The Hidden S in Phone Booth

A short history of 007 in the comics... The character of James Bond is often referred to as a superhero. Of course this is not wholly true. However his superior set of physical skills, his competence and his battles with his formidable adversaries (who often resemble traditional comic book supervillans) are all earmarks of a superhero. Bond however, I would argue, is more of a cinematic and even literary character than a superhero. This is not to say that he has not lived a separate life in comics and comic strips. There have been many 007 comics and a long-lived comic strip in Britain. On the eve of the US release of the 22nd Bond film Quantum of Solace (which had a large presence at the Comic-Con in San Diego), here is a quick look at Bond the comic character. The Comic Strips... The first real pop incarnation of 007 came not from the cinema but from a comic strip that began years before any film version in 1958 and continued until 1983. Most of this strip was syndicated in British papers. The origin of this strip is interesting in and of itself as the British paper The Daily Express approached Bond creator Ian Fleming about the prospect of adapting his stories and his Bond character into a comic strip, despite Fleming’s well-documented and understandable reservations about this. Fleming fretted that “unless the standard of these books is maintained they will lose their point, and, I think, there I am in grave danger that inflation will spoil not only the readership, but also become something of a death-watch beetle inside the author.” These reservation were realistic as comics did not have the degree of storytelling cache they would have 50 years down the road, and the downside of Fleming being involved with something like this is that it would diminish or render the material juvenile. Despite the fact that comic strips in newspapers were more often written with adult readership in mind (the idea being that adults read newspapers more readily than children). Ultimately, the author and the publishers managed to come to terms with this and the first serialized Bond strip appeared as Casino Royale in 1958. The story was adapted by Anthony Hern and illustrations were done by John McKlusky, who in time would work on twelve Bond comic strip adaptations. McKlusky’s adaptation of Bond’s “look” was much more rugged and masculine than Fleming’s sense of Bond, which was more refined and aristocratic. This strip was quite popular and mirrored the popularity of the Bond films. There were several disputes over the decades about the rights to some of the stories (a couple involving Fleming) which interrupted publication on occasion. In spite of this, the series enjoyed a long, mostly consistent run. The last story, Polestar, was published in 1983. This comic series is the best, truest and most well-done of all of Bond's forays into comics. The stories were well-drawn, well-plotted and even sophisticated. There are touches of realism here that are absent in the films which give the strips credibility. The early Bond portrayed here by McKlusky resembles the young Sean Connery, and it has been speculated that this resemblance helped Connery nab the role of 007. Titan Books has republished almost all of these strips in well-packaged editions. In a nice touch by the publisher, many of these editions have introductions by some of the performers in the films such as George Lazenby (who played Bond once in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Roger Moore for Casino Royale and Maud Adams for Octopussy. Comic Books... 007 has never really appeared in a long form comic series. There have been a number of “one-shots” and limited series runs featuring the character. The first real comic book to feature the character was an adaptation of Dr. No from 1962. The series was released in the US as part of DC’s Showcase series (reprinted from a British Classics Illustrated edition). The work was a fairly close reading of the film, but it censored a lot of the sex and racial overtones of the film (and the novel) for its youthful audience. Strangely enough, the Bond character had a long absence from the major US comics scene until 1981 when Marvel produced a comics adaptation of the film version of For Your Eyes Only. The late 70’s and early 80’s was the golden age of film/TV comic adaptations with comic versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Man From Atlantis, Star Wars, etc. This version of the FYEO was published in a couple of different formats including an illustrated mass market paperback which was a forerunner of the graphic novel format. Marvel followed this up with a 1983 version of the film Octopussy which was available in magazine form. In 1989, the first true Bond graphic novel was written and illustrated by the fine comic creator Mike Grell as Permission to Die. A basically original story, Bond battles Dr. Erik Wiziadio who is a delusional tyrant with the idea to destroy Victoria, British Columbia. The typical Bond tropes are here with guns, sex, cars, exotic locales and