Brainiac on Banjo: Bond… Hoagy Bond?

Have no fear, look who’s here… James Bond… They’ve got us on the run… With guns… And knives… We’re fighting for our lives. – Casino Royale, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

The US release of the first James Bond comic book.

Sherlock Holmes. Tarzan. Superman. James Kirk. James Bond. The public’s continuing appetite for heroic fantasy superstars has long been well established, and ever since communication went mass they have been at the center of the most prevalent form of entertainment worldwide. This is a truth that validates our low-brow culture: it turns out that both boys and girls just want to have fun.

Not all such characters live forever. Tarzan, like The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Bulldog Drummond and many other superstars of action, are in serious danger of being relegated to the storage stacks of cultural history. Of course, that death need not be permanent: Doctor Who, Star Trek and several others have been successfully resurrected and modernized without destroying the fabric of their creation.

When it comes to one of the most successful heroes, at the present we are on hold. Daniel Craig has retired as the latest James Bond and, even though the next Bond flick is just entering its development stage I can’t help but wonder how they’ll pull off James’ inevitable resurrection.

Several years ago, I reread the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale from 1953, and even allowing for 70 years of societal and cultural evolution, I was disappointed. I’m uncertain as to what President John F. Kennedy saw in it; JFK was a fan. The book did not age as well as its readers did. Sure, one would expect a certain unholy amount of bigotry and, most certainly, sexism but the novel simply was not well written. The story was solid but, damn, it was tedious, padded and kinda limp. Not the makings of great heroic fantasy or of James Bond.

Hoagy Charmichael

Mind you, when I was in my early teens I eagerly awaited each new Bond novel. Most were serialized in Playboy Magazine, which in the mid-60s was not an easy purchase for a youngster. I had been turned onto the character by reading DC Comics publication of the adaptation of Doctor No, the first Bond film, and I went to Marshall Fields’ to buy the novel despite its then-hefty price tag of fifty cents.

The movies were all over the map. The second film, From Russia With Love, is one of my all-time favorites and the others that immediately surrounded it (Doctor No, Goldfinger, Thunderball) were extremely entertaining. The star, Sean Connery, had recently made his debut on an episode of The Jack Benny Program; he hadn’t done much else. Connery personified the pre-Beatles age of British heroics.

After that, subsequent movies in the series slowly descended into self-satire and easy humor highly exacerbated by the comical performances of Connery’s replacement, the otherwise highly-gifted Roger Moore. His tenure lasted… well, a very very long time. After he stopped playing Bond (having aged out of the character decades previous) the series became somewhat “straighter” and less goofy, and the latter Bond actors were quite good. Daniel Craig had been the latest thus far, and his debut — ironically, in a remake of Casino Royale — was as good as the early movies.

John McLusky

Globally, the series continues to be a license to print money. Twirl the cable dial in any direction and you’re likely to land on either a James Bond movie or, these days, a Marvel flick.

But I have found a quantum of solace in some of the Bond work: the newspaper comic strip that ran from 1958 (several years prior to the first movie) to 1983. There were 52 stories in total, beginning with adaptations of Ian Fleming’s original novels. At first Fleming was opposed to the strip, fearing comics would lessen the stature of his prose. When The Daily Express started putting money on the table, Fleming changed his mind. He even commissioned artwork that revealed his conception of his character, who he modeled after one of America’s greatest musicians and composers, Indiana’s own Hoagy Carmichael.

Hoagy, who had written and recorded classic songs such as “Stardust”, “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul”, also was an actor but by the time Doctor No was made he was too old — and always too slight — to be cast in the part. That’s a pity; he would have been interesting.

Yaroslav Horak

No matter. The Daily Express did not like the idea of having James Bond look like Hoagy Carmichael. They wanted a more rugged look, somebody who would be impressive behind a Walther PPK. Artist John McLusky visualized Bond in a much more contemporary (for 1958) manner: a rugged who also looks great in a tuxedo. He drew the strip for eight years before Yaroslav Horak took over. Both men focused on the ambiance of action needed to make James Bond leap off the page, particularly as the scripts were a bit dry — not unlike the novels, but much more to the point. Mad cartoonist Harry North did the first story after a two year suspension, and then McLusky returned for the next four stories. The final two were handled by Horak, making James Bond quite a fun ride.

Most of the stories were written by Henry Gammidge or the veteran American comics writer Jim Lawrence, who handled most of the original stories. I should point out that Modesty Blaise creator Peter O’Donnell wrote the Doctor No adaptation — several years before he created Modesty!

While I still hold great fondness for a half-dozen Bond movies, it’s that newspaper strip that defines the James Bond I like to read. Solid writing, brilliant art, and very limited use of stupid gadgets.

Titan Comics has reprinted the James Bond strip in trade paperback, hardcover and omnibus editions and, as they had with Modesty Blaise, produced some truly fine books.

I’ve got another story James Bond comics-medium story to tell, and I shall soon. I’ve got a bunch of conventions to do first. So stick around. Keep an eye in that gun barrel.

The Miracle of Cut-and-Paste: I will be joined our own Bob Harrison at C2E2 at McCormick Place in Chicago over this coming April Fool’s Day weekend. Fitting, right? I know I’ll be there Friday and Sunday — I believe we’ll be celebrating First Comics’ 40th anniversary on Sunday along with Joe Staton, Hilary Barta and Alex Wald and maybe even Doug Rice. Yup, you can watch a bunch of ol’ geezers try to work a Waybac Machine!

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