Saturday, November 18, 2006

Don't you be dissin' Evel Knievel now, Mister Film Freak!

52 WEEK 2852 WEEK 28: This comic is sorta fun. 52 goes down a slight notch this week by focusing on three subplots that don't really seem to advance the story much: Red Tornado in the outback, The Question and Montoya face off against Batwoman (who's not proving to be that interesting a Bat-character in her brief appearances so far), and a kinda-confusing Lobo in space bit that suggests maybe we ought to feel sorry for the Emerald Eye. Oh well, next week's focus on Jade (but isn't she dead?) and the Green Lantern looks like fun.

X-Men First Class #3X-MEN: FIRST CLASS #3: This comic is fun. How'd I miss #2 of this series? There's a lot of great character insights and moments here that flesh out the original X-Men, which to be frank, were not much more than two-dimensional ciphers for most of Stan and then Roy's writing runs. Extra points for writing each of the X-Men as intelligent and innovative, especially the oft-abused Iceman. This is shaping up to be one of my favorite continuity implants of the past several years, which prob'bly means it'll be cancelled before issue #12. Sigh.

Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #1ASTRO CITY: THE DARK AGE BOOK TWO #1: This comic is sorta fun. Long gaps in between issues of the original Astro City are what sorta killed the appeal of the series for me: I would forget what happened between issues which wasn't bad when the books were done-in-one, but this ongoing series in several separate miniseries with gaps between the miniseries is going to take more careful reading. If I were certain this were gonna be collected in a trade I'd be waiting for that: I've got the feeling it'll read better and more smoothly in one big chunk.

Sock Monkey: The 'Inches' Incident #2SOCK MONKEY: THE "INCHES" INCIDENT #2: This comic is fun. I honestly don't' think I'm capable of givin' a Tony Millionaire book anything less than a fun rating—he tickles my sense of whimsy (and my little stuffed funny bone) with whatever he writes 'n' draws. There's a creepy insect possession element to this story (that's a bit reminiscent of Millionaire's Billy Hazelnuts) but it's done with such an ominous and creeping tension that you might forget you're readin' a story about stuffed toys. Um, not that I know anything about stuffed toys.

Krypto the Superdog #3KRYPTO THE SUPERDOG #3: This comic is fun. Two done-in-one short stories obviously geared for younger fans but still a heckuva lotta thrills for this fanbull. Clear, crisp DC-animated style art (and very nicely shaded) highlight this pair of stories, the highlight being a wacky adventure against one of the Penguin's evil intelligent penguins holding Superman hostage in the Fortress of Solitude. Yup, you read that right.

Simpsons Comics #124SIMPSONS COMICS #124: This comic is not fun. Almost without exception I think the Bongo output is fun, so it's a rare Simpsons comic that doesn't even have a speck of delight for me. This is basically one joke extended to 27 pages, and it's not even a funny joke at that: Ned Flanders and those around him spout clichés and maxims, one after the other. A few mild giggles can be had from Homer's malapropisms of the clichés, which number 150+ (according to an editor's note at the end of the story), but this one's definitely below the par of the usual Simpsons fun. You can't build a story out of a string of clichés, can you? Can you?

Catwoman #61CATWOMAN #61: This comic is fun. Well, whaddaya know, maybe you can make a good story out of a lot of cliché this issue of Catwoman proves! The entertaining (and deadly) antics of the Film Freak are fun to play along with: there's a "guess the movie" he's referencing aspect in most every scene, a nice "play along at home" element where we can guess the final clue along with Selina, and a wonderful sideways twist on one of the most frequent movie clichés of them all: a ticking time bomb. All that and The Best Line[s] of the Week: "Did you know that in the seventies, the so-called greatest decade of film, there were two— two!—movies about [Evel Knievel]? Orson Welles couldn't get a film financed to save his life, but that flash in the pan was immortalized on celluloid not once but twice!" That's what makes CATWOMAN #61 not only the cat's pajamas but also the most fun comic of the week!

