Monday, November 13, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Avengers: "The Winged Avenger", Part 1

Avengers Assemble!

No, not these guys...

...but these guys!

What does the John Steed and Emma Peel version of The Avengers have to do with comic books, you might ask? (Go ahead: "What does the John Steed and Emma Peel version of The Avengers have to do with comic books, Bully?") I'm glad you asked. Yes, there's been only a handful of American comic books dealing with the British version of The Avengers, but in this case instead of comic books based on a TV episode, let's go straight to the source and watch a TV episode with comic books in it: let's watch together a classic 1967 episode from the color colour era of the Mrs. Peel years, "The Winged Avenger," about a comic book hero turned real-life assassin.

The entire series of The Avengers is rightly known as a television (or, as they say, 'telly') classic for its clever wit, elegant action, suspenseful mystery and mod British charm, but the show was really hitting on all cylinders in this era. Just as all right-minded people know that Sean Connery was the best James Bond ever, everybody will nod sagely if you proclaim that the best partner Steed ever had was Mrs. Emma Peel, played by the incomparable Diana Rigg. Not to say the other actors aren't worth your while: I personally enjoy the elaborate details of the Tara King episodes, and Honor Blackman is the very definition of a tough gal, and I even have a special fondness for the campy charm of the Mike Gambit and Purdey episodes of The New Avengers from the seventies (my first intro to Steed and Company, thanks to late-Friday-night showings on CBS in '76 and '77), but Dame Diana rules supreme over all, even when she's not wearing that famous Hellfire Club outfit. Every element that everyone remembers about The Avengers is often used to best advantage in the color Rigg series: the dapper elegance of John Steed, the mod fashions of Emma, the jazzy Laurie Johnson score, the cast of English eccentrics, and the many bewildering ways in which a businessman or aristocrat is killed mysteriously and Steed and Emma are called in to find out why. These episodes even feature the classic title cards that sum up the episode in two pithy phrases:
"The Winged Avenger" opens on a caped, taloned, masked and silver-booted figure approaching the offices of Simon Roberts and Son, publishers. You can tell he's not there for a social call when the talons get used for a little creative editing-slash-vandalism:
Simon and son Peter plot to rid the company of a troublesome executive while our mysterious masked man scales the side of the building using his claws as pitons and grappling hooks. Hey, you'd never catch Wolverine using his claws that way, bub!:
After Peter departs, the mysterious intruder breaks into Simon's office and shreds his Savile Row suit so severely that Simon actually dies. Seriously, as deadly as injuries from those garden-utensil gloves would be, this episode, like all other Avengers, never shows a drop of blood. It's violence in the British manner: sharp, efficient, but ever-so-polite:
Another classic element of the Emma Peel years was the brief but ever-imaginative ways in which Steed would summon his partner with "Mrs. Peel, we're needed!" Most episodes would have a short segment after the title sequence where Steed would pop up to charmingly utter those words, but fittingly for an episode that'll soon be concerned with a visual art character come to life, Mrs. Peel is painting in her flat...
...and discovers a surprising addition to her canvas:
"...we're needed," adds Steed.

Steed and Emma investigate Simon Roberts's murder: dozens of stories above the ground, his office was broken into from the outside, his body mauled "as though by some huge, obscene bird." "Whatever it was must have flown in," Emma theorizes. Steed and Emma retire to Steed's extensive library to research and reject possible bird suspects. Batman could have done this job faster with the bat-computer, but would it be half as charming as the sight of Steed and Mrs. Peel poring over The Big British Book of Birds? No, it would not.
Steed confides in Emma that this is actually the fifth businessmen recently mauled to death in the same fashion, and all in offices at the top of tall buildings. "A high-flying eagle?" guesses Emma.

Meanwhile, back at Roberts Publishing, we get a better look at our mystery masked villain...
...but more important, we get a glimpse of his favorite reading material:
Whoever said comics are just for kids? They also appear to be for, and about, homicidal British bird villains! Hawk-a-a-a-a, indeed.

Up in the offices son Peter Roberts dictates a letter, legally threatening author Sir Lexius Cray, into his compact sixties-style mini-recorder, a triumph of British miniaturization:
When the murderous bird-man strikes him, Peter reacts with all the bravery and courage you'd expect of a sleazy publishing executive. Ah, no, I tell a lie. He cowers, cries and shrieks like a little girl. Take it like a man, ya big sissy!
Within seconds his beautiful Piccadilly tailored shirt is bloodlessly shredded, and Roberts fils is murdered too:
And ever the efficient and proper villain, the bird-man pauses in his escape to scratch out the "and Son" from the company nameplate. Handy, those talons!
The recording tape allows Emma and Steed to listen to the murder, and Steed, ever the gentleman, doesn't even wince at Roberts's girly shrieks. But now they have a clue to the next victim: "Sir Lexius Cray?" muses Steed. "The mountaineer!" explains Emma.

They're off to the next part of the mystery. And as ever, I'm thrilled to be along with 'em.

(Part Two tomorrow!)


Tegan said...

OOOOOOH! I've seen that one! Isn't that a great show?

Marc Burkhardt said...

This is a great episode! I can't wait until you get to the big fight scene - it outdoes Grant Morrison's pop-art Batman fight by a mile!!

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with your assessment Bully.
Originally Steed was the sidekick (Apparently the show began as 'Police Surgeon' and the main 'Avenger' was Ian Hendry with Macnee as his assistant.)
Our Avengers and your Maverick were the best things on the telly in the 60s.

Some fans may not all realise that
'Emma Peel' = 'M Appeal' = 'Man Appeal'.