Between 117 and 007: Francis Coplan, Agent FX-18

« 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.

Coplan’s début, 1953’s Sans issue (“No Exit”)

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.

Position clé, page 33 (1971). Note Huéscar’s confident use of a dry brush technique and his bold use of negative space (panel one in particular).
Sabotages sanglants, page 16 (1971). Ingenious, low-tech Coplan is far more John Drake than James Bond, and that’s how I prefer my spies!
Sabotages sanglants, page 24 (1971). Inventive, but not gratuitous or confusing, ‘camera’ work.
Sabotages sanglants, page 29 (1971). Fun with textures, great depth of field work, again with clear storytelling despite the invasive captions.
Sabotages sanglants, page 43 (1971). Another page that would have resulted in static talking heads. The meal the characters share is virtually relegated to the captions, and Huéscar wisely moves the action (so to speak) outside.
Sabotages sanglants, page 85 (1971). Having left London for Cairo, Coplan recruits some local help. In lesser hands, this would have just been graphically tedious talking heads.
Sabotages sanglants, page 92 (1971). Yes, this will get Francis into trouble.
Front and back covers of Coplan no. 7: Position clé (Jan. 1971, Arédit), and Coplan no. 10: Sabotages sanglants (Oct. 1971, Arédit). Seems like the cover artist had a favourite model!


*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.

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 15

« Each time I enter this fog, it feels as though icy fingers were clutching at me! »

Étrange aventures, a squarebound quarterly digest (roughly 5 x 7 inches, 164 pages), was one of many titles published in France by Arédit / Artima between 1966 and 1984 through its Comics Pocket imprint. Étranges aventures was one of the collection’s flagship titles, with a healthy run of 79 issues from July, 1966 to March, 1984. Its contents were mostly repackaged and reformatted translations of various DC and Marvel (and the odd Charlton) comics in black and white, but with fun painted recreations of the original covers for the twenty-or-so issues. At under fifty cents a pop, they presented a bargain to the cash-strapped aficionado, thrifty access to scarce and/or pricey items.

This is Étranges aventures no. 12 (April 1969); the issue is rounded out with The Challengers of the Unknown, Rip Hunter… Time Master, and The Doom Patrol.

This issue was a relative exception, cover-featuring an original work (or at least not an American one), the sort of material the publisher usually reserved for its more “serious” titles. These were often comics adaptations of horror or suspense novels issued earlier by mother company Les Presses de la Cité under its Fleuve Noir imprint. Graphic novels? Exactly.

« If… if this giant is real…it must stand over twenty meters high! »
« That’s a mighty big ‘If’, Barney. Let’s take a closer look at him. »
He pulls from his pocket a small but powerful flashlight…
« Too late… the mist has hidden him. »
Cautiously, they climb through the sinister fog…
« Here’s the entrance… if the door isn’t locked or blocked by rust! »
« It takes quite a bit to frazzle my nerves… but this situation has given me cold sweats! »

« Welcome to the giant’s lair. He who has had the courage to venture this far will regret not having been cowardly, for he will find death. »

Prosaically, the whole affair turns out to be the work of unscrupulous special effects experts, vulgarly after some jewels. All this imaginative and diabolically elaborate work and expense for some shiny baubles!  Still, it’s all about mood.

Writer and artist unknown. And nationality, for that matter. In places, the artwork has clearly been resized and adjusted, and switches back and forth between halftone and line art reproduction. So the lasting mystery lies not in the story, but in its provenance.

– RG