Friday, October 9, 2009

I Spy

“All history is love and violence, and those are the main themes of my books, plus accurate reporting and an overheated imagination. My stories are true to spy life.” -- [Ian Fleming, October 28, 1962]

James Bond was the first great anti-hero in popular culture and the godfather of numerous fictional assassins to come; like the Executioner and the Punisher. James Bond was amoral and misogynist; he lived outside the law, bedded every woman to cross his path and killed without compunction. Starting in 1954 Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels got good reviews and sold well in North America so it’s puzzling why it took until October 1962 to bring the first movie, Dr. No, to the big screen.

The comic strip James Bond was produced for the Daily Express beginning with an adaptation of Casino Royale on 7 July 1958. It was scripted by Anthony Hern and illustrated by John McClusky. James Bond made his debut in Canadian and American comic pages in 1960 with the adaptation of From Russia With Love, written by Henry Gammidge, and Dr. No penned by Peter O’Donnell. McLusky’s style was strongly influenced by Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby. The comic strip ended on 8 January 1966.

James Bond was a natural fit for the comic strips. One American paper described the episode From Russia With Love this way:

“Bond, in the strip, gets beaten and tortured time and time again, beset by sharks, giant squid, tarantulas and poisonous rats. He comes back for more with his trusty Beretta pistol snug in the holster under his armpit.”

In film Dr. No was preceded by The Avengers in 1960, starring Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman. Macnee’s most famous partner, however, was Diana Rigg as Miss Peel. Blackman later played the Bond girl in Goldfinger.

“Nothing Can Faze Modesty Blaise … the world’s deadliest and most dazzling female agent! She’s a Female James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint Stacked into One … Wow!” [September 1966 movie advertisement.]

The comic strip Modesty Blaise first appeared in the London Evening Standard Monday 13 May 1963 and ended on writer Peter O’Donnell’s birthday 11 April 2001. Within 13 years of its conception the comic strip was syndicated in more than 40 European countries, Modesty Blaise was the heroine of a series of popular novels, and a movie was produced with the character played by Italian actress Monica Vitti. So far I have found no samples of the comic strip in North American newspapers.

Peter O’Donnell came from a newspaper family and began his career working for the Amalgamated Press on children’s comics and story papers. At that time Amalgamated published over twenty weekly comics.

“I was working on strip cartoon before it was ever called strip cartoon. Before the Second World War you said you wrote picture stories; after the war you were called a script writer and you wrote script cartoon.”

In the early sixties O’Donnell had moved on to newspapers and was forming the idea of Modesty Blaise, basing her adventures on his own wartime experiences in the Caucasus when he had noticed the struggles for survival of children as young as six or seven fleeing the advances of Hitler’s army. Modesty survived a war-time childhood and spent seven years as head of a criminal gang. In 1963 when the strip began our heroine was 26 years old, rich, retired and reformed, working for a mysterious branch of government along with her knife-throwing sidekick Willie Garvin.

In 1976 O’Donnell, who regarded himself simply as a storyteller, was producing the comic strip from a small office over a wine bar on Fleet Street. He would work on the storyline, plot and dialogue before sending the script on to artist Badia Romero, who lived in Spain and knew no English. The previous artist had died in a car crash. Photos were taken of judo sessions, numbered, and sent to Spain where Romero would work up a drawing from a number supplied by O’Donnell to indicate the action wanted in a panel.

Spies had proliferated in comics during the forties but they mostly involved military spying during WWII and the Korean War, super-heroes like Fawcett’s Spysmasher, and Dirty Dozen groups like The Blackhawks. The American Comics Group published three spy titles. Spy-Hunters of 1948 had an emphasis on Uranium and communism around the globe and the main character of Jonathan Kent, Espionage Ace. In 1949 the title was changed to Spy and Counterspy continuing the adventures of Jonathan Kent Counterspy from the previous title. Stories took place in exotic Korea, Prague, Greece and Berlin. Each issue contained one historical spy story featuring real-life spies like Mata Hari.

In 1954 ACG released Commander Battle and the Atomic Sub which merged science-fiction and the Cold War in a series very like DC’s Challengers of the Unknown and Doom Patrol. It lasted 8 issues.

John Force Magic Agent, No. 1, was published in 1962 by ACG. He was a member of the top secret American Security Group, wore an eye-patch, had a magical coin that allowed him to produce illusions, read thoughts and implant hypnotic suggestions in the minds of his (mostly) Commie enemies. Magic Agent, scripted by John Hughes and illustrated by Paul Reinman, lasted a mere 3 issues.

In August 1964 at the height of the mod spy craze DC comics published I-Spy in Showcase no. 51. These were reprints of the King Faraday stories from 1950’s Danger Trail created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, with stories taking place in Paris and Istanbul aboard the Orient Express. The mood was serious and the artwork expressive. The television show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. began on 22 September 1964 and ran through 1968. The name Napoleon Solo was suggested by Ian Fleming himself. Gold Key published The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comic books.

By 1965 spies proliferated on television and the movies. Amos Burke Secret Agent was shot in black and white which made it easy to be knocked out in the ratings by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby’s salt and pepper team on I Spy, which was shot in color with footage filmed in Hong Kong, Mexico, Japan and Europe. Gold Key published 6 issues of I Spy from August 1966 to September 1968. The Wild Wild West made its debut a few days after I Spy, merging spy and western genres. At the same time Mel Brooks created Get Smart, a spy sitcom featuring Don Adams in the starring role. Honey West was a detective series but borrowed heavily from the martial arts popularized in The Avengers and the Bond movies. Mission Impossible began in 1966 and ran until 1973.

Goldfinger premiered 25 December 1964 and in early 65 The Ipcress Files, the first in a trip of movies starring Michael Caine as reluctant spy Harry Palmer began. The serious adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold premiered in late 65 with Richard Burton. Two tongue-in-cheek spy-spoofs, Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967) starred James Coburn as superspy Derek Flint. His boss was played by Lee J. Cobb. Dean Martin starred in The Silencers, first of four Matt Helm movies, in 1966 and in Britain Patrick McGoohan began Secret Agent Man, leading to a hit single for the tune of the same name sung by Johnny Rivers.

The public’s interest in spies began to wane at the end of 1966 and by the time of In Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the George Lazenby vehicle, in 1969 the massive popularity of the spy genre was over. There was however one other strand grafted onto the spy genre, dating back to the forties with Charles Biro’s Daredevil’s Little Wise Guys (1942), and Simon & Kirby’s Young Allies, The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion (all 1942). By the sixties these types of tales had been co-opted by movie makers for The Dirty Dozen (1967), and by Marvel comics with Sgt. Fury and his Howlin’ Commandos (1963) which popularized the misfit groups of all nationalities each with their own handy wartime specialty. Charlton responded with The Fightin’ 5 in 1964 featuring a modern group proficient in karate, boxing, judo, wrestling and the use of jet-propelled backpacks to attack the enemies of America. After the war Sgt. Fury, of course, became Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D in 1965.

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