Thursday, 26 November 2015

Stripped, not stirred: James Bond in comics

Long-time readers of this blog will have noticed that I have fandom for things other than comics. I quote Doctor Who a lot, I've referenced Parks and Rec and I keep comparing things to James Bond. I've loved the Bond films and novels since I was a child, largely because my Dad and older brother loved them. In spite of my well-documented preference for John Steed, I still like Bond (according to Steed's official biography they were at Eton together and did not get on).

As I write this there's a new movie out, SPECTRE, and it's dividing opinion (for the record I really like it but understand those who do not) and a new comic, Vargr. But the comics life of Bond goes waaaaay back.

The first Bond comic strip appeared in the Daily Express in 1958 (a full four years before the first movie) and was an adaptation of Casino Royale, the first Ian Fleming novel. The first strip was the beautiful art at the top of this blog, drawn by John McLusky to an adaptation by Anthony Hern. And it is, quite frankly, a gem.

It begins with Bond going to see M in his office.
If you've read the novel or seen the movie (the Daniel Craig one, although there are plot threads in the David Niven film that match up) you'll know the story. 

Very basically, a powerful man called Le Chiffre is suspected of funding a terrorist organisation called SMERSH (acronyms were big then and with this year seeing the revival of SPECTRE, UNCLE and the continued presence of SHIELD they're back) but is also a gambling addict who has lost a lot of money owed to the international organisation. Bond is sent to catch him out, going undercover at the casino out at which he hangs (I know that reads clumsily but it is grammatically correct).

We get some lovely secret agent business in the hotel at which Bond is staying (there's a scene in the movie Dr No like this):
And then Bond is told he's getting help in the form of a female agent.
Ah, good old sexist misogynist dinosaur Bond. Except it was normal then.

Pleasingly, we get lots of stuff that remains in the Bond canon. Remember how Craig's Bond gets his double O?
The comics medium allows for an interesting way of illustrating the hands at the card games being played, for those who like to follow along.
Meanwhile, the female agent (Vesper, if you didn't know... and if you didn't know, seriously, go watch Casino Royale, it's great... the 2006 one. Don't watch the 1967 one) has received a message and Bond is suspicious.
I mean, not suspicious enough to go with her or watch from a distance or anything like that which would be Spy School 101, but still.
Turns out it was a trap!Yeah, well done spotting the crude forgery now!
See, normally, right now I'd be enjoying the meta-textual commentary as Bond compares Vesper to a heroine in a strip cartoon but I'm too mad at him for being rubbish at his job and creating the situation.

Soon, however, Bond's carelessness comes back on him and he is captured, stripped and bound to a chair.
Now this is memorably the worst scene in the novel, or indeed any of the Bond stories as anyone who watched the 2006 movie will remember.
(Oddly it is also referenced in the 1967 movie in a way that would have only made sense at the time if one had read the book)

Fortunately Bond is rescued by a SMERSH agent, come to collect the money Le Chiffre owes and is also in Denny Colt cosplay.
Yeah, that scarring is a detail from the original book often overlooked in Bond's other appearances.

Meanwhile, as Bond recovers in hospital, Vesper is enjoying her stay at the beach in some frankly amazing almost abstract art.
I love that use of negative space!

It turns out (SPOILER ALERT!) that Vesper has been a double agent for the Russians all along but her guilt at lying to Bond (with whom she has fallen in love) drives her to suicide, leaving a note for Bond.
So it's time for a debrief with M...
And that's the end of Bond's first adventure. But, as you can see, James Bond will return. It segues nicely into the next story (Live and Let Die) as it goes on to show adaptations of all the Fleming stories, more-or-less in order and the first official story not by Fleming (Colonel Sun by Robert Markham, a pseudonym for Kingsley Amis) before they start with original stories. And this is where the story really starts.

Most of the stories were adapted by Henry Gammidge up to You Only Live Twice in 1966 with the exception of Dr No which was written by Peter O'Donnell, who would go on to create the best comic strip spy ever in Modesty Blaise, a character I love and is way better than comic strip Bond  (although, conversely was the subject of a pretty terrible 60s movie).

Jim Lawrence took over the writing and Yaroslav Horak the art from The Man with the Golden Gun onwards, Lawrence eventually writing 21 original Bond stories.

