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Cheap oil, an American sheik, a wheel of pain and a harem – The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. #5

June 21, 2012

If you’re like me, you have two different reactions when you see the cover for this book:

1. There was a Girl from U.N.C.L.E.?

2. Matthew Broderick was in it?

The answer to the first question is “yes.” There was indeed a distaff branch of the U.N.C.L.E. family tree, and Robert Vaughn had some female company in the onscreen secret agent business. The answer to the second is “no.” That’s not Ferris Bueller in the Starfleet-looking knit turtleneck sweater (a temporal impossibility), but series co-star Noel Harrison. (And he actually looks nothing like Broderick. Trick of the light I guess.)

The success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. spawned this short-lived spinoff, starring Stefanie Powers as the titular April Dancer, and Harrison as her partner and guy Friday (mixing my old stuff, I know), Mark Slate. Nowadays, from our lofty, politically correct perch here in the new millennium, we can spot some feminist problems in the series. The biggest would be that April, the star and lead partner, was always getting her ass in a bind, one that Slate would have to bail her out of. Empowering. Hell, even the title — GIRL from U.N.C.L.E., not WOMAN — might raise an eyebrow. After all, Napoleon Solo wasn’t the Boy from U.N.C.L.E., NOW WAS HE? You can almost feel the blood pressure rising in folks who like to spell “woman” with a “y.”

Not that any of this had a hand in the series’ one season cancellation. Just observations.

Anyway, the show crossed over with Vaughn’s parent series on several occasions, and the short-lived spinoff spawned an even more short-lived comic book series, which only lasted five issues. Hey, wait, this post is about issue #5 of that series. Does that mean that the comic we’ll put under the microscope today is the grand finale? You betcha. AND WHAT A FINALE IT IS. The Post from S.A.R.C.A.S.M.

In the feature (Paul S. Newman — script, Bill Lignante — art), April and Mark are flying over Lawrence of Arabia territory, in the midst of investigating an American sheik with a dubious business model, when they’re downed. It’s then that they dial up exposition headquarters:

So this American sheik guy might be producing cheap oil. FIEND. VILLAIN. THIS MUST BE STOPPED AT ALL COSTS. Yes, the days when a glut of inexpensive oil was an actual concern, and when a tank of gas didn’t make your eyes pop out of your head every glance at the pump. What a magical fairyland that must have been. And what a peace-loving, bucolic place the Middle East is with expensive oil, I might add.

Whatever — April and Mark are double super-duper extra on the case now.

Remember Conan the Barbarian’s Wheel of Pain? Well, after April and Mark are captured by their sheik quarry — proving conclusively that they aren’t the uppermost wrung of U.N.C.L.E.’s spy ladder — Mark gets dispatched to the Middle East version of Conan’s hamster wheel. Also, the sheik goes all Jabba the Hutt on April and makes her part of his harem:

In an odd twist in light of the energy-theme of this comic, that wheel/treadmill/dynamo looks to me what some hardcore environmentalists have in store for us. “Oh, you want to spend your Sunday watching football? WELL GET WALKING.”

It all works out in the end, though, as April escapes the harem and potential incineration in a vat of crude (thanks to Mark’s help, natch). They then dodge old biplanes and men riding camels, et cetera, et cetera, and get their man. And the sheik’s cheap oil? Which we would like very much to have, if you don’t mind, old comic book? Turns out it was all a house of cards:

So gas goes back up to the astronomical price of about a dime a gallon or whatever. And Alexander Waverly makes an insider trading buck. The rich get richer. Yeah, we’re all glad you’re stock is going through the roof, gramps.

The series lasted longer than the comic, and one can see why the latter failed to reach the low bar set for it. The script is dopey, only entertaining in a bad, unintentional sort of way, and the art looks choppy, rushed and wooden. If you’re searching for quality comics based on old TV shows, get to this after you’ve gone through I Spy, Adam-12 and the like.

Before I end this post, I have to mention that there’s a backup feature, one that features the senses-shattering adventures a gentleman named Leopold Swift has in getting crap from Point A to Point B. This can only be described as The Transporter meets Mr. Rogers:

His one-dimensionality is a bit like the Shoveler in Mystery Men. “I carry things. I carry things well.” The crazy thing about this laundry detergent caper? The story has no ending or To Be Continued indicia. It ends with Mr. Swift diving into a lake to recover the key to the briefcase. And that’s it. Was this some artsy statement? Careless editing? Missing pages? Aborted due to the parent series’ demise? The world may never know. And since this isn’t the last episode of The Sopranos going black, no one really cares. I know I don’t.

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was finally made available on DVD last year (through Warner Bros.’ Manufacture-on-Demand service), but I doubt we’ll be seeing any reprints of the comic any time soon. No Omnibus on the horizon. Dry your tears.

But hey, Stefanie/April was attractive, and there were a number of pictures of her within each issue. So there’s that.

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