‘Men In Black': The Secret Comic Book History

The third installment in the “Men in Black” series is in theaters now, returning the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to their familiar roles as Agents J and K, who patrol the Earth ensuring that alien visitors follow our laws, and that the general public never finds out about them.

What may not be as familiar to many people is that Agents J and K, and the agency they work for, originated not on the big screen as many may assume, but in the pages of a comic book series several years before the original “Men in Black” film was released. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look back at the original “Men in Black” comics, and find out just how similar — or different — the source material may be from the films you know and love.

The very first “Men in Black” comics were published as two 3-issue black-and-white series in 1990 and 1991, by Aircel Comics, a division of Malibu Comics. Malibu Comics itself has an interesting history, as it was co-founded by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, one of the creators of “Cowboys & Aliens” which also made its way to the big screen. By the time “Men in Black” hit theaters however, Malibu had been bought out by Marvel Comics, which is why the movie credits it as “based on the Marvel comic.”

Written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated by Sandy Carruthers, the biggest difference in the premise of the “Men in Black” comics is that the MIB agency is tasked to deal with (and hide evidence of) all paranormal activities, not just aliens. In the course of their series, the MIB confront a cult of superdrug users, a demon, a rogue MIB agent with superhuman abilities, a monster drawn from a town’s collective unconscious, and yes, aliens. In an interview at the end of the first issue, Lowell Cunningham acknowledges MIB’s roots in the tales of government agents sent to suppress UFO sightings, but explains that he decided to expand the series beyond dealing with aliens because “I thought UFOs every issue might get boring after a while.”

Given that the comic does not focus solely on aliens, it’s perhaps not surprising that aliens are not as prevalent in the MIB comics’ Earth. Whereas in the films, it is shown that aliens are living all around us and going about their business in the normal course of operations, the MIB of the comics treat alien visitations as not nearly as regular, and often something to be greatly concerned about. The second issue, which the first MIB film drew upon for its plot, features a visitation by an alien insectoid creature to a farmer and his wife; however, the bug does not prove to pose quite the threat that Vincent D’Onofrio poses in the film.

Like the films, the comics star Agents J and K, but the characters differ greatly from their film portrayals. Will Smith played NYPD cop James Darrell Edwards who is drawn into the MIB and becomes known as Agent J, but in the comics, Agent J is a Caucasian DEA agent whose birth name is never revealed to us. Their methods of recruitment differ as well; Smith’s Agent J is selected because of his performance in the line of duty, and is shown the behind the scenes of the MIB’s operations fairly quickly, as well as offered a reasonable choice whether to join, presenting the MIB agency as a well-intentioned if secretive organization. The Agent J of the comics, however, is kidnapped against his will during an undercover drug sting by Agent K, who uses the MIB’s trademark “neurolyser” to knock him out. He is then offered a choice which is not much of a choice at all; either join the MIB, or have his entire memory wiped of everything that happened during the failed drug sting, thus ruining his career when he would inevitably have to explain the situation to his superiors at the DEA.

These actions by Agent K reveal a character much different than that portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. The Agent K of the films is hard-bitten and jaded, but he has an underlying soft side, especially in relation to his life prior to MIB. The Agent K of the comics, however, is a lot nastier — his disregard for human life, and the amusement he sometimes seems to take in the suffering of others, particularly Agent J, suggest that his personality may border on sadistic. In the first issue’s interview, Lowell Cunningham says that Agent K “likes the power of his position, and as the saying goes, power corrupts.” This creates a much different relationship between the two than in the films; Smith and Jones may tease each other, but they ultimately respect and trust one another. There is a clear sense throughout the MIB comics that J cannot trust K at all, as K continually keeps secrets from him, and makes morally questionable decisions. For K’s part, he sees J as completely expendable, and not worth much more than someone to serve as bait when necessary.

Given that there were only six issues of the original MIB comics, much of the background of the characters is not revealed. Unlike the films, we know nothing of K’s background or life prior to MIB. Agent Zed, portrayed by Rip Torn in the films, is only heard over communications systems, and never seen, although it is hinted he may be something other than human. Another interesting way in which the MIB of the comics differ is in their equipment; although they do occasionally use special weaponry when a particular mission calls for it, the vast majority of the time they are armed with traditional firearms, which they have used to kill both paranormal beings and even humans during the course of their missions.

Upon the release of the first film, Marvel Comics published three new “Men in Black” one-shot comics, written by series creator Lowell Cunningham. The first was a straight adaptation of the film, but the other two continued the “Men in Black” story in different ways. “Men in Black: Far Cry” was in essence a continuation of the original “Men in Black” series; it revealed that Agent J had been “retired” from the MIB and returned to his previous life as a DEA agent with his memories of MIB wiped, only to be called back to duty when the superdrug “Bezerk,” which J dealt with in his first MIB mission, made a return, now revealed to be of extraterrestrial origin.

The third one-shot, “Men in Black: Retribution” picked up where the first movie left off, and presaged Tommy Lee Jones’ return to franchise, by having K’s memories restored, and reclaiming his role from Agent Elle (portrayed in the films by Linda Fiorentino) as Agent J’s partner.

Surprisingly, there have not been any more “Men in Black” comics published in the intervening years. But given the tremendous success of the films, and the fact that the original comics are, by comparison, little-known, it seems likely that any future MIB comics will follow the continuity of the movies, relegating those early MIB adventures to the role of historical curiosities which show us the roots of one Hollywood’s biggest franchises.

Would you like to see more “Men in Black” comics? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!