Spies on Television & Radio ~
How The Man from
U.N.C.L.E. Returned – As a Comic Book
By Paul Howley
Editor’s Note ~
Paul Howley is the owner of the Eisner Award winning pop
culture collector’s store known as That’s
Entertainment in Worcester, Massachusetts.
In 2003, he began writing his autobiography, My Life
with Comic Books: The History of a Comic Shop, from
which the following excerpts were taken. In these passages, Paul
tells how The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came to comic
books in 1987, how the series took flight, and why it ended.
You don’t need to be a fan of U.N.C.L.E.
to enjoy Paul’s story – it’s an interesting
insider’s view into the world of comic book publishing.
I want to encourage all readers to go to
website, where you can read his autobiography in full. His
story is more than the history of a comic book store – as
he says, it’s about family, relationships, and all the aspects
of life beyond the workplace.
An Appendix listing other U.N.C.L.E. comicbooks
follows Paul’s memories of his MFU series.
In 1986 the comic book industry was in the middle of an explosion
of “black-and-white” comic book publishing. After the
immediate success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many people
wanted to release their own comic book. It seemed as if anyone who
could scrape up a couple of thousand dollars was drawing and
publishing their own black-and-white comic book. Some of these were
good but most were not.
An employee at my store, David M. Lynch, was a talented writer.
He was the “regular” writer of our amateur comic
book of Insect Man. Insect Man was officially
recognized in 1986 as “America’s longest running
amateur comic book” with over 100 issues published from
One day, as we were talking about our favorite television
shows from the 1960’s, we discovered that we both enjoyed
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. We both used to pretend we were
secret agents when we were kids. David said, “I wonder why
no one is publishing a comic book about The Man from
U.N.C.L.E.. That show must still have a lot of fans that would
get a kick out of new adventures.”
David knew he’d have some fun writing the stories and
he had a good friend, Skip Simpson, who could draw the comic books.
We agreed on the amount of money that I would pay for him to write
each issue. After we discussed the possibilities of storylines and some
of the difficulties of publishing a professional comic book, I told David
that I’d put up the money if he could get the publishing
After a week or so, David made contact with MGM-Turner, the
owner of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. They were willing to sell
us a two-year license to publish the series for an initial up-front
payment of five thousand dollars plus eight percent of the cover price
of every issue we sold. They would also have complete script and
final art approval for all issues. I agreed to all of their terms.
While David began writing the first two-part story, his friend Skip
Simpson drew a sample page of art to show me what he could do.
Although it was very clean and professional, I decided it was a little
too “cartoony” for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
series I had envisioned. David and I were disappointed because
Skip was a very reliable artist, and we didn’t know of any
other competent artists.
When we started asking our customers if they knew any artists,
we were surprised when a man named Ken Penders offered his
services. Ken brought in his portfolio and we were impressed by
his layouts and use of perspective. He was even a talented inker
and letterer. Most importantly, he was willing to work for the lower
than professional rates that we were offering.
I now “owned” the publishing rights for
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. comic book for the next two
years, and it was my intention to publish as many issues as possible
during that time. We decided that it would be smart to make the
first issue part of a continued story so that the readers would be
likely to buy the second part of the series. David M. Lynch was
writing the stories for the first two issues as fast as he could, and
Ken Penders began penciling, inking, and lettering the first issue.
He was also drawing the front cover. Skip Simpson offered to color
the cover for the first issue.
We wanted to have these comic books sold all over the United
States and Canada, so we contacted as many of the comic book
distributors as we could. We contacted Diamond Comic Distributors,
Capital City Distribution, Alternate Realities, Heroes World, and
about a half-dozen smaller distributors. All of them expressed interest
in helping to sell our new series.
We had decided to establish the suggested retail (cover price)
at $1.50 per issue. The distributor would buy each issue for sixty
cents (sixty percent off of the cover price), and they would sell them
to the retailers for seventy-five cents. We were able to have the
comics printed and shipped for about thirty-five cents each. This
would leave me with a gross profit of about twenty-five cents each.
We would use a lot of that money to pay the artist and writer and
I’d keep whatever was left. Based on our projections of
selling 15,000 copies of each issue, this would give me a net profit
of about two thousand dollars each issue.
Each distributor needed a three month lead-time before each
issue was released so they could publish their ordering catalog
with a description of our comic book and allow enough time for the
individual retailers to decide how many copies they wanted to
order. The distributor would then total all of the retailer orders
and submit a purchase order for as many copies as they needed.
