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.


  1. Great review. Thanks for posting. Bond's character model looks a bit weird.

  2. Just finished reading it, couldn't agree with you more! Finally a creative team with the guts, and the faith, to stick to Fleming's actual creations and story. My love affair with all things Bond has been put through the wringer over the decades, yet even after the Moore and Brosnan humiliations i would still return, a bit like the pathetic partner who knows that deep deep down their spouse is really a good soul, if only they'd give up the booze. Then, with Craig's Casino Royale, my faith was more than just partially restored - sure, they couldn’t resist modifying the story, updating stuff, adding unnecessary characters and explosions - but it still contained enough of the original story to show someone had read the actual friggin’ book, and it was these bits that gave the movie its spine, its tension, its emotional punch! So grateful was i, to be not squirming with embarrassment at the portrayal of my childhood hero, that i began to come to terms with the fact that this was probably as close as i was ever going to get, to the real James. EON were never going to go back to full-Bond. In reality they never had; even in Dr.No we could see the course set for future films: Less summary executions (That’s a smith and wesson…and you’ve had your six) and lots more silly blow-up endings with people in uniforms running about. But maybe the movie Casino Royale showed that wiser heads had finally prevailed, and they’d found the sweet spot between Fleming’s ruthless agent and a modern secret agent that wouldn’t totally alienate the younger generation with his misogyny, racism and drug addictions. But then this graphic novel adaptation came along, and blew all that shit out of the water. What was i thinking? Who was i fooling? This top notch comic reaffirms what i have always known deep down inside: Fleming's Bond is the best Bond, the benzedrine and champagne quaffing 70 cigarettes a day snobby ruthless arsehole who thrives in a murky world of lies and death. And the team that did this graphic novel brought that riveting character back to me, with great fidelity. Well done!