Tuesday, 23 October 2012
On "The James Bond Omnibus Volume 004", by Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak
Did we really used to take this pretty much for granted? In what was considered a respectable, family newspaper? It seems absurd now. The nine newspaper strip serials from 1971-75 collected in Titan's fourth James Bond Omnibus are saturated in a monotonous excess of voyeur-thrilling cheesecake. Every one of writer Jim Lawrence and artist Yaroslav Horak's stories parades young and fashionably enticing women stripped and bound to chair, bed or casket. At breakfast or while commuting, in the canteen or pub, the cartoon procession of disturbingly sweatless nudity matched with bloke-stiffening bondage in the pages of The Daily Express was obviously considered all-ages entertainment.
The variety's all in the details. As with any other fetish, it's the tiny little variations on the theme that count. Have the women been stripped and tied up by Bond or one of his fiendish opponents? Was their modesty tenuously secured by the presence of skimpy knickers, a pair of thick-framed glasses, or nothing at all? Were they using their considerable charms to appeal to 007 as submissively adoring would-be lovers should, or were they following a far more devious agenda? These were stories quite evidently designed to snare their more easily titillated readers with a brew of objectivised nakedness fused with sado-masochism. It's never so obvious as in "Trouble Spot", in which the fiendish Commissar Sharkface's man rips the duplicitous Gretta's shirt off, before having her tied up in preparation for a serious whipping. Called to administer the torture is the equally alluring and yet entirely flagitious Olga, who strips to her bra and fishnet stockings in order to apply the lash, declaring as she does that;
"But I think my part in the proceedings, also, may be more effective if unhampered by clothing."
It's a rare complicitous wink to the reader, of course, and yet it's all played out with such bleak seriousness and unquestioning chauvinism. Good or evil, dominant or simpering, all of Bond's female cast beyond the hardly-decrepit and yet evidently all-too-mature Moneypenny end up in their smalls, if not less. Usually, a far worse fate awaits. Even Suzi Kew, Bond's fellow assassin from the Secret Service, is put to use as a porn model in "Beware Of Butterflies". At least Kew's always got the option of pulling her top back on, and she does succeed in shooting dead her target while stripped down to her black lacy underwear. Elsewhere, Bond's despicable foreign opponents can only be trusted to humiliate and physically torment their young and beautiful female victims. No-one suffers more than Zoebide in "The Girl Machine", tied and dangled naked as she is by the depraved Sheik Harun for the entertainment of the outraged Arab men in Hajar's marketplace. Luckily, poor Zoebide has managed to retain all her perky beauty and perfect bodily statistics despite her ordeals, and so can be relied upon to later distract the disgusting jailer Walid with her allure and the question "Are you enough of a man to return my love?"
Bond only has to drive down a rural Italian lane in order to run into an entirely threadless blond on horseback screaming for him to save her. And when these most lovely of women aren't having their clothes savagely removed from them by criminals not eligible for a British passport, then Bond himself is forcing them to undress. Why, they might have weapons or stolen goods tucked into their frillies, and if not, their nakedness can still be photographed and used to blackmail them in the cause of the supposedly greater good. (*1) Encountering the quite deliberate sexual cruelty that underpins Ian Fleming's Bond novels in cartoon form makes the obsession with constraint and pain all the more stultifying obvious and nasty-minded. With nothing of the distracting pace of the best of the books, and in the conspicuous absence of the charisma of the actors who've played Bond with a knowing wink, Lawrence and Horak end up recycling the same relatively tame and yet in-the-day risque images over and charmlessly over again. When presented in daily three-panel doses back in the day, James Bond must have carried a mildly trangressive charge of misogynist wish-fulfilment. But four decades later, and with four years' worth of stories collected in the same place, the repetitive unpleasantness becomes more and more wearisome. How obsessed can anyone be with the sight of women being compelled through force or duty to take off their clothes?
*1:- Bond's apparent contempt for Signor Ucceli's habit of making sure his youthful students are lying naked before brain-washing them in "Isle Of Condor" is unconvincing in the light of his own behaviour.
There are a few moments when Bond himself is presented in a state of undress, although there's never any suggestion that he's going to be emasculated in the long run. In 1973's "Beware Of Butterflies", he's entrapped by a naked-bar-her-fishtail beauty improbably pretending to be a mermaid, who then clubs him into unconsciousness and delivers him up to be brainwashed. And yet, of course, it's Bond who ultimately saves the day, which means that humiliation for him only ultimately serves to underscore his masculinity.