This project was really meant to be mostly fun for me personally
so I had a chance to add certain “personal”
touches to the series. For example, I wanted to release the first
issue on my birthday in January. We’d need to work
Ken drew the cover of the first issue right away so I could send
a copy to all of the distributors. As soon as the cover was done, he
worked hard to finish the twenty-four pages of interior art. He finished
it all within the thirty days that he had promised me. Ken was a man
of his word and a nice guy.
We sent it to MGM-Turner and they gave us their approval. Ken
started on the art for the second issue. Meanwhile, Skip Simpson
finished coloring the front cover of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
#1. This was done in the early days of laser scanning and Skip
didn’t really understand the process. We thought it would
look okay but we would be very disappointed when we saw the
final printed product.
We found a company in New York that promised to print the
comics and do all of the shipping for us. One of the managers of
the company was a fairly famous comic book artist, so the promises
seemed credible. As we got closer to the actual release date, we
began to worry that we’d chosen the wrong company.
Their terms suddenly changed. They wanted more money in
advance of the shipping date. Then they decided that they
didn’t want to ship the comics to all of the different
distributors. I decided to drive to New York and pick up the comic
books myself. I had ordered 16,000 copies of this first issue, but
when I arrived in New York, they had printed 21,000 copies and
demanded the money for them. I reluctantly paid them and loaded
them in my car.
I’d certainly never do business with them again!
In early January of 1987, the first issue of the new comic book
series was released to retailers in the United States and Canada. I
was hoping to sell 15,000 copies but we sold 12,000. In the first
issue of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., David M. Lynch
wrote a column to explain to our readers what we were trying to
do with this new series. He wrote:
How many of you watched the recent A-Team
episode, “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair”, just to
see the reunion of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, remembering
perhaps, 1983’s “real” reunion of their
characters from the 1960’s, Napoleon Solo and Illya
Okay now, how many of you younger readers don’t
know what I’m talking about? Listed as a “spy
spoof” by TV Guide, who usually knew what
they were talking about, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
premiered in 1964. Inspired primarily by the popularity of the James
Bond films, U.N.C.L.E. was designed as a dramatic
series about the exciting, glamorous, and often dangerous life of
the secret agent. James Bond creator Ian Fleming was peripherally
involved in the series’ beginnings, although ultimately, his
only contributions were the names Napoleon Solo and April Dancer.
Solo pretty much became the “man” in The
Man from U.N.C.L.E. (at least at first) and as for April Dancer,
lead character in the eventual spin-off, The Girl from
U.N.C.L.E., well . . . the less said about her, the better. (And
I know I’ll get letters about that!)
U.N.C.L.E. ran four seasons on NBC-TV, dying a
slow death after being poisoned in its third season by the
“camp” craze (inspired by the success of the
Batman TV show). It made many of the manufacturers
of licensed U.N.C.L.E. toys, books, models, and other
products wealthy, or wealthier, anyway. It made a somewhat
obscure Scottish actor named David McCallum become firmly
entrenched in the public mind – perhaps too firmly, as
McCallum himself has lamented – as Illya. It made it much
easier for what seemed like dozens of imitative spy shows, some
quite fine in their own right, to make their TV debuts. Shows like
I Spy and The Wild Wild West hit the
American airwaves even as we received British imports such as
The Avengers and Secret Agent, and that
list is far from exhaustive.
It also made me, as a young boy, very happy. When I was eight
years old or so, I thought Illya Kuryakin was really cool! (Nowadays,
watching old U.N.C.L.E. episodes, I identify more with
womanizer Napoleon Solo, but that’s not important right
now.) I wore turtleneck sweaters, like Illya did. I even had my hair
cut like his, for cryin’ out loud! I was, I’m sure,
the biggest U.N.C.L.E. fan in my hometown. And my
mother, in her infinite wisdom, bought me all of the James Bond
toys she could find. Even as an eight year old, I wondered about
that. I still do.
Anyway, it was this nostalgic element that convinced me (as
well as my co-writer, Skip Simpson) to write some stories for
Entertainment Publishing’s new Man from U.N.C.L.E.
comic book. And I can safely say that Paul Howley, the new
book’s publisher, is doing it primarily for the same reason.
