Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Greg Hatcher Legacy Files #98: ‘Weekend Briefing at MI-6’

[Here’s a post from 8 December 2008, which you can find here. It’s a column about James Bond, so you can bet there would be some interesting comments! Enjoy!]

Seeing Quantum of Solace recently got me thinking about James Bond reboots and adaptations and all the different times Bond has been tried in comics.

James Bond and me go back quite a ways — in fact, I’ve been a fan of James Bond longer than I have been a fan of comic-book superheroes. Although I came to 007 through what I have to think is one of the odder back doors.

I became a fan not through Ian Fleming’s books, or even the movies, exactly, but rather through the movie soundtracks — specifically, the James Bond music.

One of my earliest memories is hanging around with Sean, the next-door neighbor kid, and playing his dad’s James Bond records.

He had two of them — the soundtrack for Goldfinger, and a weird little knockoff record by a band billing themselves as “Zero Zero Seven” (there were a LOT of these faux-Bond records in the sixties, almost as many as the fake “Batman theme” records.)

Anyway, to our little seven-year-old ears, these were incredibly tough, cool records. It wasn’t so much Shirley Bassey’s vocal on the title track; it was all that dark, pounding John Barry instrumental stuff. Some of the covers of Barry’s instrumentals sounded even cooler on the knockoff record (those were jazz guys and they swung a little harder.)

Of course, the jacket art helped; I still remember arguing with Sean over whether or not some of the girls were actually naked. (My feeling was that at least one of the girls was; Sean maintained that if there were naked girls on the cover he would not have been allowed to play the record.) Nudity or not, we were agreed that it looked badass.

A couple-three years later — I think it must have been somewhere around 1969 or 1970 — ABC broadcast Goldfinger for the first time and Sean and I were delighted that we’d finally be able to see the movie whose music we knew by heart.

It took some fast talking, but my parents finally relented and I was allowed to stay up late to watch it. I had a hard time following all the twists and turns of the plot (it wasn’t clear to me why Goldfinger wanted to blow up Fort Knox, but I could tell it was a bad thing and obviously James Bond had to stop him.) It didn’t matter. Even though I couldn’t always tell what was going on, I could tell that James Bond was cool. Cooler than any other TV heroes I’d had at the time.

I also learned that there were James Bond novels, and of course that was all I needed to hear; immediately I set out to read them. There was only one obstacle — Fleming’s novels were kept in the adult fiction section of the library, and I, at the age of ten, was only allowed a children’s library card. If a child wanted to check out an adult book then a parent’s permission was necessary.

So I launched an all-out campaign to obtain this permission. Clarence Darrow himself could not have mounted more elegant and all-encompassing arguments than the ones I unleashed upon my mother, pleading to be allowed to read James Bond. I think I may have even suggested at one point that it was unpatriotic for her to censor my reading materials.

Finally Mom gave in — I’d like to think it was my brilliant rhetoric, but I suspect it was my sheer relentlessness that turned the tide. Anyway, soon thereafter I was on my way home with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Even after granting permission I’m pretty sure Mom was nervous about the whole thing — she took a dim view of James Bond’s morals, and if she’d ever actually read the book she probably would never have consented in the first place. (The French girls on the beach “flaunting their bodies” at Bond on page two would have been all she needed to shut me down.) But I didn’t care, I was off and running. Fleming had me in his grip from page one and I was a fan for life.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the best of the Bond books, and it’s still my favorite, thirty-seven years later. The movie gets a bad rap because it stars the guy that is generally regarded as being the worst Bond, and certainly George Lazenby was not the guy I pictured in my head reading it. If seeing the film put you off, I implore you to check out the novel. Even though the basic skeleton of the plot is the same as the movie, more or less, the book is far more visceral … there is no ironic detachment in the literary Bond, none of that sniggering wink-at-the-audience stuff. The novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is pure adrenaline from the get-go. Truthfully, I don’t think it would have mattered that much which actor was in the movie. I don’t think any cinematic 007 has matched the intensity of what Ian Fleming put on the page (though Daniel Craig comes closer than any of the others.)

Soon thereafter I discovered it was possible to buy Bond novels myself; Bantam had just started re-issuing them in paperback with amazing new covers by Frank McCarthy. At ninety-five cents apiece, I could manage that– and it was worth giving up three comics each to do it.

