Three B’s defined the 1960s: the Beatles, Batman (in reference to the stylishly garish television show), and Bond, James Bond. His slick, debonair style, introduced on film in 1962’s Dr. No, as well as the glamorous ladies and clever gadgets of his world, led to countless imitators including James Coburn’s Derek Flint, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, British television’s The Avengers and even American TV’s The Wild Wild West.
But it’s interesting to remember that Ian Fleming’s British superspy wasn’t an immediate success here in the U.S. Even an American television adaptation of Casino Royale in 1954 failed to ignite the imagination, and it wasn’t until President John F. Kennedy named From Russia, with Love as one of his favorite novels that excitement for the character gained some real steam. Eventually, of course, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli produced Dr. No, directed by Terrence Young and starring the iconic Sean Connery, and James Bond’s influence was everywhere.
The James Bond comic strip, a good chunk of which is presented in Titan Books’ sturdy James Bond Omnibus Volume 004, predated all of that. Beginning in British newspaper syndication in 1958, Ian Fleming was concerned a comic strip would dilute the integrity of the character, and result in his adventures – not quite the sensational tales made famous in the films – being taken less seriously. The nine serials published in Volume 004, copyrighted from 1972 through 1987, show the character already influenced by his bombastic film adventures, but with the edge and suggestiveness of the original novels.
The art of this period in the strip, provided by Yaroslav Horak (credited as “Horak”) is workaday craftsmanship at its finest. Based more on the physical description of 007 in the novels, Horak includes the long scar on Bond’s cheek, which hasn’t appeared in any of the film interpretations, and portrays him as generally more imposing. Horak’s Bond could be mistaken for a gangster hood in almost any other strip.
The stories, credited to Jim “J.D.” Lawrence, are dense, due to the three-panel, daily execution of the comic strip medium. Quaint in today’s lightspeed world, it’s hard to believe readers would follow these melodramatic adventures from day to day, especially with the details being dealt out so slowly and elaborately. And Lawrence’s approach works, for the most part. With so much space to fill, there’s the opportunity to plug in ideas the films could never get away with – like the villainous Commissar Sharkface, who seems to have gotten lost on his way to Dick Tracy – and are more visually appealing as drawings then as words, like when Bond and an anonymous ladyfriend spend the first several strips of The Girl Machine in the nude.
Because the art is so well done, the strip revels in the titillation a daily dose of James Bond affords. Many of the girls who appear in the strip spend most of their time in a state of undress and, with British printing standards being what they are, full nudity is occasionally avoided by the clever omission of a nipple, while oftentimes not.
The comic strip storytelling structure is a choppy one. It has to be, to keep readers coming back. This results in Lawrence not really being able to build up much momentum. The visual field is so small, there isn’t much of the grandiose action modern day Bond fans have come to expect from his adventures. There’s the occasional car chase and explosion, but the arcs are a struggle to get through in such small morsels.
Despite the ladies being so lovingly rendered, they aren’t treated particularly well. Bond began as a more misogynist character created to aggrandize the shady world of Cold War espionage, resorting to violence to get results. The James Bond comic strip isn’t shy about considering the female the weaker of the species, is especially exploitative of their bodies, violence toward them, and violence perpetrated by them. Like the comic strip medium itself, it’s from a different time, and probably won’t sit well with modern readers.
Of course, the James Bond Omnibus Volume 004 can’t really be held responsible how it’s heroic subject was crafted to treat women. Unfortunately, it’s still a choppy bit of ephemera best digested only by the staunchest of James Bond fans. Readers familiar with the movies won’t recognize the more violent 007, or be willing to discern the squares and squares of melodramatic intrigue and mishigas. However, adherents to Ian Fleming’s original vision – for the good and bad – can enjoy these passable adventures of their favorite British secret agent, however dated they might be. B-