Friday, May 18, 2018

Steed and Mrs. Peel #2

Steed and Mrs. Peel #2

Just, you know…not the ones you were expecting

"Life in Hell:
Steed Checks on Breakfast/Emma Checks and Mates”
Story – Mark Waid
Script – Caleb Monroe
Art – Will Sliney
Colors – Ron Riley
Letters – Ed Dukeshire
Assistant Editor – Chris Rosa
Editor – Matt Gagnon
October 2012

They were there first, appearing on TV in the year 1961 which was a full two years before Marvel’s more colorful (or colourful, as you like) team of do-gooders made an appearance on paper. As history is the judge of things, however, the pairing of British secret agent John Steed with a succession of assistants was not destined to keep the name The Avengers. They lost out to Marvel. Even though Steeds television exploits lasted for eight years and spawned a big budget movie in 1998.

I encountered them the way most of my generation did, in syndication on early morning rotations during summers spent at home. I remember the show being flashy and confusing, the camp factor amped way up. For a long time I attributed all of it to the fact the show was British not so much that it played a bit like an adult Batman show. That quintessential English gentleman Patrick Macnee’s Steed carryed the thing off with his natural charisma and a wink in his eye. Of course, pairing I most remember was Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, the second woman Steed was partnered with and unarguably his most famous.


I don’t believe it is simple nostalgia that makes me long for a rewatch of The Avengers or any of the other far-out British programs I grew up with. Shows like The Prisoner, U.F.O. and Space:1999 will always have a strange attraction for me due to their penchant for the bizarre. Certainly, they extruded a panche unlike any of their American counter-parts.

Here they also took the action in a tongue-in-cheek style. The refresher HERE from Must See TV-The Avengers goes so far as to state that it appears that if someone were shot, because there was no blood, the audience would just assume that they got up after the scene and went on their way. Thus absent a true “vicious” instinct, these shows were more light-hearted fantasy and incorporated a much looser, elegant reality

They even beat their contemporary name-stealers in the comics to the big screen, when Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman stepped into the roles of Steed and Peel in 1998 in a romp that had them facing off against a playing-against-type villainous Sean Connery, Eddy Izzard, and a bevvy or special effects. I remember very little about this movie.

…or maybe not. No. It doesn’t. Not at all.

So that was a flop, which is a shame as the succeeding generations will likely miss out on the greatness that was The Avengers and MacNee’s brilliant performance as a result. Anything that could draw attention back to the original series is a boon.

And thus we come to this series by Boom Studios titled “Steed and Mrs. Peel”. I find it a shame that they can’t use the original title, but we live in a litigious society now that also assumes people are moronic half-wits unable to tell two books with the same title apart. Enough about that, though. The real question we should be concerned about is whether or not this book portrays an accurate representation of the television Avengers or if it needs to be disposed of like that awful big-screen adaptation above.

Let’s have a look, shall we?

We begin with Steed and Peel walking through a bomb-blasted ruin, while carrying a picnic basket. Steed appears to be using a dowsing rod to detect…something. They both look impeccably dressed, Steed in his old English gentleman three-piece suit and Peel in a sleeveless halter top and hip hugging jeans. So far the style is right on for what the TV show would throw at us: a juxtaposition of elements both new and old in a setting where you would likely not find any of these items. But how is the dialogue?

It’s pretty much spot-on, thanks to Waid and Monroe. And this next sequence, where Steed clears away rubble to find…

…a bottle of champagne is so reminiscent of the TV series opening that I have to applaud the book immediately. I settle in at this point, as it appears they are going to get the tone of things right. 

As Steed pours, we learn that this is the middle of London and not some out of the way industrial ruin, so I’ve missed a bunch by stepping into issue number 2. Don’t fault me please, but I didn’t see the last issue blurb on the credit page until after I’d read the story through once. It explains where we are and how we got here:

John and Emma were investigating an agent’s death when London apparently suffered a horrific nuclear assault, leaving both the agents in a bombed out London where the only people prepared were the agents of the villainous Hellfire Club (not the one from X-Men, fellow Marvelites. They did that name first as well.) and several high-ranking British military and government types.

