Monday 23 April 2018

Comic Relief: How Dynamite Entertainment are saving James Bond

As we all know and are not allowed to argue with, the James Bond franchise skied off a cliff without a Union Jack parachute with 2015's Spectre, a strong contender for the worst Bond film ever. My heart was broken, the blinding intensity of my Bond love reduced to a flickering two-lumen glow; I even had to whine about the whole situation out loud as some kind of therapy, for which I can only apologise. But behind the scenes, the healing process was beginning: sexy nerds at comic publishers Dynamite Entertainment and even sexier, nerdier nerds at Ian Fleming Publications were sexily nerdling away at a new direction for everyone's favourite state-sponsored alcoholic gun-toting sociopathic sex tourist.

And so it was that while I was processing my post-Spectre grief, an alternate James Bond universe opened up in the pages of Dynamite's comics and collected graphic novels, and it was, like Moneypenny to Bond in For Your Eyes Only, a feast for my eyes. An insanely fun blend of reverence and freshness, Dynamite's Bond smokes, swears (PG-bombs only so far), drives a Bentley (initially, at least) and is mercilessly cruel - all as Fleming described him - but enjoys all the action beats and playful relationships of the films. It's a delicate cocktail, and Dynamite's mixology skills are currently at Duke's Bar levels, where Spectre's were more like Wetherspoons. And while the stories so far have mostly been typically action-packed Bond yarns, there have also been spinoffs for M, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter. It's this canny handling of the formula and willingness to diversify that, for me, is where comic-book Bond is gaining the edge over his cinematic counterpart.

Now I'm not saying I necessarily need a full length film about Felix Leiter, but I do dream of one day seeing an official 007 flick about an older Bond (ideally starring Timothy Dalton), or a period film, maybe set during the Cold War. But until there are major changes at the top of Bond production company EON, those movies - whose appeal to a mainstream audience would be limited, to say the least - seem about as likely as me playing James Bond. What would be an eye-wateringly expensive gamble in the cinema, however, is just a matter of original commissioning and great writing in comic book land. Last year Dynamite announced Origin, a Bond arc set during WWII (although that seems to have stalled, perhaps in light of Anthony Horowitz's similarly-themed forthcoming novel), and just the other week they released a staggeringly faithful graphic novel adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book Casino Royale, over which I may or may not have coolly and calmly lost my shit.

Here, then, using the first five of Dynamite's runs to be made available in collected hardcovers, is a story-by-story guide to how the publishers have reinvigorated the Bond brand. With Bond 25's future uncertain, it's good to know there's still new life in the old bastard yet, even if I have to do the sound effects myself.

VARGR (2015)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
The brave new Bondworld kicked off with pleasing deference to the character's history and refreshing new twists: a cold open straight from the films has Bond's face hidden until a dramatic reveal, but not before there's been the kind of eye-watering violence that's always been out of bounds for the cinematic 007. The story concerns lethal drugs being peddled on the streets of the UK by diabolical mastermind Slaven Kurjak, assisted by a super-strong henchman and henchwoman. In true Fleming style, all three have some form of physical or mental disfigurement.

Warren Ellis happily throws in scenes you'd never see on screen: junkies dying in their own filth in a Brixton crack den and James Bond eating a shitty sandwich in the MI6 canteen are just a couple of ways in which the comic book Bond announces its house style, and while it's initially disconcerting, it's exactly what the comics should be doing. Similarly, there are precious few gadgets and no sex at all in Vargr, and Ellis maintains the violent streak set out in the opening - a warehouse shootout is drenched in blood, and a vicious triple murder is shocking as much for being unexpected as it is brutal. To compensate for this almost unrecognisable Bond aesthetic, there are comfort blankets to be found in the familiar relationships between Bond, Moneypenny, M and Q, and when the action kicks in it's as inventive and fun as you'd expect.

Ellis nails the tone perfectly: following a devastating car crash, Bond calmly retrieves his suitcase from the boot and walks the rest of the way to his destination; after escaping a raging inferno and discovering his phone doesn't work because it's too hot, he simply sits down and smokes a cigarette while it cools down. It's drily funny, too, refusing to take itself too seriously but not at the expense of the franchise's integrity. Jason Masters' artwork is clean, detailed and hyperreal in all the right ways, and he and colourist Guy Major have a ball splashing blood all over the place as if they're inking Preacher. Vargr announced comic book Bond in impeccable style, and while it's light on subtext - it's a straightforward romp with little new to say about 007's place in the world - it was enough just to know that Bond was back.

