TFMSR 007: Showcase #43 …

For episode 007 of Tales from My Spinner Rack, there’s only one comic book to fit the bill … featuring Bond, James Bond. Showcase #43, March 1963. James Bond TM & © EON Productions Limited and Danjaq LLC

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Who would have thought, way back when in 1962, that staid, old, conservative DC Comics would publish the first American comic book adaptation of Ian Fleming’s sexy, murderous, licensed-to-kill secret agent, James Bond? DC, where the editors wore dark suits, crisp white shirts, and neckties to work every day, where the prevailing wisdom was comic books were for 10-12 year-old-boys, and where the science fiction pulp magazine-spawned editors probably relaxed on the weekends, smoking a pipe in their corduroy jackets with leather patches on their elbows (their actual elbows, not the jackets) for that erudite author look.

It’s true. DC introduced the American public to James Bond in a comic book, but what’s even more amazing about it is who published it first and how DC sat on a 007 license for the ten first very popular Bond years and did nothing with it. They missed out on the coolest comic book idea and opted instead for “Go-Go Checks” across the tops of their covers.

John McClusky’s flinty secret agent, James Bond (left) and the very first strip from 1958 introducing Casino Royale.

Let’s set the stage a bit: 1963 saw the US release of the very first James Bond movie, Doctor No, starring Sean Connery as 007. First published as a novel in 1958 in the UK, it was the sixth book in Ian Fleming’s series, and it was loosely adapted from ideas the author came up with for an aborted TV series called Commander Jamaica. Fleming was always looking to make extra money from his creation, which was becoming very popular around the world. One of the first licensed things he did was a comic strip in the Daily Express, a London newspaper, illustrated by cartoonist John McClusky, and with a first story (Casino Royale) written and adapted by Anthony Hern (writer Henry Gammidge followed with a long string of adaptations). The strip did straight-forward (if a tad cleaned-up) versions of the Fleming novels in their original published order, starting with Casino Royale in 1958 and continuing up to You Only Live Twice in 1965 with art by Yugoslavian artist Yaroslav Horak. Ten novels in all were adapted, plus three of the short stories in For Your Eyes Only. Horak and other writers continued the adaptations—including the first Bond novel not written by Fleming, Colonel Sun—into 1970 when new stories were invented for the strip (primarily written by writer Jim Lawrence), which the Daily Express ended in 1977. A second series of strips ran from 1977 through 1984, and even saw the return of McLusky for a time. Short story long: Bond was no stranger to the comics format.

The British Classics Illustrated version of Doctor No, published in October 1962.

Surprisingly, the British arm of Classics Illustrated deemed Doctor No a classic worth illustrating and put out an adaptation in issue #158A in October 1962. The movie debuted that month in the UK and its US debut followed in May 1963. On this side of the pond, the original CI publisher, The Gilberton Company, Inc., didn’t want to publish Doctor No; their own distribution system bypassed traditional newsstands and instead sold their comics through educational venues, which may have frowned upon the sex and violence of Bond, James Bond. (However, I definitely remember one of my local newsstands having a stack of Classics Illustrated comics, usually kept separate from the “regular” comics racks; it was the only place I ever saw or bought them.) But the Bond people (I’m assuming producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman or maybe Fleming and company) wanted the comic book to be sold in the US, so they approached distributor Independent News and offered a one-shot publication. They declined but offered up sister companyNational Periodical Publications (DC Comics) as a publisher and a licensing deal was cut that included the rights to do an ongoing series if the Doctor No adaptation was a success and DC wished to continue. They didn’t. DC was known for its signature characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al), although over the years they did publish movie and TV comics such as The Adventures of Alan Ladd, The Adventures of Bob Hope, The Adventures of Jerry Lewis (first with Dean Martin, then without), The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (that’s a lot of adventures!), and Hopalong Cassidy, which they acquired from Fawcett Publications when that company went out of business in the mid-1950s (partially due to DC suing them for Captain Marvel being derivative of Superman). But by the mid-1960s, DC’s sole licensed books were Hope and Lewis, and they would be gone by the end of the decade.

Sadly, DC definitely missed the boat with the Doctor No adaptation; They published it in January 1963 (cover-dated for March) as part of their ongoing Showcase title, four months before the US debut of the movie. Showcase was a series which debuted new concepts and titles on a trial basis (the Silver Age Flash debuted in Showcase #4 in 1956, as did the new Green Lantern in issue #22 in 1959); if the issues sold well, they went onto become regular series. Even with the long lead time associated with comic books on the newsstand, Showcase #43 was long gone from the local spinner racks when Sean Connery first appeared on American movie screens on May 8, 1963. DC never did anything with the option, which was good for ten years (!) and was only brought up to then publisher Carmine Infantino as it was about to expire in 1972. Supposedly they talked to Jack Kirby and Alex Toth about it, but ultimately nothing was done (the mind boggles). If they had published a 007 series during the heyday of Bondmania in the mid to late sixties, they would have made bank. Any cover with Bond on it flew off the newsstand in those days.

