Before the film series made us all familiar with the face of Sean Connery in the role of James Bond, a series of comic strips -- the first of them published in the Daily Express in 1957 -- provided the only visual representations of Ian Fleming’s popular creation to receive a wide circulation. First brought to life in the author’s 1953 novel "Casino Royale", the world’s most famous secret agent only became a literary sensation in Britain after the rise of the cheap, mass-produced paperback novel in the late fifties, with "Casino Royale" re-issued by Pan in a soft-cover format edition in 1956. After Fleming’s Bond novel "From Russia with Love" was successfully serialised in the paper by staff writer Anthony Hearne, the then-owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook, managed to persuade an initially sceptical Fleming to agree to have the Bond stories adapted as daily comic strips as well, running continuously over the next four years, until a legal dispute with the author in 1962 led to an extended hiatus in publication.
It is interesting to compare the differences in Fleming’s idea of how Bond should have looked on the page, with the image we now have of the character thanks to his subsequent film appearances. We can do this by looking back at the artists’ sketch the author commissioned as a rough guide for the Daily Express’s original illustrators. Fleming seemed to have a rather refined, upper-crust Holmesian notion in mind as his vision of the super spy, a vision Daily Express artist John McLusky was quick to reject out of hand, branding it too ‘pre-war’ for a 1950s readership. A case can be made that it is in fact the dissemination of McLusky’s particular and distinctive comic book characterisation of Bond as an ultra-masculine, square-jawed hero -- exuding machismo from every cleanly drawn line -- which was responsible for influencing all subsequent imaginings of Fleming’s creation. Some even see Sean Connery’s casting in the role as a token of that ’rugged but sophisticated macho’ conception already having become firmly fixed by the great success and worldwide distribution of the first strip in the series in 1957, although the comic strips that appear after “Dr No” was released in cinemas in 1962, clearly adapt and amend McLusky’s original illustrated take on the character in order to emphasis more vividly the actor’s chiselled good looks and dark hair. They didn’t have to make any really radical changes to the character’s appearance, though – McLusky’s Bond is very much the prototype of the one we see on screen in those sixties film adaptations by EON Productions.
John Mclusky’s bold, distinctive style of illustration was allied to Henry Gammidge’s simplified but faithful adaptations of Ian Fleming’s original stories for all but two of the first crop of comic strips to appear in the Express, steadily creating the attractive modern style that would re-package Bond as a signifier of the new consumerist age. The duo were able to capture the essence of Fleming’s stories despite necessarily stripping them of the novels’ prose style and re-organising them so they could be understood in short daily bursts intended to be read each day over the course of almost a year.
Titan Books have already published a luxurious Omnibus reprint of the strips McLusky and Gammidge adapted during their first six years of work. Now this follow-up volume takes up the story after the legal dispute between Fleming and Beaverbrook was settled, and the strip cartoon started up again in 1964 with McLusky and Gammidge’s adaptation of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. The volume then follows on with what turned out to be the partnership’s final collaboration -- the adaptation of the penultimate novel, “You Only Live Twice” -- although McLusky returned to illustrate Bond once again in the 1980s. Unlike the film versions, both these strips follow the original novels’ storylines fairly closely; with Bond’s ill-fated marriage to Teresa di Vicenzo and his continuing search for SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld (following on from the events at the end of “Thunderball”) made the centre of the first one, and his final showdown with Blofeld in Japan, and subsequent amnesia after almost dying in an explosion, in the second.
When the final posthumously published Bond Novel, “The Man with the Golden Gun”, was adapted to comic-strip form, the franchise was given a whole new lease of life with the arrival of a new team at the helm: writer Jim Lawrence once again offered a fairly faithful adaptation of Fleming’s novel, but the Russian born artist Yaroslav Horak brought a noticeably more textured style to the artwork. His vision of Bond, coming in the light of Sean Connery’s portrayal on the big screen, is far more stylised, exaggerating the character’s debonair, dark sophistication above the rough-tough macho man in McLusky’s work. In their subsequent work, the team of Lawrence and Horak went on to produce many original Bond stories of their own and overall, worked on the character for a much longer period of time than anyone else. This omnibus edition also features Lawrence and Horak’s distinctive adaptations of “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy” and the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity”, and finishes up with their considerably re-worked version of the tenth novel (skipped over during the previous adaptations) “The Spy Who Loved Me”, famously the odd one in the bunch for its hardly featuring Bond at all until some way into the story. Lawrence‘s adaptation bears scant resemblance to Fleming’s rather odd tale, and marks the beginning of the duo being allowed by the Fleming estate to provide their own original scenarios for the character. Reproduced here, contained in Titan Books’ large format soft-bound covered luxury edition -- Volume 2 of the collected Bond comic strips – these dallies look, feel and smell like the authentic newspaper print originals; you almost expect the inky print to come off on your fingers (although it doesn’t, I hasten to add!). With a third volume already in the offing, this fat collection should keep Bond fans and vintage comic strip aficionados well occupied for weeks as they re-live the comic strip Bond’s coming of age in some of his most striking adventures yet – an attractively bound collector’s item.