began to loosen up quite a bit – becoming more playful and cheeky. Emma Peel was making quite the impression. In early 1966, towards the end of the fourth season, the show gave us A Touch of Brimstone, the episode that would make quite a lasting impression on a young Chris Claremont – and quite a few other young males in the audience. The show had only begun filming in colour at the start of its fifth season, in 1966, three years before ITV began broadcasting in colour. It was also the fifth season that introduced the “we’re needed…” gimmick, faithfully reproduced here.

They are familiar with grave danger...

They are familiar with grave danger…

However, 1967 was the breakout year. The show was first broadcast in America from January to May. TV Guide ran a four-page spread on Emma Peel. The sixth season picked up the show’s only two Emmy nominations. Writing in Spy Television, author Wesley Alan Britton describes it as the show’s “zenith”, and also indicates that there was a certain off-the-wall brilliance to it all:

This was the season The Avengers spoofed the spoofs as in The Winged Avenger which took on Batman and costumed superheroes. This was the season Steed and Peel were copied into robots, defeated the cybernauts (remote-controlled machine men) a second time, and had their bodies switched, shrunk, and zapped by a human electrode.

So you can see why this era of the show holds a certain appeal to Morrison. Indeed, the story owes a fairly sizeable debt to episodes like “Mission… Highly Improbable”, one of the “spoof the spoof” episodes from that season. (Go on, guess what they were spoofing!)

Cue credits!

Cue credits!

Indeed, Morrison plays rather well off the iconography of the show. He even includes the champagne glasses from the show’s most famous introductions, as well as following the rough structure of a conventional Avengers episode. Steed and Peel are called together to tackle a problem, but wind up advancing their own investigations before coming back together at the climax to solve the problem.

Indeed, even the comic’s introduction is playful, structured to mirror an episode teaser before dropping a double-page title card. Those familiar with Morrison’s work will note that Peel’s hand includes two tarot cards and the plot hinges around a game called “Rooks and Ravens”, two black birds with heavy occult connotations. This is still a Morrison comic, after all.

No dice!

No dice!

There’s a lot to like here. Steed & Mrs. Peel is hardly the strongest work in Morrison’s back catalogue, and it’s not an overlooked treasure by an measure. However, it is good fun – and there’s an obvious affection for the source material from both Morrison and Gibson, who have great fun playing up the absurdity and the hilarity of The Avengers. Steed rides a public toilet to work, while Peel flies a Union kite in the breeze. The story even features a none-too-subtle shout-out to Diana Rigg in the opening pages, as one gamer complains, “Them dice is rigged!”

Steed & Mrs. Peel embraces the almost camp Britannia of the classic television show. “Tally ho, Miss Peel,” Steed declares at one point. Answering a phone call from his supervisor, he laments, “Ah, mother! … Yes, I did hear the test match scores. A tragedy…” When a gravedigger tries to make a run for it, Steed is having none of it. “He won’t go far. I threw for England, you know…” Everything is so delightfully and absurdly British, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of the television show, and reinforcing all those delightfully quaint stereotypes about the region.

King for a day...

King for a day…

Naturally, the threat is severe. Morrison rather beautifully plays into the Anglo-centric outlook of the television show by presenting a situation where a threat to Britain winds up a threat to the world, but also emphasises the still-vitally-important role of Britain on the global stage. “The leaks have been traced to Fanshawe’s own office,” Steed grimly advises Emma. “As part of his job, he was entrusted with the codes which allow direct, privileged access into the computers that monitor and control the country’s arsenal of missiles. Nuclear missiles, Mrs. Peel.”

(It’s the same sort of Anglo-centricism that turns the stealing of the undercover list in Skyfall from a British embarrassment to a global catastrophe. That said, the frequency with which British assets tend to be used to threaten the world seems to suggest that maybe it’s not a good thing that Britain has all those nuclear missiles and spy lists and so forth. No wonder the UN keeps a small army on stand-by in Britain for Doctor Who.)

Flying the flag...

Flying the flag…

The action is driven by that most British of stereotypes – the upper-crust gentlemen’s club. Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves investigating a gaming club where something seems afoul – an institution built up rigid “tradition” around the most casual and enjoyable of past times. It’s playful and ironic, and there’s a sense that Morrison is having fun playing up the camp aspects of the show, the almost self-deprecating and wry take on stereotypical British culture.

Indeed, the villain of the piece is only able to become a threat thanks to the rules of British society, with Morrison suggesting that the structure is so rigid that it can be played almost as a game. Hilary Fox is able to manoeuvre himself into position thanks to Steed’s well-meaning politeness in securing him a post at the Ministry of Defence. From there, he’s able to count on manners, class and etiquette to get what he wants. “I’d never have learned the great truth,” he confesses to Steed, “that people can be made to do anything if you know how to play the game.”

Bullseye...

Bullseye…

(Of course, there are lots of lovely smaller touches as well. I love, for example, how the man holding Steed hostage has the good manners to climb the ladder first, and can count on Steed having the good graces to follow him up. There’s also some nice Cold War metaphors to be found here, with the club rejecting Fox’s proposed game Rooks and Ravens “based around principles of cooperation” as “virtually unplayable.” Of course, to the rigid Cold War mindset, any game that didn’t involve competition was unplayable, so sustained was everything by the threat of mutually-assured destruction. Ah, game theory!)

Artist Ian Gibson has great fun with the material. His compositions are lovely and fluid, with his full-page splashes being something to behold. His approach is akin to that of a cartoonist, doing an excellent job creating likenesses of Diana Rigg or Patrick Macnee. There’s a wonderfully light and dynamic feel to his work here, with the comic appearing quite striking in places. The action sequences are well-handled, and the colours are well-chosen to evoke the mood of the show.

We're all pawns...

We’re all pawns…

Steed & Mrs. Peel is hardly the most important of Morrison’s work, but it is a fun little comic book – and well recommended for those with any affection for the source material or even just curious in checking out some light 1990s Grant Morrison.

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