I SPY began life as a novelty strip in Sparky comic in issue 211 [Feb 1, 1969.]
Scripts were by Peter Clark, later to become editor-in-chief of the glossy WARLORD in the mid-70s. I SPY was drawn by LES BARTON [1924-2008] in the first run of over 60 episodes, generally regarded as the peak of creativity within the series. Early strips were single-page affairs, with a definate novelty factor, however the format rapidly evolved into a danger-and-skullduggery themed melodrama, liberally spiced with much slapstick humour.
I SPY himself was a bit DREDD-like inasmuch as his features were never seen at all by readers: his face was totally obscured by an oversized trilby hat and upturned, oversized trenchcoat, which housed a never-ending array of bewildering weaponry and artillery, which extended effortlessly from within his all-black 'spysuit'. Despite this, I SPY himself certainly seemed to be human, even if his sometimes-visible hands were usually plunged into his pockets [he operated buttons for his devices within his pockets]. Sometimes I SPY would abandon his still-standing suit, [a gag that appeared in the very first strip, and turned up ad-infinitum] however his greatest assets were undoubtedly his unlimited gadgetry, which enabled him to fly like a rocket, or to assemble tank-like defences [complete with caterpillar tracks] to cite but two examples.
Early I SPY villains included the Soviet SLINKY SNITCHOVITCH and the oriental KARATE CHIP, whose dastardly ambitions were usually limited to the slapstick 'lobbing a black anarchist bomb' type, to much comic slapstick effect. Before long, however, more elaborate schemes were implemented by the desperado spy-villains, and the series was given a good shot in the arm [in issue 217] by the introduction of MR X: the strip's most enduring villain, as this demented charlatan pulled out all the stops in his quest to conquer the World [or at the very least, mainland Britain!] MR X was attired in the height of 1880s Victorianna: shiney top-hat, Jack-the-Ripper like flowing black cape, and permanent cigar/holder. The fiend had no discernible means of income, but nevertheless utilized his wits alone in his wholly open declarations of 'removing' I SPY before going on to enslave the world. MR X resided in a rundown, gothic-steeped, spired stately pile in the early stories....this 'lair', as it was referred to, was blown up by the madman himself, in a botched attempt to kill off I SPY with booby-trapped explosive charges.
The early novelty one-pagers yielded only six 'standalone' episodes, as the remaining eight single episodes were divided up into 'continued-next-week' mini-sagas. The first of these introduced Karate Chip and MR X himself in an impressive rocket-powered house known as 'MUD MANSION', : the second continued story was a three-parter, [issues 219-221], recounting the typically silly story of MR. X who unleashes an army of mechanized 'SUPER-IRONS so he can clean up in the laundry business! The last three-part story of this very early period was 'The Super-Sticky Toffee Affair, [episodes 222-224.] which sees our 'shhh!-guy 'hero infiltrate a factory producing lethally sticky, goo-like confectionary, in a quest to silence victims as they are robbed.
BOSS SPY was evident from the very first frame of the very first outing: initially, BOSS was a very authoritarian, respected member of this mysterious SPY organization, and in the very early episodes he was rarely seen other than sitting behind his desk, barking out orders to I SPY either directly or over the radiowaves. His persona would change immeasurably come the first 'proper' serial, and the decidedly middle-aged looking BOSS had a clear penchant for late 60s 'cool' black shades.
SPY HQ in the very early appearances was an ever-shifting, constantly-changing establishment of no fixed location: sometimes it looks fortified like FORT KNOX, other times it looked more like an impressive detached house: sometimes it seems to be away out in the country, at other times it appears to occupy the ground floor of a block of flats in Central London.
The first 14 single-page episodes are great fun, and are somewhat reminiscent of 'MAD MAGAZINE'S SPY versus SPY, by PROHIAS, inasmuch as the real-life world of spying is sent up hilariously, to surrealist and slapstick effect. As the early episodes stood, there was more than enough to sustain interest within the strip, however with the arrival of the first eight-part I SPY 'Blockbuster,' namely the sprawling epic:I SPY versus the Incredible MR. X, the format accelerated rapidly, as ever-more outlandish scenarios and ambitious plotlines thrust to the fore, complemented by the sheer invention offered by the strip's central character. It is undoubtedly within this first 'official' serial that the strip found it's true vocation and bearings, serving up much vital and impressive storytelling, in an escalating yarn that has the ability to render the commited reader breathless.
