“Raise the Titanic!” — The Newspaper Strip

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Clive Cussler’s bestselling hero Dirk Pitt. Art by S. Clarke Hawbaker.

This excerpt is adapted from my book The Clive Cussler Adventures: A Critical Review, published by McFarland Books in 2014.

 

Clive Cussler’s most famous novel, Raise the Titanic! is a landmark of late 20th Century adventure literature and one of the first techno-thrillers. A phenomenal bestseller, it was adapted into a motion picture starring Richard Jordan as Cussler’s indefatigable hero Dirk Pitt in 1980, but before that it became the first novel to be adapted by Universal Press Syndicate’s newspaper strip anthology series Best Seller Show Case, running from August 15 to October 9, 1977.

Frank Bolle. Date of photograph unknown.

Artist Frank Bolle.

The adaptation’s author is believed to be Elliot Caplin (Little Orphan Annie, The Heart of Juliet Jones), the noted newspaper strip writer and editor, as well as the brother of Li’l Abner creator Al Capp. The artist is book illustrator and comics veteran Frank Bolle (Doctor Solar, Apartment 3-G), who split adaptation duties on the anthology series with Gray Marrow (Tarzan, Buck Rogers). Of particular interest to Cussler’s fans, with the possible exception of Jim Sharpe’s cover for the first published Dirk Pitt adventure, The Mediterranean Caper from Pyramid Books, the Best Seller Show Case adaptation of Raise the Titanic! features the first print illustration of Pitt.

The cover to Pyramid Book's 1973 edition of "The Mediterranean Caper" featuring cover art by Jim Sharpe. That guy on the left has to be Dirk Pitt ... right?

The cover to Pyramid Book’s 1973 edition of “The Mediterranean Caper” featuring cover art by Jim Sharpe. Does that guy on the left look like Dirk Pitt to you?

Bolle’s Pitt comes closer to Cussler’s depiction than the brawny, bearded Pitt portrayed by Jordan, but it is missing Pitt’s trademark shaggy black hair, cruel-yet-friendly features, and penetrating green eyes. Bolle’s Pitt could just as easily be James Bond, Secret Agent Corrigan, or any other dark-haired hero from a Sixties or Seventies newspaper adventure strip. Also missing are Pitt’s friends, Al Giordino and Rudi Gunn, their boss, Admiral James Sandecker, and their place of employment, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). Most of the novel’s supporting cast is likewise nowhere to be found, all victims of space limitations.

Like most of the adaptations in Best Seller Show Case, Raise the Titanic! ran for eight weeks, which is not a long time to adapt a novel given a newspaper strip’s three-panel-a-day format where Panel One recaps the previous installment, Panel Two pushes the story along, and Panel Three presents a tease or a cliffhanger to entice the reader to return for the next installment. On the other hand, a press release by Universal Press Syndicate’s managing editor Lee Salem explains that the purpose of Best Seller Show Case was to give readers “enough of a taste to go out and buy the book,” and its adaptation of Raise the Titanic! does that.

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Considering the newspaper strip’s inherent space limitations, the first two installments of “Best Seller Show Case'” from 8/15/79 and 8/16/79 present a fairly faithful adaptation of the exciting prologue from “Raise the Titanic!”

The adaptation deviates very little from the prologue to Cussler’s novel, wherein a passenger named Joshua Brewster forces a young officer (called Bigalow in the novel) at gunpoint to guide him to the hold of the sinking Titanic. Once there, Brewster locks himself inside the ship’s vault as he confesses to killing eight men to get whatever is inside the vault. Seventy-five years later, America needs a rare mineral called byzanium to power an impenetrable missile defense system (“the Sicilian Project” in the novel), and, as coincidence or Fate would have it, Brewster’s diary has recently been discovered with the frozen corpse of an American miner named James Thornton on Novaya Zemlya, an island near Soviet Russia. The diary indicates the only known supply of byzanium in the world lies in the Titanic’s vault.

The President orders Pitt — who is identified as a secret agent, government agent, and salvage chief, but never by his actual title of Special Projects Director for NUMA — to raise the Titanic. At the same time, the crew of the US research submersible Sappho I is dispatched to the North Atlantic, where they search for and locate the sunken liner. Soon after, CIA Chief Warren Nicholson informs the President that the Soviets have somehow learned about Pitt’s mission, so the President and Nicholson decide to leak small doses of information about the operation to the American press in hopes of distracting Soviet intelligence long enough to allow Pitt to complete the salvage.

With the possible exception of Sharpe’s cover for “The Mediterranean Caper,” the second panel of the 8/17/79 installment of “Best Seller Show Case” represents the first published image of Pitt.

When Pitt arrives in the North Atlantic on the salvage ship Capricorn, he is notified that Sappho I’s navigator is dead and foul play is suspected. Worse, without its navigator, the crew of the Sappho I has managed to get the submersible tangled in cables on a deck of the Titanic and have less than two hours of air remaining. Pitt instructs divers from the Sappho I to plant over 80 50-pound charges of dynamite beneath the Titanic’s superstructure to blast the liner free of the ocean floor. Pitt’s plan works and the ship drifts to the surface, bringing the Sappho I with it, but its flooded boiler rooms are causing the Titanic to list. Pumps are installed to keep the liner afloat, but then news arrives that a hurricane is headed towards the Titanic.

