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Spies on Television & Radio ~
A Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and The Wild Wild West – Meet Mark Ellis

By Wes Britton

Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, novelist Mark Ellis was one of the participants in the short-lived Man from U.N.C.L.E. renaissance. Back then, John Peel was publishing his Files tribute magazines, Jon Heitland gave us his classic history of the series, and we got the still-debated 1983 reunion movie.

We also enjoyed two separate comic book publications. Paul Howley describes his Entertainment Comics series in another article at this website; now, we know a bit of the history of “The Birds of Prey Affair”, issued by Millennium Comics. This story was created by Mark Ellis, a man interested in and connected to a number of spy projects. Fans of The Wild Wild West, I Spy, and Mark’s Outlander fiction probably have much in common with this fellow aficionado of TV and literary espionage.

The Wild Wild West

Before his involvement with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mark was the man behind returning the WWW as a comic book series. In early 1990, he contacted Viacom and got the ball rolling for the rights.

During production of The Night of the Iron Tyrants, Mark recalls, “a movie producer optioned the storyline in an attempt to get a WWW feature film bankrolled. He felt showing the issues of mini-series around was a more effective marketing tool than a script or a treatment. If I do say so myself,The Night of the Iron Tyrants would have made a better film than what was finally released.”

On this point, Mark doesn’t speak alone. “Overall, it was pretty good,” spy expert Bill Koenig says of the comic, “and, yes, better than the 1999 feature movie that later developed.” Bill remembers the Wild Wild West comic’s use of the likenesses of Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, and Michael Dunn. “However, there were other characters in the comic mini-series from the TV series – Voltaire (a huge lackey of Dr. Loveless, played by Richard Kiel in the first two or three Dr. Loveless episodes) and Col. Richmond, a recurring character played by, I think, Douglas Henderson. They were not drawn to resemble either actor.” (Note 1)

Bill also remembered the story. “Also, there was a plot twist where Col. Richmond was part of the conspiracy that West and Gordon are investigating. From what I remember, all the robber barons of the 1870s era were collaborating on some plot. They ‘hired’ Dr. Loveless, not realizing Loveless had his own plans. I think it was also set a little bit later than the TV series – 1876, tying into the U.S. centennial.”

Mark confirmed Bill’s recollections. “Yeah. . . a third season episode of the series established the date as 1874, so I figured the fourth and final season was set in 1875. Also, 1876 was the last year of President Grant’s term and by implication, the last year that West and Gordon would hold their positions, inasmuch as it was part of the series canon they reported directly to President Grant.”

When Millennium was publishing the Wild Wild West comic, the widow of Ross Martin (the actor who’d played Artemus Gordon on TV) contacted Ellis. “I chatted with her for a couple of hours. She was a lovely person and had some great anecdotes. Like Mr. Conrad said [n the interview you had with him], she said that Mr. Martin and he got along very well. They rarely socialized except when they were doing publicity for the series, but she said they nevertheless were always respectful of each other.” (Note 2)

“When Mr. Martin passed away,” Mark added, “she claimed that Mr. Conrad was very broken up at the service, apologizing that he had never told Mr. Martin just how much he had admired him and enjoyed working with him for so many years. She said she was very touched by the degree of emotion he showed.”

Another recollection about the WWW comic Mark has is that “the Gene Autry Western Heritage museum supposedly has the issues on display as part of their WWW exhibit.”

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Regarding the MFU comic series, Birds of Prey, in Mark’s memory, “I simply called Turner Broadcasting, spoke to someone in licensing, and that pretty much started the ball rolling. Initially, The Birds of Prey Affair was conceived as a four-part mini-series, like Millennium’s earlier Wild Wild West series . . . However, the comics industry had begun its slide into near-extinction at that point, so the format was scaled back from four issues to two.” He plotted out the first two issues and scripted the first.

Mark says he wanted noted artist Don Heck to be the penciler since he had worked on so many of the Gold Key MFU comics, “but once he found out I was leaving Millennium, he had no interest in the project. He and the so-called editor had butted heads over Don’s work on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu series. But I think the second choice for the artist, Nick Choles, was a sound one.”

One feature of this artwork were the covers and the first pages of issue 1, bringing back the old U.N.C.L.E. imagery. Recreating the opening scenes of the TV pilot, the comic again had a raid on U.N.C.L.E. HQ. This time both Solo and Illya stood behind bullet-resistant glass panels – a picture bound to grab the attention of any series fan.

However, what Mark envisioned wasn’t what came to be. “Before either issue went into production both I and the art director left Millennium, so we weren’t happy with the printed result, either the coloring or the overall production. Word balloons were transposed and in one case, Napoleon [Solo] identifies himself to a character by flashing a blank ID card. That wouldn’t have happened if we’d remained to oversee it.”

Mark remembers “buying the first issue at the Forbidden Planet in London and my wife and I (Millennium’s aforementioned art director) sitting at an outside café perusing it with both sadness and amusement.”

