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.

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22 comments:

  1. This got me thinking about Wally Wood's "Cannon" and it sounds like Wood took the formula that Lawrence and Horak were attempting and made it cheeky and fun while still appealing the the macho sensibilities. I can't help but chuckle as two naked ladies jealously attack each other over our protagonist, Cannon, and he ends up yelling at them, not to tell them to get along but because they're "wrecking the radio" and ends up literally tossing them outside where they continue their cat fight as he calmly works on his radio. Then there's all the excuses Wood comes up with to have the women willingly strip, like how two female agents decide to meet at a health spa to discuss their secret plans. And Oh! all the times that Cannon has karate-chopped his way out of trouble. Sadly, the comic loses some of that edge near the end and becomes a bit lazy, but the comic is mercifully short.

    It's a fine line to walk between delightfully bawdy and irritatingly crude.

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    1. Hello Joe:- It is indeed a fine line. I wish I could remember my own experience of Cannon, or rather, I wish I knew what Cannon would seem like if I read it now. I read it decades ago - decades ago? how is THAT possible? - and it's rarely that I share an opinion with my former self these days :) I remember enjoying it, but you've just reminded me that it would fun to check it out again. There's a crying need for an affordable Wood Library; so much of his achievements is either scattered around or unavailable.

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    2. Well, it was a bloke about your age that had recommended it to me in the first place. He used to be a moderator for the site I'm writing the newsletters for now. No idea if that means you'd still enjoy it or not, but I figure it wouldn't hurt to find out. But then again, I hardly share the same opinions about comics with myself that I had even 5 years ago (why oh why did I spend so much money trying to get every Civil War tie-in?!).

      On a different note, while I was reading your piece, I was wondering why I found your description of this bond familiar, but now I remember reading that Alan Moore described Bond as being a frat-boy thug more-or-less.

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    3. Hello Joe:- I am relieved that there are other blokes my age :) I have every intention of surviving, but I've no desire to be the very last of the dinosaurs :)

      I have no doubt that I'd enjoy Cannon. It's Wally Wood, there can't possibly not be a great deal to enjoy. I might not appreciate the story, or its meaning - or I may - but I'll always appreciate Wood's work.

      I was thinking of Moore's opinion of Bond as I wrote the above. I don't always share that opinion. Different Bonds have different agendas, and though none that I've come across strike me as anything other than monsters, some are less monstrous than others. Brosnan even came close to being a mensch at moments ....

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  2. Personally, I think both Bond and Cannon are brilliant. If they'd been played out with some sort of playfulness or irony, I'd tossed them away in disgust. Nothing is more sickening, if you ask me, than irony. Either you do it and mean it, or you don't do it at all.

    In my opionion the strips far surpass the annoyingly stupid, campy and self-parodying style of the Bond-movies and portray Bond as a complete and utter monster. The difference is particularily obvious in the adaptations of Fleming's original novels. In the strips, Bond usually survives due to dumb luck, or by being just more ruthless than his opponents. At one point he's also quite honest, claiming to hate and despise women for being weak, seeing the mirror of himself in them and seeing no alternative than to despise them.

    You see him as an upper-class snob, but I can't see him as anything than a working class guy with ADHD, desperate for attention, any kind of attention. A man who isn't even self-aware enough to realise that he hates himself. A complete and utter brute. I've met these people IRL so many times and I've think the character is a spot on description of professional elite soldiers.

    That's why I find comic-strip Bond a fascinating character, while movie-Bond makes me retch. At least the strip has the honesty of shoving nudity, violence, nastiness, BDSM into my face and being honest in indulging my sadistic pleasures of seeing people brutalized, instead of hiding it behind some appaling veil of 'sanitized respectability' where Roger Moore's or Connery's acts of rape and murder is presented as seduction and funny magic tricks.

