Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Masters
Letterer: Simon Bowland
For fans of James Bond and comic books, the wait has been excruciatingly long. Not since the mid 1990s, when an incomplete run of books adapting the film Goldeneye was published, have people who enjoy both Bond and comics been given a smidgen of consideration. This is all the more curious when considering how well the 007 brand sells worldwide and how visual the storytelling is when done right. Fleming’s novels were easily adaptable to the silver screen because his writing was so colourful and precise. Despite some obvious elements working in favour of such a project, it is only now, in November of 2015, that followers of the famous British secret agent’s exploits get to relish in a new monthly series, this one courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment, who signed an agreement in October of 2014 with the Ian Fleming estate. With acclaimed writer Warren Ellis and artist Jason Masters on board, Ian Fleming’s James Bond is updated to modern day with a brand new mission.
VARGR issue 1 begins with a cold opening, a hallmark of the 007 movies. In a wintry Helsinki setting, a bald man sporting an ugly spider tattoo on the back of his head is running. It is not made clear at first if he is in a hurry to get somewhere or anxious to flee a threat, but he most certainly looks stressed out. He fires shots behind him as he enters a construction site left deserted for the evening. None other than MI6 secret agent James Bond is after the man in question, an assassin, as it turns out, who recently murdered 008. After a brief but intense exchange of shots, fists and even shovel swings, 007 dispatches the vulgar brute coldly with a bullet to the head. Meanwhile, back in the lower class slums of London, drug addicts are discovering a new product, one that produces powerful hallucinogenic symptoms. Bond, summoned to meet with M, head of MI6, and the latter’s chief of staff, Bill Tanner, is ordered to head to Berlin to finish off what 008 had started, that being the hunt for the source of a new potent drug with an unknown component making its way into the UK.
To say that the level of anticipation surrounding this book in the Bond fan community was high would be an understatement. Warren Ellis, a celebrated writer who has co-created fantastic original works as well as thrown his hat into the Marvel ring a few times, was a huge coup for Ian Fleming Publications. What would Fleming’s Bond transported to modern day be like? What sort of stories and characters would feel contemporary whilst be right at home had they been featured in those classic novels from the 1950s and early 1960s? Naturally, any comic book series cannot be wholly judged following a reading of issue 1. VARGR #1 is, understandably, set-up, all of which needs to be communicated in the range of 22 pages, the usual length for a single-issue. In other words, concluding at this moment that James Bond 007 is a sublime, exquisite, pitch-perfect interpretation of the 007 mythos by way of a different medium would be overkill and presumptuous.
What can be argued, quite confidently in fact, is that Warren Ellis and Jason Masters have taken a step in the right direction, both from a storytelling and artistic standpoint. The question on everyone’s mind when picking up a copy at their local bookstore or purchasing a digital version online will be ‘How well does the Ellis-Masters duo know James Bond and his world? How do they translate all of that to comic panels?’ Judging by VARGR #1, they understand him almost completely, not to mention that they dabble a little bit with the film tropes (although not too many, they are kept to a minimum as promised) and a lot in what made Fleming’s novels so enjoyable. They were globe-trotting, violent yarns that featured a dark knight as its protagonist. The Bond of the books is the sort of hero that is only rarely seen on film. Yes, he is the proverbial good guy. Ultimately, he is fighting for the security and freedom of Great Britain against tyranny and evildoers, but he is a bit of a pompous ass. He’s demanding in extremely particular ways. Frankly, he thinks he is above a lot of people. What Fleming provided his readership therefore was an anti-hero, not an angel. Ellis and Masters definitely understand this, providing their Bond with some interesting psychological facets, such as a disdain for being treated like a regular civilian and when travelling abroad, a perverse misconception that a revenge-assassination is a ‘simple’ mission (M justly chides him, asking his man if he thinks murder is a simple concept), and, most importantly, showing an irritated Bond in the face of governmental regulations that in some ways restrict what he deems the best, safest way to go about his business, which is a rather right-wing, conservative mentally that comes straight out of the original novels.
Another aspect to the opening issue fans will instantly recognize from classic Fleming is the level of violence. When deemed necessary for the proper effect, Master goes all out in depicting how grisly death can be. The opening sequence, for example, ends on a single panel taking up the entire page that shows 007’s deceased target looking in tatters to say the least. If VARGR #1 is any indication, readers are about to experience a very violent translation of the super spy’s world, one for which Masters will not shy away from some hauntingly painful imagery.
In fact, concerning the book’s aesthetic, Masters’ work is really quite pleasing. He forgoes the modern aesthetic commonly featured in DC and Marvel runs which, while evidently the result of ungodly hours of hard work, sees the storytelling submerged in too much detail, whereas his work here is a bit neater, a bit tighter than that. His use of panels aims for full dramatic and comedic effect as well, such as when Bond is called into M’s office. The entire page is a series of five wide angle images that stretch the width of the page with Bond simply sitting and waiting uncomfortably on one side and M, nose deep in documents, sitting at the other end, pretending as if Bond is not even present. 007 himself is a solid representation of what Fleming had imagined too: Caucasian, tall, dark hair, handsome yet somehow a bit indistinct, and a visible scar on his right cheek. On the flip side, Masters and Ellis do update two other stalwarts of the series, Moneypenny and M. Seeing a black Moneypenny honours the change the character underwent in 2012’s Skyfall. A black M is a bigger surprise, and in many respects a welcome one. All that being said, ultimately these changes are cosmetic more than anything else. The important thing is that the core of their personality traits is preserved, and thus far Ellis is proving he is up to that challenge. Lastly, and interestingly enough, Q actually resembles John Cleese a lot, the British actor having played the part in 2002’s Die Another Day.
One should not put too much stock into the first issue of a new series. What matters now is can Ellis and Masters produce a lavish, sexy, dangerous adventure that can last several months. Still, first impressions are often very important, and Bond fans can rest assured that by picking up VARGR #1 they will happily ease into the world of a modern James Bond comic book. James has his tip up early.
James Bond will return in VARGR #2!