« Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible. » — Kurt Vonnegut
I love a good tale of espionage, but not in the Bond mould. While the adventures of Fleming’s 007 have their charm, it’s not exactly plausible spycraft, nor is it expected to be, I reckon. The world-weary, less flashy and more cerebral approach pioneered by Eric Ambler (Passport to Danger, A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Graham Greene (The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American) is more in keeping with my interests.
« Before Ambler, international thrillers tended to be dominated by such writers as John Buchan, Herman Cyril McNeile (known as “Sapper”), and their many imitators. These books were often rousing adventures, but filled with improbabilities, both of plot and character, plus a hearty jingoism and a well of right-wing, Old World prejudice that would curl your hair today. » [ source ]
As far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid that describes Fleming’s writing to a T. By contrast, I was right chuffed when I learned, a couple of days ago, of this striking bit of news about worthy Ambler disciple John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who passed away last year.
Now, given his prodigious and lasting popularity, most people likely presume that James Bond was the first “super spy”. While espionage chronicles have been around nearly as long as there’s been storytelling, the spy, if he survived his adventure, rarely embarked on a sequel.
That state of affairs was scrambled somewhat by the arrival on the scene of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117. Created by Jean Bruce, he’s starred in 265 novels, which have sold in excess of 75 million copies. The series was initially published by the legendary Fleuve Noir press, which lent the English language the now-ubiquitous (and often misused) term of ‘Noir‘.
As it happens, Mr. Bruce decided, after 25 novels in three years, to shift his series over to a rival publisher (Presses de la Cité*). Fleuve noir, understandably scrambling to avoid a massive shortfall, commissioned a pair of Belgian writers, Gaston Van den Panhuyse and Jean Libert (under the joint nom de plume of Paul Kenny) to concoct a replacement agent secret. The new fellow was Francis Coplan, alias FX-18. He was featured in 237 novels between 1953 (beating James Bond to the stands by a couple of months) and 1996.
In 1966, les Presses de la Cité began issuing, through their Arédit/Comics Pocket line, graphic adaptations of OSS 117 novels; Coplan followed in 1969. As a kid (and later!), I assiduously steered clear of these: stiff and generic-looking artwork, overly-verbose scripts. At nearly 200 pages, the comics were barely shorter than the novels (generally less than 250 pages long), so the adaptors clearly didn’t make full use of the visual medium’s condensing potential.
So why am I even discussing these?
Because I discovered recently that an artist whose work I do rate highly, José de Huéscar (1938-2007), drew, as it happens, a handful of Coplan issues, and demonstrably well at that. Here are some samples, pulled from the original art.
*the competitors would merge in 1962, when Presses de la Cité bought Fleuve Noir. While les Presses always did a steady business in translations of American novels, their output comprised a healthy contingent of French-language originals (including excellent series by San-Antonio and Georges Simenon); nowadays, after the usual jumble of soul-killing mergers and acquisitions, they mostly traffic in translated novelisations of American TV shows and pop franchises, a dismal parallel path to globalisation and the steady decline of French culture from the second half of the 20th century.