As I explained last week, throughout July I’m recommending various spy comics here at the blog, trying to show that stories of espionage can serve both as a way to expose hidden processes taking place around us and as a springboard for wild escapism.
Today, I want to focus on the subgenre of two-fisted tales revolving around fierce, stylish, ultra-competent agents – like Jason Bourne, only way more ruthless:
Secret (collected in paperback as Secret: Never Get Caught) tells the story of a group of agents from a private security company who uncover a massive conspiracy. It’s very much a post-Cold War thriller, not only in the sense that the comic is set in the information age where hackers can pull off a heist without leaving their seats, but also in the sense that the intricate plot leaves nationalist and ideological disputes behind – no one is out to destroy or defend capitalism, they just enact it in different ways.
The mini-series features byzantine intrigue, macho posturing, mutilation, chases, and shootouts, yet the bulk of it takes place in corporate settings, with characters spouting exposition while undertaking aggressive negotiations or discussing financial transactions. Fortunately, the whole thing is written by Jonathan Hickman, an expert in penning machine gun-paced dialogue with plenty of lively turns of phrase:
At the end of the day, Secret may be little more than a lean, mean genre exercise, but for fans of this type of twist-filled yarn it is a joy to see the creators play to their strengths. Jonathan Hickman (who did a much more comedic take on industrial espionage in Transhuman) brings in the usual élan and intelligence, including his signature conceptual games in the chapter titles and covers. This is matched by colorist Michael Garland, who gives each panel shades of only one or two colors, reinforcing specific moods and hinting at hidden symbols throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, Ryan Bodenheim absolutely kills on the art, conveying a constant state of tension, as if things are always on the verge of exploding – and when they finally do explode, he renders that in riveting fashion.
(Warren Ellis & Jason Masters run)
Much of the hyper-stylized take on espionage goes back to James Bond, the swaggering, womanizing secret agent 007, of the MI6, with his license to kill and his blend of sex, sadism, and snobbery. James Bond came to life in 1953 on the pages of the novels of Ian Fleming and, since 1962, has found a popular home in a long-running movie franchise full of lavish sets, international vistas, killer sharks, sexy ‘Bond girls’ with ludicrous names, and megalomaniac villains threatening the world, often connected to the sinister organization SPECTRE. While it is easy to mock the series’ iconic formula and catchphrases (not to mention the misogyny and imperialist politics), I’m not immune to the pulpy thrills of the underwater fights in Thunderball, the ninja school in You Only Live Twice, the chase through the Indian marketplace in Octopussy, the gleeful media satire in Tomorrow Never Dies. Due to the franchise’s connotation with cheesy clichés and outrageous double entendres, when spy yarns want to be taken seriously they tend to distance themselves from Bond – but I also like it when creators try to have it both ways, presenting 007 as an old-school pro, albeit one operating in a slightly off-kilter universe.
There have been several comic books featuring James Bond and, a couple of years ago, some mad genius at Dynamite decided to let Warren Ellis have a go at the property. After all, who could be better suited to pen a series built around murderous violence, high-tech gadgets, British politics, and a dark sense of humor? Predictably, the result was a blast – easily the best Bond tales since Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, with Ellis writing a modern 007 that is closer to the cruel-bastard-in-a-tux from the vintage novels than to the cartoonish horndog from most movies.
In ‘Vargr,’ James Bond investigates an insanely lethal drug being smuggled into the United Kingdom. In ‘Eidolon,’ a routine operation to extract a compromised agent at the LA Turkish consulate turns out to have much more far-reaching implications than expected. Along the way, you get gallons of bloody action and British wit, nastily brought to the page by Jason Masters.
Although best known for his sci-fi and superhero comics, Warren Ellis has frequently ventured into spy fiction before, from the relatively straightforward mini-series Reload and Red to outlandish genre hybrids like Desolation Jones, Global Frequency, and Ultimate Human. He feels right at home here, returning James Bond to a world of trade jargon and technobabble while making a point of downplaying some of the franchise’s dated tropes by giving us a multicultural Britain as well as a number of strong female characters. Plus, the comic can be outright funny, especially the running gag about 007 no longer being allowed to carry a gun in the UK.
Since this relaunch, Dynamite has been putting out other James Bond series in the same vein as the Ellis/Masters run. In particular, Andy Diggle’s and Luca Casalanguida’s ‘Hammerhead’ is rather swell, with its relentless forward momentum and its jabs at the Brexit zeitgeist (luckily, it has nothing to do with the campy 1968 Bond rip-off of the same name).
NEXT: Even more spy comics.