It’s a big week in entertainment for spying. James Bond, Ian Fleming’s fictional spy and the internationally best-known man of mystery, is returning to both theaters and comics. Spectre has already made a big splash in the United Kingdom and appears set to tear up the American box office as well. Meanwhile, in James Bond #1 writer Warren Ellis and artist Jason Masters have begun an exciting story that gets back to the roots of the character.
If you’re excited to see Bond back in comics, then there are already loads of espionage and intrigue-based tales begging for your attention. Whether you’re looking for something filled with gadgets and bigger-than-life plots or a story that delves into the dark humanity behind all of the death and lies, there are some excellent comics just waiting to be discovered. We’ve compiled a list of five of the greatest spy stories ever told using sequential art to get you started.
Created by: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the greatest collaborative teams in modern comics and it’s no surprise their superhero/spy mash-up series tops this list. Told in two twelve-issue “seasons”, Sleeper follows the superpowered Holden Carver as he infiltrates a criminal organization and gets in way over his head. Carver is a fascinating lead surrounded by an even more colorful cast of characters, including the brilliant, but malevolent Tao and tragic Miss Misery.
Sleeper builds tension as well as any film, constantly bringing readers to the edge of their seats and encouraging a great deal of nail biting. The stakes are high, but Brubaker and Phillips’ ability to craft sympathetic characters worth investing in makes them feel real. Throughout all 24 issues of the series, Sleeper never misses a beat, continually building on action, plot, and pressure until its definitive conclusion. Whether you’re a fan of superheroes, spies, or both, this is a can’t miss comics read.
Created by: Ales Kot, Jordie Bellaire, and Others
Zero may not end as a spy comic, but it certainly starts that way. Ales Kot’s story follows Edward Zero, an English operative, through his career as a man of secrets and violence in non-chronological order. Every issue stands alone and is told by a different artist, but woven together with Jordie Bellaire’s colors. It’s ultimately a nuanced take on the cost of violence and self-determination, but there’s also some excellent genre fare to be found.
The first volume of the series, “An Emergency”, contains the best spy stories in Zero including a covert, high-tech battle in the Middle East and an induction by assassination in war-torn Ireland. Kot’s scripts are brilliantly illustrated by some excellent artists, including Michael Walsh and Tradd Moore, who bring all of the action and tension of the story to life. Each issue has the ability to hit you right in the gut, and they only become more powerful when read together.
Created by: Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Ed Brubaker has touched upon the spies a lot with stories like “The Winter Soldier” and Sleeper, but Velvet is his love letter to the genre. It inverts the classic MI-6 set up between Bond and Ms. Moneypenny by inverting their dynamic. The elite British spy is dead and the demure secretary must now claim his role in order to prove that she has been framed for the murder. It’s a simple twist that lays the foundation for a great story.
Velvet contains all of the tropes that make Bond fans drool with great tech, twisty plots, and some eccentric villains. However, the real heart of Brubaker and Steve Epting’s comic lies with their protagonist. Velvet lands in the very first issue as a fully formed character with a complicated past and plenty of drive. Seeing her throw off years of desk work in order to become the top spy she was trained to be is an absolute delight and one that may lead some readers to wish there were women in the driver’s seat of spy tales more often.
4. Secret Avengers (vol. 3)
Created by: Ales Kot, Michael Walsh, and Matthew Wilson
Before Secret Wars Marvel had many Avengers series, including Jonathan Hickman’s acclaimed New Avengers and Avengers, but Secret Avengers was by far the best. It’s a story that plays with the superhero and spy genres, but one that transcends its genre trappings to become something else altogether. The adventures of stalwart Marvel agents like Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Black Widow, and Hawkeye transforms into a story about empathy, trauma, recovery, and (typically) explosions.
Ales Kot and Michael Walsh managed to fuse the fun of big action and crazy plots with all of their even bigger ideas in Secret Avengers. Fans are bound to love the battles set in space and deep in the Amazon rain forest, as well as the lies and double-crossing that runs throughout the entire series. It’s a delight to see masters of spycraft masters like Maria Hill and M.O.D.O.K. play a complex game of chess with their motives and intended outcomes constantly changing, both for themselves and the reader.
5. Planetary #11
Created by: Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin
Planetary is one of both Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s best comics ever, and that means a lot for either of these creators. It’s also a series that defies genre description, featuring a team of three archaeologists uncovering earth’s hidden history. Each issue of the series explores a different facet of pop culture, jumping between genres, eras, and trends. Planetary #11 is the issue that focuses on spy genre, specifically the sort best associated with characters like James Bond and Nick Fury.
Cassaday’s cover is a beautiful homage to the classic Jim Steranko issue Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #4 and sets the tone for this adventure perfectly. Ellis leaps between the modern day and the height of the Cold War in an espionage story filled with secret organizations, spycraft, and gadgetry. He also manages to walk a fine line between the fun of camp spy stories and the real world inspiration from which they are derived. It’s an enjoyable comic, and one that provides insight into the costs and concepts that make James Bond and his ilk so popular.
What spy comics do you love? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below.