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The New Avengers (Steed, Gambit & Purdey, 1977)

The New Avengers Annual 1977

Purdey and Gamibt make their arrival in the comics Comic Strip One; 'Fangs For The Memory!'.   Steed, Gambit and Purdey go vampire hunting when an agent is found dead with two suspicious puncture marks on his neck. Eight pages - full colour.  Drawn by John Bolton (uncredited).
Comic Strip Two; 'Hypno-Twist'.  The New Avengers get into a confusing scrape involving phoney hypnotists.  Six pages - full colour.  Drawn by John Bolton (Artwork is signed).

John Steed a la John Bolton - New Avengers Annual 1977

by Matthew Bradford

Story One: “Fangs For the Memory!”
Read this story

The legendary John Bolton does what he does best: a horror story. Or as close to a horror story as The Avengers (“New” or otherwise) ever really gets. At the time, Bolton was illustrating Hammer movie adaptations in the pages of the magazine Halls of Horror. “Fangs For the Memories” isn’t too much of a stretch from that; it also involves vampires and gothic settings. And John Bolton is very good at drawing those things. While his line work here is a far cry from the fully-painted style he would adopt to great success later in his career, Bolton is a very talented artist and all of the pages are dynamic.

The breakdowns are exciting, the action is well-staged and the likenesses are very good, especially Purdey’s. The story opens with a truly striking splash page of a vampire in full Dracula cape about to put the bite on someone. In the first panel of the next page, he does exactly that, with a bit more blood than one would expect in an Avengers comic. (But probably less than one would expect from a John Bolton comic!) The whole second page is very nicely laid out, with the vampire’s red-lined cloak billowing over the next panel, in which we meet a beautiful, pale female vampire. Female vampires are something of a specialty for John Bolton, and this one is no exception. She’s drawn with an ethereal beauty, her hair billowing out above her head as if she’s perpetually floating in water. That she bears a slight resemblance to Diana Rigg is, I suspect, entirely coincidental.

On page five of the eight-page story, we see Purdey defeat this female vampire with a well-placed high kick. The panel is very sparse and very striking: there is no border around it, and Purdey and her victim exist in the middle of a white void, completely lacking in background detail. The pose itself is wonderful. Purdey is lithe and her action is fluid. Viewing this panel, we can certainly believe that she is both an expert fighter and an ex-ballerina. There’s a similar panel on the final page in which Purdey takes out the male vampire, and again she’s poised with unbelievable grace against a stark, white, borderless background. Quite frankly, The New Avengers doesn’t deserve artwork this good!

The uncredited writer does an excellent job telling a very traditional New Avengers story in only eight pages. “Fangs For the Memory” (despite the cheesy title) could have easily passed for a TV episode, and it would have been one of the better ones! The writer captures all the beats of a first-rate New Avengers tale. It opens with a fiendish murder. The victim, typically, worked for the Ministry’s Optics Department, and sure enough Gambit and Purdey end up following up on his suspicious or threatened co-workers. Meanwhile, Steed checks in with a classic Avengers eccentric, “Professor L. Sing, Britain’s leading expert on vampires.” The writer even works in a car chase, a couple of fights and a finale in a room full of traps and passages. And none of it seems out of place; all the action serves the story! If only all the TV episodes had managed that trick!

Of course, the vampires are not real vampires. That would not be appropriate for The New Avengers. They are really a pair of criminals (the disgruntled Ministry variety so popular on the show) who have fashioned themselves poisonous fanged dentures as an ingenious murder weapon. The explanation seems scientifically plausible and works well.

The characterizations are also spot-on. Purdey and Gambit exchange just the kind of dialogue they do on the show (for better or for worse), and Steed’s lines are so perfect you can almost hear Patrick Macnee speaking them as you read. (“Funny! I always thought apples were supposed to help you keep your teeth!” he quips after de-fanging the “vampire” with the fruit in question.)

The story isn’t perfect (the deadly bright lights at the end could have been used to better effect, given the story’s vampiric theme) and it ends with some atrocious puns and jokes from all three New Avengers. But even then, it seems on par with the show. Is it a perfect comic book story? Far from it. But is it a perfect New Avengers adaptation? Yes, it is. This is definitely one of the very best Avengers-related comics I’ve read in terms of capturing the feel of the show it’s based on. New Avengers fans should seek it out, as should fans of good comic artwork.

Art: *****

Story: *****

Story Two: “Hypno-Twist”

The second story in the first New Avengers Annual is as bad as the first one (“Fangs For the Memory”) was good. I don’t know if it was the same writer, but if so he got everything wrong that he got right in the first tale. At six pages, the story is a convoluted mess. It’s possible that it might have turned out better with more pages to tell it in, but doubtful. Anyway, it’s boring enough at only six. The plot makes no sense, and it’s not even worth trying to recount. All I’ll say is that it involves a bogus hypnotist who actually turns out to be a fake bogus hypnotist, in a plot twist that doesn’t make any sense and is never explained. It’s the sort of affair wherein the characters have to say what happened in a single word balloon in the last panel because otherwise the reader would have no idea.

Atypically for The New Avengers, this story does actually involve minorities (Hindus) and, true to form, manages to be racist in their brief portrayal. The main characters’ characterizations are also off in this story. Purdey accidentally kills someone and kicks another person in the face with no provocation whatsoever, and Steed never sounds like Steed. Worst of all, Gambit plays the guitar! (Something we were fortunately never subjected to on the TV show!) The guitar playing leads to some truly awful punning in the closing panel as he tries to make Steed and Purdey listen to “Curry Me Back to Hindustani.” Please! A terrible story.

Even the great John Bolton isn’t in top form for this story. While the artwork is still pretty good, it’s a letdown after his excellent drawing on “Fangs For the Memory.” The character likenesses (with the exception of Purdey) aren’t as good, and the colouring (which probably wasn’t done by Bolton anyway) is pretty terrible. The layouts are distracting and the action is confusing. (Of course, this does have a lot to do with the way it’s written.) There are still a few dynamic Purdey fight panels (particularly one at the top of page five), again presented against a plain white background. But in the context of the story, the fights are nothing special. This is still much finer artwork than can be found in the original Avengers annuals (or in TV Comics), but it’s sub-par work from John Bolton.

Story: 1/2*

Art: ***1/2

Back to TV Comic, Tara King, 1973 on to The New Avengers, 1978