And a quick glance at them reveals a surprising amount of naked flesh. Boobs:
As well as the by-now-traditional violence against women:
The sort of thing that usually really bothers me in comics but I feel fits Bond just fine. 

The stories get more outlandish as the years go on (the success of the Bond films having inspired many imitators and parodies each pushing the boundaries) and the final story published in the Express is "The Ape of Diamonds" which features a ten-foot tall gorilla being mind controlled to kidnap bikini-clad women. Easily the most far-fetched of the Bond strips I've read (other tales of sea monsters and wizards had prosaic explanations) it exploits the comic strip medium to its fullest and (being published in 1976) may have been trying to cash in on the King Kong remake.
The strip continued, first in the Sunday Express and then in the Daily Star until 1984 in strips of varying quality but never uninteresting.

However, that is not the end of the story of Bond in comics form.

In the world of comic BOOKS the first appearance of Bond is in Dell Comics' Classics Illustrated line in the UK in 1962.
Oddly, for a comic whose entire raison d'etre is adapting novel, this appears to be an adaptation based on the screenplay with art based on photos from the set of the movie version which was not yet out.

And Dell managed to sell the story to DC Comics in the US who published it in Showcase 43, an anthology series.
Here the DC editorial team took it upon themselves to make all the characters Caucasian. Including the titular Dr Julius. Which was odd.
It seems obvious now that no comics publisher knew quite what a phenomenon Bond in particular and the spy movie genre in general was about to be because someone should have made a decent attempt at making this book good and appealing. Instead we get basic art (I couldn't find the name of the artist) and boring square typed speech bubbles.

But a phenomenon it was, inspiring many rip-offs, parodies and other inspired takes on the type. In comics there was no greater than Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.
Ah, yes. You'll probably best know Fury now as played by Samuel L Jackson in them movies. But in the 60s he was the star of Marvel Comics' Second World War action stories Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos. 

In 1965 the brilliant (Jim) Steranko brought him to the (then) present day as the leader of a CIA-ish organisation called SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters of Intelligence Espionage, Law-enforcement Division - at least that is what it always means to me) in some beautifully pop-art-influenced stories (I mean, look at that amazing cover above).

There was even a cheeky cameo in Strange Tales 164 where an injured Fury stumbles back to the barber-shop front of SHIELD headquarters and removes his disguise:
There were also strips in Japan, Chile and Scandinavia (check here for an excellently exhaustive list) but there were no other English-language Bond comics until Marvel published an adaptation of the movie version of For Your Eyes Only in 1981.
And having recently re-watched that film (thanks James Bonding with Matt and Matt) seeing the teenage figure-skater pressing herself up against Bond is creeping me out. *shudders*
Marvel also published an adaptation of 1983's Octopussy...
...but their relationship with the franchise ends there. 
Although I'm pretty sure this is the only Marvel comic ever to have the word "pussy" in the title.

There's an Argentinian adaptation of Never Say Never Again, a German take on A View To a Kill and a Swedish version of The Living Daylights (which features the "flying carpet" sequence wisely dropped from the movie) before we get two more English-language comics in 1989.

Eclipse Comics publish both an adaptation of Licence to Kill... 
...for which they did not acquire the rights to Timothy Dalton's likeness so the art is somewhat fudged, and Permission to Die, a new story by the great writer/artist Mike Grell, soon after creating one of the best Green Arrow stories ever for DC (I really like Green Arrow).
It's a decent, hard-hitting thriller with close ties to both the movie franchise and the then-current novels by John Gardner, so Grell had clearly done his research.
Then, in 1992, Dark Horse got ahold of the franchise and gave us the awesome Serpent's Tooth.

Written by Doug Moench (one the key Batman writers of the 90s) and drawn by Paul Gulacy it features Bond on the trail of kidnapped scientists and a mad bio-geneticist which features Bond BEING CHASED BY A MOTHER-EFFING VELOCIRAPTOR!!!!
Seriously. Before J-Park too.
Some classic Bond woman-beating in there too.