British Secret Agent Week: The Spy Who Loved Weatherbee

Archie #159
Archie #159, November 1965

Golly, Riverdale only gets generic Bond films, don't they?

Friday, November 17, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Further Adventures of James Bond

As I mentioned on Saturday, the Swedish James Bond 007 comic book series puts most other Bond adaptations to shame: it appears to have run for at least 35 years and featured hundreds of Bond issues with gorgeously-painted and -designed covers.

When you're doing a running 007 series, of course, you'll eventually come up against the same problem the movie producers did: you'll run out of original Fleming stories to adapt. That's no problem; it looks like the Swedish writers and cartoonists had a blast creating all-new Bond adventures in addition to adapting the old standbys. In excited anticipation for the new Casino Royale movie opening I've been eagerly looking at the gorgeous covers of this series and day-dreaming about the all-new Bond adventures between their glossy, thrilling covers.

But since I don't read Swedish, I kinda had to speculate what some of the stories were about. Here's my best guesses to what stories you'd find behind some of the most intriguing covers of the series:

Two of Ian Fleming's most beloved literary creations meet in the ultimate crossover: "Chitty-Chitty-Kiss-Kiss-Bang-Bang!" (Also, voodoo, apparently.)

Bond resorts to peeping-tom voyeurism in the little-known Fleming classic "A View to a Thrill!"

Step inside the private world of an off-hours 007 as we thrill to the adventures of "James Bond, Ham Radio Enthusiast!"

007 battles against the deadly schemes of the evil Baron Oscar von Meier, intent on taking over the world through tainted hot dogs and then to escape in his balloon-powered Weinermobile, in this rare Bond story entitled "My Baloney Has a First Name, It's D-E-A-T-H!"

Special guest-writer Stan Lee scripts the adventures of Bond in his ultimate crossover with the Marvel Universe: "If This Be My Forbush!"

Not to be left out, DC Comics issues an exciting crossover between Bond and Batman, and for some unknown contractual reason, Smokey and the Bandit.

When MI6's economy drives place a limit on Bond's corporate Amex, he must escape paying his exorbitant hotel bill in "Goldencard!"

Fan-favorite Pussy Galore returns in a way you—and Bond—never a real cat! It's a thrilling adventure of plastic surgery gone wrong in "Dr. Bo-tox!"

And whenever a Bond actor leaves the franchise, there's extensive media speculation on who will be the next 007. Here's the comics' suggestions for three replacement Bond actors:

Clint Eastwood!

Patrick Swayze!

Lee van Cleef!

Hmmm, I like Patrick Swayze, but I think it's smart the movie producers went with Daniel Craig. I can't wait to see Casino Royale, so I'm off to wait in line for the AMC 25 to open. See you in the balcony!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Avengers: "The Winged Avenger", Part 4

To heck with Civil War! Fie on 52! Anybody with any discerning taste and style knows that the only cliffhanger worth getting excited about this week is: will Mrs. Peel survive the talons of the Winged Avenger? Will Mrs. Peel survive?

(checks the back of the DVD box, sees that there are several more Mrs. Peel episodes after this one.) Oh. I guess she does.

Well, let's watch the exciting, commercial-free conclusion of "The Winged Avenger" anyway, shall we?

"He's mad!" Stanton explains as Steed drives the frantic comic book writer to Professor Poole's manor, where the Winged Avenger, a.k.a. comic artist Arnie Packer, waits to sink his claws into the unsuspecting Mrs. Peel. "He's power mad!!" You and I might expect the witty Steed to retort "So what else is new for a comic book artist?" but if there's one thing that keeps Steed's bon mots under his bowler and his foot firmly on the accelerator pedal of his classic Bentley, it's the thought that Emma Peel may be in deadly danger. A similar scene happens in many episodes and it's a wonderful touch of Patrick Macnee that the moment his fictional partner's life is in danger, all the witty wisecracking and carefree attitude goes out the window, reminding us very clearly that Savile suit and impeccable appearance beside, Steed is not only very much a man of action but that he cares very deeply about Emma. Awwww.