But before leaving Millennium, Mark was involved in yet another attempt to bring out an MFU comic. Elsewhere at this website are Danny Biederman’s memories about trying to sell an U.N.C.L.E. movie production.

Ellis says, “I contacted Danny Biederman about adapting his and Robert Short’s unproduced movie script to comics and got that deal going as well. But before the deal was done, I was gone from Millennium.” (Note 3)

The Outlanders, I Spy, and U.N.C.L.E.

In recent years, Mark Ellis has been writing a s.f./adventure series titled Outlanders under the house-name of “James Axler.”

He turned in Exile to Hell, the inaugural book in the series, in the summer of 1996 and it was published in the spring of 1997. Four books are published a year, and Mark says he’s contracted through its eleventh year of publication. Mark says, “Although the series is set several hundred years in the future, there are many Man from U.N.C.L.E. influences, some unconscious, some deliberate like the recurring villain named Colonel Thrush and a new enemy organization called the Millennial Consortium who will appear in the upcoming novel, Cerberus Storm.”

Mark’s been toying with the idea of “implying that the Consortium is the descendant of Thrush but I’ll have to figure out a way to do it in a sly manner.”

You can check the whole thing out here, at James Axler’s website.

In Mark’s opinion, “I’ll go so far as to say that if you like Stargate SG-1, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., X-Files and I Spy, you’ll probably find something to hold your interest in the Outlanders series. A number of MFU and I Spy fans seem to be among the readership. In fact, I dedicated one of the novels, Evil Abyss, to Robert Culp and his character of Chuang Tzu from ‘The Warlord’ episode he scripted. He got a real kick out of it; he’s a very nice man.”

As it happens, “Warlord” is an I Spy episode of special interest. According to Mark, “It was Mr. Culp’s respectful homage to [the syndicated comic strip] Terry and the Pirates which he loved as a child, and Evil Abyss (originally titled Warlord’s Gambit) was my respectful homage to ‘The Warlord’ which I loved as a child (and an adult).” (Note 4)

“I remember the first time I saw it – I was in the hospital receiving treatment for neuphritis. I saw the episode many times afterwards and my admiration grew for the sheer craft of the story-telling. The older I became, particularly when I watched it on DVD and Mr. Culp sent me an autographed copy of the script.”

Naturally, Mark wants all readers to know Outlanders is far more than stories with nods to old TV shows. “It’s got its own self-contained fictional universe, characters and context, but what influenced me as a kid is definitely in there if you know what to look for.”

“I just don’t want people thinking that if they pick up an OL novel, they’ll be getting the equivalent of MFU or I Spy fan-fiction, because that is definitely not the case. The series is S.F. action/adventure and some of the books are very graphic in the depiction of violence.”

Recently, audio book versions of Outlander books have been released, “doing them in the style of old time radio, with multiple voice actors, sound effects and music.”

“Most of them are excellent,” Mark believes. You can hear some samples at the Graphic Audio website.

Besides his own projects, Mark is a fan of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Wold Newton Family” mythos that postulates how all of the great heroes and villains are related to one another. The family tree includes U.N.C.L.E., James Bond, James West and Indiana Jones. For more about this, see The U.N.C.L.E. Chronology website.

Notes ~

Note 1 – According to Ellis, “The explanation for that is pretty simple – we didn’t have the rights to use their likenesses. Viacom was pretty clear that we could only ‘suggest’ the likenesses of Mr. Kiel or any other actor/actress who was not a contracted part of the regular cast. As it was, I recall the guy at Viacom had reservations about us using Michael Dunn’s likeness, too, but I pointed out that if any member of his estate wanted to object, they could simply do so on the grounds that we presented Dr. Loveless as a dwarf because Mr. Dunn was a dwarf. The Viacom liaison never brought it up again.”

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Note 2 – The interview Mark mentioned is the one I had with Robert Conrad, “Robert Conrad on the Past, Present, and Future”, posted in the Spies on Television & Radio section of this website.

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Note 3 – Mark adds, “Unfortunately for Mr. Biederman, by the time the artwork for the project was completed, the Millennium MFU rights had expired even though the then publisher was still hoping to publish it, flying under Turner’s radar, so to speak. Somebody ratted him out and Turner stopped him . . . not me, but only because I didn’t think of it first.” For a plot synopsis of the Biederman/Short script, see the article “The U.N.C.L.E. Movie That Never Was”, posted in the Spies on Television & Radio section of this website.

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Note 4 – According to I Spy fan Debbie Lazar, “Mark Ellis had written a lovely, lovely letter to an I Spy site about two years ago. Mark’s letter was part of a Fan Directory. . . sort of the ‘permanent’ I Spy Archives.”

Mark’s “warm and intelligent” letter can be found here, at the Directory of I Spy Fans.

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