And as for our approach to the book, we’ve decided to
“first season” it all the way. We’ve
placed the 1964 show in our editorial time machine and moved it
to 1987, bypassing (among other things) the aging process real
actors go through, indefinitely postponing the 1983 TV reunion
movie The Fifteen Years Later Affair and avoiding, in
a sense, the unfortunate death of Mr. Waverly, actor Leo G.
This project is as important to all of us as it is to you, if not
more so, because we really care about the material, and we hope
that caring comes through in the finished product. I’ve
read some issues from the late 60’s Gold Key Man
from U.N.C.L.E. series, when they first came out as well as
recently, but even as a child, I felt cheated somehow. These comic
characters were different; they weren’t my
“friends” from the TV show. I, for one, don’t
want you to feel the same way now as I did then, as corny as that
sounds, so hopefully, whether you read this issue as an old
U.N.C.L.E. fan, a new convert (thanks to syndicated
television) or even somebody who is unfamiliar with Solo, Waverly,
and that “other guy”, you won’t.
By the time we released the second issue in early February of
1987, we had already received quite a few letters from fans of
the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show.
Some loved the new comic book series, but some people
complained that the characters in our comics didn’t look
like the actors who played them in the television series. Ken
Penders agreed to work harder to make the characters look
more like the original actors.
Every letter we received commented on how well written the
stories were. Issue #3 of our Man from U.N.C.L.E.
series was written by Stan Timmons, and it was drawn by Ken
Penders. This was released in April of 1987. Then my cousin,
Steven, introduced me to Mark Marderosian. Mark helped me with
my The Man from U.N.C.L.E. comic by doing the
mechanical layout of many of our front covers.
Beginning with issue number seven, we started using
photographs from the old television series and Mark hand-colored
old black and white photos for us. This was before computers
made this an easy task! He was a great guy to work with.
We worked with a lot of writers and artists on our Man
from U.N.C.L.E. series and most of them were able to meet
their deadlines. We would always ask them to set their own
schedule. Some artists could draw an entire issue in thirty days,
but other artists worked a little slower or were doing this while
they worked a “real” full-time job, so they would
agree to finish their issue within sixty days.
I was agreeable to the artist’s time schedule because
I had several writers and artists working on issues all at the same
time so I could wait and publish their work when it was finished.
Things were going fine until I hired a good friend of mine to
draw issue number five.
Kevin Burns was a customer of my comic book store and he
was a lot of fun to be around. We’d spend hours laughing
together when he’d stop by the store. He was a serious
toy collector and had a love of old classic television shows including
The Munsters and Lost in Space.
He worked full time at Twentieth Century-Fox and he was a
very busy man, but he assured me that he could draw an entire
issue within sixty days. He drew the cover first and I was
“blown away” by it! It was (and still is) my favorite
cover for the entire series. He perfectly captured the look and style
of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin that we wanted for our series.
They looked like the original actors but with a slightly updated sense
I now knew that Kevin was capable of turning in our best issue
yet. With his repeated assurance of completing the project on time,
I paid Kevin in advance and eagerly waited for the finished artwork.
I sent in the information and a picture of Kevin’s gorgeous
cover artwork to all of the distributors so they could begin the
two-month process of getting the orders from the retailers. When
the order came in, it was for only 10,000 copies, but I knew that
when the retailers saw the finished comic book they would be
encouraged to order more of our future issues because the quality
had improved so much. I also knew that the Man from
U.N.C.L.E. fans would love Kevin’s work. But for
some reason, Kevin was unable to deliver the artwork on time.
Months went by. Finally the comic book was so late that the
distributors required me to cancel their original orders and resolicit
new orders. When the new order came in, it was for only 8000
After about five months, I received the artwork from Kevin and
it was great. I was proud to publish this and I thought it was our
best-looking issue to date. It was our lowest selling issue so far
but the fans loved it and we got quite a few complimentary letters.
I learned a lesson with this experience. I would no longer assume
that artists could reasonably predict how long it would take them to
complete the project so I’d just wait until it was completely
done before I would solicit orders from the retailers.