Not that Mrs. Peel isn't capable of taking care of herself, but even smooth-as-ivory Emma isn't immune to steel claws, and discretion is the better part of valor as she sprints from the frantic Winged Avenger and barricades herself in the dead Professor Poole's study. Inside the feathery suit, Packer proves that he may be mad, but he's not a fool, as he locks the study door from his side and climbs out a window to approach Mrs. Peel by climbing on the wall to trap her with no escape.

Elegant in her blue and pink "emmapeelers" catsuit, our heroine ponders her next move. Say, that's quite a jaunty pink cap you're wearing, Emma! A nice touch of style to a tense scene...but is that all that cap is? Hmmm, let's find out.

Emma's trapped like a mouse by a hawk in the room as the Winged Avenger approaches from outside, until she spots the body of Professor Poole...dangling from the ceiling in his magnetic silver bootys.

All the while Steed and Stanton race to the scene as Stanton flips through a pile of Packer's artwork telling them in...ahem..graphic detail exactly what's happening ahead of them. Don't flip to the last panel, Stanton! Read 'em in order!

This makes The Winged Avenger a bit of a decent Batman villain, doesn't it? Think about it...costumed, winged freak psychologically compelled to leave advance clues to his crimes? Why, he's practically Edward Nigma's brother. And in my best Batman TV show tradition, I now announce: "What's this? Our cornered cutie coveting couture?" Holy Manolos, Mrs. Peel, this is no time to go shoe shopping:

But moments later, when the Winged Avenger breaks in through the window, Mrs. Peel is nowhere to be seen! How'd she escape? (C'mon, I know you can guess!)

"The odds are a little more equal now!" taunts Emma from the ceiling, and ah ha! That jaunty cap is more than just Diana-dressing; it's a vital prop to preserve the illusion that Miss Rigg is actually hanging upside down from the ceiling—if she weren't wearing it, her hair would actually still cascade around her shoulders on the specially designed "upside-down" set instead of falling over her head! Pretty clever, and cleverly pretty! (Note also that the dangling buckle on the shoulder of Mrs. Peel's catsuit now cleverly is pointed, down!)

Now's the time in all good Avengers episodes for either an explanation of the crime or a gob-smackingly good fight scene, and lucky us, we get both! Mad Mr. Packer cackles maniacally, declaring that all evil must be destroyed. Whatever ink he's been using has clearly gone straight to his brain, because he actually believes himself to be the true Winged Avenger now! Ah, this explains an awful lot about the time George Perez dressed up in a flowing orange wig, green contacts and a little metal bikini and went around fighting crime, doesn't it?

Stanton climbs onto the ceiling with Mrs. Peel and we're treated to a wonderful hand-to-hand fight that's the next best thing to pineapple upside-down cake. If Lionel Richie had decided to give up singing for crimefighting, maybe his videos woulda looked like this!:

Steed and Stanton arrive just in time to see the topsy-turvy tumult...

...and, as the Laurie Johnson orchestra plays a riff on a very familiar sounding "na na na na na na na na" theme, it's Steed to the aid by walloping Packer with a few well-chosen comic book panels from the pile Stanton brought along:

BAM! Take that, Grant Morrison...decades before you riffed on the same artwork as sound-effect device in Batman paraphrase South Park's General Disarray: "Avengers already did it!"

The combination of Mrs. Peel's literally high-flying kicks and Steed's omnamontapeic attack sends Packer screaming...yes, like a little girl; how's that for irony?...and flying out through the window to his death on the ground below.

"Packer's really got his wings clipped," Steed announces cheerfully, helping Mrs. Peel down from the ceiling.

One of the most wonderful things about The Avengers is that the adventure is never truly over after the last fight scene: the series is famous for its show-ending tags, light-humored "back at the ranch" slices of life that show Steed and Emma relaxing and celebrating their victory, usually accompanied by some more breezy puns: "It's nice to be the right way up for once," Emma says. "At least you know where you stand!" Steed retorts. And while Emma pops the cork on their traditional celebratory champagne, Steed prepares an accompanying feast of oysters, turtle soup, plus a bunch of lovely-sounding French delicacies which probably this little stuffed bull needn't think too much about. "Where are we going to get all that at this time of night?" Emma wonders. Never fear: Steed's drawn it for her!:

And then, to prove that art is lovely but you can't eat it, Steed wheels out the real feast, declares with a smile "The benevolent Avenger strikes again!" and clangs the dishes together to the accompaniment of one last, and very delicious, sound effect. Cue end credits!