This was followed up by another five Bond stories from DH, from various writers and artists.
Before the briefly-popular Topps company (they of bubblegum cards fame) gets ahold of the licence and gives us the Goldeneye adaptation in 1996.
It was supposed to be a three-part series but only part one was published. Which seems a bit of a shame.
I should probably mention James Bond Jnr too. The adventures of Bond's nephew (yes, that's right Bond's nephew is called James Bond Jnr) made into a cartoon series made by Danjaq Productions during the Bond movies' fallow period between Dalton and Brosnan which got a Marvel Comics adaptation.
There. Mentioned.

There's also a graphic adaptation of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novel Silverfin which is pretty good.

I have to bring up my favourite use of Bond in comics now and talk about Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A book that attempted to bring together fictional characters from adventure stories of all eras (and many other characters besides) into one coherent universe. 

In The Black Dossier our heroes (Alan Quatermain and Mina Harker) are pursued across Britain (formerly Airstrip One after the collapse of the Big Brother government) by Bond, Bulldog Drummond and Emma Knight (future Emma Peel). Moore allows his contempt for the character of Bond shine through and it's marvellous. 

Mina (using the pseudonym "Oodles O'Quim") seduces him and persuades him to get her into a secure building at the former Ministry of Truth. She overpowers him in Room 101 (Bond's greatest fear would be being beaten by a woman - do you see?) and takes the eponymous document.
Here we see him driven to a blind rage after being rejected by Emma.

By The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 we have learned that the government-sponsored myth of James Bond has become more important than the man himself and his name has been passed down to each new generation.
We briefly meet "J3" and "J6", clearly modelled after Roger Moore and Daniel Craig before seeing the original Bond:
Infirm, syphilitic and suffering from decades of alcohol abuse. We also get a panel with the "other" Bonds:
As Emma is now M, which I believe is meant to tie in to Judy Dench's portrayal in the movies. A couple of years before Alan Bates calls her "Emma" in Skyfall.

Here, I want to also mention US newspaper strip Apartment 3G, both because it's amazingly weird and also because a few years ago one of the characters in it was dating an actor (called Greg) who got cast as the new James Bond.
I only know Apartment 3G thanks to the brilliant Comics Curmudgeon and so also know that Skyler got to appear in a Bond film.
If you want to get into Apartment 3G (and why wouldn't you?) I've bad news for you, it may have begun in 1961 but it ended just last week.

To the present day now and a new James Bond comic is available from Dynamite by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters.
Vargr is an all-new story of revenge putting Bond in a modern environment and it's great. 

It opens with a chase across a building site with brutal violence.
(That guy's about to get his fingers chopped off. For reals.)

It seems this chap recently killed 008, a friend of Bond. Which lead to a very personal and not-at-all officially endorsed hunt which ends with a lovely panel which hints at the gun-barrel openings of the movies.
It must be tricky for a Bond writer to decide what Bond they want to do. Even with the restrictions of not having the rights to actor likenesses. Here we have a Bond very much set in the present day.
...who works at MI5's not-at-all bombed out headquarters and goes into the office to find a Moneypenny similar to Naomi Harris...
...and an M unlike any actor to have played the role.
I love that page. Timing is one thing a good comics writer/artist combination can do very well.

We also get a visit to Q with a splendidly niche reference.
See, Bond has the chamois holster for exactly that reason as explained by Geoffrey Boothroyd.

And the issue ends with the introduction of our villain, sent to kill Bond with the trademark Fleming sadism.
Lovely. I can't wait for issue two.

That's all for now so I'll leave you with an image from a comic I read today (Scooby-Doo Team-Up 11) in which the Scooby gang join International Sneaky Service with Secret Squirrel and dress for the occasion:
The gang in cosplay as Bond, The Avengers and... I think Spy Vs Spy. Not sure. Anyway, I love it.

And to close us out, a Bond parrot:


  1. Firstly, can I just say how much I enjoy this blog, the amount of research and reading you do must be phenomenal. I draw comics for the British small-press scene and I'm a Bond fanatic, so this particular article ticked all of my boxes.
    Secondly, can I be a smartarse and point out that it was Albert Finney in Skyfall, not Alan Bates? Ta.

    1. Ditto. Also, I scent danger.

    2. Oops. Quite right. My mistake. And thank you for the kind words.