Bantam insisted on cluttering them with type and shrinking them way too far down, but an auction site I found had scans of the real paintings. Take a look.

I was thrilled to finally discover the name of this artist a few weeks ago. I never knew who Frank McCarthy was, but “that Bond cover guy at Bantam” probably was one of my biggest influences when I was learning to draw.

Upon finally seeing the whole painting, I guess it’s understandable that Bantam would want to cover the naked lady with huge lettering, and I daresay if my mother had seen it I’d have never been allowed near James Bond again. But still … damn that’s gorgeous.

I’m geeking, I know. I can’t help it, but really, these are too cool not to share. Here’s Casino Royale.

And here’s my favorite McCarthy 007 cover, for Colonel Sun, the Bond pastiche by Kingsley Amis.

It was a kind of perfect storm for me: John Barry’s tough spy music echoing in my head as I read Ian Fleming’s taut prose, with McCarthy’s cover paintings giving me an ideal cue for visualizing the action.

No movie can match that experience. The closest the films have come for me to realizing Bond himself is somewhere between Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, I’d class each of those efforts as being about 75% authentic Fleming Bond. And really Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in the the movie Goldfinger is the only guy that’s within shouting distance of the terrifying villains Fleming described. In the movies, the Bond villains are never scary enough to suit me. The book versions will give you nightmares.

For example, here’s how we say hello to Mr. Big in Live and Let Die:

It was a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round. The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river. It was hairless, except for some grey-brown fluff above the ears. There were no eyebrows and no eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart so that one could not focus on them both, but only on one at a time. Their gaze was very steady and penetrating. When they rested on something, they seemed to devour it, to encompass the whole of it. They bulged slightly and the irises were golden around black pupils which were now wide. They were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze …

Mr. Big looked across at Bond.

‘Which finger do you use the least, Mister Bond?’

Bond was startled by the question. His mind raced.

‘On reflection, I expect you will say the little finger of the left hand,’ continued the soft voice. ‘Tee-Hee, break the little finger of Mr. Bond’s left hand.’

It’s no wonder the novels frankly can spoil the movies for you a bit, even without the John Barry music and the Frank McCarthy cover paintings to help along your visualization. The James Bond that Fleming describes in the books is … well, he looks like the young Sean Connery, but he acts much more like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Tough, passionate, ruthless, with a softer side he’s vaguely ashamed of. That’s my James Bond as well, and the smirky character in the dinner jacket that populates most of the movies is just a pale reflection of him. The James Bond of the books doesn’t make quips. He broods. Kingsley Amis, in his terrific book The James Bond Dossier, suggests that Bond is essentially the Byronic hero done for modern pulp audiences and I think that’s about right.

I’d go even further than that, really. Much has been made of Ian Fleming’s wartime experience in Naval Intelligence and how that fed into the James Bond novels, but that’s just window dressing. The Bond books have almost nothing to do with espionage, at least not in any kind of real-world sense. I was a kid who was into comics and superheroes and fantasy, and Ian Fleming’s books hit that nerve in my psyche, that’s why I fell in love with them so instantly. They’re heroic fantasy novels in spy drag.

James Bond is never dispatched to do actual spying in any realistic military intelligence-gathering fashion. Almost invariably, he’s a modern-day knight sent forth to slay a metaphorical dragon. (Hell, Doctor No actually has a mechanical dragon.) Any time James Bond is not sent out after that kind of monstrous target — Diamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me — the book suffers for it.

The best of the Bond novels put 007 on a collision course with an enemy who turns out to be an agent of pure apocalyptic evil.

The early films do their best to suggest this, but the screen versions are vastly diluted compared to the originals. Doctor No, Goldfinger, Ernst Stavro Blofeld … they are beyond rational motives like greed or politics. Those guys all have something demonic about them.

Whether it’s Doctor No’s underground lair on Crab Key or Blofeld’s impregnable fortress in the Swiss Alps doesn’t really matter … it’s always just a facade for an evil wizard’s castle.

That’s exactly the same kind of approach — a modern-day veneer layered over something mythic — that works in so many of our superhero comics. So of course there’s a huge overlap between superhero fans and James Bond fans.

And yet James Bond has never really been a big success in comic books.