EIDOLON (2016)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
Warren Ellis hit harder and dug deeper for his second run, which sets out its stall in the first few pages when the villain sacks a sloppy employee by slowly pulling his head back until his neck snaps. That viciousness isn't limited to the bad guys: Bond himself kills six people before the story is 20 pages old, and he doesn't do it quietly. It's the Bond we were promised in the most brutal moments of Daniel Craig's Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace (only with 1000% more blood, bone and brains spattered around), before the sharp edges were softened for Skyfall and Spectre. While the films returned to family-friendly entertainment, the comics shamelessly appealed to the sadists lurking inside every fan of Ian Fleming's 007. Bond even goes a bit Jack Bauer, happily torturing a suspect in the bowels of MI6; an uncomfortable moment, the implications of which should probably have been developed further.

The plot involves murky politics and paranoia, with MI5 and MI6 pitted against each other, and terrorist cells compromising the CIA and the Turkish secret service. Behind it all is Eidolon, a mysterious organisation with links to none other than SPECTRE. Ellis joins these unlikely dots with far more intrigue and skill than the films did when they were finally able to link Quantum to Blofeld, and as a bonus there's none of that surrogate brother nonsense to drag it all down.

Old school Bond is still there though: both of the story's two main female characters end up in the sack with him (separately, I should add, although one of them - the spectacularly-monikered Cadence Birdwhistle - is into BDSM), and he's still a high-functioning alcoholic, his bourbon of choice this time being Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ("You want anything in it?" "Yes. More Woodford Reserve Double Oaked."). And it's hard to tell how intentional it is, but Jason Masters delights in dressing Bond in Sterling Archer's tactleneck for one night-time set-piece. Modern Bond has always been about weighing familiar tropes against both the character's literary origins and what 21st century storytelling can offer the franchise, and on the basis of his two runs, Warren Ellis appears to have a better grasp of that than most.

Writer: Andy Diggle     Artist: Luca Casalanguida
The most politically relevant arc yet from Dynamite, Andy Diggle's first pop at the series features a villain whose plan is to "make Britain great again", who hates "bleeding heart liberals and Eurocrats", is an extreme imperialist, nationalist and capitalist, and - just to be sure - has the nickname 'Tory', short for Victoria. James Bond's mission isn't just to stop her blowing up London with a stolen Trident nuclear warhead, it's to symbolically stop Brexit, Trump, nuclear proliferation and every right-wing concept going. The fact that Bond himself is an old Etonian and former Naval commander invented by an upper-class son of a Conservative MP is apparently neither here nor there.

Diggle goes all in with some classic Bond action here, assisted enormously by Luca Casalanguida's kinetic artwork. Nukes, parachutes, sharks, tuxedos, baddies who turn out to be goodies (and vice versa) and a race to abort a missile are all present and correct, and Fleming fans will delight at Bond smoking his beloved Morland cigarettes (with the distinctive triple gold bands, obvs) lit with a Ronson lighter, as well as the mention of Loelia Ponsonby, his personal secretary from the novels.

There are sequences here you'd kill to see in the films: Moneypenny threatening to kill M to avoid his capture and Bond's beloved car being remotely controlled by the enemy in an attempt to kill him are terrific ideas. But it's the final page of Hammerhead that demonstrates the comics' subversive bent: where Skyfall finished with 007 proudly framed by the Union Jack as he watched over London, here he casts a wary glance up at the flag before turning his back on it. Maybe being a dead-inside, government-sanctioned murder drone isn't as much fun as it sounds after all?

BLACK BOX (2017)
Writer: Benjamin Percy     Artist: Rapha Lobosco
OK, here's where my argument falters a little. Just as every Bond actor's fourth film is a stinker, Dynamite suffered a similar fate with their fourth run. Benjamin Percy's 007 is a shameless recreation of everything the writer obviously loves about the Bond films: loaded with familiar tropes and references, Black Box is a zippy but unoriginal tale, concerned with WikiLeaks-style secrets being used to blackmail nation states. The action is serviceable, but it's hooked onto a load of cringing waffle that sounds like it's trying to explain the digital age to your grandad.

Percy's obsession with sticking to the formula of the films leads to elements that will either be welcome or disappointing depending on how progressive you feel the comics should be. Bond's Bentley is replaced with an Aston Martin, a female agent exists only to hang on to Bond's arm (and, subsequently, his dick), and the villain is all talk and physically unthreatening, so that a massive, near-mute, virtually invincible henchman can do his dirty work. Some of the classic Bond stuff is fun (alpine-based action makes a welcome appearance), but Percy can't control himself - inserting a scene in a casino isn't enough; the casino also has to contain Chekhov's shark-filled aquarium.

