Original run: TV Century 21 #01 – #11
Writer: Alan Fennel
Artist: Eric Eden
Arriving eight months before Thunderbirds blasted off on-screen, a full colour spread and a high profile inclusion in an otherwise all boys comic. It’s as if Fennel knew just how popular Lady Penelope and Parker would go on to become once Thunderbirds kicked things off on the small screen. Where Thunderbirds first appeared on TV in September 1965, Lady Penelope first appeared in her very own strip in TV Century 21 earlier that year all the way back in January in the very first issue.
Her very first adventure is as simple in its story as it is nimble in its delivery. “Mr Steelman”, like many of the various characters’ debut adventures in TV Century 21, was an origin story that only spends about two or three instalments telling the actual story of how Penelope recruits Parker to be her sidekick. However, that’s an immediate thumbs down for anyone who’s been brought up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (who’ve cornered the market in origins stories) and expecting some tightly-twisted tale of dark secrets and dangerous spills in showing the reader how Lady Penelope becomes Lady Penelope. “Mr Steelman” isn’t concerned with showing you how she becomes I.R.’s most valuable agent at all.
Instead, “Mr Steelman” spends about five minutes introducing us to Lady Penelope and Parker, as well as themselves, before leaping off into a very anti-mecha spy story that surely acted as a refreshing tonic to all the vehicle and alien-heavy tales TV Century 21 is famous for. “Mr Steelman” sees the newly teamed-up Penny and Parker having to steal and destroy the blueprints of a hydromic device that could destroy the entire world. The only way these plans can be disposed of is by bombarding them with radioactive particles.
‘Scuse me a second while I go take a breather – all this 1960s jargon is wearing me out! The duo set their plan into action, but a sinister foe is hot on their trail, and will stop at nothing to ensure those plans are in his cold, grey, robotic hands…
“Mr Steelman” is hardly a contender for the best TV21 strip ever written, but it’s a fun, engaging read that works well in context with the other, more hardware-influenced sci-fi strips that it was sharing pages with at the time. Fennel throws in some charming one-liners that capture Penelope’s ice-cool attitude, but the best line is saved for the enemy of the adventures, Mr Steelman himself…
“Welcome, Lady Penelope. Won’t you come in… and die!!”
Mr. Steelman himself is an, odd, adversary for Penelope to say the least. Further adventures make sense of this robotic menace, but it may have added more suspense if Mr. Steelman spent “Mr Steelman” itself as an unseen enemy ala Blofeld in From Russia With Love. Nevertheless, Mr. Steelman somehow adds to the camp, breezily executed shenanigans that’s going on here.
Artist Eric Eden illuminates the strip with plenty of warm, dark colours and simple panelling. Skies are perfectly clear, enemy’s lairs have rather bare walls, suggesting Eden was a great believer in economy. His was hardly the most riveting style when sandwiched between Mike Noble‘s rattling Fireball XL5 and Ron Embleton‘s robust Stingray, but like the strip itself, it almost reads as an amusing respite from those heavier tales of daring adventure.
“Mr Steelman” also must have surely played a hand in expanding the audience reach of the Supermarionation shows, implying that those behind it were keen for their productions to be more than all-boys action-adventure stories. Coming after the rather sexist Fireball XL5 and arriving when Stingray, with its slight expansion on the role for the female, was still airing, Lady Penelope in both comic strip and character proved that women could be just as badass in Century 21 as the men. “Mr Steelman” remains a solid, entertaining argument for that development.
Did Mr. Steelman invade your nightmares? Or was he a big ole softy at heart? Let us know in the comments section below! You can read “Mr Steelman” in Egmont’s Thunderbirds: The Comic Collection Vol. 1 and Carlton’s Thunderbirds: Classic Comic Strips from TV21,