Well, U.S. comics, that is. Bond is a fixture in comics overseas and has been for many years.

There was even a moderately successful James Bond manga done by Takao Saito (the Golgo 13 guy) in the mid-60’s.

And he’s been a huge success in comic strips, especially in Britain. The Bond newspaper strip ran there for decades.

After adapting all the Fleming novels and short stories the comic strip guys went on to do their own original Bond stories. The originals were largely written by Jim Lawrence, who also did several of the later Fleming adaptations. In the beginning the artist was a fellow named John McLusky, but for most of its run, starting in the 60’s until they stopped doing it in 1984, the strip was usually drawn by an artist named Yaroslav Horak.

The Lawrence-Horak collaborations are available in trade-paperback reprint volumes from Titan Books, the same outfit that does those nice Modesty Blaise collections. Check out the list here. [Edit: Sorry, dead link!]

Unfortunately, on this side of the Atlantic, 007 doesn’t seem to ever really get a toehold in comic books. The first Bond comic book done expressly in that format was the adaptation of Fleming’s Doctor No done for the British version of Classics Illustrated, timed to coincide with the movie in 1962.

Stateside, though, our Classics Illustrated didn’t want something as trashy as James Bond since they were marketing to schools and libraries. So the Bond people shopped it around. Eventually, DC got the Bond rights and reprinted the Classics Illustrated story … as a filler issue of Showcase.

Hard to believe in this day and age, but there was a time when nobody in the U.S. knew who James Bond was, even when the books were best sellers in Britain. DC timed it exactly wrong, putting out the Showcase reprint after the movie was out in Britain but well before it premiered here. Mark Evanier tells the story of how DC bobbled their chance at one of the hottest merchandising tie-ins you could have in the 1960’s much better than I can, so I’ll just give you the link to it. [Edit: Hmmm, also a dead link. Evanier is still blogging, so I don’t know what happened to that particular post.]

Marvel didn’t do any better, though. They had the license in the 80’s for a little while but apart from a few desultory film adaptations they didn’t really do anything with it either.

Maybe it’s because a movie adaptation is not really a good thing to do in a comic book. You can’t ever match the visceral thrill of seeing the action live on the screen, and what looks spectacular in a movie theater tends to look pedestrian on a comic page.

Honestly, I never could figure out who the target market was for the movie adaptations Marvel used to do, especially in the 80’s when home video and cable movie channels were really starting to happen. Who needs an abridged version of For Your Eyes Only in a comic when you can just go rent the uncut version of the movie? It might have been different if they’d put some star talent on it, but the movie adaptations always seemed to go to the journeyman guys.

Weirdly, I think the biggest success for James Bond at Marvel was the tie-in book they put out for the James Bond Jr. cartoon.

Certainly it had the longest run of any U.S. Bond comic done in standard monthly format — I think it hung in there a year and a half or so.

Eclipse did better. Mike Grell did a terrific three-part prestige format miniseries for them.

Permission to Die is one of the better translations of Bond to comics, and you really can see where Mike Grell tried to honor Fleming’s conception while bringing something of his own to it. My only real grump with the story is that it doesn’t quite feel like James Bond … it’s somehow more like a British version of Grell’s own Jon Sable Freelance.

Dark Horse acquitted themselves reasonably well when they had the license.

Quite a few good Bond comics came out from them in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There were problems with scheduling and such, though, and one miniseries never concluded at all because the artist flaked out.

Probably the best of them was Serpent’s Tooth, a three-part prestige miniseries from Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, who both know a little something about cool espionage comics.

This one was more over-the-top than Grell’s, and the villain was a grotesque monster that Ian Fleming would have been proud to add to the roster of 007’s adversaries. And their take on James Bond himself was about right. Certainly he was ruthless enough.

But you can see that they’re more into evoking the spirit of the early Bond movies than the actual books. Tongue firmly in cheek.

For the literary Bond — Ian Fleming’s James Bond– the closest anyone in comics came was Don McGregor’s The Quasimodo Gambit, another three-part mini from Dark Horse.

Unfortunately, Gary Caldwell’s art wasn’t quite up to the job, and Don McGregor’s prose was as overwrought as it usually is. But nevertheless McGregor was one of the very few Bond writers who’ve followed Fleming that really seemed to get it. He understood what he was supposed to be doing … it was just the execution that was a little off.

