SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Steed and Mrs. Peel #1 (of 6)A comic review article by: Shawn Hill, Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic
Shawn Hill: There's a virtue to being ahead of your time. You might not be fully understood in the current day, but you age really well. The Avengers TV show was ahead of its time (movies are still finding their own Emma Peels, over and over; it just took about 20 years for everyone to realize they needed one). And the Ian Gibson/Grant Morrison team was ahead of their time in this collaboration. The minimal panel layouts, the stylish arrangement of elongated figures on the page -- what a weird flavor this must have been in 1990, when it first came out.
Now it looks sort of like Dave Sim's Glamourpuss, and sort of like George Jeanty's re-imagining of the Buffy TV series. It's veddy veddy British, but that isn't an obstacle, it just adds to the mysterious allure of the unlikely title duo, just as their original TV show did when it was imported to America.
The story, set in London, is a familiar one of pubs and piers and sea captains and pretty girls in miniskirts. The first familiar character we see is Tara King, Mrs. Peel's replacement, looking spot-on like the suave young agent from the 1960s. You could say this is a period piece, but it's also timeless, because the fashions of the 1960s were also ahead of their time. Plus, Gibson's elegant cartoonishness fits well the surreal tone required for dice, placing cards, casinos -- all the fashionable but odd trappings that cropped up in that series (found in one of Morrison's favorites, The Prisoner, as well, which also seems to provide a sort of guiding spirit). This is a beautiful comic -- and just maybe, we've finally caught up to it.
Nick Hanover: It's interesting that you bring up the "ahead of its time" nature of this comic, Shawn, because in a way it reminds me of two similarly doomed ahead of their time works: Ed Brubaker and Warren Pleece's Deadenders and Dave Gibbons' The Originals. The plots aren't similar, but the style and tone of the works is, with the mod designs and minimalism and overall hip aesthetic. But honestly what stands out to me most in this first issue is how restrained Morrison's writing is, mostly taking a backseat to Gibson's fashionable art.
Part of that is likely because of Morrison's loyalty to the source material, but given the era, it seems like Steed and Mrs. Peel also functions as an artifact of a time before Morrison had really taken ownership of his voice. I'll confess that I prefer when Morrison's writing is at full force, but it's a treat to get such a display of Gibson's art, which I've been familiar with for some time but haven't explored as much as I should.
Outside of the obvious fashion influences in Gibson's art here, there's a hint of caricature art as well, particularly in his facial renderings, which are at times grotesque and bleakly humorous. Morrison and Gibson fill this issue with extremely dry humor, but Gibson's art is what sells that aspect, thanks to sharp visual gags and expert framing. People will likely pick this up because of the Morrison stamp on the cover, but hopefully more than a few new Ian Gibson fans will be born as a result.
Danny: For someone who's worked with Alan Moore (The Ballad of Halo Jones) and Grant Morrison, Ian Gibson isn't exactly a household name with comic book readers, which is a shame. His art here is a perfect example of how to draw live-action characters. You can tell that that's supposed to be Patrick Macnee, but it doesn't look like Gibson was trying to replicate a bunch of photos from different angles -- a common effect one gets from these types of comics. And I'm infinitely relieved they didn't recolor these comics. That would have looked terrible.
As for his collaborator... If you'll allow me Morrisonologize for a moment, Steed and Mrs. Peel originally came out from Eclipse as a three-issue prestige format series Comics in 1990. Around this time, Moz was into the third phase of Zenith and finishing up his first major splash in American comics, Animal Man. So, yeah, we're in the era of the burgeoning Grant Morrison who's starting to establish himself as The Grant Morrison with Doom Patrol but is also still relatively fresh from doing for-hire gigs for Marvel UK.
I haven't read this book in years (I managed to come across the first two issues somehow), but you can kind of tell Morrison is working within the confines of the material he's been given. Licensed properties -- even dormant ones like The Avengers -- are generally like that. Maintain the strictest fidelity to the franchise, don't color too far outside the lines. But in doing so, Morrison and Gibson put together a fun little procedural that seems to engage the stylized weirdness that the TV series often delved into, now unhindered by a BBC television budget.
Shawn: I don't know if I'd really say that Morrison is hemmed in or even coloring within the lines. I think there's a real reverence for the source material, and a synergy between that licensed property and what Morrison does anyway. Or, to put it another way, the original Avengers show must have been a formative influence for him, so it's kind of a coup to be able to actually interact with it, put his own stamp on it 30 years on.
Gibson seems to be having fun, too, given that Tara King was a relatively latter-day character and looks to be the damsel in distress of this series, yet he nails her look exactly. As you said with Steed, Danny, Gibson gets her essence without resorting to photo sources. That's a level of love.
And can we see a little bit of King Mob and Lord Fanny in Steed and Emma? Or maybe it's Lord Fanny and Boy as the better analogues. I always loved that, as far as The Avengers went, Steed was the idea guy, and Emma was the muscle.
Danny: The funny part is that Steed was originally the assistant to another guy, and when he left Steed stayed on and burned through a handful of female partners over the years. It's funny how certain eras become the definitive one of a series. Anyway.
I wonder how BOOM! is going to handle the backup stories by Anne Caulfield and Ian Gibson that padded out Issues 2 and 3 and told the story of the Amazon Basin adventure that Emma referred to. Clearly they're splitting the original three issues in two to make a six-issue mini, but is there just going to be a sudden two-issue intermission in the middle of the series? Or is it going to happen after the finale of the main story? Either way it will be an awkward placement.
Either way, I'm fond of this piece not as just a forgotten bit of Morrison's work but as a pretty fun story, and I'm excited to finally see how the series ends. The fact that it's a six-issue affair feels like they're drawing it out a bit, so I can't wait to have a complete collection of Steed and Mrs. Peel.
Shawn: I wasn't aware of the backup stories. I never bought this series when it first came out, though I remember it being in the shops. My guess is we will probably take a two-issue side trip to follow Mrs. Peel, arguably the foremost of Steed's judo babes. I wonder if there's any chance of new material from anyone involved? They don't seem to mention the Eclipse originals anywhere. Maybe they needn't if the licensing is the Avengers, never owned by Eclipse anyway. I'll definitely check in to find out, based on this issue.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.