And the Hellfire Club’s entrance is right below Downing Street…

I love that it takes six pages for us to get here. The book’s unhurried pace creates the same tonal vibe that the show had. Sure, these two would save the day and the world, but there was no reason to rush in and gun everyone down like an American secret agent would. No, this is all about unraveling a mystery in a very British way, with manners and taste.

And here that mystery is how did the Hellfire Club know to prepare for just the sort of barrage that devastated London. The pair split up to find some answers.

Steed takes a meager breakfast with the prime minister and another government functionary. They discuss trying to find out more info on how widespread doomsday was.

Then a curious admission by the man to Steed’s left and a reappearance by Mrs. Peel, who can’t seem to find the General AND appears to remember that breakfast meal pairing. 

As to the General being gone, it is a fact made all the more suspicious given that there aren’t any places for a person to go outside of the Hellfire Club. It’s an odd occurrence that puts to mind that the general isn’t the only one missing.

The art in most of this is fine, overly simplified and reliant on the viewer’s eye to “fill in the gaps.” For the fist time in any of the pictures I get a dose of what looks like Carmine Infantino’s

But back to the story as one of the Hellfire Club leaders, a woman whose name I didn’t catch brainwashes the General in question in a darkened room using a white screen. After he is convinced to do anything to stop Armageddon, she douses him with knockout from an aerosol spray can the likes of which I haven’t seen since that Jurassic Park book.

As the general is dragged out, we learn the woman has a male counterpart in this operation who hasn’t been as successful, and that they have plans for Steed and Peel. As the scene ends, she tells the chap that she’ll be the on to take “Father’s Revenge” which means that the Hellfire Club is in league with the higher-up foil of Mother. Mother was the director of the secret agency Steed worked for in the final season of The Avengers and appears in the big screen adaption. Father in both appearances was up to no good.

Our little miss also speaks to the white screen, calling it Dirgent while pleading it for patience, telling it not to worry.

All these odd goings-on and set pieces feel like a direct lift from the TV show and again I have to give our writers credit. Along with this next bit where a chess match between Emma and Steed…

…is more than it appears on the surface and it ends most satisfactorily.

Always love to see Peel get the upper hand on Steed. The pair could always generate on-screen sexual tension without either of the saying or doing ANYTHING overt. It’s a shame there weren’t more seasons of them together.

Emma finds that the General went off with Joan Cartney (and our mysterious brainwasher gets a name), so she confronts her in her office. It begins cordially…

…but turns into a page-long catfight with Emma gassed and dragged away, possibly for some mild brainwashing?

Steed has busied himself with finding out why everyone appears to have had the exact same breakfast at the exact same time, when two Hellfire Club guards escort one of the men off right in front of him.

He eavesdrops on Cartney working her magic on the gentleman by weaving in a narrative of a preventable apocalypse and what would he do to stop it. It’s easy to see how this mind control mixes with the devastated London above, that must be some kind of faked prop.

However, John won’t expose the jig quite yet. He’s taken by a judo chop to the back of the neck while inspecting the projector. 

And his assailant is revealed to be none other than…

…a brainwashed Emma Peel, reverted to her Queen of Sin costume for dramatic effect. Makes you wonder what is it with Hellfire Clubs, sexy ladies in black lingerie, and Queen titles that always seem to go together?

This was an enjoyable, if short issue. The art, while minimal in places, conveyed the story well enough and I like the direction the book is going. I’d pick up more to see if it continued on in The Avengers trend.

It certainly has created a hankering for those old shows, though. If you are like me and similarly inclined to want a rewatch, I’ll leave you to browse youtube and check out The Avengers Forever website. You’ll find all manner of information there on the show, the cast and the trivia, all well organized and documented.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Black Hole #2

The Black Hole #2

SoC fell into The Black Hole for a couple of weeks…He finally crawled out with this review

"Part 2”
Writer – Mary Carey
Artist – Dan Spiegle
March 1980

The Black Hole was a substantial change for Walt Disney Productions. Featuring expensive state of the art effects and garnering a PG rating, a first for a Disney production, it certainly was their most ambitious project and indicated a willingness to include more mature, adult-oriented content in their films. It began a trend that eventually led the studio to create the Touchstone Pictures/Hollywood Pictures labels in an effort to shield the Walt Disney Productions brand as family-friendly entertainment.

