“Batmania” may have dominated the pop culture landscape in 1966, but it was by no means the only thing going on at the time — not even within the smaller sphere of pop-cultural activity that was of special interest to nine-year-old boys such as myself. For one thing, there was also The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (that’s the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, for those of you who don’t already know, and yet might actually care for some reason), in addition to being something of a mini-phenomenon of its own, was of course also part of the larger wave of popularity of the “super-spy” genre in the early-to-mid-Sixties. The wellspring of this popularity was author Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the hero of a series of espionage thrillers who’d debuted in 1953, but who’d really taken off (especially in the United States), when it was revealed that President John F. Kennedy was a fan. By 1966, the enormous success of Agent 007 had yielded a crop of imitators as well as variations on the “spy-fi” concept, including TV’s spoof Get Smart and Western-spy-fi genre hybrid The Wild Wild West, not to mention comics’ Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series.
Conceptually, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hewed closer to the original James Bond prototype than most of the other entertainment properties spawned in Bond’s wake — not a surprising fact, considering that 007’s British creator Ian Fleming was actually involved in the American television series’ development. The series was even originally supposed to be called Ian Fleming’s Solo; however, a threat of legal action from the James Bond films’ producers necessitated a title change to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as well as a downplaying of Fleming’s involvement. The pilot episode, filmed when the property was still being called Solo, ultimately aired as the series first episode (“The Vulcan Affair”) on September 22, 1964 — though I didn’t see it until 1966, when an altered, expanded version was released to movie theaters as To Trap a Spy — the first half of a double feature with a similarly-enhanced later episode (“The Double Affair”, which became The Spy with My Face, just in case you’re wondering) — at which time I can remember being entirely befuddled by the story’s complete focus on American agent Napoleon Solo (portrayed by actor Robert Vaughn) at the expense of his Russian colleague, Illya Kuryakin (played by the Scottish actor David McCallum), who only had four lines in the whole thing.
The fact that I was surprised to see an U.N.C.L.E. adventure in which Kuryakin was all but absent indicates to me that I didn’t get on board with the TV show until it had been on the air for at least a few months. Illya Kuryakin was, in truth, not supposed to be a major character on the program — but the mop-topped McCallum proved immensely appealing to young female viewers in the era of Beatlemania, and he was ultimately advanced to the level of co-star with Vaughn (leaving me, and probably other late-comers as well, to wonder why the thing wasn’t called The Men from U.N.C.L.E.).
I might have been a little late picking up on U.N.C.L.E., but pick it up I eventually did — and since I wouldn’t see my first James Bond film, or encounter Marvel’s Nick Fury for another few years, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was pretty much it as far as my experience of the super-spy fad of the mid-Sixties went (outside of the parodic approach represented by Get Smart, anyway). And I went for it — with its nutty acronyms, its gadgetry, its glamor — full tilt. One Christmas Day during those years (probably 1966) remains burned in my memory for the glorious joy of receiving both an U.N.C.L.E. toy gun and a Napoleon Solo
doll action figure. (Confidentially, I always had a bit of an uneasy feeling about that action figure, who just didn’t look that much like Solo to me. For many years, I suspected that they somehow packed the wrong figure in the box — probably James Bond. However, a bit of recent poking around with Google image searches suggests that this was not in fact the case — it was just a really crummy likeness of Robert Vaughn.)
And beyond the show, the toys, and other merchandise, there were — of course — the comics. Gold Key launched its licensed series in early 1965 — several months before I started buying and reading comic books — but I was on board by issue #8, and was around for the next three issues as well; a group that included the ostensible subject of this blog post, issue #10.
Gold Key didn’t include creator credits in their mid-Sixties books, and therefore I’ve had to turn to the Internet (more specifically, the Grand Comics Database) for information on who wrote and illustrated these books — and I’ve been mildly surprised to discover that in a number of cases, we just don’t know. The GCD identifies Dick Wood — a writer probably best known today for his scripts for Gold Key’s Star Trek series — as the writer of my first issue, #8; but it doesn’t provide even a guess at the writer for any of the succeeding issues, including #10. As Wood is also credited for the five issues previous to #8, it’s quite possible he wrote the later ones as well — on the other hand, the GCD credits the scripting of the series’ first two issues to Gold Key’s prolific mainstay Paul S. Newman, so maybe he wrote #9 through #11. Or, it could have been another writer (or writers) entirely. At this late stage of the game, we’ll probably never know for certain.
