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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 Paul’s 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.

Wesley Britton

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 1965-1986.

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 rights.

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 fast.

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 Kuryakin?

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. Carroll.

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 of style.

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 copies.

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 enough.

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.

Appendix ~

Other Man from U.N.C.L.E. Comic Books ~

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 ~

  1. –  The Explosive Affair
  2. –  The Fortune Cookie Affair
  3. –  The Deadly Devices Affair
  4. –  The Rip Van Solo Affair
  5. –  The Ten Little U.N.C.L.E.s Affair
  6. –  The Three Blind Mice Affair
  7. –  The Pixilated Puzzle Affair
  8. –  The Floating People Affair
  9. –  The Spirit of St. Louis Affair
  10. –  The Trojan Horse Affair
  11. –  The Three-Story Giant Affair
  12. –  The Dead Man’s Diary Affair
  13. –  The Flying Clowns Affair
  14. –  The Great Brain Drain Affair
  15. –  The Animal Agents Affair
  16. –  The Instant Disaster Affair
  17. –  The Deadly Visions Affair
  18. –  The Alien Affair
  19. –  The Knight in Shining Armor Affair
  20. –  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 ~

  1. –  The Ten Little U.N.C.L.E.s Affair
  2. –  The Three Blind Mice Affair
  3. –  The Pixilated Puzzle Affair
  4. –  The Floating People Affair
  5. –  The Target Blue Affair
  6. –  The Hong Kong Affair
  7. –  The Shufti Peanuts Affair
  8. –  The Assassins Affair
  9. –  The Magic Carpet Affair
  10. –  The Mad, Mad, Mad Affair
  11. –  The Big Bazoom Affair
  12. –  The Hot Line Affair
  13. –  The Two Face Affair
  14. –  The Humpty Dumpty Affair