There's a potentially interesting motif about scars - physical and emotional - running through the story, but it's all a bit laboured and on the nose, and ends up becoming a diet version of the kind of character analysis that's become a millstone around the neck of Daniel Craig's films. Rapha Lobosco's illustrations are strong, if less clean than we've seen so far in the series, but Chris O'Halloran's colours render the whole story - set almost entirely in night-time Tokyo - uniformly blue, black and grey: a twilight blur in which it's hard to distinguish one set-piece from another. Less adventurous than its predecessors and falling back on tired familiarity, Black Box proves how tricky it is to get the Bond balance right.

Writer: James Robinson     Artist: Aaron Campbell
The first full-length spin-off from Dynamite's Bond series focuses on 007's scruffy Texan pal, who's made brief appearances in the main run (Bond returns the favour here, popping up for a quick cameo). It's a cracking standalone adventure, in which the ex-CIA spook teams up with another fan favourite, You Only Live Twice's Tiger Tanaka, on a mission to discover who's behind a terrorist attack in Tokyo. En route we get flashbacks to Leiter's time serving in Afghanistan alongside improbably hot female Russian agent Alena Davoff, with whom he enjoyed a little PG-rated R&R. Davoff reappears in Tokyo, somehow connected to the attack and thereby dragging Felix into the action.

Writer James Robinson lends Felix an air of introspective melancholy; equipped with a prosthetic arm and leg, he stews over the loss of his limbs (to a shark; an incident referred to but unseen in Dynamite so far, and straight from Fleming) and laments the fact that he's not as smart, cool or infallible as Bond. Riddled with self-doubt and largely clumsy and uncertain for most of the story, it's a relief that Leiter isn't simply a Bond substitute here. The welcome result is more characterisation than we've seen so far from Dynamite, although there's still plenty of action - mainly courtesy of Tanaka and his 21st century team of ninjas. Robinson avoids cliché for the most part (although the old 'villain-who-wants-to-get-captured' chestnut makes an appearance, despite the disdain Robinson shows for Skyfall's plot in an interview printed at the back of the hardcover), and there's a delicious tease at the end, leaving things open for further instalments and connecting neatly to earlier stories.

Felix Leiter's major selling point, though, is its stunning artwork. Artist Aaron Campbell and colourist Salvatore Aiala toss off panels that wouldn't go amiss framed on your wall, employing a cinematic style that would be welcome in the main run of Bond stories. Campbell's Felix is a craggy but fit Josh Holloway type, much as Ian Fleming described him, but considerably (and understandably) less cheery due to the whole, you know, missing limbs thing. Aiala's use of light is gorgeous, whether it's in a sultry middle eastern hotel room or on a sun-drenched Key West beach, and his Tokyo - a vast improvement on Black Box's rendering - is wet, gloomy and oppressive: perfect conditions for externalising Leiter's despondent frame of mind.


So if you've found yourself let down by your chosen James Bond platform or are just twiddling your thumbs waiting for Bond 25 to finally arrive, it's very much worth checking out Dynamite's work. I wouldn't go so far as to say that nobody does it better, but right now it's hard not to feel sad for the rest.

Monday 16 April 2018

Baccarat To Basics:
Dynamite Comics' Casino Royale

Comic book publishers Dynamite Entertainment have, for the last two and a bit years, been steadily ploughing a furrow of new and original James Bond stories told in panel-and-speech-balloon format. The first story - clumsily titled Vargr, as if nobody would read it as 'Viagra' (is it just me? Oh god it's just me isn't it) - kicked off a parallel Bondiverse that has so far produced five full-length 007 stories (with a sixth currently mid-run), another centred on the adventures of Felix Leiter, and four one-shots. In the same time, EON Productions have released one rubbish Bond film and are currently dicking about trying to decide who should write the next one.

So Dynamite's output is catnip for Bond-starved geeks right now, and while the stories they've produced haven't all been 100% successful (more on that in a forthcoming waffle), last week they knocked everything up a notch with the long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of what is hopefully the first in a long series of hardcovers: a graphic novel version of Ian Fleming's debut Bond book, Casino Royale.
Adapted with fastidious loyalty to Fleming's text by Van Jensen and with artwork by Dennis Calero, Casino Royale is everything I'd hoped it would be from the moment it was announced: a perfect marriage of words and images that's the closest we'll ever get to a genuinely faithful screen adaptation of Fleming's work. It takes minimal liberties with the story, scrupulously translating every event from every chapter to ensure Fleming is never short-changed, and adding just enough flourishes to justify its existence as a separate entity. Maybe I'm still on a high from finishing it, but this book has gone some way towards reigniting a passion for Bond I thought had been utterly doused by Spectre's woefulness.