Running in issues 225-232, [SPARKY issues dated 10 May 1969-28 June], the format of the strip upgraded to that of double-spreader, which definately came as a relief for artist LES BARTON as well as I SPY fans, as some of the artwork on the single-pagers appeared noticably crammed and cramped at times.
I SPY versus the Incredible MR X starts off modestly enough, with the villian merely leaping out of a manhole to accosst our 'shhh!-guy': however, MR X is armed with a lifetimes' supply of super-strength pills, which render him him indestructable temporarily, a fact borne out by our hero's shellfire tickling the feind like a feather. MR X clobbers I SPY good-n-proper, but as he storms ahead with a killer punch, a vast chimneystack collapses on top of him, and I SPY retires to base, convinced his prime opponent is done for. MR X'S special pills have seen him in good stead, however, as he has fed copious amounts of them to his pet eagle, now a true 'super-eagle', who has usurped SPY HQ----containing I SPY and BOSS-----high into the wild blue yonder at the climax of Episode One.
Episode Two witnessed the destruction of the plummeting SPY HQ, : I SPY and BOSS escape this carnage as our hero swiches to the never-seen-again 'spitfire' mode, the upshot of this gag being poor BOSS, who gets his nose scraped along the ground as I SPY 'touches down'. This was the first example of BOSS being used as the butt of a visual joke [up until this point, he had been a fairly sombre character], and from here on, his character was demoted to that of story stooge, used as a form of light comedy relief when the action got to it's usual 'knife-edge' situation. MR X, meantime, has downed more of his special pills, and has hastily assembled a fully-functioning, equally-gadget-laden robotic 'I SPY', [after stealing the I SPY blueprints during the 'eagle assault'], ----this proves the equal of the real Mc Coy, and during a showdown outside MR X'S Gothic abode, our hero is knocked unconcious and imprisoned in the madman's dankest cell. MR X then instructs his doppelganger to rob a City Bank, which it does with ease, and assaulting a duped BOSS [who mistakes the robot for the real thing] , the outset of which sees BOSS putting out an SOS emergency to apprehend the real I SPY.
The third episode [dubbed 'the cement trap'] ushered in the-once-seen-only motley collection of 'other agents' within SPY Organization: their bumbling, Keystone Kop-like inneficiency proving no match for the bogus I SPY, who duly despatches them in a dustbin......meanwhile, the real I SPY has recovered, and smashes his way out of his cell to freedom, returning speedily to the city, where BOSS and his spy-stooges unleash a lorryload of quick-setting cement onto our hero, and cart him back to HQ for Gestapo-like interrogation. His handy patent 'vibrator switch' cracks apart the concrete that holds him, and in this episode I SPY is last seen smashing clean through the walls of SPY HQ, as he speeds off in pursuit of MR X, in a valiant attempt to clear his besmirched name.
Episode four details I SPY storming around to MR X's lair, where he memorably ducks down within his suit, as a booby-trapped cannonball cuts clean through his spy-suit! Tying up the villain and downing the super-strength pills for himself, I SPY is in explosive form as he returns to HQ, and encounters his demonic double, [who is poised to wipe out BOSS and other corporate spies] and is supercharged enough to absorb all the fire-power his doppelganger can dish out. I SPY attracts the metallic double with a large magnet, ultimately obliterating this imposter, totally decimating it using MR X's pills. Speaking of whom.......the Victorian villain has had the foresight to prepare no less than 12 I SPY robo-doubles, who have freed their master, and are in the process of descending on SPY HQ, even as we speak.........
Episode Five depicts an all-out, no-holds-barred showdown between I SPY and the motorized dozen doppelgangers. [This entire episode is reproduced above]. A striking example of the explosive anarchy that blessed this series at it's peak, this outing has got the lot: a thrilling chase sequence as MR X's 'Spymen' robots convert to 'train' mode, followed by Keystone Kopesque high slapstick, as our hero releases an oilslick to foil his pursuers. This is followed by supreme bravery on the behalf of I SPY, as he is armed to the teeth with his most powerful firepower, and attacks the 12-fold threat head-on. This almost suicidal tactic ends with our hero apparantly blasted into smithereens, with the touching conclusion of a weeping BOSS trumpeting the last post over a charred spot where I SPY last was seen.
Fantastic episode, one of the most dynamic and impressive ever.