The thing is, almost all the people after Ian Fleming who’ve tried to do Bond stories in comics or in prose generally don’t really understand what it is they’re trying to do. They tend to miss the forest for the trees. They think about the movies, or they worry about the technical details, or they obsess over ‘updating’ Bond for modern readers (John Gardner was especially bad in that area — he had James Bond smoking low-tar cigarettes and worrying about safe sex in his novels.) Above all, they all obsess about making James Bond cool.

No, no, no. The thing that makes James Bond so attractive as a character isn’t that he is cool, which is the mistake everyone makes.

It’s that his world is cool. Way cooler than ours.

Everything in Bond’s world is bigger than life, richer, more exciting. Everything. Not just the heroes and villains. The supporting characters are more colorful, the locales are more exotic, the food is always good and the cars are always fast and the women are always hot and you never lose when you bet millions of francs at baccarat. James Bond is only cool by association, because moving through that landscape is natural to him. It’s nothing to do with his character. In that world, Bond is a regular guy.

As a character, in literary terms, Bond himself is barely sketched in. He’s tough and ruthless when he has to be, generally a solitary sort, good at cards and golf, and (despite his reputation as a wolf) he is tender and chivalrous towards women. That’s about it.

Which is why other writers trying to do Bond screw up so badly when they start worrying about Bond’s character. He isn’t one. He’s just a suit for the reader to step into. The point of James Bond is that he lives in a world that is an adolescent wish-dream, where everything is better than real life. We don’t want to visit James Bond. We want to BE James Bond.

Fleming sold this masterfully. Seriously, just as an act of story construction, technically it’s a tour de force. Fleming got readers to identify with James Bond and feel as though they knew what it was like to be him by making Bond human and prosaic when it didn’t count … getting irrationally nervous on an airplane, having to put up with silly government bureaucracy, getting pushed around by his secretary. That’s why we buy it when, later on, he defeats Doctor No and a dozen henchmen after killing a giant squid with a steak knife and a bit of bent molding. Fleming made the reader come along with him into this crazy world by making it look enough like ours that we could kind of believe in it, and because he totally believed in it himself.

As Kingsley Amis (another guy who got it, as evidenced by his excellent Bond pastiche Colonel Sun) said, “Ian Fleming may have laughed AT his books, but he never, ever laughed IN his books.”

Unfortunately, so many of us have been habituated to Bond-as-parody from the movies that it’s the common conception of the character. It’s kind of funny that the new Daniel Craig 007 movies are hailed as revolutionary and new when really, it’s basically just going back to Fleming’s original idea: playing it absolutely straight. Craig as Bond is mostly a cipher, a muscular, determined guy just fighting to stay alive in an amphetimine-fueled nightmare world full of super-geniuses and conspiracy. What I love about Craig is that he has that Fleming knack of totally committing to the story, no matter what deranged situation he might be in. Now he just needs an actor with the intensity to match him playing a really world-class villain and we’ll be set.

But what about the books and comics?

Honestly? Most of the John Gardner 007 books are awful. Raymond Benson’s are a little better, but he doesn’t really nail it either. The new one from Sebastian Faulks, Devil May Care, is just okay. Apart from Kingsley Amis and the wonderful Colonel Sun, I can only really recommend John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007, which is a nice little piece of faux-scholarship.

This one neatly sidesteps the trap of trying to echo Ian Fleming’s style by presenting itself as a biographical series of reminiscences derived from interviewing the middle-aged, semi-retired 007, rather than as a novel.

This is a work-around technique that actually works better for a pastiche than straight imitation. Finding a different way of approaching the original idea, telling those stories from a different point of view, is a great way of getting past a reader’s natural inclination to judge the pastiche by comparing it to the original. (Samantha Weinberg uses this technique to great advantage in her Moneypenny Diaries.)

The best of these work-arounds is relatively new, and it’s even a comic, too: Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” series.

I was skeptical at first — after all, I remember James Bond Jr. — but these are really clever, meticulously researched books, dealing with Bond’s teen years at Eton and yet managing to evoke the exotic, daydream quality of Ian Fleming’s fantasies. There are lots of Easter eggs for Bond fans and the whole enterprise is tremendous fun.

And now it’s a graphic novel, too.