If you're an Avengers fan, and I know many of you are, I hope you feel I've done justice to this comic-book flavoured episode of one of my favourite telly programmes. If you've never seen The Avengers...and a few of the comments this week suggest some of you haven't, you poor deprived souls!...I do indeed highly recommend it as one of the finest, and more important, funnest adventure shows ever aired. If you're lucky enough to have BBC America on your cable dial, set your Tivo, VCR, or wankel-rotary-recording-device to the weekday afternoon airings of The Avengers, or DVD sets of very nearly every single episode of the series (missing only the early first season, lost to history) are available for purchase or rental. I highly recommend any of the Mrs. Peel era color episodes (1967) to start out with, and then move into the earlier Mrs. Peel black-and-whites (1965-1966), the whimsical, sometimes frothy but often delightful Tara King episodes (1968) and the more action-oriented Catherine Gale black-and-white years (1963-1964). Advanced Avengers fans will also enjoy The New Avengers, the 1976-1977 revival which paired Macnee's Steed with two partners, Absolutely Fabulous's Joanna Lumley as Purdey and Upstairs, Downstairs's Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit. The seventies Avengers are often much campier and sometimes even disco-flavored (!), but the best of them retain the charm, wit, and action of the original. If you want to see "The Winged Avenger" (plus five other classic color Mrs. Peel episodes), pick up the DVD set shown on the right: The Avengers '67, Set 1. (I don't recommend the 1998 movie version: while the plot has some elements of fun including an invisible cameo by Patrick Macnee and Sean Connery dandy in a giant teddy bear costume, Ralph Fiennes is an often cruel and sarcastic Steed, Uma Thurman a cold and chilly Mrs. Peel, and the single best element of the show—the casual but caring banter between the two—is lost to insults and barbs.)

Did I whet your whistle but you can't wait the while? Then savor a few Avengers moments, including the original Emma Peel opening credits, the saucy Tara King closing credits, and that addictively jazzy theme song, all courtesy of YouTube, a device so clever and intricate in its workings it surely must be the plot of an eccentric British mastermind.

Carry on Avenging, Steed and Emma! May your umbrella never buckle, may your catsuit never wrinkle!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Avengers: "The Winged Avenger", Part 3

Okay, everyone here? All settled in? Everyone have their snacks? Did you "go"? Do you need to "go" before I start again? Okay, everybody's ready, so let me hit the "unpause" button and let's continue watching "The Winged Avenger" episode of The Avengers!

When Emma returns to Steed, his shoebox model has progressed in complexity and elaborateness, as have his theories: "The murderer inflates a small balloon, he rises up the nearest building, he fires a rocket line across to the penthouse, he drops a trampoline, he bounces on through the window!"

But the news of Professor Poole and his possible wall-climbing boots puts a different spin on things, and not merely the case: in one of the episode's more charming exchanges, Steed passionately laments that such a tool takes all the romance out of mountain climbing and he and Mrs. Peel blanch visibly at the thought of vertical souvenir stores on the side of the Matterhorn. "The last bastions of peace and solitude are threatened!" Steed sighs. It's one of the delightful, very Steed moments: he's no Luddite, but he has a great regard in doing things the old fashioned way: with hard work and fair play. It's why he's one of my heroes, and not simply for his impeccable style.