The movie premiered in late December of 1979 and I don’t think I saw it first run. I did see it in theaters, but my addled brain seems to remember that taking place later in 1980 when it was making the rounds with a reissue of Sleeping Beauty as a “double feature”. Yes, two movies-one price!

I liked it well enough, even though the movie trailers sold it as all-action and the film is actually more of a mad scientist-murder mystery. I will state in a non-spoiler way that it contains what is perhaps one of the darkest Disney plots of any movie they produced, with one scene standing out as being horrifically scarring.

A scene this comic doesn’t include, incidentally.

In a funny note, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson deemed the film to be the least scientifically accurate movie of all time, stating “They not only got none of the physics right about falling into a black hole, had they gotten it right it would have been a vastly more interesting movie.” As if a movie with floating robots who shoot laser guns was trying for scientific accuracy.

No, this was clearly a Disney attempt to capture some of the Star Wars dollars, similar to the way Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released the same month) attempted. Film studios had finally come to realize the space opera could be a big thing again, if done with lots of flashy special effects.

But special effects are costly, and Disney couldn’t (or wouldn’t) hire the battle-tested crew from Industrial Light and Magic. Instead they turned to the engineering department at Disney to create the film’s computer graphics and motion-control miniature effects. The shots they created are clearly stunning and rival ILM's. 

I’m going to throw in JonnyBaak’s “Things you may not know about The Black Hole(1979)” video here to give you additional background on the cast and story. Jonny does a great job covering more the background material about the cast and production in a entertaining way.

I will agree with him that the robots get more depth than the humans and Maximillian works great for the robot bad-guy heavy. Also that the look of the USS Cygnus came off as beautiful, evoking images of a modern glass skyscraper merged with the power and intimidation of a battleship.

Before going on, I am invoking a spoiler warning to all of you. This is part 2 of a two-part adaptation, so if you want to preserve the suspense of the ending I’d say you should hold off on reading this review.

==============SPOILER SPACE ===============

We begin at the mid-point of the movie and a bunch of backstory needs to occur if any of what follows it to make sense. 

We are currently following the two floating robots, V.I.N.CENT (Vital Information Necessary Centralized – shows some desperation on the part of the robot makers to have that anagram come off as a human name, don’t it?) and Old B.O.B. (BIO-sanitation Battalion – which is even more desperate. Why do you need a military order to tackle poop and pee?) around the space ship USS Cygnus uncovering the central mystery.

See V.I.N.CENT just arrived here unexpectedly as part of the crew of the deep space probe USS Palomino. The ship and its five-person crew encountered a startling phenomenon: a black hole with a spaceship hovering nearby defying the massive gravitational pull. For those of you unaware, a black hole is a collapsed star whose atoms become so compacted that they affect the gravitational effect of nearby spacetime. Similar to putting a marble with the mass of a Yugo onto a trampoline that won’t tear, the black hole creates a distortion that pulls any object toward it. V.I.N.CENT's USS Palomino was no exception and its crew were forced to land on the motionless spaceship.

Before docking they learn the ship is the long-lost USS Cygnus, a research ship that appears abandoned at first except for mirror-faced robot caretakers and security droids. However not long after boarding, the crew become the guests of the ship’s commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who claims the crew abandoned ship to return to Earth following a mishap in space. 

Dr. Kate McCrae, the only woman from the probe ship, asks about her father who served on the Cygnus. Reinhardt reluctantly explains he elected to remain aboard but died due to an encounter with a meteor field. 

