Monday, November 13, 2017


STORIES BY FAMOUS AUTHORS ILLUSTRATED (also known as FAST FICTION) ran for 13 issues in 1950-1951, doing 50-page comic book adaptations of literary classics such as HAMLET, MACBETH, and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, as well as adventure classics such as THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, SCARAMOUCHE, SHE, BEN HUR, CAPTAIN BLOOD, and the one under review today, John Buchan’s THE 39 STEPS, perhaps best known for the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film version, which has been described as 80% Hitchcock and 20% Buchan. It is a classic spy story and also considered a fore-runner for the “man on the run” formula used so often in espionage fiction and films. Author Buchan brought back the Richard Hannay character in four later novels, as THE 39 STEPS was such a success.

I will confess to not having read Buchan’s original novel (it’s in the public domain, so you can read it at Project Gutenberg or you can get a cheapo Dover Thrift Edition for a dollar or two), but I have read ABOUT it, and it seems this comic is based fairly closely on the novel, not the Hitchcock film. There are two other film adaptations, in 1959 (which is said to be very much like the Hitchcock adaptation--I vaguely remember seeing this one on television as a child) and 1978 (which is said to be faithful to the book), as well as a BBC television film from 2008, a stage-play version, and a 13-episode TV show which created new adventures for the book’s protagonist, Richard Hannay. Orson Welles was such a fan of the book that he did a Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of it, and in recent decades, even the late Christopher Hitchens sang its praises.

Surely there are sub-plots thrown out and exposition trimmed to create a 50-page comic book version of a novel that runs between 100 and 150 pages, depending on edition and font size. However, this comic book version (story adapted by Dick Davis and illustrated by Jim Lavery) is quite satisfying, full of well-detailed visual particulars for both the indoor and the location scenes, and the text--alternating dialogue and narration--is just right for a suspense/espionage story.

It’s easy to see why this tale appealed to Hitchcock, with its “average man” who stumbles into an espionage situation and who rises to the occasion, providing a viewpoint character for the audience (he could be us....well, somewhat) while having a lot of twists and turns and suspense before saving the day.

This is the perfect reading for a cold, rainy night (which is when I read it), and I look forward to re-reading it soon. The novel/comic is so different from the Hitchcock film that even if you remember that somewhat, you won’t really have many spoilers here.

Gwandanaland Comics has published all 13 comics in this series both as separate volumes and in three combination volumes which between them contain all 13 entries. The 39 STEPS has everything you’d want in a well-done mystery-suspense comic plus an interesting, sympathetic everyman hero, intelligent dialogue, and clever plot development, since it’s based on an acclaimed you are getting the best of both worlds, comics and literature. The cold, wet weather here tonight makes it easy to imagine that I’m alongside Richard Hannay as he maneuvers on foot through the Scottish hills in search of the enemy agents who hold Britain’s future in their hands.

I recently watched the 1923 silent film version of SCARAMOUCHE, starring Ramon Novarro, so I look forward to getting a copy of this series’ adaptation of that novel (by Sabatini). If the idea of a well-done 1950 comic book version of a classic 1915 spy novel appeals to you, then I can’t imagine your not enjoying the “Famous Authors Illustrated” adaptation of THE 39 STEPS.

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