This is the 13th essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #13: James Bond, Comic Book Hero
When Roger Moore dressed as a clown at the end of Octopussy, he became what naysayers of his work in the Bond films had always imagined. Roger Moore had literally become a clown clad in an expensive suit. I would like to believe that the Bond producers dressed Bond up as Bozo as a direct rebuttal to the criticism of Moore’s performance as 007, but I’m not sure that they were capable of such high-minded self-awareness. Instead, let’s dissect the moment at face value without the subtext or derision or preconceived notions of James Bond. The hero evades police and MPs, his motives misunderstood in the eyes of the law. They do not believe his stated identity nor do they fathom the evil lurking among them. In order to facilitate the saving of many lives and prevent evil from winning the day, the hero must disguise his visage to hide his true identity. (Catching on yet?) To ultimately succeed, our disguised hero must join forces with a duplicitous woman known only as “Octopussy” and her army of combat-trained circus girls.
This is James Bond as superhero. And any superhero worth his salt began in the comics. And it just so happens that this James Bond did indeed have his own comic book.
A Brief History of James Bond in Comic Books
The first James Bond comic adaptation arrived in 1963. The adaptation of Dr. No was published by Classics Illustrated in the UK and DC Comics in the US. James Bond wouldn’t appear again until 1981 when Marvel released a graphic adaptation of For Your Eyes Only and again in 1983 with Octopussy. Eclipse Comics published a Mike Grell (The Warlord, Green Arrow) adaptation of Licence to Kill and later an original series of James Bond comics called Permission to Die in 1991.
Grell had already created his own James Bond-inspired character in Jon Sable Freelance. He called it a cross between James Bond and Mickey Spillane. The 56-episode publication lasted from 1983 until 1988 and told the stories of a bounty hunter and mercenary who had been an athlete in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. He married a fellow athlete and relocated to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he organized tourist safaris and later became a game warden. As it tends to go for troubled heroes, poachers slaughtered his family. After avenging their deaths he became a free-lance mercenary to extend the series. The comic spawned a short-lived 1987 ABC television series called Sable and was notable, perhaps, because it featured model-turned actress Rene Russo in her television debut, two years before she would land her first movie role in Major League. But the series was also notable because it changed the premise of the comic. Rather than Sable being the public face of crime-fighting, Sable was the masked vigilante and Nicholas Fleming, children’s book author, was the persona presented to the public. I do not deign to insult your powers of observation but he called the character “Fleming” and made him an author.
Should you be so inclined, here’s the first part of the pilot episode of Sable, starring Lewis Van Bergen and Rene Russo. I doubt you’ll want more, but if you do, the rest of the episode is also available on YouTube in multiple parts.
The Masked Bond
I summoned this tangent to show the proximity of James Bond to superhero, especially as the movies evolved in the late-Roger Moore years. For Your Eyes Only, despite also having it’s own comic book, really lacked the more overt superhero essentials compared to Octopussy and A View to a Kill. The villains became more exaggerated, more cartoon-like and Bond’s Q-branch gadgets grew wildly frivolous. But the point I really want to highlight here is how the character also became more and more superhero-like. As Roger Moore aged in the James Bond role – he was 56 by the time he filmed Octopussy – the Bond producers created more elaborate action set pieces and stunts to (over)compensate for the perceived fragility of the series’ aging action star. I first noticed the trend in For Your Eyes Only during the ski-chases. The dichotomy between the perceived age of James Bond and the stunts he was capable of performing created a scenario not entirely unlike that of our favorite ageless, masked superheroes.
But we can’t really venture into the realm of Superman or other all-powerful protectors of man for a good jumping-off point for James Bond. It is Batman that most closely relates to Bond. Bruce Wayne doesn’t boast superhuman powers; he’s merely a mortal, fragile human that fights crime behind the Batman mask. James Bond, like Batman, was capable of feats of physical strength, daring and dexterity aided by his arsenal of vehicles and gadgets. Public persona James Bond was, to again borrow the all too perfect phrase from Tomorrow Never Dies, merely a cunning linguist. Bruce Wayne merely a socialite. Cut from the same cloth: quick with the wit and double entendre, dashing in a tuxedo. That’s not to say that this wasn’t already often the case with James Bond. Through the magic of moviemaking, however, and our rabid desire for ever-eclipsing bigger and better, Bond stuntwork had long been fantastic, but it only became unbelievable or superhuman when we suddenly noticed that Bond was a card-carrying member of the AARP and couldn’t physically handle the rigors of an Olympic-size ski jump or a fistfight inside, outside and on top of a moving train (nevermind clutching the exterior of Kamal Khan’s private jet during takeoff) in Octopussy.