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Richard Jordan’s Pitt is burly, rumpled, and bearded as he raises the White Star flag aboard the raised “Titanic” in the 1980 film adaptation of Cussler’s novel.

Captain Andre Prevlov of Soviet intelligence takes advantage of the storm to lead a team of soldiers onto the Titanic. Pitt eludes Prevlov’s men, but when he tries to escape in a helicopter it is swept overboard. Pitt manages to exit the helicopter before it tumbles into the ocean, climbs back aboard the Titanic, and reveals that two members of the salvage crew are Russian infiltrators. Prevlov orders his soldiers to kill Pitt, but an American rescue squad hiding in wait cuts them down and captures Prevlov. It turns out that a lieutenant aboard the ship that transported Prevlov and his soldiers to the Titanic, the Mikhail Kurkov, is a US agent.

All is not well, however, because the captain of the Mikhail Kurkov has orders to sink the Titanic if Prevlov does not signal him by midnight. Fortunately, the captain is spared the distasteful task of sinking the Titanic again when a communication arrives from the US submarine Dragonfish, stating that it will retaliate if any action is taken against the White Star liner.

After the Titanic arrives in New York, its vault is opened, but there is no byzanium. Playing a hunch, Pitt takes a team of men to a cemetery in Southby, England, where they find a grave for Thornton. The grave is exhumed, revealing a case filled with byzanium. Pitt remembered a March 12, 1912 entry in Brewster’s diary explaining that Brewster was returning home on the Titanic and the byzanium “will lie safely in T’s vault in Southby.” Like everyone else, Pitt had assumed the “T” stood for Titanic and ignored the reference to Southby. The byzanium is packed up and transported to the United States, where tests of the missile defense system are a success.

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“It breaches!” The “Titanic” escapes her watery grave after over 70 years beneath the North Atlantic in the “Best Seller Show Case” and film adaptations of “Raise the Titanic!”

Caplin’s script does succeed in giving a taste of Cussler’s novel, but it suffers from lapses in logic. No reason is ever given why the Sappho I’s navigator is murdered, or how Pitt deduces who the infiltrators in his crew are, or why Pitt tries to get away in the helicopter if he knows a rescue squad is waiting to repel Prevlov’s invasion. One can also only marvel how the Sappho I’s divers survive swimming two and a half miles beneath the ocean, or wonder why any submersible would be carrying 80 50-pound charges of dynamite. It is also a letdown that Pitt is not aboard the Sappho I when the Titanic is located under the Atlantic. Instead he reads a newspaper article about the discovery to the President. Even more disappointing, Pitt exhibits hardly any of the wit or audacity that he does in Cussler’s novel. Despite these shortcomings, Caplin succeeds in being faithful to the source material, incorporating as many of the novel’s plot twists as possible without forsaking understandability. This attempted faithfulness is also evident in some of the adaptation’s little details, such as giving the President a mustache and making the US agent aboard the Mikhail Kurkov a lieutenant, the same rank as Pavel Marganin, Prevlov’s assistant in Soviet intelligence who turns out to be a mole for the United States in Cussler’s novel. Best of all, unlike the film adaptation, which features very little adventure, the newspaper strip does not downplay the Cold War tensions between America and the Soviet Union in Raise the Titanic!

On the art side, Bolle draws a wonderful Titanic, creating many memorable images of the liner as it sinks, lies on the ocean floor, breaches, during the hurricane, and finally arrives in New York. Bolle also draws great action scenes, two of the best being the opening with Brewster and Pitt escaping the helicopter during the hurricane. In the opening, Caplin and Bolle encapsulate the novel’s prologue into six exciting panels with a total of only approximately two hundred words, showing readers only what they need to know while leaving other details about the sinking ship to the imagination. The hurricane scene likewise takes place in six panels over two installments, but the full impact of Bolle’s action cinematography cannot be appreciated unless the two strips are stacked on top of each other as Pitt’s helicopter tumbles off the Titanic only to get snagged by cables on the deck, giving him time to extract himself from the helicopter and then climb back aboard the ship. Bolle’s camera never stops moving during these six panels, panning in and out as it rotates what seems like 360°, creating a dizzying effect that accentuates the difficulty of Pitt’s peril.

This scene appears in the 9/19/79 and 9/20/79 strips.

These two strips from 9/19/79 and 9/20/79 showcase Bolle’s ability to draw beautiful artwork and dizzying action. When stacked on top of each other, the installments create a unified scene that is missed when the strips are viewed separately.

All’s well that ends well, even from different perspectives. An officer faces right to watch the successful test of America’s new missile defense system, while Pitt faces left to admire the raised “Titanic.” Different types of treasures, but is either more valuable than the other?

From start to finish, the pace of the adaptation rarely lets up, until, in the final two panels, a military officer telephones Pitt to inform him that tests of the defense system have been a success, and then adds, “Too bad you had to raise the Titanic for nothing.” Pitt could be speaking for many of his fans as he gazes out a window at the White Star liner in New York Harbor and tells the officer, “I wouldn’t say it was for nothing.  I wouldn’t say that at all.” After all, impenetrable defense systems can come in pretty handy, but recovering a legendary and elusive treasure like the Titanic … now that’s priceless.

 

 

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