The GCD provides somewhat better credits for the series’ artists, however, and the pencils for every issue from #6 through #14 are credited to Mike Sekowsky. Sekowsky, of course, is no stranger to this blog; as the regular penciller on DC’s Justice League of America during this era — the one comic book that I subscribed to through the mail, and thus the only one of which I never missed an issue — he’s been featured in a number of earlier posts. So it’s been a bit of a surprise to me, in reacquainting myself with the U.N.C.L.E. comics in recent days, to discover that I have no recollection of being even dimly aware, as an eight or nine year old, that my favorite superhero comic and my favorite TV-based comic were drawn by the same artist. The fact is, however, that most of the comics I was reading in 1966 (with the exception of the DC books edited by Julius Schwartz) didn’t carry creator credits — and my younger self probably just didn’t think about art styles all that much. Beyond that, there may have been enough of a stylistic difference between Sekowsky’s approaches to spy-fi and superhero material, respectively, that it may have put me off the scent, if you will. Especially since the U.N.C.L.E. stories didn’t include any colorful costumes.
The main story in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #10, “The Trojan Horse Affair” (like the TV show’s episodes, the comic book series’ stories followed a naming convention by which the title was always cast in the form of “The ________ Affair”), was in some ways an atypical tale for the franchise. Though U.N.C.L.E.’s rival spy organization, the nefarious THRUSH*, appears in the story, the main focus is on a man called Odysseus, a wealthy eccentric with a passion for classical Greek and Roman culture. Odysseus’ greatest desire is to join THRUSH in an executive capacity, and to achieve this end he works to infiltrate U.N.C.L.E’s headquarters and steal valuable classified information — using, among other techniques, the “gift” of a miniature Trojan Horse:
(These panels indicate how Sekowsky was, for the most part, able to render relatively good likenesses of the TV series’ regular cast. Occasionally, his versions of Vaughn and McCallum didn’t completely capture the actors’ handsomeness — on the other hand, the craggy features of Leo G. Carroll, who played the two field agents’ superior, Alexander Waverly, seemed to have been custom-made for Sekowsky’s angular, sketchy style.)
After having successfully stolen U.N.C.L.E. secrets on three separate occasions, Odysseus brazenly invades THRUSH headquarters and proposes his deal to the evil organization’s leadership:
Even as THRUSH is putting Odysseus’ purloined intel to the test, however, our U.N.C.L.E. heroes are laying a trap for him. Napoleon comes up with an idea to lure the classically fixated would-be spymaster by planting a news story about a long-lost work by the Greek sculptor Phidias going on display for one day. As expected, Odysseus attempts to steal the statue, and is in fact successful. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the sculpture is a fake — a mere plaster shell, with Illya concealed inside.
But just as soon as he gets his new acquisition safely ensconced in his country manor, the crafty Odysseus finds himself betrayed by THRUSH — who, having confirmed that Odysseus’ Hong Kong information was the real deal, has dispatched agents to follow him home, then kill him and confiscate the rest of his secrets.
The THRUSH agents are surprised, however, when Odysseus sets a robot in the form of a Roman warrior against them:
Odysseus refuses to surrender, and with the THRUSH agents now out of commission, he orders his robot to kill Illya. But the U.N.C.L.E. agent confounds “Horatio” by luring him outside to the estate’s swimming pool, where the metal warrior sinks to the bottom. Solo and Waverly arrive then, just in time for the mopping up. Illya explains to his colleagues that the combined shock of defeat and of losing his “priceless” Phidias has caused Odysseus’ mind to snap:
And with that, “The Trojan Horse Affair” is neatly, if somewhat abruptly, brought to a close.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #10 also included a four-page back-up story (actually slotted into the middle of the issue, between the two chapters of “The Trojan Horse Affair”) — “Ting-A-Ling — Enemy Agent!”, starring Jet Dream and Her Stunt-Girl Counterspies. As with the lead tale, the GCD offers no guess as to the writer, though the pencil art is again credited to (and, indeed, is obviously the work of) Mike Sekowsky.