gadgets. Strangely enough, Grell’s Bond resembles the actor Clive Owen, who would contend for the current Bond title almost twenty years later. Dark Horse Comics released several Bond mini-series during the early to mid 90’s when the character was off the silver screen. These works helped keep the character alive for comics fans, but the quality of the work varied. The best of the group is probably the Light of My Death series which was set in the early 60’s (the era that Bond makes the most sense as a character). Topps also released a handsome adaptation of the GoldenEye film in 1996. Marvel has also published a series of James Bond Jr. comics (based on the animated works) for the very young comic reader. Foreign comics... Foreign comics have been more willing to work on the Bond character as a legitimate comic character. This makes some sense since Bond is a character who is uniquely non-American in his pursuit of pleasure, sensuality and in his insouciance and cavalier approach to life and death. Manga artist Takao Saito worked on several Bond adaptations during the mid-60’s including Thunderball, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Live and Let Die. This series was took liberties with the character and is only loosely based on the Bond books. In the late 60’s and early 70’s a comic was produced in Chile which featured original Bond stories in a traditional comic format. Interestingly enough, the series ceased publication as a result of the transformation of the Chilean government into a Marxist regime. Many other comic versions have been published in the world since the Bond craze of the early 60's to the present when the Daniel Craig Bond has helped re-energize the franchise. So, is it possible to make a good comic out of Bond? As an aside I feel like it is appropriate to say at this point that my favorite character of fiction is James Bond and I consider myself a serious fan of not just the films, but the books and the mythology of the character. I have written about Bond a couple of times and am a good email acquaintance of John Cork (you can read an interview I did with him here who has written several books on James Bond and produced many of the documentaries on MGM's Bond DVD releases. This weekend I stood in line for two hours to get Roger Moore's autograph here on Long Island. I say this not to impose my interests on you reader, but to help you understand the seriousness with which I take the world of 007 and the seriousness with which I approach this question. Having said that, my inclination is no, not really. Not taking into consideration the legalities of dealing with the rights to the character, the Bond books and the character simply does not translate well to traditional comic books. There are a couple of reasons why: First off, the formula for the characters and story are pretty much set in stone and it is usually a real turnoff for fans to see much straying from the formula. There has to be gadgets, sex, violence, tuxedos, witty one-liners, an uber-villain, Bond's boss M, and Bond saying "Bond, James Bond" among other things. These things pretty much have to be accounted for every time. Even in the recent film Casino Royale which got a lot of credit for straying from the formula, all of these things were basically in place. This kind of strict formula would likely be a turnoff to the modern comic creator who thrives on re-configuring the mythology of a character. The other thing is that 007 is a veddy, veddy British character and an old fashioned British character at that. The characters attitudes really dates back to the chauvinistic attitudes of the WWII generation of which Fleming was definitely a part. These values, a part of the character even at present, are what many people consider part of the character's unique charm. I am not sure this sensibility is a good fit for most of the contemporary comic writers who have a post-modern outlook on story, character and plot. Nor am I sure that this kind of adherence to formula would be attractive to most comic writers for some of the same reasons mentioned above. In other words, Bond doesn't really update well and if you try to update him you run the immediate risk of turning him into something that he is not. Finally, the films are so imposing that they simply overshadow any other aspect of Bond storytelling. No matter how great a comic version of Casino Royale is, it will always be, at best, a footnote in the saga of 007. For instance, it is possible to make a great Batman film and a great Batman comic concurrently. One does not overshadow the other. And, a Batman artist need not make Bruce Wayne/Batman look like Christian Bale. Right now, with a Bond comic, it might be tough to draw Bond looking like anyone else other than Daniel Craig. This is not only a commercial mandate, but it is also because the influence of the film Bond is many times that of the comic Bond. This certainty will make it hard for serious comic creators to tackle 007 as they will fall short of creating a great comic by the limits of these parameters.