Jensen has made some bold choices with his writing, opting to retain swathes of Ian Fleming's electrically evocative prose to illustrate Calero's panels. Ordinarily this might come across as an excess of exposition, but Fleming wrote with such brutal panache that it's a joy to read those words alongside the accompanying images. To evolve the text, though, Jensen has also added what he describes as "Bond View" (personally I'd have gone for "Bond Vision", but what do I know): labels describing Bond's calculated assessments of situations before him. Initially it makes 007 look a bit like the Terminator, but then you realise that that's quite deliberate - he's cold and methodical, and that's the exact mechanical way in which the character sees the world. When he fails to stop and analyse is usually when it all goes tits up for him, which it does in Fleming far more often than on film.
Fidelity to the source leads to the kind of things we haven't seen in Dynamite's Bond work so far, but it's what makes the whole project exciting. There's no pressure to restructure the story, which plays out nothing like a typical action adventure, and no crowbarring in of explosive action sequences just because it's Bond. The baccarat game at the novel's heart remains in place (no dumbing down to Texas hold 'em here), as does Bond's lengthy mansplaining of its rules to Vesper Lynd. Jensen and Calero depict the game with the appropriate rollercoaster tension, arguably improving on Fleming's narration - which, naturally, is included almost verbatim.

We also get Bond's lengthy meditation on the nature of evil in full, selling his decision to resign much more convincingly than the 2006 film did, and making his subsequent rage-fuelled reversal of that choice (at which point Calero allows himself to portray Bond in the famous gunbarrel pose, and it's a lovely nod) so much more tragic. But unswerving devotion to Fleming means we do have to put up with the author's deplorable sexism (and presumably, in forthcoming instalments, racism). It's to Jensen's credit that he's excluded the most reprehensible misogynistic bile that Fleming spewed into Casino Royale, but hasn't shied away entirely from the attitudes with which the creator imbued his creation. It's still unpleasant to read, but it would have felt dishonest to censor it completely. Jensen himself has publicly expressed his distaste for these elements, saying they're included in order to be discussed, and I tend to agree with his judgement.

Perhaps the boldest augmentation of the novel comes in a double-page spread in which Bond, having survived the infamous knacker-whacking torture dished out by Le Chiffre and his carpet beater (Mads Mikkelsen's knotted rope going the same way as poker), internally expresses the fear that his junk might never return to its former glory. Jensen and Colero illustrate this with a technical diagram of the constituent parts of a gun; literally, a dismantled weapon. The metaphor is both ingenious and, in terms of Bond's self-image, hugely troubling.

Dennis Calero's Bond is a little inconsistently depicted throughout, although for the most part he has more than a little of the Michael Fassbender about him. As Fleming described, his looks are cold and cruel; the scar on the right cheek is mysteriously (and, in all honesty, disappointingly) absent, but the comma of hair on the forehead and ruthless blue-grey eyes are present and correct. Meanwhile Le Chiffre is an unholy hybrid of Aleister Crowley (on whom Fleming based the character) and Orson Welles, who played Le Chiffre in the 1967 film version of which we do not speak. An imposing, meaty figure with snooker ball eyes that give the impression of never having blinked, it's a pity we don't see more of him.
Calero renders Fleming's world in appropriate muted tones with shadows and silhouettes everywhere: the sense of Bond skulking around in dimly-lit casinos is a world away from the movies' idea of him strutting smugly past sparkling roulette tables. And those single-page splashes, naturally reserved for the story's most dramatic moments, are stunningly rendered by Calero and colourist Chris O'Halloran. The first contact betwixt carpet beater and Bondian undercarriage, for example, is unforgettably executed.

So yes, it's an insanely enthusiastic double thumbs up for Casino Royale: an absolute treat for Fleming fans, an education for those only familiar with the cinematic 007 who can't be arsed to read a whole book (if that's you, you're an idiot), and a tantalising appetite-whetter for what may lie in store. I can't deny the excitement I felt when, after tweeting Van Jensen to congratulate him on this book, this was his immediate response:

So it looks like yet again, James Bond will return. Now there's a novel idea.