The misogyny of these strips is rarely sprinkled with any convincing measure of wit or even playful self-awareness. In short, there's not the slightest suggestion that there's any other possible way of regarding women at all. With Horak's art - for all its other considerable virtues - failing to convey any charm on Bond's part, the scene of 007 in a nudist camp in "Trouble Spot" fails to raise anything more than the slightest of smiles. This Bond is a shallow-headed killer, and whatever charisma the character carried in the day would have had to come from the reader's own taken-for-granted association of sexism with power and satisfaction. What few wisecracks Bond does utter tend to be nothing other than flat and cruel, and with Lawrence peppering his speech balloons with "luv" and "blimey", it's hard to even imagine 007's upper-class condescension bringing his words to life with a bully's well-bred sneer.
Yet it's the lack of any apparent obligation felt on Lawrence and Horak's part to make their Bond anything other than an uber-bloke which helps make these tales so fascinating. Their focus on the least appealing aspects of 007 offers us a direct line to a time of prime-time Miss World beauty pageants and supposedly chic Playboy Clubs. What's long since been far more of an embarrassment than a rube-drawing advantage to the movie franchise is here one of the central purposes of the narrative. Fleming's novels appealed to a grey, conformist and often grindingly poor Britain with a range of barely imaginable luxuries and freedoms. Lawrence and Horak strip out Fleming's focus on rich food and fine booze, largely sidestep the glamour of socialising with the demi-monde, and concentrate instead on the joys of sexual license and abuse, foreign travel and the murder of the folks who are not like us. This is a Bond lacking pretty much everything but his basic components of cruelty, arrogance and complacency. He's a thug and an assassin and a serial, squalid sexual predator, and there's nothing self-conscious or post-modern about the way in which he goes about his business. Self-awareness is very much not part of his armoury, and the reader who wants to regard him as suave and ethical is going to have to add that to the mix for themselves. Just prior to his execution of an agent-killing New York mobster in "Die With My Boots On", Lawrence has Bond declare;
"You may be able to get away with your high-handed thuggery and cold-blooded murder here in the State, Pignelli - - But we don't want filth like you trying to pull the same stuff in England!"
Yet "high-handed thuggery and cold-blooded murder" is pretty much all Bond gets up to here beyond his incessant philandering, and each is presented as a virtuous, exciting necessity. Only brief moments of compassion break occasionally through the flat effect of Bond's character. In "The Nevsky Nude", he irritates M by expressing a "sentimental" objection to blackmail, but in the following "The Phoenix Project", he's involved in the ugly, brutal persecution of the highly vulnerable Ogle, whose upcoming marriage is threatened by Bond's knowledge of a "nasty little police in Birmingham five years ago". These brief flashes of conscience soon disappear, brief moments of decency in a morass of unpleasantness. Stripped of the legitimising ideology of the age, the James Bond Omnibus 004 shows us exactly how escapism operates in a profoundly sexist, anti-intellectual culture. Lawrence and Horak's Bond represents what freedom looks like to someone who can only imagine rising high enough to behave as his betters always have while bloody-handedly serving their interest. The reader can approach these stories playfully, but they're typically an expression of anything other than a playful state of mind. All the women you can captivate, bully and seduce, all the men you can beat up and murder. The glamour of air-travel to Paris, New York, Corsica, the Canary Islands, imaginary Arab Republics, and Ghana. The pleasures of terrorising uppity foreigners while doing so. All for Queen and country, all for the greater good, all for the pleasure of behaving badly for a supposedly unimpeachable cause.
There's certainly no little fascination to be found in experiencing what glamour looks like to a deeply reactionary, repressed culture. And if Lawrence's stories have a habit of straying into incongruous implausibilities such as the Cult of Vampires, they're also stashed full of the expected Flemingesque traditions. The constraints of three-panels-a-day continuity may result in Her Majesty's Secret Service seeming to consist of two managers and a secretary working out of a couple of offices, but that doesn't mean that the pleasures of noting how and where the Bond tropes play out is absent. (The sight of 007 firing a gun from within the heel of a pair of "Harlem" platform boots is the highlight of "Devil With My Boots On".) Similarly, Hovak's storytelling is always clear and dynamic, suitably claustrophobic and entirely committed to the requisite degree of cheesecake and callousness. He's quite brilliant at catching the eye and carrying it through a daily sequence without the slightest effort having to be made on the reader's part. Even when his work seems to have been somewhat rushed - as in parts of "Beware of Butterflies" - his caricatured faces carry an almost psychedelic charge. If these serials fail to often hang together as discrete, satisfying tales when read straight through, they still work perfectly well as a series of individual sequences. Taken a strip or two at a time, it's impossible not to recognise the cruel power of the wish-fulfilment that's embodied here, even as the wishes themselves are often thoroughly unpleasant.