❉ A collection of eight vintage strips featuring Steed and Mrs Peel, originally published in ‘Diana for Girls’ 50 years ago.
“Like the TV series that inspired them, the comic strips remain a timeless and enduring work of glorious fantasy” – David Richardson, ‘The Avengers’’ producer, Big Finish
In the 1960s, Baby Boomers like myself were spoilt for choice when it came to comic strips based on our favourite TV shows. Every week I’d pore wide-eyed over my copy of ‘TV Century 21’, the decade’s comic pinnacle which presented top-notch adaptations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s future hardware sagas like ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Fireball XL5’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’. I was just too young to have caught ‘The Daleks’ strip that ran on the back cover, but several years later my eyes were opened to its equally beguiling mixture of pop art and science fiction.
The stunning comic strips based on ‘The Avengers’ that ran in the girls’ comic ‘Diana’ (an obvious place for them, as the title was also the first name of ‘The Avengers’’ current leading lady) in the mid-1960s were unknown to me until, I think, ‘The Avengers’ 50th anniversary event in Chichester in 2011, when I saw some of them on display. They’re astonishing. Years before Photoshop and 3D modelling, the artists – Spanish illustrators Emilio Frejo and Juan Gonzalez Alacrejo, according to ‘The Avengers Illustrated’ website – boast exceptionally accurate likenesses of Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, as well as vivid, painted action scenes as accomplished as anything seen in the TV series.
Pleasingly, there’s something of the influential comic artist Frank Bellamy’s style in the picture panels’ dynamic construction and graphic application of colours; indeed, Bellamy was a regular contributor to ‘TV Century 21’ at the time and, significantly, drew all the comic art for the TV episode The Winged Avenger. In an era before ‘The Avengers’ was seen in colour in the UK, it’s uncanny how accurately Frejo and Alacrejo captured the vibrant colour palette of the premier 1967 colour series.
A respectful tip of the bowler, then, to audio drama company Big Finish for republishing all of the ‘Diana’ strips, to tie in with their spoken word adaptations of the eight stories starring Julian Wadham as Steed – resuming the role following his well-received performance in BF’s remakes of missing episodes of the first, 1961-62 series – and Olivia Poulet as Mrs Peel.
At the risk of collapsing into a heap of superlatives, I can’t recommend this charming and very well produced volume highly enough. The rediscovery of the first season episode Tunnel of Fear earlier in 2016 was an intriguing glimpse of ‘The Avengers’’ original mixture of espionage, oddness and social realism, but in ‘The Avengers: Steed and Mrs Peel – The Comic Strips’, we find the programme at its stylised, freewheeling height.
It makes you wonder if the ‘Diana’ writers had sneak previews of film-era producer Brian Clemens’ episodes or, as is sometimes the case with spin-off fiction contemporary with the TV version, a chance to read some of the scripts, because the strips’ feel is spot on regarding the baroque Peel era. My favourites are The Norse Code and Playtime is Over (presumably BF’s retro naming, as the strips didn’t have titles) in which, respectively, villains dressed as Vikings – complete with a longboat – steal an atomic bomb from a Norfolk airbase, and villainess Black Heart (first seen in “a mirror on the wall”) and her seven acrobatic dwarfs plan a jewel robbery from the cover of a toy shop. The latter includes a gem of an idea, as Steed and Emma wake up wearing roller-skates slaved to a magnetized floor.
It’s the bizarre and surreal moments like this that ‘The Avengers’ enthusiast will go back to enjoy again and again: a neon sign in London’s West End advertising the villain’s blackmail demands; a flame-throwing scarecrow; a cider press used to imperil Mrs Peel; a herd of homicidal cows and a poisonous snake hidden in Steed’s bowler, to name just a few. Like the parent TV series by this time, the interest lies in the triumph of the engaging style over the content.
There’s also fun to be had in spotting the photo reference used for guest characters. Variously I identified Jack May, Graham Crowden (twice), John Carson, Bernard Cribbins, Edward Woodward and, apparently, Mark E. Smith.
In short, this omnibus is one of the best pieces of merchandise based on ‘The Avengers’ to have ever been released. It’s worth buying alone for the panel where, in a break from pursuing the villains, “Steed had nap while Mrs Peel prepared supper.”
❉ ‘The Avengers – Steed & Peel: The Graphic Novel’ was released on 29 November 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until December 31st 2016, and on general sale after this date.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.