James Bond: Vargr
"Vargr" is the story arc title for the first six issues of 2016’s "James Bond" title at Dynamite Comics. Written by Warren Ellis with art by James Masters, it includes Guy Major on colors and Simon Bowland on the lettering.It’s an enjoyable romp that feels Bond-ish, jetting about Europe and getting into scraps that require last minute desperate (sometimes fatal) solutions.
The title sounds like a riff on the punchline to "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," but the story runs much deeper.
"Vargr" begins with 007 James Bond, having freshly avenged the death of 006, being shipped over to Germany to investigate a bad batch of drugs that are finding their way to England. What should have been a quick in-and-out trip turns out to be something far more dangerous and complicated. It also involves powerful prosthetics and human testing.
Nothing is ever simple.
Bond gets to play the part of the "everyman" who happens to be a stylishly lethal weapon. Sure, he wins, but he gets beat up pretty badly along the way to getting there.
I haven’t read any of Ian Fleming’s novels. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of Ellis’ approach to the novels’ character, but I do know I like it. This James Bond is a strong package. He’s deadly with his hands, sharp with his dry wit, and a capable killing machine skilled in the trade of spying.
His own sense of style leads to interesting choices, such as the lack of a holster for his gun to prevent his suit from looking wrong on his body, down to his choices in guns and cars. They’re unconventional, which help to add to his character. When his gun is taken away from him early in the story, it’s an obvious tip-off of hand-to-hand combat to come, but his grumpy attitude towards it is most entertaining.
Also, he can be quite resourceful and turn into MacGyver when he needs to:
It feels like a Bond story to me as someone who’s seen most of the movies, but isn’t a devoted fan. It has many of the things you might think of when you picture a Bond story. There’s a diabolical villain with a slightly strange theme. There’s the sexual harassment in the workplace aspect that all those involved enjoy a lot. You get super strong bad guys involved in fisticuffs. You have Bond walking away from outlandish situations like nothing ever happened. Ellis is mostly-but-thankfully-not-entirely-restrained with the one-liners, which only makes them funnier when they do show up.
The best bit borrowed from the movies is the opening scene in the first issue, which replicates a Bond movie cold open right down to Bond pointing his gun at the reader, standing in a bright circle in the middle of inky darkness.
The Art of Computer Modeling
The art from Jason Masters works well for the story, grounding the action in believable locations with mostly very clear storytelling. Characters are easily differentiated at first glance, with realistic posing and anatomy that might come at the expense of some extra expressiveness that a slightly looser/cartoonier style might bring to the book. But given how grounded this book tries to be, that’s likely a good fit.
The thing that distracted me most in the book is Masters’ backgrounds. It’s funny, because I love a good detailed background in my comic book reading pile. But Masters’ work comes straight out of SketchUp, with very little added to it. Structure and perspective are always spot on, but at the expense of creating buildings and structures that all have the same line weight (very thin) and distractingly cluttered interiors. There are also some bad tangents between foreground and backgrounds with elements that aren’t necessary.
But everything just looks so very perfect, straight-edged, and dead on the page. It's like an IKEA ad showing up in the background of a Bond comic:
I know a lot of artists use tools like SketchUp to help with their monthly production schedule while keeping the technical quality high. It’s a great aid for putting characters in rooms and simplifying the process of adding furniture and consistent layouts. There might be some up front work in designing the rooms, of course, but that’s still likely quicker than drawing everything out over and over again. This is just the first time I could pick it out so clearly on the page.
Just to be clear: This is not an indictment of Masters for using technology in his art. This is not a campaign against using SketchUp. It's always about using the tools to their best advantage, and I think that includes blending them in better with your own art style, and varying some line weights around a bit, too.
I know Marvel started using it many years ago to model some of the major buildings in the Marvel Universe, and it showed for a while.
And I’ll forgive the blatant SketchUp use in return for Master's zip-a-tone/DuoShade shading style. It’s restrained, but it’s there in a lot of places. I’m always a sucker for artists who use that stuff, even if it’s the digital equivalent. (Clip Studio Paint comes with it built-in, but it’s an easy enough technique to fake in Photoshop.)
Ending on a High Note
Ellis and Masters scatter a few inventive and high energy action sequences throughout the story. There's a notable one in a warehouse which has Bond jumping across aisles, and one where he has to create an explosive to get out of a locked room, for two examples. But they save the best for last.
The highlight of the first story arc is, for sure, the last issue. It’s the big all-action issue, with Bond skulking about a docked armored ship, fighting off the bad guys while trying to get out with his life. It's an intense sequence, worthy of being a great action movie all its own.
Masters pulls out his storytelling inventiveness here, using a few sequential storytelling tricks to show us the action. The best sequence puts Bond running down a hallway and gunning down a bunch of guys along the way. He appears multiple times in the same panel, over a string panels that show where the explosive bullet enters the bodies of each of his attackers.
As a standalone issue, it works well, but as the capper to the whole story arc, it gives Ellis the chance to bring back a couple of important characters from previous issues, mostly to help clear the board and bring a definitive end to their purposes as characters in this story and this, dare I say it, "universe".
It also feels cinematic. There’s something just right about the end of this adventure in the way it’s paced and how its individual moments pans out. It feels like a movie. You can hear the swelling score in the background as you read it.
Also: Best groan-inducing punchline in comics for 2016. It’s perfect Bond humor.
Timing Is Everything
The second and final story arc from Ellis and Masters, "Eidolon", completes its six issue run next week. I wanted to review that one alongside this first volume, but my timing is off by a smidge.
Andy Diggle’s follow-up series, "Hammerhead," has already started, with James Robinson’s "Felix Leiter" spin-off to start in a few weeks.0comments
Things are fairly busy in the Bond side of the world. I know "Star Wars" gets all the credit over at Marvel, but I think Dynamite is building up a decent little movie universe of their own with the Bond books.