Reinhardt also outlines his bold and rather crazy plan to use the null gravity field projector he has created to take the Cygnus through the black hole. He’d already tested this device with a probe ship outfitted with the miraculous drive. Now he wants to take the Cygnus where the other end of the deformation of spacetime lets out, along with his crew of silent robe-wearing humanoid droids, his piles of security robots, and his hulking personal guard-bot Maximilian (not to be confused with the actor. Until later…but that’s kind of a movie-only spoiler). The Palomino crew thinks he’s a bit crazy except for Dr. Alex Durant, who wants to accompany Reinhardt on his journey.

All is not what it seems, however. V.I.N.CENT has made friends with Old B.O.B., a beat-up maintenance robot that is being bullied by the ships overabundance of security robot's (really? Did a scientific mission need like a hundred robot police guards?) and Maximilian. After an oddly competitive round of target shooting, the pair of floating bots bond. Old B.O.B. decides to spill what he knows about the mysteries the crew of the Palomino have witness since arriving, including a weird robot funeral and a limping robot gardener.

It’s about here that issue two picks up on the story, beginning with a startling revelation from Old B.O.B.…

That’s right, those mirror faced chaps are the crew. Reinhardt lobotomized them after taking control of Maximilian and the security robots. Now they live a hollow existence, more dead than alive.

Upon learning this, V.I.N.CENT contacts Dr. McCrae via TELEPATHY…yes! The robot and the young woman doctor have telepathy. I…can’t…even! But okay. Let’s just skip over that for a moment.

V.I.N.CENT requests that Commander Holland meet him aboard the Palomino right away, not wanting to startle Dr. McCrae with his findings over the telepathic link. Capt. Holland, Lt. Pizer and journo Harry Booth head back to the ship to meet with the robot. When Reinhardt returns to his dining room, he finds a few of his guests have gone missing.

Okay, so the book doesn’t list ANY art credits. I took the info above from off the internet. I don’t want to ascribe blame for something like the inking here on someone without proof, but I have to say this looks like someone took the flat end of a Marks-a-lot and went to town. So much excessive thick black lines! Reinhardt is supposed to look off his rocker, but not completely unhinged.

Although he actual IS so unhinged that his door is laying on the floor, which is what the other three crewmen are finding out from Old B.O.B.

Holland gives quick orders to get Kate and Alex out of Reinhardt’s clutches and get everyone off the Cygnus safely.

Unfortunately, Alex doesn’t want to return to the Palomino. The lure of being one of the first humans to travel through a black hole proves a powerful temptation. Holland is forced to take a drastic measure…

Sensing something is amiss, Reinhardt starts lining up the Cygnus to make a run at the black hole just as Alex unmasks one of the mirror-faced servitor robots. What he finds proves Kate’s message from V.I.N.CENT correct, but in a horrifying fashion…

For his curiosity, Alex takes a laser blast to the back and Kate gets scooped up by Maximilian for lobotomizing. Things are not looking up.

As Reinhardt begins his approach vector, Holland and the two robots leave the Palomino to rescue Kate. They reach her just in time, too.

In an effort to get back to the Palomino safely, the pair dress up as humanoids. It works for a while, but they are quickly found out by Reinhard who clues in the guard robots.

The book manages to capture some of the robot battles better than the film, where the two spheroid bots were slung around on wires while aftereffect lasers were added. 

The quartet has some trouble at the Palomino’s airlock which requires Lt. Pizer to abandon the ship to take out a barricade manned by the security robots.

But in doing so, he leaves the very UN-Ernest Borgnine looking Harry Booth in a position to lock them out of the Palomino and make a run for it. Which it is too late for, because the Cygnus and the Palomino are too close to the black hole. The smaller craft careens out of control, leaving Reinhardt little choice but to blast it out of the sky.

Unfortunately, the husk of the ship falls into one of the Cygnus’ power generators. Between that and the added fun of a meteor shower, Reinhardt’s black hole trip turns into a big disaster.

While the ship gets pelted by debris heading down the wormhole, the Palomino crew is desperately fighting their way through an obstacle course of popped greenhouses and meteor debris…

…heading to the probe ship…Which Reinhard is reprogramming to make a run into the black hole.