Episode Six [wasn't that a pre-Deep Purple band featuring Ian GILLAN?!] brings relief and comfort to I SPY fans, as it is revealed that our shhh!-guy hero has escaped doom by nipping under a manhole-cover just a millisecond before the mega-shell from last week struck: his inner workings have clearly taken a knock, however, so it's off for a quick overhaul by behind-the-scenes boffins. I Spy is in tip-top condition as he pursues MR X and his mechanized dozen 'spymen' [they have just finished drying the River Thames with oversized sponges!] , joining the end of the robotized lineup, back at MR X's lair. The vagabond soon realizes there is an imposter within his midst, and orders his robo-I SPYS to obliterate the Real Mc Coy: our hero outwits and destroys these imposters by elaborate wheezes [and blowing up MR X's control box]: however, MR X is sure one never to approach world domination half-heartedly. This cracking outing ends with the magnificent sight of the Victorian Villian smashing through an inner-fortress wall , as he helms his all-out-war, skyscaping, 50-foot-high , stainless-steel masterpiece: 'SUPERSPY', which is based on the design of I SPY himself!
Episode Seven is Billed in knowing circles as the 'Superspy Goes To War' chapter; this entails MR X's massive steel version of I SPY [with similar, grand-scale inner devices] apparantly crushing our hero [who drills underground to safety, depositing a stick of powerful dinamite at the base of the advancing machine]. The explosive blast proves innefective, and I SPY is sucked into the interior of the mobile war-machine, and while he is still disorientated, MR X feeds him with a supply of 'wonder-weakness' pills, which clearly have the opposite effect of his more commonly-seen 'super-strength' variety. MR X now has an immediate problem on his hands: The British Army have arrived on the scene [in the shape of a division of reinforced tanks] and MR X is advised to surrender. Utilizing a vast megaphone from within, he taunts the forces, who respond by unleashing an explosive barrage of shells: this has no effect on Superspy's reinforced plating, and MR X switches his creation to 'steel roller' mode, which sees the once-mighty tanks flattened like tin-cans! [Mr X thoughtfully sweeps up the mess, in a mocking gesture]. The Army launch an eleventh-hour assault in the shape of a controlled missile: Superspy splits in two by hydraulically elevating into two halves, and an elasticated net sees the missile retured to the soldiers who launched it! I SPY now recovers from the pills, and cuts himself free from his roped bonds: he heads upwards to the inner control-room, in an attempt to arrest the deviant: MR X cannily throws a trapdoor switch, which results in our hero being manacled in steel clamps, with the ominous threat that MR X has got something grim in store for him, after he rules the World the following day..........
The final Eighth episode saw MR X approaching the BBC in central London , where [still driving Superspy] he demands access to a Worldcast Radio Broadcast...at this point in time, I SPY has power-sawn through his reinforced manacles, and heads for the central engine room of the mighty Robot. Here he gums up the works with powerful 'hiccup pills' and sneezing-powder. Mr X's stern broadcast is reaching every home in the land, and his sombre warning that he, as 'New World Boss' has something to say. is hilariously undermined by a massive 'HIC!!' that reduces the nation to fits of laughter! I Spy escapes from the vast machine by flying out of the gigantic mettalic 'hat' area, just before the entire machine falls prey to I SPY'S sabotage; this sees the entire Robot succumb to violent hiccups and sneezing, which severely weakens MR X's mobile War-machine. Totally out-of-control, MR X tries in vain to steer his collossus, which teeters over a vast cliff, and crashes perilously to the stoney ground below: though acutely debilitated, the machine is [just] holding together, so I SPY flies in with a 'sucker punch' [via a reinforced boxing-glove] which finally sees MR X's mighty machine blown to smithereens.MR X survives the intense carnage, and is last seen as a disembodied arm, with a placard bearing the legend: 'I will return'. I SPY, meanwhile, has developed a headache due to all this clanging noise, and elects to down a soothing pill: unfortunately, he takes a 'hiccuping' pill by mistake, and we last see him bouncing manically into the sunset, away from the tangled mess of the scuppered Superspy.
The format of this winning story had proved conclusively that this experimental, all-important first extended tale had been a resounding success, and the spy-series never looked back from this point on: the overall concept established itself supremely and confidently and proved that this character and strip was a true force to be reckoned with. After only 22 weeks, it had evolved in leaps and bounds, and writer Peter Clark capatilized upon this opportunity, ekeing out further wide-reaching, escalating yarns, which were ---in the main-----to see the remainder of the first series out, which was to yield many further imaginitive wonders. The follow-up to 'I Spy versus the Incredible MR X' was to be another 8-parter, with a new villain, the ALI BABA-like MAHAIREE YOGI.This was another fiendish villain, whose main distinction was his ten-foot long, animated beard [!] and aptitude for hypnosis and mystical magic, which ensured the format changed gear from the previous technology-heavy story, into further experimental territory.