But all worrying about mountaineering and no investigative work make Steed a very dull boy indeed, and he and Mrs. Peel head out to interrogate Professor Poole. They arrive at his estate, and boy oh boy, isn't this a most iconic Avengers scene: the professional pair, both dressed impeccably, strolling in step up to a British manor house:

Professor Poole isn't in, however: he's out. A bit far out, to be precise:

No, dear reader; I haven't changed the channel on you and that's not Adam West. Poole is testing a set of bat wings intended to help him fly. He's having more than a few difficulties getting off the ground, so he's in no mind to speak to Steed and Mrs. Peel. Steed and Emma rather suspect he may be in no mind whatsoever, because if you thought Sir Lexius Cray was eccentric, Professor Poole appears several steps closer to a padded cell at Bedlam, non-sequiturally riffing on his and Mrs. Peel's name in a wild bird call: "Peelpool!" before demanding shortly "What do you want?" Poole appears to be a few eggs short of a nest as Steed and Emma attempt to question him; it's only when speaking of flight does his crazed manner become thoughtful and seemingly sane when he muses "To watch a man walking is to see a clumsy watch a bird flying is to witness a vision." He shies and skitters away when Steed mentions boots, denying any knowledge of any climbing boots before locking himself in his lab. But as Emma spies when she peers over the transom, Professor Poole may be taking the bat metaphor a bit too personally:

Curiouser and curiouser! There's so many red herrings dangling so far that we may as well be at a fishmongers. "Poole was lying!" Steed points out. "To be strictly accurate," corrects Emma, "he was hanging." Steed contemplates the fact that all the victims were ruthless businessmen. (Well, except Tay-Ling, but we've conveniently forgotten about him.) Perhaps the next victim will therefore be, posits the Daily Mail reading Mrs. Peel, ruthless businessmen Edward Dumayn.

Perhaps you can't tell this from the small screen shot above, but in an age of lorem ipsum newspaper props, there's amazing detail in the mock-up prop newspaper Steed's holding here: the actual text on Dumayn is readable straight down three paragraphs (parallel to the word "Pinnock."). Most shows would only mock up the headline (heck, most comic books only do that). It's a marvelous prop that shows the great care and attention the Avengers creators strived for, because even though it's only shown for a couple seconds and was created in an era before freeze-frame videotapes and DVDs, you can actually read the text of the story straight down to Dumayn's fuzzy mustache. (It also tells us exactly what day this story was taking place on: November 30, 1966.)

Dumayn's the perfect potential victim, Steed agrees, and they rush off in a hurry to find him. Now if you or I were detectives or agents and reacted this way in real life we'd be soon out of a job. "You saw a newspaper story and thought that a random businessman might be the next victim? You're fired!" Thankfully, in the world of The Avengers, a hunch is as good as a clue to Steed and Peel...even better, in fact.

They find Dumayn out shooting on his estate...shooting a pigeon and browbeating his games keeper about the lack of true avian game: pheasants or partridge. Now I'm no expert in scriptwriting but that's some ironic foreshadowing going on there, doncha think? "Flush me out something worth shooting this time!" orders Dumayn. "Flush me out something big!"

Now there's a cue if I ever heard one for this guy!:

To his credit, Dumayn doesn't squeal like a little schoolgirl when the Winged Avenger shreds his elegant hunting jacket and him underneath it. Steed and Mrs. Peel arrive too late to stop the murder but seem to be just as pleased to examine the clues left behind on the scene:

We as comic book fans sit up in our seats at this moment and our clue-alert goes ah-oo-gah! We all recognize a comic book when we see one, don't we?

Steed notices something unusual in the comic book (and he's not looking for Earth-2 references): the body in the artwork bears an uncanny resemblance to the scene of the crime!

Where else to go next than the comic book office of "Winged Avengers Enterprises," where the creators are working on the next issue the way all comics books are created: by posing two actors in costumes to enact the script:

Ah, so Alex Ross is the creator of the Winged Avenger? No, actually, it's scripter Stanton and artist Packer, that famous battlin' duo of fictional comic books, who bicker and argue, threatening each other, while the actor in the Winged Avenger outfit...the same outfit we've seen on the murderer...lurks in the background.