Reinhardt is going completely nuts, by the way. He thinks the black hole is a gateway to some kind of heaven, which if you watch the movie has a kind of odd payoff. 

Realizing finally that his ship can’t make it through damaged as it is, he sends Maximilian to prepare the probe ship…riiiight before a giant heavy metal screen falls on him.

And to be sure we see the irony of this, Reinhardt’s lobotomized servants are unable to muster the brain-power to assist him.

As Reinhardt gives in to the inevitability of his demise, Maximilian confronts V.I.N.CENT and gets his claws on the floating mirror ball robot.

…V.I.N.CENT uses the tactic of drilling into Maximilian…

…rendering the bot disabled…for now…however Old B.O.B. was injured in this altercation. He can’t make it any further, he claims, and they leave him for dead. One problem the movie had was the wooden acting of its human cast being upstaged by the two robots, voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens in uncredited performances. This scene was way more impactful than it should have been AND the excellent work by Pickens made us forget that he was essentially a floating computer who the Palomino crew could have dragged on the probe ship to repair later.

But whatever movie. You can’t fix robots.

The end result is the remaining crew make it to the probe ship and clear off just as the Cygnus completely breaks up.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Reinhardt’s plotted course can’t be changed. The controls have them hurtling into the black hole.

…and it’s right about here that the comic chickens-out. You see, the movie Reinhardt kept pushing the idea that in traversing the black hole a person would enter a realm where things like death and existence would have no meaning. He thought it akin to ascending into Heaven or Nirvana or somesuch, even though as an astrophysicist what he should have realized it would mean is you would end up spat out like a wad of stretched out silly putty, much denser, and dead. 

And I ABSOLUTELY love this!

Yes, this acid trip to a Hades where Reinhardt is rape-absorbed by Maximillian acting as some cruel lover only to trap the mad scientist within his shell, while the victims of Reinhardt’s cruelty are forced to endure an eternity of hellish slavery as some kind of unjust punishment for those who met their end at his hands is just so WEIRD. I mean this movie was PG, but this sequence could clearly give smaller children nightmares for weeks as the evil-bad robot appears to be a ruler in Hell. There's little other way to interpret that sequence, and CLEARLY the humans they tortured in life are now being lead around in eternal damnation.

My-my how dark, Disney?

But delicious, too. The Black Hole is like a kid’s movie that at the end turns into some softcore Fellini film for a solid minute and you can’t ever unsee that crap. And while its horrible wrong science and cardboard human performances make it nearly unwatchable, I applaud any movie willing to so troll the audience that hard (a decade before we even knew what trolling was).

The comic…doesn’t have those sorts of balls. 

One page of falling into blackness…

…and then, we are done with all this black hole travel mess.

Unlike the movie, we get two pages of the crew reacting, speculating, and deciding what to do.

The ultimate choice is spoken by V.I.N.CENT, which given his place as the most human and likeable of the crew, is probably a good person to end on. 

Notice the “next issue” blurb? Well, Whitman published four issues of The Black Hole, the first two being the movie adaptation and issues 3 and 4 having the word “Beyond” added in smaller type above the twisty “The Black Hole” logo. Beyond tried to extend the story as the former crew of the Palomino explored the dimension on the other side of the black hole, only to run afoul of a new alternate-dimension Reinhardt or some such. The story in issue 4 ended on a cliffhanger that cancellation meant never got resolved.

A strange thing happened with those books too. Three-pack comics were still a thing back in the day and Whitman created large print runs of issues 1-3 so they could sell them as bagged packages. Issue number 4, however, did not receive such a large printing. It is currently considered rare and highly collectable, with prices running somewhere in the several hundred dollar range.

All I can say is stay away from the edge of these black hole things. My missing two weeks of Crapbox reviews will show you that it takes quite a bit of effort to pull yourself back out of them.

(SoC apologizes to his loyal readers. Work has been and continues to be impacting his ability to complete reviews. He hopes this week to get back on schedule.)