Sidenote: The notion of “identity” in Octopussy, in fact, becomes an issue both on screen and off. Off-screen, I am, of course, referring to the Bond v. Bond box office battle between Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, the film whose marketing campaign aimed to remind everyone that Sean Connery was the *real* James Bond.
Octopussy opens with Bond assuming the identity of Luis Toro (complete with fake mustache), a high-ranking Cuban military official in order to infiltrate and detonate a bomb inside an aircraft hanger. He’s found out by the real Luis Toro and hauled off on a transport truck to destinations unknown. Bond’s female companion Bianca pulls up alongside and distracts them with her ample wares while Bond pulls the parachute ripcords on the two guards. Bond leaps into the back of the Range Rover and shoots out the tires of the military transport. The truck careens off the road. None of his enemies killed. Shades of another masked crusader’s no-kill policy. The horse’s ass in the back of Bianca’s Range Rover folds down (no, really, the ass folds down) to reveal a single-seat airplane that still holds the record for lightest jet aircraft – the Bede BD-5J. Bond takes off in the plane, narrowly evades heat-seeking missiles and leads the missiles back to the airplane hanger he initially intended to blow up. It’s a real hum-dinger of an opening. Disguise, guile, a fetching companion in a tight dress… and one big time gadget. The tiny homebuilt plane looks like a toy, like something you could buy for a kid at Christmas as part of a line of action-hero product tie-ins. Made by Mattel… or Kenner. Perhaps in a box not unlike this:
I’m not forcing the point here; there’s really something to this Batman and Bond thing. So please, follow me down the wormhole.
James Bond, Matinee Idol
The later Roger Moore years had become pre-packaged and palletized for mass consumption. The only consistent trend during the entirety of the Roger Moore years was that Bond remained one or two beats behind popular culture, despite EON’s best intentions to get ahead of the curve. Live and Let Die appeared two years after the peak of Blaxploitation. The Man with the Golden Gun slid into theaters along the downslope of the kung-fu craze. The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only found Bond chasing his own tail to regain the very Bondness that defined the character through the 1960s. And Moonraker was yet another attempt to lasso a zeitgeist. But what every entry had in common was the desire to please a pre-existing pop-culture fanbase. Bond had ceased to be a trendsetter more than a decade prior. But people never stopped watching despite the missteps. The question then becomes why? Critics were calling for the series demise even before Golden Gun. Obligation? Nostalgia? There was very little tonal connection to the early Connery films. Earnest affection? Probably a combination of all three. Also perhaps because Bond, wittingly or not, shifted to accommodate multiple generations of viewers, including kids. The kids that devoured comic books like candy and couldn’t see R-rated movies without sneaking in through the emergency exit.
Teenagers that had discovered Bond in the 1960’s had begotten children of their own by 1983, and many of those kids were watching Bond for the first time. Bond had become family-friendly. And I do not mean this, necessarily, in a derogatory fashion. Many fans cherish the memories of watching Bond with parents and grandparents. The violence inherent to the spy-game hadn’t dissipated; it was merely repackaged for matinee viewings. Perhaps then it is not coincidence that of all the 23 James Bond movies, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy were the first to receive a proper Marvel comic book treatment. As I mentioned before, in the opening of Octopussy, Bond didn’t shoot the guards during his escape, he shot out their tires and pulled their parachute ripcords sending them skyward like a pair of runaway kites. Less pronounced violence. Meanwhile, Bond remained a womanizer, just a womanizer beholden to slightly more enlightened notions of gender equality and feminism.
Take the titular jewel smuggler played by Maude Adams in Octopussy. She’s a powerful enterprise, a brand of her own in the film. She toys with Bond, uses him in her plot to steal a Faberge egg and other Russian treasures. They develop a romantic connection. But unlike Bond’s typical liaisons, they are portrayed as equals. One might suggest that Barbara Bach’s Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me was Bond’s equal, but this was in title only. She was a rival spy, but also quintessentially still a Bond girl, trotted out for the benefit of the male gaze (the dress, #AmIRight?). With Octopussy, this is the second time Bond had been given female character of equal on-screen presence (see: Teresa di Vicenzo aka Tracy Bond of On Her Majesty’ Secret Service). It’s the first time, however, that Bond had been given a true female rival, a trend that had taken comic books by Storm, nearly a decade earlier.
During the 1970’s, this burgeoning feminism reflected in the character of Octopussy had been a powerful resource (both good and evil) for comic book creators. Take, as one of the most visible examples, the X-Men comics. Pre-existing characters like Jean Grey went from the piddly little Marvel Girl with the power of telekinesis to the omnipotent Phoenix. Storm first appeared in May of 1975 and became one of the first black comic book characters, the first black female and grew into one of the most successful personalities in the series.