Before the comics blogosphere gets all up in arms and starts a angry letter campaign against poor aging-but-still-more-dynamic-and-attractive- to-the-ladies-than-you-or-I-will-ever-be Patrick Macnee, I wouldn't be too hard on The Avengers for perpetuating the myth that comic book creators pose actors and draw from life. It's a cliché that's used in lots of television and movie portrayals of our fair art, and it actually serves a plot point, because it introduces Steed for the first time to the menace of a stunt man in a bizarre costume with nasty, possibly-deadly talons:

Steed's of course is rather more personally interested in Stanton and Packer's lovely secretary, but business is business, and soon he's back in his flat examining some of the artwork from the comic book. Hey, check out that sound effect on the left-hand side of the panel...DC Comics, alert your lawyers! That's the Blackhawk battle cry! Whoa, now, wait a minute...that's actually a Blackhawk comic book panel with the Winged Avenger drawn over it! The word balloon in the middle says "Here come the Blackhawks!":

Any Silver Age DC fans able to identify what Blackhawk issue that panel came from?

Steed describes the man in the Winged Avenger costume to Emma, and she, charmingly clad in another mod catsuit, sets off for another return midnight visit to Poole—we all know how safe and sensible those midnight drop-ins are! A little patented Mrs. Peel snooping-about reveals that Professor Poole really, really likes hanging around:

"My dear Professor Poole," Emma declares cheerfully. "What are you up to?" In a clever bit of camera-trickery that would make Batman and Robin climbing up the side of a building on the Batrope proud, Poole walks down the side of the wall in his silvery boots. Hey, silvery boots? Where have we seen those before?

Poole explains the secret is a strong magnetic field controlled by a remote control: a magnetic field projected through the boots that is so strong it allows their wearer to walk across walls and the ceiling. Hey, Chester Gould was right after all: the nation that controls magnetism will control the world! Emma confronts Poole about his earlier lie and Poole, flustered, admits he contacted Sir Lexius Cray about the boots but "got a better offer": he sold the only other pair of magnetic boots to an unknown third party. Even Poole doesn't know who has the other pair of boots. Looks like a dead end for Emma. Oooh, the way this case is going, maybe I oughtn't to say "dead end". Sorry, Mrs. Peel! Just when it looks like the case is stalled, Poole does point out he knows where he shipped the boots: Winged Avenger Enterprises.

The next day, in another jaunty outfit, Emma follows the lead back to Winged Avenger Enterprises, just in time to hear writer Stanton and artist Packer arguing violently about the direction of their latest issue. (Well, they got that part right about the comic book industry, didn't they?) Emma gets her first glimpse of the Winged Avenger costume on actor Julian, and teases Stanton and Packer with the promise of a sure-fire merchandising tie-in product: no, no, not chromium covers or action figures, but anti-gravity boots.

Back at casa Steed, Emma wonders aloud if Julian is the murderer. Not a bad hypothesis, but it's ignoring one very important point: right at that moment, Julian is being murdered by another Winged Avenger!

Is it his evil clone? His Earth-2 duplicate? Is this indeed Infinite Crisis of Avengers Disassembled? No, but it's the end of Julian, as Steed discovers when he arrives at the scene of the crime and finds the corpse buried under a gigantic panel reproduction displaying the scene of the crime:

You can almost see the light bulb go on over Steed's elegantly bowlered head as he begins to put the facts together: the artwork from The Winged Avenger comic book is predicting the deaths of the real-life victims! And who's next to be taloned? The answer lies on Stanton's drawing board: Professor Poole is the imminent victim!:

Ah ha! So this little stuffed Avenger right here has the crime all sussed out even before Steed and Emma: it's crazy writer Stanton who's the murderer, scripting the murders and ordering Packer to illustrate them, then taking on the identity of the Winged Avenger and systematically murdering..,

Oh wait. No it isn't. (Shoot! I guess I am not a very good Avenger.) Stanton arrives and together with Steed they discover that Packer has been writing his own scripts and illustrating them...scripts of...da da da da...murder! See, Erik Larsen? That's what happens when artists think they can become scripters and eliminate the writer...they turn into crazed murderers!

