Oct 9, 2012

Interview With Steed and Mrs. Peel Writer Caleb Monroe

Joseph Michael Linsner variant cover to #1
BOOM! Studios' new comic book chronicling the further adventures of the original—the real—Avengers, Steed and Mrs. Peel, got off to a fantastic start last month with issue #0 (review here). Sometimes it takes months to get follow-ups to zero issues (or years, in the case of Marvel's Captain America miniseries by Loeb and Sale!), but BOOM! has rewarded fans with a quick follow-up. A few weeks later, the ongoing STEED & MRS. PEEL series began. Comics legend Mark Waid (Kingdom Come), who penned #0, is joined by regular writer Caleb Monroe and artist Will Sliney. Monroe was kind enough to venture over from the Ministry to the Double O Section for long enough to discuss the new series, and all things Avengers!

Hi Caleb, thanks for chatting. Can you tell me a bit about how the first original comic book stories about Steed and Mrs. Peel in two decades came about at Boom!, and how you got involved?

Afraid I don’t know how it all originated, exactly. I know BOOM! started by reprinting the Grant Morrison/Anne Caulfield/Ian Gibson STEED & MRS. PEEL comics originally put out by Eclipse in 1990 [soon available in trade paperback -ed], and decided to launch a new ongoing with Mark Waid. I’d done several books for BOOM! before, most while Waid was EIC; they thought my sensibilities would be a good match with the property and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, which I did!

Were you a fan of The Avengers already?

I was a fan, but a young one. My first exposure was seeing the film version when it came out in the 90s, but it was the Morrison reprints that renewed my interest in the TV show.

 What other spy stuff do you like? Anything from the Sixties?

I love the Bond films, of course (and the great connection between them and The Avengers in the form of Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg playing significant roles in both… Blackman as infamous Bond Girl Pussy Galore and Rigg in the role my editor Chris Rosa refers to as “the only true Bond Woman”). My personal favorite films in the spy genre are probably Ronin, Spy Game and Three Days of the Condor. I also take a depraved sort of enjoyment from the madness that is the 1966 Modesty Blaise film adaptation.

That's a guilty pleasure of mine as well. Dirk Bogarde makes that movie as the villain! So what did you do to bone up on the show before tackling the comic? Did you find any particular resources particularly helpful?

Just watching and rewatching the show, really. That’s where I’ve taken all my cues from. There’s a reason it’s a classic! I’ve consciously only watched the two seasons with Emma in them, wanting to get the specific flavor of that infamous partnership just right without having it blurred by memories of Steed’s other partner relationships.

There’s one book I do enjoy and use quite a bit for quick reference, and that’s The Avengers Dossier: The Definitive Unauthorized Guide, co-written by comics’ own brilliant Paul Cornell. You have to walk the line between having a comprehensive knowledge of the source material but not being so entrenched in it or loyal to it that you’re afraid to make the changes or try the new approaches that will lead to the best possible new stories.

I agree absolutely, and I can see why The Avengers Dossier appealed to you, in that case. It's probably my favorite Avengers reference book, mainly because the authors aren't afraid to have an opinion—or at times be irreverent. You should also definitely check out Andrew Pixley's The Avengers Files if you haven't already, for great character backgrounds. 

So Mark Waid wrote the zero issue, and now in #1 he's credited with "story" and you're credited with "script." Can you please illuminate the differences in those two aspects of writing this comic, and discuss your collaborative process with Waid?

The concept of the arc comes from Mark, it’s a great follow-up story to his zero issue. Our general take on the world and the characters was also set up by his solo issue. Then I take that plot and precedent and script it, breaking it down into issues, pages, panels, dialogue, etc. Essentially, Mark provided me with a skeleton and it’s my job to put the meat and skin on it. Or maybe the skin’s down to series artist par excellence, Will Sliney. I think I’m starting to mangle this particular metaphor. But that’s the gist of it. For me, in a lot of ways, it’s the best of both worlds: I get to work with one of the industry’s best writers and idea men, but at the same time he’s given me plenty of ways to make it my own. Or plenty of rope to hang myself with. I’ll leave it up to the discerning audience!

