Noah Berlatsky on The James Bond Omnibus

Posted by on January 20th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

John McClusky, others; Titan Books; $16.95, 306 pp.; ISBN: 97818148563643

Adventure-strip cartooning is basically dead, which makes sense, since I could never figure out how it managed to get up and walking around in the first place. This collection of James Bond newspaper serials from the late-’50s and early-’60s perfectly captures everything wrong with the form. Instead of a full-throttle adventure romp, you get a plot that stutters compulsively as it desperately tries to bring you up to speed week after week. Instead of pulse-pounding action-sequences, you’ve got images so small you can barely get a motion line in when you throw a punch. And instead of racy, PG-13 innuendo, you’ve got family-friendly not-too-skimpy bikinis — again, drawn at a size that means you need to squint to make an eyeful of the tame fare on offer.

None of which is to denigrate this collection, exactly. John McClusky is a very talented artist, especially adept with detailed line-work and shading effects. He rarely gives you a sense of actual action or excitement (which, again, would be awfully hard to do in this format, anyway), but his best work can capture a freeze-frame constructivist drama. Either of these two panels, for example, could be great movie posters:

McClusky is also a fine draftsman, who seems to work very effectively from photo-reference. He expertly captures cars, clothes, planes — the world of surface stuff you expect to have presented to you when you’re reading a shallow fantasy of the good life like James Bond.

And, of course, McClusky’s cheesecake, reduced and PG though it is, is thoroughly professional, though a bit lacking in personality. Most of the women in the stories are blandly good-looking, and they start to blur into one another after a while. The one exception is Honeychile Ryder from Dr. No. She’s supposed to be a simple nature child, and the slight bit of added characterization seems to frees McClusky to throw in a bit of voluptuous oomph.

All of which basically led me to wish that McClusky had done work which might showcase his talents at a larger size and in a less hamstrung narrative form. But those are the breaks, I guess.

As for those narratives themselves — they are what they are. Produced before the first Sean Connery movies, the clever touches of humor, technical wizardry, or simply competent plotting in those films are largely absent here. Instead, Bond escapes death not through cleverness or gadgetry, but mostly through sheer luck; bombs just keep not quite killing him for some reason. He often comes across, no doubt inadvertently, as dumb and bumbling— more like a real spy than like a fantasy one, in other words.

The most noticeable difference between the strips and my (admittedly tenuous) memory of the books is that the strips carefully finesse Fleming’s vicious homophobia. Wint and Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever are here just good friends; Pussy Galore falls for Bond because that’s what girls do, not because he forcibly shows her the error of her lesbian ways. On the one hand, dropping the prejudice makes the strips much more palatable for a contemporary audience. On the other hand — homophobia was kind of what Fleming had to offer. When you remove the compulsive anxiety about manliness, there’s not a whole lot here. Except the art, of course.

Images ©Gildrose Productions, Ltd.

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3 Responses to “Noah Berlatsky on The James Bond Omnibus

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    (Don’t know why I’m bothering with this, since – sluggish as the TCJ message board has become – a posting more than a few hours old* here ends up, in effect, shoved to the back of a dusty old cupboard.)

    (How DO you include italics here, by the way? No explanation is proffered when posting. I hadda go back and remove the [i] [/i] bits; in places replaced by shout-like all-caps to retain some kind of emphasis.)

    As usual, a few good observations, some deft writing…accompanied by a bargeload of nonsense, unfortunately.

    (Sound of knives being sharpened)

    —————–
    Adventure-strip cartooning is basically dead, which makes sense, since I could never figure out how it managed to get up and walking around in the first place. This collection…captures everything wrong with the form.
    —————–

    An amusingly phrased list of complaints follows. Indeed, Will Eisner described daily comic strips, for a creator, to be like “conducting an orchestra in a telephone booth.”

    Yet, Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, and others (many “adventure-ish” sequences in “Dick Tracy”) somehow managed.

    —————–
    [Bond in these strips] often comes across, no doubt inadvertently, as dumb and bumbling— more like a real spy than like a fantasy one, in other words.
    —————–

    Oy! Real spies may not have glamorously Bondian adventures, but how long do you think they’d LAST if they were “dumb and bumbling”?

    —————–
    …the strips carefully finesse Fleming’s vicious homophobia.
    —————–

    These days, it seems that anything short of utter respectfulness in referring to gays leads to charges of “homophobia”; any snide/dubious references to accusations of vicious homophobia.

    Haven’t read “Goldfinger” or “Diamonds Are Forever” since my junior-high days, 40+ years ago. In the latter, Wint and Kidd** are murderous thugs who give Bond a “90 percenter” of a “Brooklyn stomping,” yet their gayness is just another of the various qualities (an extra nipple, mechanical hands) which Fleming employed to make his villains more colorful.

    As I recall (do correct me if I’m wrong; I welcome it) the sole references to the pair’s homosexuality in the book is Felix Leiter’s saying he thinks they “sleep together,” and Bond saying, “some of these homos [or other mild euphemism] make the worst killers.”

    The last arguably a bit homophobic, but not particularly so. (If you want to read slavering gay-hatred, check out the Bible.) It’s not as if Bond raved away about how “disgustingly unnatural” the duo was, or how the loathsomeness of their “foul coupling” made his gorge rise.

    As for Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger,” Fleming mentions she exerts that special appeal that attractive lesbians do, and Bond ends up bedding her. The politically-incorrect horror!

    Is there anyone here unaware of the popularity of lesbian scenes in porn aimed at hetero males? Of the asinine but ubiquitous fantasy among straight chaps that THEIR lovin’ would be so superb, it’d make lesbians “see straight”?

    Again, this shows Fleming as hardly enlightened, but far from a vicious homophobe. (And he’s no misogynist, for that matter. Check out Kingsley Amis’ “The James Bond Dossier” for his dismissal of those accusations.)

    —————-
    On the other hand — homophobia was kind of what Fleming had to offer. When you remove the compulsive anxiety about manliness, there’s not a whole lot [in the strip]…
    —————

    Ian Fleming was a topnotch pulp writer, maintaining that tradition – exotic settings, colorful characters, thrilling adventures with hair’s-breadth escapes, larger-than-life villains – alive.

    To view him from a narrow Freudian, Political-Correctness-obsessed (or Christian, or Marxist, for that matter) perspective predictably misses most of what made his work so appealing, James Bond having become a major pop-culture figure, and led to such a long-lived and massively successful franchise.

    * I exaggerate, but not by much.

    * More about the pair at:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamonds_Are_Forever_(novel)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_James_Bond_henchmen_in_Diamonds_Are_Forever

    Probably more due to the filmic incarnation, the pair have achieved a bit of fame; see “References in popular culture” in the latter link.

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Mike, as always reading your posts is an adventure.

    Trust me, if you go back and read the Bond books, they are extremely homophobic. Pussy Galore is cured of her lesbianism by being raped. That’s a standard homophobic trope…and a misogynist one for that matter. (Citing Kingsley Amis in defense is…well, it’s amusing, I’ll giver you that. )

    Real spies are amazingly inept and bumbling. Have you ever read anything about the CIA? The Bay of Pigs? Or, for that matter, the recent underwear bomber? Really, the level of incompetence is pretty staggering.

    I like many of the Bond movies. I don’t dislike the character. But he is what he is.

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Oh, and I found the Fleming books to be very nearly unreadable dreck, as pulp adventure goes. But mileage varies, I suppose.