    Bond is a pulp character. Not unlike The Shadow, The Spider, John Carter, Flash Gordon, Tarzan or Conan. Portray any of those in a santized context and the whole thing not falls flat. Pulp without copious amount of sex, violence and a facist lead, isn't pulp. It becomes propaganda.

    I might be in a minority, but I far prefer pulp to modern day so-called escapism like 24 or CSI, who both manage to disgust me in that they try to maintain the ludicrous idea that they are realistic, which in turn makes them not only appalingly stupid, but also more facist than Bond could ever hope to be.

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    1. Hello CJ:- Where to start? I entirely agree with you that this isn't an upper-class Bond. Fleming's is a Bond who's been through the elite university system, but this is obviously a different JB. As I said, there's not even the black comedy of seeing a snob sneer at his lessers in Lawrence and Horak's take on the character. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy the less suave Bond, or that I approve of snob-Bond. In fact, my opinion of the character in all his forms can't be very different to yours. My point was - as yours - that the comic strip reveals the monster undernearth the charm, and that that's all to the good.

      The reason for the piece taking the form it did - and I make no claims for its quality in saying so - is that I'd read a number of reviews of the volume which discussed "beautiful women" and "thriller stories". And while I recognise that that's a perfectly legitimite approach to these Bond tales, it's not mine. I don't think this is a book about lovely women and exciting violence; I think it's a book which, for all the beauty of its women and for all the drama, borders on the facist and most certainly embodies some of the most misogynistic values of the period. In short, it's an important historical document in terms of its social values as well as the history of comic strips. And I'm worried that these matters haven't come up in the reviews I've come across. So, they're perfectly entitled to their views and preferences, and I'm expressing mine.

      But I do believe that Bond can be retooled to express different values. I think there are aspects of the Brosnan and Craig Bonds which discuss those values. Do they do so as I would? Not as I would, but I don't believe that characters are bound by specific ideological values. Pulp characters can be used to challenge the old hang-em-high culture as much as they can embody them. That can be done by either reworking the character or leaving them as they are and using the narrative to comment on their original values. But I do agree with you entirely that it's a dodgy business when the old values are still in place and tarted up with a touch of irony.

      Again, I entirely agree with you about the likes of 24. (CSI I just don't know enough about to comment, though what I've seen seems like a brutal lie about the kind of police care the ordinary public can rely upon.) 24 is a horrible, horrible, utterly despicable programme. It pretends to be deeply caring - as with the American Muslim characters in a later series - and yet it's a profoundly immoral business at hear. One of the things I like - as you do too - about the newspaper Bond is the fact - as I write above - that its creators never apparently thought to be concerned about how the character would be seen. The strip assumes that the brute Bond IS admirable and irresistable, and leaves it at that. The face of the beast, if you like, is easy to see.

      No, I'm not holding either man responsible for the dominant culture of their age. I lived through the Seventies, I know how pervasive the times were.

      It's often fine storytelling too, a strange mix of strong drama and - to my mind - despicable politics. I really do think it's a book folks should read for both reasons.

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  3. I'm hoping this didn't run on the same page as Rupert.

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    1. Hello Neil;- My family used to get the Express, and I certainly recall Bond being placed in the company of at least one other strip. I wouldn't swear to it, but I think Rupert was elsewhere in the paper.

      It would be a shock to discover that they were placed together, wouldn't it? :)

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    2. Now I'm imagining a cross-over between Rupert and Bond... Things aren't going so well for our friend Rupert or any of the other inhabitants of Nutwood. :(

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    3. Hello Joe:- Did you ever read the Punisher/Archie crossover from the 90s? Surprisingly well done for such an incongruous pairing.

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    4. I was imagining something more like the infamous Rupert/Crumb mash-up from Oz Magazine.

      For some reason, I can't help but picture Algy Pug substituted for the guy with the telescope.

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    5. Hello Neil:- And Horak's art could've pulled that off too, if he'd wanted to, I'm sure, because there's moments when the technique he uses for his caricatures carries a proto-Brit-Psychedelic swirl of lines and intensity.