The splash page and pages 6 and 27 from Showcase #43, art by Norman J. Nodell. Note how close the panels are to film scenes. Below, a DC Comics house ad for the issue appearing in late 1962/early 1963 books

So how’s the book? Boring and dull.. It looks like any issue of Classics Illustrated, to be honest, which were … well, boring and dull. While the Classics Illustrated line has its own merits and some nicely drawn issues, as a kid I looked at is as a more fun (and cheaper) alternative to Cliffs Notes; in fact I got 100% on my four-question Reading class test on The Count of Monte Cristo in eighth grade thanks to my copy of the Classics adaptation, a test definitely rigged to make sure you read the whole book … you never knew what those four questions were going to be. But I digress … Doctor No has type (in the style of other CI issues), instead of the usual comics hand lettering, and a predominance of panels copied from still photos from the movie. The artist was Norman J. Nodel, who I’m assuming is a Brit, since this adaptation came out of Gilberton’s London office, a British publisher and distributor named Thorpe & Porter, which handled the creation of all of the CI line in the early 1960s until Gilberton’s demise in 1967. (Ironically at one point bankrupt Thorpe & Porter was bought by DC Comics!) Nodel’s art is nothing to write home about, and ultimately this issue of Showcase is more of an oddity than anything else, certainly not a trial run for a new ongoing series. DC had artist Bob Brown (best known for a long run on Jack Kirby creation Challengers of the Unknown, after Kirby was black-balled by DC), create a new cover that captures the climactic moment in the control room where Bond and Doctor No face off in a duel to the death (in the novel, Fleming had Bond drop a giant load of bat guano on Doctor No to kill him … or as Robin might have said in 1966, “Holy Bat Shit, Batman!”). DC also censored the comic, recoloring the black character Quarrel as white—for fear of offending southern distributors and retailers—and removing other bits of dialogue. The book itself is 32 pages without any kind of ads (except the back cover featuring a house ad for the DC line); and inside covers featuring photos from the film and a biographical sketch of author Ian Fleming. You could almost see this being handed out at your local theater when you saw Doctor No.

The ubiquitous James Bond novels published by Signet in the US in the 1960s all had a uniform trade dress which emphasized Ian Fleming; a Doctor No poster, and Joseph Wiseman and Sean Connery face off in the movie. “I say, old man, aren’t these Nehru jackets just smashing?”

My fascination with James Bond didn’t occur until sometime in 1965 when I first saw Goldfinger in my hometown movie theater, the Victoria, in downtown Tamaqua, PA (the film premiered in the US in December 1964). I, like a lot of kids of a certain age in the mid-60s, became obsessed with 007, even though some of the movie’s concepts went way over our heads (Pussy Galore, anyone?). But that Aston-Martin car with its incredible gadgets and that fight with Oddjob in Fort Knox … those things were easy to understand and thrilling to boot. I would have killed for a regular James Bond comic book series at that point (or into the 1970s even), but the closest we came to that was years away. Marvel Comics did a couple of movie adaptations, including the Roger Moore-starring For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. Eclipse did a graphic novel adaptation of the second Timothy Dalton movie, License to Kill, in 1989, (Dalton refused to have his likeness used), written and illustrated by Mike Grell, which was followed by a three-issue, prestige format mini-series, Permission to Die, again written and illustrated by Grell. Dark Horse Comics teamed with UK publisher Acme Press in 1992, wisely choosing writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy for another prestige-format, three-issue, mini-series titled Serpent’s Tooth. The creative duo was basically featuring 007 in their Master of Kung Fu series back in the 1970s for Marvel Comics, within the guise of MI6 agent Clive Reston, whose resemblance to actor Sean Connery was a dead giveaway as to the character’s real identity. Still, I remember being sadly disappointed by both the Grell and Gulacy Bond series, to be honest. Other Bond comics publishers later included Topps Comics (an aborted adaptation of Goldeneye, the first Pierce Brosnan film in 1995, by writer Don McGregor and artist Rick Maygar, which had only one issue published), and Dynamite Comics, which has published original 007 comics since 2015, with a couple of graphic novel adaptations of Fleming novels Casino Royale and Live and Let Die as part of their output. Besides the covers (of which there are MANY … Dynamite is very big on variant covers), I found these to be typical Dynamite publications: nice on the outside, lousy on the inside. Very often the caliber of the interior artist doesn’t equal that of the writer or cover artist.

Other James Bond comic book adaptations (left to right): Marvel Comics, Eclipse Comics, and Dark Horse Comics/Acme Press.

But to me, at least, the best Bond comics work is featured in Titan Comics’s high-end, hardbound reprints of the original British newspaper strips. I myself prefer the early adaptations illustrated by John McClusky, even if they are all definitely dated and creatures of their time. I think the art is great and the stories move along quite nicely for a daily strip. Bond is a creature best captured in the original novels by Ian Fleming and—in some of, at least—the movies. (We can all forget Octopussy and A View to a Kill, right?) But an ongoing comics series with the right creative team would be heaven sent, to be honest. That has yet to happen, but back then … wouldn’t Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson been a 007 dream team?

(Thanks and a tip of the hat to Mark Evanier, who—as usual—wrote about the Showcase #43 adaptation of Doctor No much more eloquently and much earlier than me. Here’s a link to his 2006 post.)

Next time: If Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s incredible 102-issue run of Fantastic Four was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” what does that make the six brand-new annuals they put out each summer from 1963 through 1968? Tune in and find out!

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