Examining Packer's artwork, Steed and Stanton discover a new character in the comic book story: Elma Peem. "I never wrote a character of that name!" protests Stanton. "It's an anagram," points out Steed, and flips over the artwork to reveal the next victim of the Winged Avenger:

Oh no! It's Mrs. Peel! And what better cliffhanger to make you wait until Part Four tomorrow night for the conclusion, same Avenger-time, same Avenger-blog!

British Secret Agent Week: Miss Hynde, We're Needed.

As a brief intermission while we're watching "The Winged Avenger" together, let's contemplate the many partners of John Steed.

A casual fan of The Avengers will of course tell you immediately that Steed's partner was Mrs. Emma Peel. (And that the only real Peel deal is Diana Rigg, not Uma Thurman.) But Steed was a man of the world and many partners throughout his long and colourful career.

Someone with a more in-depth knowledge of the show will remind you that no-nonsense, tough-as-nails Catherine Gale was one of Steed's partners, as was the whimsical and canny Tara King.

True fans will remember or at least know of Ian Hendry as Doctor David Keel (from the first series of The Avengers) and Hannah Wilde (a TV character turned Steed's sidekick in the infamous Birmingham stage adaptation.) Of course if you came to the Avengers through its 1970s sequel you'll have, as I do, a certain fondness for action man Mike Gambit and witty, pretty, deadly Purdey.

If you knew that Samantha Peel (Mrs. Peel's daughter-in-law) and Christopher Cambridge numbered among Steed's associates, albeit in the never-produced 1980s revival Avengers International, then top marks to you and a tip of the bowler hat as a true Avengers fan and expert.

But to this Britpop-obsessed little stuffed bull, there's always one more partner of John Steed that has to be counted...Chrissie Hynde.

Later tonight: Part Three of "The Winged Avenger". Bring some popcorn!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Avengers: "The Winged Avenger", Part 2

When we last left our intrepid avengers, they were in an office building in London. How then, in the matter of a blink of the eye, did Mrs. Peel get on the side of a craggy mountain during a snowstorm, interviewing Sir Lexius Cray as he ascends to the summit?

Why, that's no real mountain at all, but merely the right of an English nobleman to have a working model of the face of the Eiger in his drawing room:

It's one of the quirky elements I love best about The Avengers: the eccentricity of the British (usually upper-class) that's put on full display and yet never mocked, even by our surrogates in this world, Steed and Mrs. Peel. In the British Empire, well by gum, it's every Englishman's right to have a manor home filled with giant playing cards or race car simulators or a full-fledged movie studio or yes, a mountainside complete with giant fan to blow snow across the summit. In small but very specific ways The Avengers therefore often reminds me of the brilliant writing of my favorite author, P. G. Wodehouse: the idea that there's nothing unusual with an aristocrat spending his days either contemplating a prize pig or climbing a false mountain—in fact, that's what the class structure is all about: being titled is less about having money than being able to dive to unfettered limits into your hobbies or obsessions.

There's nothing like hot tea on the terrace following a snowy ascent, even a fake one, so Mrs. Peel accepts Kray's invitation gracefully. "See you downstairs, then!" he bellows cheerfully, and takes not the stairs but climbs out the window and rappels down the side of his manor house to get to the first floor...excuse me, we're in England, the ground floor.

Hmm, an expert skilled at climbing sides of buildings? Could this be a clue for our keen-eyed Mrs. Peel? Maybe, but don't bet your pounds and pence on it just yet: The Avengers delights in tossing us dozens of red herrings throughout each episode, and this one's no exception.

Down on the terrace, Mrs. Peel interviews Sir Lexius, while Kray's sinister butler Tay-Ling lurks about. Tay-Ling is one of the problematic bits of this episode: a Chinese character played with the usual distressing political incorrectness by Caucasian actor John Garrie, complete with a couple horrifyingly cringe-worthy jokes about how he pronounces the word "exploits.". It's not Garrie's sole role on The Avengers: he played a role in the Tara King episode "Fog," but at least he didn't have to play a horribly clichéd Asian straight from stock theater pantomime there!

