When the CIA finally declassified the 1950 comic strip Donovan of Central Intelligence, much of the intrigue swirled around one question: Why did the Agency suppress it at all, let alone for fifty years?
Sure, the hero resembles ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan - head of the CIA’s forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Yes, Donovan of Central Intelligence chases women, enjoys a drink, and writes atomic bomb intel on his bald head, but why would a cartoon character concern the Director of the real-life CIA and the Agency’s Yale-educated lawyer Walter Pforzheimer?
The Agency discussed the comic strip in at least two ‘Top Secret’ CIA meetings in April 1950, according to the now-declassified minutes. It seems the CIA was irked the comic strip boasted that it was "based on the files of Central Intelligence", a claim that clearly touched a nerve whether it was true or not.
Donovan: Atomic Spy
As 1950s spy stories go, Donovan of Central Intelligence appears to be standard fare. The seven-page strip sees secret agent Donovan dodge bullets in the Sahara Desert, check into a swank hotel, meet a beautiful woman, and steal a jet to escape a gang of dangerous villains.
Along the way though, the fictional Donovan stumbles on plans for ‘launching cradles’ for missiles. Their warheads could accommodate nuclear bombs capable of wiping out the US Eastern Seaboard. Donovan wants to charter a plane and get the intel to the US consul in Tangier, Morocco. Pronto. But instead he is drawn into a honey trap and held hostage in a locked room.
Luckily, Donovan had already drawn the missile plans onto his newly shaven head (now covered with a toupée) and burned the original intel. By employing a nifty bit of spy tradecraft and his ‘bull strength’, Donovan is able to escape from the locked room and head to the airport.
The Soviets had successfully tested their first nuclear device (US codename ‘Joe-1’) in August 1949 and the air was thick with stories about atomic bombs and traitors in 1950 when Donovan of Central Intelligence came to the CIA's attention.
German-born scientist Klaus Fuchs had been arrested for leaking Manhattan Project secrets in January 1950. The arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, David Greenglass, and Harry Gold soon followed. It’s possible the Agency wondered how super-secret operative “Donovan” came across his intelligence and exactly who was behind the comic strip.
The publisher of the March-April edition of Atomic Spies, Volume I, 1950 by Avon Periodicals, was a New York publisher run by a brother-sister team that had reportedly been around for a decade.