James Bond is no stranger to the world of comics. His comicstrip adventures (both adapted from Ian Fleming’s books and original) were a staple of the Daily Express and Daily Star from 1958 until 1983. There have also been scattered attempts to given Bond his own on-going comic book adventures, such as the Dark Horse published series from the early 90s. But Bond has merely flirted with the medium, something of a surprise given that his wildly improbable escapades would seem to suit comics perfectly. Now Warren Ellis, who has brought the world such genre defining and defying series as ‘The Authority’, ‘Transmetropolitan’ and ‘Global Frequency’, gives a modern-era set Bond another shot in the comicbook world.
Much like Bond’s cinema outings, the book begins with a both literally and figuratively cold opening in which 007 chases someone for unknown reasons. The book immediately sets out its stall as, unlike Bond’s cinema outings, the brutality of Bond’s profession and methods are shown in all their gory glory. A foot is severed in half, fingers are nastily chopped off and Bond’s final action is as callous as it bloody. This is Fleming’s instrument at its most blunt.
After his brief and nasty encounter, Bond finds himself back in England and dispatched on a case to investigate a new drug whose introduction into the UK has the powers-that-be rather worried. He heads to Berlin where he immediately finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of deceit as everyone does not seem to be whom they first appear. A killer henchman who can’t feel pleasure and the mysterious word ‘Vargr’ will ensure that 007 will find himself having to use all his skills to do his duty for queen and country.
Ellis straddles the fine line between homage and subversion with his take on Bond. His 007 is close to that of Fleming’s, a rather grim and dour secret agent whose job is defined by brutality and bureaucracy. Ellis also introduces some of the tropes made famous in the Bond universe, the aforementioned pleasure denied henchman or a hired killer who has more than you would think up their sleeves are all ‘Bond Villain 101’. There is also a delightful bit when the main villain of the piece does the usual of revealing their entire plan to Bond but, for once, has a perfectly good reason to do so outside of idiotic boasting.
Ellis also strips Bond of many of the elements that create the appeal in his fantastical world. One of the reasons that audiences respond to Bond is that his life seems so much more removed from the drudgery of reality. He frequents exotic locations, lounges around in casinos, drinks expensive drinks and eats the best food. He also beds numerous ladies whilst saving the world. He doesn’t have to sit around doing tax returns or making sure that he has enough milk in. But in ‘Vargr’, Bond has no time to indulge the taste buds (the only time we see him eating is in the office canteen, which seems such a mundane setting for the suave 007) or the pleasures of the flesh. His entire travels take him to office blocks, sterile laboratories or cold and snowy wastelands. There is no hedonistic pleasure here, just a man trying to do his job in the most professional way he can. Even Q, portrayed as a gruff and aging general-type figure, much like Fleming’s original Major Boothroyd, has no time for cute gadgets. Here he gives Bond bullets that will inflict as much damage as possible on human tissue.
This is not to say that this take on Bond is unappealing, just different from the image of 007 that may have become prevalent over the past few decades. It would be also unfair to say that the story is anything but action-packed. Ellis keeps a taut pace throughout as Bond, without his usual distractions, acts as both a cold assassin and world class detective. Jason Masters’ art is stark, reflecting Ellis’ take on Bond. This is a world of harshness, white snow and black shadows and, as mentioned, Masters does not shirk on the portrayal of brutality. Much of Ellis’ work seems to delight in the myriad of ways that the human head can explode and here is no exception. It’s really not one for the squeamish.
‘Vargr’ is an intriguing and absorbing return of Bond to the comicbook world, though those expecting wisecracks and suave innuendo might get something of a shock. But those who are fans of Fleming’s original take on the character will find much to enjoy here.
This collected edition of the six issues that made up ‘Vargr’ also includes numerous cover variations that were used when the individual comics were printed. It includes a rather brilliant cover from Robert Hack which has Bond as the cover of an American pulp detective book which is almost worth the price of admission alone.
(pub: Dynamite Entertainment. 176 page graphic novel hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK), $19.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60690-901-0)
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