I think just in terms of simple craft this may be the best Bond comic to date.

Kev Walker has an advantage in that he doesn’t need to evoke an actor’s likeness, but still, I think he’s one of the better artists we’ve seen on a Bond project.

And Higson’s story is a coming-of-age piece yet remains firmly rooted in that Fleming daydream tradition: a fearsome, psychotic villain with a fantastically megalomaniac plot.

Overall, Charlie Higson makes my short-list of Bond writers who gets it. His story of young James Bond and how he gets embroiled with Lord Hellebore and the nasty goings-on at Loch Silverfin are sold in that same Ian Fleming way, little by little, sneaking up on us until we’re completely into it. And you have to love the respect shown for the original novels in all the research (it’s not show-offy, I only noticed it because I know all this stuff backwards.) I especially liked that it’s a period piece that adheres to Fleming’s chronology, which means this story takes place in the 1930’s.

Still, at the end of the day it’s an adaptation and the prose book is better overall. I’d love to see more of these done as originals. A series of “Young James Bond” graphic novels done for bookstores seems like an easy sell to me, if they could be done with this level of craft and care.

I can daydream, anyway.

And I’m pretty sure Ian Fleming would approve of that.


Ask Santa Dept.: In addition to the Titan Books collections, there’s apparently a new history of James Bond in comics and elsewhere, written by Alan Porter, coming out next week.

I literally only just found out about it a little while ago, but I thought I’d mention it before ten thousand commenters pointed it out. I have a hunch it is mostly about the comic strip but I guess we’ll see. I’d love to know more about the guys that worked on the paperback covers, especially Frank McCarthy.

See you next week.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I tend to agree that OHMSS is the best novel, though From Russia With Love and Dr No are pretty close. OHMSS has the better love interest and Marc Ange Draco makes for a good local aide. I have no problems with the film, whatsoever and never have; it’s one of my favorites. I will take it over either of Connery’s returns and the bulk of Moore (except For Your Eyes Only), Dalton’s two, all of Brosnan and Craig.

    I was never that sold on Craig. I didn’t care about the blond hair and I liked him in The Layer Cake; but, the films are just an endless morass of 9/11 metaphors and post-modern psycho-babble and tech fantasy that it just numbs me to the plots. Dalton and Brosnan were underdone by scripts written in committee and plot being subordinate to stunts and product placement. Living Daylights is enjoyable enough; but, has one of the weakest villains of any of the films. Goldeneye is pretty darn good, except a few issues with logic, mostly due to setting up stunt pieces (like a bung jump that could have been better accomplished with an easier rappel down the damn),

    I’m not so down on Gardner; at least his first two. His Boisy Oaks books are better, but it was his own character. They were still better than Eon was doing, at the theater.

    I just miss the sense of fun and mayhem the series had, before everything had to be serious, invoke 9/11 and other government chickens coming home to roost and just lost the pulp escapism. The Man From UNCLE film and the Kingsman movies did a far better job at keeping that spirit alive, in a new millennium. Similarly, Ed Brubaker in his Velvet series.

    I have to shake me head though, when people try to invoke Fleming’s wartime activities with Bond; Fleming was an administrator, not an intelligence officer. He did liason work and a lot of paper pushing and putting groups together; but, he did not run agents or due any spying. The closest was 30 Assault Unit, an intelligence commando formation that fell under his area of administration, where he offered up ideas that were usually too far fetched; but, the actual unit pulled off some major coups in seizing intelligence troves, as the Nazis pulled back. Forget any of the dramatizations of Fleming, as they all try to glamorize his real life to make them more like the books.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Given that OHMSS came up here and was also discussed in the comments to the original post, I’ll say for my part that it is my favorite Bond film bar none, and the only one I still like to watch on occasion.

    Otherwise, I’m not into Bond as much as I used to be: I used to love the films, but they’ve lost their appeal to me (I’ve never watched anything past Living Daylights).
    And I never really liked the novels (only read three of them). However, I’d be willing to read OHMSS – which wasn’t one of three – and the Amis pastiche Col. Sun if I ever get my hands on them.
    Same with the comics: I’d like to read some of the stuff from the 1990s in particular, but mainly because of the creators involved, i.e., Grell, McGregor, Moench and Gulacy…

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