Emma is posing as a journalist from a magazine published by the Roberts & Son company. Sir Lexius has indeed heard of the murders of the Robertses, and declares it "good riddance!"—he'd been swindled by them out of royalities for his recently-published memoirs. Emma thanks him for his gracious hospitality and leaves, and doncha know it, the second her jaunty little roadster disappears down the lane, Sir Lexius and Tay-Ling reflect that inquisitive Mrs. Peel is "nothing we can't handle!" and Kray summons his prize falcon with a whistle, glowering sinisterly after the departing Emma.

Back at the big house with the mountainy goodness packed inside, Tay-Ling telephones an unknown party to threaten him over a letter Sir Lexius has recently received from a man called Poole. Tay-Ling sets up a midnight meeting with the man at the other end of the phone. Midnight meetings: never a good idea where murder is concerned, doncha think?

Now, on CSI they'd be moving in there, grabbing that falcon, testing its beak and talons in glowing computerized montage segments, but Steed and Emma do things the old-fashioned way: Steed has created a scale model of the Roberts Building using a shoebox, and he doesn't need any calculator to work out the height, wind velocity, and temperature and Steed is intent on using these to detect scientifically how someone (or something!) could get up the side of a sheer building without being detected. "Using a shoe box?" Emma questions. "They laughed at Edison," Steed points out. "Only when he was serious," counters Emma.

Steed's scientific approach is fine for him, but Mrs. Peel prefers the more active path and sets out on a midnight re-visit to Sir Lexius Kray, where Tay-Ling awaits his visitor and we sit on the edge of our seats with the terrible premonition something sinsister's about to happen but at least maybe it will happen to the horrible stereotypical character.

Emma arrives at the Kray estate in the middle of the day-for-night and shows that she doesn't need a ladder (or taloned claws) to do her bit of good old-fashioned British B&E:

I definitely wouldn't recommend trying this stunt unless you've got an action catsuit like Mrs. Peel, kids.

Meanwhile, a pair of shiny silver boots skulks through the wooded edges of the Kray estate, the moonlight glinting off silver talons. Emma hears the rustling and follows to investigate. She enters the house just in time to miss seeing Sir Lexius fetch his sleeping falcon. Now count along with me: that's four people (and a falcon) skulking around the Kray estate trying to keep hidden from each other. It's practially a Wodehouse country house novel right here, only minus a silver cow creamer but with bonus added killing man-bird.

In the drawing room, it's that man-birdy shadow that falls across Tay-Ling, who doesn't fare much better than any of the previous victims. Not only is he clawed neatly to death, causing all of us to breathe a sigh of relief, but he too whimpers and shrieks like a little girl. That's enough to draw the attention of Mrs. Peel, who sprints into the room just in time to find shredded Tay-Ling next to a newspaper straight from the Ironic Newsagents:

Sir Lexius arrives on the scene, well-armed with a revolver in one hand and a falcon in the other, displaying his keen and canny sense of being equipped for every defensive emergency. Let's see, gun, bird, maybe a cricket bat in his back pocket...he's set for anything.

Emma questions Sir Lexius: is anything missing or disturbed? Clueingly enough, there's a folder marked POOLE on the desk. That's Professor Poole, Kray explains: a crackpot inventor who claimed to have invented a set of special mountaineering boots that would allow their wear to climb up the side of a house. A ha! Another clue alert, another British eccentric to interrogate. Avengers stories often follow this same general path: a series of murderous episodes, each of which reveal the next person in line as a potential murder victim...or maybe the murderer. It's reminiscent at times of a video game puzzle: you can't move onto the next bit until you've finished with this bit right here. Avengers episodes therefore often give the impression of being very simplistic, a simple episodic movement from one scene to the next, but to an Avengers script is seldom that straightforward and simple: there are more twists and turns to come.

By the way, looks like Emma may have overlooked the most important clue of all in the debris at Sir Lexius's:

Oh yes! That Winged Avenger comic book. Forgot about that, didn't you? The main reason I'm reviewing this specific episode. More on that comic book as Steed and Emma pursue the mysterious hawkman-killer: the mystery deepens when we continue with Part Three tomorrow.