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Friday, November 6, 2015

Review - JAMES BOND 007: VARGR #1 Barely Feels Like Bond... Unless You Love the Novels

You know the scene well: James struts into M's office, casually flirting with Moneypenny before getting lectured by M about [theme of the film] and receiving his mission, and then he goes to the staff cafeteria, pulls out his folding chair, and has a so-so line-lunch while gossiping with a co-worker.

Wait, you don't know that scene well? You have a hard time imagining that MI6 has a cafeteria that looks like it could double as a set for a Can't Hardly Wait reboot? Welcome to James Bond 007: VARGR, a new series of James Bond stories published by Dynamite and written by comics legend Warren Ellis. James Bond 007: VARGR has a few problems, but most of them are relatively small. There's one, however, that's so overriding that I have a hard time knowing how to review this book: VARGR barely feels like James Bond at all... unless you're familiar with the novels. Which I, admittedly, only barely am.

In James Bond 007: VARGR #1, 008 has been killed and James is hunting down the murderer. He kills the man and returns to England to find the 00 program in jeopardy and his own performance under question. While they search for a replacement for their lost agent, Bond is given 008's caseload, which includes investigating the import of a new manufactured drug that's flooding the streets of London. So off Bond goes, trying to find out where the drug is coming from and how he can stop it.

I'm not totally in love with some of the character work in the book. Some characters look just close enough to their film counterparts - as with a seemingly Naomi Harris-inspired Moneypenny and a Q that resembles Brosnan-era John Cleese - to be off-putting without actually being photoreference. Meanwhile, Bond himself looks just a bit too much like Sterling Archer for me to take him seriously, though I fully admit that that's unfair. But while I don't love a lot of the character designs, I was able to appreciate the smaller touches - the diversity of skin color, gender, body type, the physicality of the characters that helped sell personality - as I paid more attention to the characters as characters rather than as James Bond characters, I began to appreciate the book a bit more.

James Bond #1 opens on a promising scene. Bond hunts down a tattooed killer in an 8-page long silent chase and fight sequence. Artist Jason Masters has a sense for splashy, eye-catching imagery and crisp, energetic fight choreography, not to mention a keen eye for detail. The office spaces, the abandoned construction yards - they're all filled with a strong sense of space. He's well-paired with colorist Guy Major, whose compositions tend to be muted and realistic, but who finds splashes of vivid color to catch the eye and control the pace. It's a classic cold-open that wouldn't be out of place in basically any James Bond film ever made.

But that's where comparisons to the film series mostly stop. For some readers, that's where they may stop as well. But fans of Ian Fleming's novels, the bleaker and more grounded spy thrillers of the 1950's and 60's may find a lot more to like in VARGR. Ellis' Bond is a misanthrope in a world that's always watching, and already, the comic displays a quieter side of Bond, and spy life in general, than what any of the films show.

Far and away the strongest creative choice Ellis made, at least thus far, is to update the series to the modern age in a way the films, which are essentially works of fantasy, never have. James has to fly coach and he gripes about his caseload. Most hilariously, he has to have his gun shipped to him, as he is forbidden by law to carry it on British soil thanks to something called the Hard Rule, leaving him unarmed for future stories. Bond is such a masculine ideal that Film Crit Hulk titled his exhaustive (but excellent!) analysis of the film series "Staring Into the Id of a Boner Incarnate," so placing him in a modern day where he his macho misanthropy holds a less powerful cultural sway suggests a lot of really phenomenal opportunities for character-based storytelling.

Warren Ellis basically invented the 'Film Age' of comics with 1999's The Authority, but VARGR has none of the pop-inspired energy that made many of that age's early titles so endlessly readable. Instead, Ellis is pushing for something more relaxed than many of the stories that made his reputation. Fans who come in expecting the same blockbuster aesthetics and world-conquering stakes that have defined many of the character's silver screen adventures will almost certainly leave disappointed. Unfortunately, I can't say that readers looking for a more subtle Bond story will be entirely satisfied either, as this issue is almost entirely setting the table for future installments. Which isn't surprising for a book based on a series of novels, where longform storytelling rules the roost, but as a first issue, VARGR just feels too slight. There are hints of some really interesting ideas present in the issue and I could easily see it growing into something worthwhile, but as an introduction meant to hook new readers, there's precious little to hold on to.

James Bond 007: VARGR #1 was colored by Guy Majors, lettered by Simon Bowlands, written by Warren Ellis, and illustrated by Jason Masters. Published by Dynamite, James Bond 007: VARGR #1 came out on November 4th, 2015, with a list price of $3.99. No review copies of this book were provided, as the reviewer is trapped in a gothic novel trying to escape the sins of his past.
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