While #0 followed a very traditional Avengers TV episode formula (someone is murdered, Steed and Emma are needed, certain eccentrics are questioned leading to a confrontation with villains involving some judo), this first issue strikes new territory. While it evokes "The Nutshell" to some degree, this storyline seems like a bit of a departure for the characters. Was that always the intent?

There’s an old Hollywood adage: “Give me the same thing…only different!” As I said earlier, there’s a reason the show is a classic, so we don’t want to mess with that too much. On the other hand, the show had a very limited budget throughout its history that reigned in some of the types of stories they could attempt. The unlimited budget that pen and ink gives us allows us an opportunity to imagine what the original show might have attempted in the 60s if they’d had an unlimited budget of their own. We also have more variety of format available to us in an ongoing series. The original episodes all had to be the same length and be self-contained; that was just part of the format. I really enjoy that about the series, but we’re working in a different medium that gives us some different options. So look for self-contained issues, two-parters, three-parters…basically whatever the story calls for we can attempt. It’s actually a very exciting position to be in!

Sounds like it! Without giving too much away, can you discuss the direction this story is headed in? Will we find ourselves in more familiar Avengers territory before it's all done, or is the goal to put these beloved characters in an entirely new sort of experience?

I’ll just say, “Yes.” To both.

More than art, more than setting, even more than story, the number one most important thing in writing The Avengers is dialogue, and both Mark Waid in #0 and now you here have really nailed the distinctive banter between Steed and Emma. How did you go about getting their back-and-forth just right?

I wish I was a more self-aware in my process, but I’ll do my best to give you a straight answer. First, I watch(ed) the show and try to get a feel for its flow. If my schedule allows I like to watch an episode beforehand and go straight from that into scripting, with the rhythm of it still ringing in my ears, so to speak. Other than that, I don’t know exactly how to describe the process. I write an exchange, I say it out loud to myself, rewrite it, say it out loud again, polish it again…basically until I don’t see any other ways to improve it. Sometimes I’ll nail a scene right off the bat and will barely touch it again, sometimes I have to redo it again and again. I have no idea why it’s the former sometimes and the latter other times. When I say it out loud, in my mind I’m picturing Macnee and Rigg saying it, since just because it’s dialogue that sounds good doesn’t mean it’s something those two specific characters would necessarily say. If I can see them delivering those lines, I feel good about it.

Do you have any particular favorite exchanges from the TV show that inspired you?

I love them all! There are two scenes in particular, though, that finally helped me wrap my mind around Emma’s character. I was struggling early on with this dichotomy the show had: on one hand she’s this incredibly talented, groundbreaking feminist ideal, and on the other she’s constantly being bound, fetishized and threatened. She actually reminds me a lot of Wonder Woman in that way.

Then I was watching “A Surfeit of H2O,” and there’s this scene near the end where she’s literally being pressed to death in this machine. There she is, being painfully crushed, which also makes it difficult to talk, and as the villain gloats she says, “You diabolical mastermind, you.” Then he leaves and Steed comes up through a trapdoor—the classic “rescue”—and she sees him and says, “Gentlemen should knock before entering.” I realized that while she may have regularly found herself physically victimized or threatened, she was never a victim in attitude. She never takes these bindings on as any legitimate part of her reality, never lets them shape any part of her identity. She knows they’re outward expressions of the inner shortcomings of the (usually male) villains. The whole affair has very little to do with her in that regard.

The second exchange, one that helped me get a better feel for the dynamic between Steed and Peel, as well as one of the funnier lines of the series was in “Return of the Cybernauts”:

Paul Beresford says, “Surely Steed can handle this alone?

And Emma comes back with, “He could, but I musn’t let him find out.”

Yeah, those are both great exchanges! Emma's "diabolical mastermind" line in "Surfeit" is probably my favorite line in the whole series. Quintessential Avengers! And speaking of quintessential, The Avengers is a quintessentially English show, and you are very American. Yet you don't (to my own American ears, anyway) fall into any of the traps that some American comic writers do in capturing believable English dialogue. Was that a challenge?