I decided to go to “Spy-Con”, the biggest television
and movie spy-related convention in the United States. I flew to
Chicago and spent three days mingling with friendly Man from
U.N.C.L.E. fans and spent some time promoting our comic
book series. I wanted this publishing venture to be successful. I even
ran advertisements in the major comic book retailing publication
offering hundreds of free copies of our publications to try to stir up
interest. I hoped that if the retailers gave these free copies to their
customers, a portion of the readers would enjoy the series enough
to buy the new issues. Despite my efforts, sales did not increase
Over the two-year period that I published The Man from
U.N.C.L.E. comic book series, I worked with several writers
and artists. Issues #1-2 were written by David M. Lynch and Skip
Simpson and drawn by Ken Penders.
Issues #3-4 were written by Stan Timmons and drawn by Ken
Penders, Larry Juliano, and Tom Cuda. Issue #5 was written by
Glenn A. Magee and drawn by Kevin Burns. Issue #6 was
written by Glenn A. Magee and drawn by Ronn Sutton. Issue #7
was written by Stan Timmons and drawn by Paul Daly. Issue #8
was written by Skip Simpson and drawn by David and Dan Day.
Issue #9 was written by Paula Smith and drawn by Wayne Reid.
Issue #10 was written by David M. Lynch and drawn by Ken
Penders, Bruce Meservey, and Edwin Brady. Issue #11 was
written by Paula Smith and drawn by David and Dan Day.
Every issue was profitable but when it came time to renew
our contract with MGM-Turner, they wanted to double the fees
so we sadly made the decision to stop publishing the series.
It was fun for a while but the profits from the sales of the
comic books were now too small and it wasn’t
“worth” the time, energy, and stress to continue.
Other Man from U.N.C.L.E. Comic
Paul Howley wasn’t the only publisher to release
MFU comics in the 1980s. A two-part graphic novel,
The Birds of Prey Affair, was issued by Millennium
Publications. Part 1 was written by Mark Ellis and penciled by Nick
Choles. Part 2 was written by Mark Ellis and Terry Collins and
penciled by Nick Choles.
During the 1960s, Dell Publishers’ “Gold Key
Comics” issued 20 U.N.C.L.E. stories. The
first issue (May 1965) featured a cover with a close-up shot of
Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo with a gun beside the spidered
glass image seen in the first year’s title credits. With
subtitles announcing “Spies! Guns! Intrigue!&rdq, the
comic sold for 12 cents. The 32-page story inside, “The
Explosive Affair,” was drawn by Don Heck, the original
artist for Marvel’s Iron Man comic series.
Eventually, other artists replaced Heck including Mike Sekowsky,
who drew most of the U.N.C.L.E. titles and worked
for DC Comics on the Justice League of America books.
Dell’s MFU comics aren’t
highly regarded for their stories or visual representations of the
heroes, but they do have good covers and unusual short features
about espionage on single-page fillers. (Information about the
comics came from Cyntheia Walker and Jon Heitland.)
Gold Key MFU Titles ~
- – The Explosive Affair
- – The Fortune Cookie Affair
- – The Deadly Devices Affair
- – The Rip Van Solo Affair
- – The Ten Little U.N.C.L.E.s Affair
- – The Three Blind Mice Affair
- – The Pixilated Puzzle Affair
- – The Floating People Affair
- – The Spirit of St. Louis Affair
- – The Trojan Horse Affair
- – The Three-Story Giant Affair
- – The Dead Man’s Diary Affair
- – The Flying Clowns Affair
- – The Great Brain Drain Affair
- – The Animal Agents Affair
- – The Instant Disaster Affair
- – The Deadly Visions Affair
- – The Alien Affair
- – The Knight in Shining Armor Affair
- – The Fatal Accidents Affair
As reported in Jon Heitland’s The Man from
U.N.C.L.E: The Behind the Scenes Story of a Television
Classic (London: Titan Books, 1988), English publisher
World Distributors issued 14 small format comic books in their
“World Adventure Library” series. These were
black-and-white comic strips, the first four being straight reprints
of the American Dell Comics, the rest being original stories not
issued in the States.
World Adventure MFU Comics ~
- – The Ten Little U.N.C.L.E.s Affair
- – The Three Blind Mice Affair
- – The Pixilated Puzzle Affair
- – The Floating People Affair
- – The Target Blue Affair
- – The Hong Kong Affair
- – The Shufti Peanuts Affair
- – The Assassins Affair
- – The Magic Carpet Affair
- – The Mad, Mad, Mad Affair
- – The Big Bazoom Affair
- – The Hot Line Affair
- – The Two Face Affair
- – The Humpty Dumpty Affair