James Bond: Vargr & James Bond: Eidolon
I checked out these Bond collections by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters as part of a recent Dynamite sale, and I’m very happy that I did. Not only are they great Bond stories, but they’re also great comics in their own right: a pair of six-issue story arcs that serve up a fresh take on Bond that draws on the best elements of lots of different versions of the character, while also playing to the strengths of comics to give us sequences that are as thrilling for their visual inventiveness as for the action they depict.
Kicking off with a gritty and largely wordless action scene that acts as a ‘pre-credits sequence’ to draw us into the story, Vargr deliberately throws us off-balance in its early stages by playing down the super-suave Hollywood version of Bond in favour of a far more workmanlike and practical take.
This is a Bond who we see having lunch with colleagues in a cafeteria; a Bond who isn’t always able to circumvent petty bureaucracy that hinders his ability to do his job; a Bond who feels a lot more human and fallible than the version we know from the movies. It’s also a Bond who is a little closer to Fleming’s ‘blunt instrument’ than movie-goers will be used to, and it gives the book a certain simplicity and heft that ends up working very well.
Having said that, Ellis weaves an interesting story that’s full of big ideas and larger-than-life characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie (and he chucks in a few one-liners and elaborate-trap situations to match). But it’s anchored by a take on Bond himself that feels slightly more grounded and a little more serious and businesslike, which helps to keep the story focused on the core plot - which involves a medical entrepreneur, a dangerous new drug that’s hitting the UK streets, and a series of misdirects about exactly who or what ‘Vargr’ is.
Masters is an initially-unassuming artist who ends up pulling off a cracking job, not least because he and Ellis save their best and most visually-inventive work for the climax of the story, building up from fairly standard layouts and storytelling techniques in the early stages to stuff that’s a lot more daring and unconventional towards the end.
These three pages show the kind of thing I’m talking about. While it could be quite straightforward to show Bond infiltrating a facility, or taking out a series of bad guys, or placing explosives, these layouts accomplish those things in a less conventional and much more compelling way that makes you really sit up and take notice:
As with a lot of recent Ellis work, those pages show just how determined he is to let the art do the talking when necessary, with Masters often handling action scenes that are completely ‘silent’, and all the more powerful for it.
And Eidolon is just as good, this time pitting MI6 in conflict with MI5 - and other international security agencies - as part of a plot in which the real hero is forensic accounting (yes, really).
It’s a story that works better when you don’t know much about it, but suffice it to say that Ellis throws in plenty of enjoyable detail regarding inter-agency bickering, secret UK contingency plans for a technological apocalypse, and classic-feeling pulp archetypes (including a disenfranchised ex-agent), creating a story that - like ‘Vargr’ - would serve perfectly well as a blueprint for a modern Bond movie, but which excels as a comic.
Again, there are clever techniques used (including one showstopping flashback-within-a-flashback) that help to make the story more than just a good action-espionage romp - this is a great comic in its own right, and one that’s well worth checking out even if you’re not a particular Bond fan.