      But we don't want Algy cast as the nefarious sinner with the telescope, because he's dead in about another 12 panels time. I wouldn't want to see Algy shot dead by a naked M16 assasin ... The very idea :- (

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  4. If memory serves it ran next to Flook and something else, might have been The Gambols but I'm not totally sure.

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    1. Hello Peter:- Flook? I thought that was the Mail, but time does a certain degree of damage to m'memory :) What a gently strange strip that was.

      The Gambols were certainly in the express. I recall that being perpetually dull, but then, they were hardly the kind of thing my youthful, sto-opid self would enjoy. I wonder what they might seem like now?

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  5. When I was young I was given a Bond Annual and there was one of these strips, in full, in it. for a long time I wondered where it had come from, until I got the Evening Standard [for the Modesty Blaise strips, now sadly missed] and saw similar strips. From what little Ive seen, they have rather a satisfying tonal lurch compared to the casual sadism the books have. I must say tho that reading Bond as a comic strip just doesnt sit right with me for some reason, as if its not quite reaching its desired Bond fanbase, who feel more familiar with the books and films. Oh well.
    On a separate note, any Modesty Blaise fans might like to know that this December, Radio Four are adapting one of her novels, A Taste For Death on Saturday afternoons. Stef Penney, author of The Tenderness Of Wolves will adapt the book, and Modesty will be played by Daphne Alexander.

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    1. Hello Karl:- I think not to swear when I'm really shocked, and instead say things like Criky, Gosh and Wow! So, Wow! These stories got put into an annual, for kids? That really does say something about the culture of the time, doesn't it? We never see the values we take almost taken for granted as a culture even when they're undressed and tied up before our children's faces. That has shocked me. Still, you've turned out fine!

      I hadn't heard about the Radio 4 Modesty adaptations. Thank you :) I'm still chuffed that there's a Martin Beck adaption coming up this Saturday, but that's one more thing to look forward.

      I really must get hold of some Modesty collections. It's been a while and I suddenly have a hankering ...

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  6. Mrs Gambol discovered free love and had a string of much younger lovers after leaving her husband. She currently lives in an artist commune in the Welsh borders with a man 30 years her junior. Mr Gambol, after years of being the bvutt of his wife's gumour, moved to the US and joined a Christian Survivalist cult and now has four wives. He is the butt of all their jokes and is considering therapy if the cult leader will allow it. You're right. They were so bloody boring. Right too about Flook. I might be confusing it with Moomins.

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    1. Hello Peter:- As our Lord and Cameron once so embarrassingly and repeatedly misused; LOL. You've made me laugh more there in one concentrated hit than year upon year of the Gambols ever did.

      And I find your future history for the Gambols oddly convincing too.

      But The Moomins? The Express published the Moomins? Now how did I manage to miss out on that pleasure .... Sigh and Pah ...

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  7. My dad was a Mirror man "The paper that tells the truth" lol so it was the deeply bizarre world of Andy Capp, the Perishers and Garth that coloured my daily strip reading but I'm wrong about the Moomins too. They were in the standard which I used to read at my grandads house at times. Not in the Express my other grandparents took. My only excuse is it was 40 years ago and I remember the strips better than their home papers. The recent Moomin reprint volumes are well worth a look though as are all Tove Jannsons other prose works.

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    1. Hello Peter:- The Mirror was a different beast in the day, wasn't it? Memory tells me that Pilger worked there in the Seventies, for example. And it had for my money the best string of strips, with the Standard coming in second. Garth still baffles me, as I can't work out what genre/s it's occupying and what it's up to - a guilty admission - but I always enjoyed , and I adore The Perishers. Whenever anyone says something to the effect of 'What's the world coming to?', I feel compelled to say 'Pimlico' simply because that was a punchline in a collection I had as a nipper.

      I've always a soft spot for the Moomins too. I'm not sure I could entirely trust somebody who didn't :)

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  8. thanks for sharing..

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