Maud Adams’ Octopussy is a privateer. She’s a villain only in that she’s a thief (and in the world of Bond that’s not particularly villainous). She works with Kamal Khan to steal a Faberge egg from General Orlov. Khan insists on killing Bond, but Octopussy forbids it. Khan tries anyway. The far more nefarious Orlov, meanwhile (with Khan’s help), plans to use Octopussy’s traveling circus and her plot to steal priceless soviet treasures to deploy a nuclear bomb in a West German US Air Force base. Octopussy usurps the series’ gender politics and Bond-girl formula in fascinating ways. In terms of an on-screen power-struggle, Octopussy often has the upper hand on Bond. Never do we get the sense that her character is a pawn in Bond’s story (even though she’s being duped by Khan and Orlov), but there are moments, including their seduction scene, when Bond feels like the pawn in her story. Lovers. Rivals. Opponents. That said; let’s again revisit this comic book connection. If you’re a fan of the comics and Batman in particular, you, like myself, might be thinking that Octopussy recalls Talia al Ghul.
Yeah, I am Batman.
Talia al Ghul appears as a recurring character in the Batman and DC Comics universe. The daughter of supervillain Ra’s al Ghul became the on-again/off-again love interest for Batman (and eventually the mother of his son Damian Wayne, but that is neither here nor there for our purposes). She is both love interest and villain. Like Octopussy’s working relationship with Orlov and Kamal Khan, she’s beholden to villains above her stature. In Talia’s instance, however, it’s her father, the leader of a worldwide criminal empire, which, really, isn’t that far off from the way that the Soviet Union is depicted in the Bond films. The two characters, at face value, share the same conflicted and ambiguous morality. Furthermore, when Octopussy and Bond join forces to assault Khan’s “fortress,” the newly clad heroine sends in her team of specially trained circus performers/assassins. R’as al Ghul’s League of Assassins/Shadows, anyone?
But even within the Bond series, it’s not an ideal comparison. The more I thought about these Bond/Batman connections, especially Talia al Ghul, the more Teresa di Vicenzo’s story came into focus. The only child of Marc-Ange Draco, the head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Her mother died when she was 11, and her father sent her to a boarding school in Switzerland. Bond rescues her when she attempts suicide by walking into the sea. When her father meets Bond, he begs Bond to continue seeing her for the benefit of her mental health. Bond falls in love with (and eventually marries) Teresa as he becomes uneasy allies with Draco in order to locate Blofeld.
Now, for Talia al Ghul. In Batman #232, “Daughter of the Demon,” Batman is tricked into believing that Ra’s al Ghul has kidnapped Talia and Dick Grayson (Robin) but Ra’s has used this plot to lure Batman into a test of worthiness. He wants Batman to be Talia’s husband and eventually his successor, but first he must prove himself. So, to recap, evil daddy plays matchmaker between our hero and his daughter. The conflicted hero eventually falls in love with said daughter and enters into an ultimately ill-fated romance.
Step the back up.
Clearly, this required further research. Could there be more to this than just superficial conjecture? First stop wikipedia. In the second paragraph on Talia al Ghul’s page: “The Talia character was created by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Bob Brown. The character’s creation and depiction was inspired by other works of fiction, such as the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service…” Indeed, the Bond and Batman connection goes far deeper than my frivolous #Bond_age_ conjecture. Even if the Talia character found her origins in Tracy Bond, the fragile relationship between Bond and Maud Adams’ Octopussy better reflects the evolution of the Talia al Ghul character in the various Batman comics. Combine Tracy Bond and Octopussy and blammo—you’ve got Talia al Ghul and a James Bond character that shares many characteristics with Batman, one of the most famous comic book heroes, if not the most famous.
The further details about the Bond/Batman connection might have to wait for another day and another essay. The wormhole runs deeper than the Lazarus Pit and extends far beyond idle conversation about the 13th Bond film. You’ve had Christopher Nolan express the notion that Bond was an inspiration for his Batman films and Sam Mendes mention that Nolan’s Batman was an inspiration for Bond in Skyfall. Don’t think too hard about that. The infinite recursion of that statement causes nausea, and I didn’t supply an airsick bag with this essay. My bad. But at your next gathering of like-minded friends, you should definitely propose a discussion on the many ways that Batman and Bond have become inexorably linked. And, to return to my original hypothesis, the ways in which these later Roger Moore movies represented a shift to a matinee/comic book culture. Sure, your friends might know a bit about the Nolan/Mendes connection, but maybe it’s time you, like R’as al Ghul, lured them into a conversation to truly test their worthiness to sit and converse with you about James Bond.