Linsner variant cover to #0
It was certainly one of the things I was most concerned about. I have no perspective on whether I pulled it off, so it’s good to hear you say you thought I did! It was actually Rich Johnston from Bleeding Cool that helped put my mind at ease about the whole thing. We were discussing the upcoming series at Comic-Con and I told him he’d have to let me know when I inevitably mangled the Britishisms. But he told me not to worry about it: while made in the UK, the show’s biggest audience, particularly during the Peel years, was here in the US, so the language and word choice in the original show was already fairly “Americanized” to make it more palatable to Stateside viewers. Which means doing a flawed American conception of British speech could actually be more accurate to the source material. I still don’t intentionally try to Americanize anything, but that conversation alleviated a lot of my anxiety about making mistakes, that they wouldn’t ruin it.

Excellent point. This story begins with some surprisingly gruesome violence for The Avengers, and there's more gunplay before this issue's over than usually seen on the TV version. Was that an intentional move to modernize the show, to put it more in line with what contemporary comics readers expect from the spy genre? (Or were the blood spatters more the artist's choice?)

In some ways it goes back to what we were discussing before. Some of the way the violence worked in the show, and the amount of blood present, had to do with budget. Some of it also had to do with what was standard for that era of television. The opening of “The Master Minds” episode is a good example: to have someone get shot in the head with no visible blood was a convention of TV at the time. But if you did that now, the audience would lose their suspension of disbelief. They wouldn’t buy that someone could get shot in the head without a lot of blood being involved.

Fair enough. Is this an ongoing series?

It is indeed!

Fantastic! Obviously we've seen the Hellfire Club (from "A Touch of Brimstone") return already. What about the Cybernauts? Are there any other classic villains you'd like to revisit?

I can’t say at this point, partly because I don’t want to give anything away and partly because I’m still working out what, exactly, the future holds for Steed and Peel. The Cybernauts would certainly be interesting, wouldn’t they? I think they were the show’s most-recurring villain. Am I making that up?

No, you aren't! They even popped up again in The New Avengers years later. On the subject of The New Avengers, can we expect to see any of Steed's other partners or associates turn up in the future, like Gambit and Purdey, Cathy Gale, Tara King, Venus Smith, Martin King, David Keel, Hannah Wilde, Mother, or my personal favorite, Steed's whippet Sheba?

For the time being the focus will remain on Steed and Peel. This book will be a lot of people’s first exposure to the property and we don’t want to go diving into the deep end of the mythology too soon. Part of the genius of the show was it’s modular nature. You could jump in at any point and not need a continuity handbook to get it. My aim is to preserve that instant accessibility in the comic series.

I suppose that makes sense, but I do hope we see some of those other characters sooner or later, maybe even in a spin-off if sales justify it! I've got one last question for you, Caleb. Where else can comics fans find your work? What other series do you have in the pipeline?

I also currently write the all-ages ICE AGE book [for BOOM!]. In fact, the next issue of that and STEED & MRS. PEEL #2 both come out the same day this month (Halloween!). The BATMAN 80-PAGE GIANT 2011 has a story of mine in it…you can’t imagine how fun it was to create a new Bat-villain! Other than those, I currently have four creator-owned books in the early art stages, so hopefully 2013 will be a big year!

Indeed! Well, best of luck to you on those series and especially on STEED & MRS. PEEL, which I hope goes on for a long, long run. Thanks for your time!

While the individual issues are still forthcoming (and should be bought to support this title!), Caleb's first storyline is already available to pre-order as a trade paperback, available next May. Visit Caleb's website here for future updates on STEED & MRS. PEEL!

1 comment:

Sextonblake said...

This looks like an excellent comic book. I would point out, though, that the script on the show was not really 'Americanised'. I remember an interview with Dennis Spooner where he pointed out that all of the film shows in the 60s would have someone from an American studio look at the scripts before they were filmed. This was basically to avoid words and phrases that had different meanings in Britain and the USA. "I'll nip round in the morning and knock you up" means something different in Britain than it does in America.

Similarly, the bloodless quality of the show had something to do with the standards of 60s TV, but much more to do with Brian Clemens. If you watch an exactly contemporary series like THE CHAMPIONS, you will notice that in episodes like AUTOKILL there is quite a lot of fake blood spilt. The climax of that show has one of the characters having to be beaten into unconsiousness. It's quite a brutal scene considering the intended time slot, but it's one that you can't imagine appearing in any of the Rigg episodes.