The Jet Dream feature had been introduced in The Man from U.N.C.L.E #7, in a tale written by Dick Wood and drawn by Sekowsky — though, besides sharing its espionage theme, the feature had nothing to do with U.N.C.L.E. Its premise involved an international group of exceptionally skilled young females who, when they weren’t working as Hollywood stuntwomen, hired themselves out for dangerous missions (though always only on the side of right and good, so far as I can tell). Clear and obvious antecedents included comics’ Blackhawk (all of the “Stunt-Girl Counterspies” were ace pilots); Pussy Galore and her all-female team of operatives from the James Bond novel and film Goldfinger; and Emma Peel, the catsuited, incredibly competent spy portrayed by actress Diana Rigg on the British TV spy series, The Avengers.
In the story currently under review, Jet and her team are after a pirate gang on a South Pacific island when they’re set upon by another young woman, the tale’s titular Ting-A-Ling:
Jet subdues the acrobatically-gifted “Polynesian doll”, but not before the gang, led by the burly Kong, escapes to the other side of the island. Upon learning that Ting only attacked them because the gang is holding her grandfather hostage, Jet a) invites Ting to join their team, and b) promises to rescue Granddad. Guided by Ting, the Stunt-Girl Counterspies soon arrive at the gang’s hideout:
Though at least twice her size, the hulking Kong is no match for Jet’s stunt-flips, kicks, and karate chops; she makes short work of him, while her team takes down the rest of the gang just as efficiently. Then, her grandfather having been safely rescued, Ting happily consents to becoming the latest member of the Stunt-Girl Counterspies. Whee! Four pages, short and sweet, over and out.
The Jet Dream feature would continue through issue #20 of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (with later installments illustrated by Jack Sparling and Joe Certa as well as Sekowsky), and then make the leap to a comic book series of its own (though only for a single issue, which was drawn by Certa) — and then slipped out of sight forever, more or less. But I think it’s pretty clear to even a casual observer that Mike Sekowsky’s work on the feature prefigures, to some degree at least, the extreme makeover he was destined to give Wonder Woman less than two years later. As most fans know, Sekowsky would oversee a revamp of the Amazing Amazon in 1968 that saw her relinquish her superpowers and become a martial-arts-and-weapons based global adventurer. Like Jet Dream, the new Wonder Woman wore her black hair pulled back out of her way; also evoking Jet’s look, she often (though not always) went into action in a white pantsuit. Certainly, her moves resembled Jet’s as well. For what it’s worth, I think that Jet Dream deserves to be remembered for its small role in the history of DC’s most iconic female hero, if nothing else.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series ran for approximately 3 1/2 years, from the fall of 1964 to the winter of 1968. Along the way, it spawned a spin-off, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which to the best of my knowledge never aired in my hometown of Jackson MS (Jackson had two commercial TV stations in the Sixties, a CBS affiliate and an NBC affiliate, either of which might opt to show an ABC network offering in a given time slot rather than their “home” network’s program — which tended to make the local TV schedule something of a crap shoot). In spite of that, I picked up at least one issue of Gold Key’s licensed comics series, and it’s still in my collection.
Following the series’ demise, Vaughn and McCallum reunited for a one-shot TV movie in 1983. A couple of independent comic book publishers brought out new licensed series in 1987 and 1993, respectively. And much more recently, in 2015, a new feature film directed by Guy Ritchie was released, set in the 1960s and serving as a prequel to the original television series. (For the record, I enjoyed it quite a bit.)
Most recently of all, Solo and Kuryakin have returned to comic books, this time at DC, crossing over with the Sixties television version of Batman in Batman ’66 Meets the Man from U.N.C.L.E. This may be considered a somewhat ironic pairing, as some fans and critics blame the U.N.C.L.E. TV series’ producers’ attempts to mimic Batman‘s camp approach for a perceived creative decline in the series’ latter seasons, not to mention its ultimate cancellation.
I haven’t read any issues of this series (or any of DC’s other Batman ’66 material, for that matter), so I have no idea if it’s any good. But as an aging Boomer with fond (if faded) memories of loving The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the Sixties, I’m happy for anything that demonstrates the venerable franchise still has some life in it — especially this week, as we contemplate the life and legacy of Napoleon Solo himself, Robert Vaughn, who passed away less than a week ago as of this writing.
Keep channel D open, y’all.
*If Wikipedia is to be believed, “THRUSH” was never used as an acronym in the TV series, nor anywhere else save in the licensed paperback novels, where author David McDaniel revealed that the letters stood for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.