XIII James Bond Amanda Waller Oracle Winter Soldier Sir Denis Nayland Smith
Feature Top Secret Agents
One of the greatest of all recent bande dessinée series has been
by artist William Vance and writer Jean Van Hamme, a book that started out as a take on Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity – amnesiac super-agent tries to find out the secrets of his past, as all parties try to kill him – but soon develops a style all of its own. There are 19 volumes, released over 20 years, in the first storyline – all essential – and a sequel has recently begun too. Time was when we joked about “comic book death”, saying only Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben stayed down. But then the first two were brought back, with Bucky Barnes turning out to have been a Soviet super-agent all along. Called “Winter Soldier”, his reappearance was central to a vast spy story that ran through Cap’s comic in the mid-noughties; the rehabilitated Bucky now works as an intriguing, dark superhero. How much real spying is actually all about bag drops, secret codes, even sitting around in cars watching doorways – let alone slipping into an enemy base wearing a sleek black one-piece and a ton of pouches? No, it’s all Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and the NSA these days, and so a girl sitting in the dark with a bunch of computer screens is as potent an image as any, especially if she’s the wheelchair-bound ex-Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. She’s more recently been given her legs and Bat-cape back, and become infinitely less interesting as a result. Any normal superspy list would lead with this guy, but not this one, for 007’s comic book exploits are the least of his outings, patchy and sporadic – if you ignore the often excellent Daily Express strips, which ran from 1958-1977, which we probably must as a magazine of comic books. Sure, there are Bond comics out there (explored in our feature on page 88) – Dark Horse did its best in the ’90s, with miniseries such as Serpent’s Tooth – but they’re generally stiff, silly and unconvincing, despite the best efforts of top creators such as Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. Steely, avuncular ex-British cop and spy, obsessed with taking down Fu Manchu, and later leader of Freelance Restorations Ltd, a PI-cumadventuring outfit employing Shang-Chi, Clive Reston, Black Jack Tarr and others. He is, of course, a version of the Nayland Smith who was always the Devil Doctor’s Van Helsing-like nemesis in the original Sax Rohmer pulp novels. His obsessive nature is both strength and weakness, and – though he plays Shang-Chi’s “good” surrogate father – he’s not above “games of deceit and death” of his own. Comics are very poor at depicting different body types – girls and boys alike generally come in skinny-and-hot or muscular-and-hot varieties – so a dumpy black woman from the Chicago Projects really is something of a novelty. Introduced in 1985, she’s run the Suicide Squad and Checkmate, and though she makes no friends, and heaves with secret agendas, few would deny her effectiveness. The New 52 version bosses ARGUS, but is now young and slim – we can only hope she gets addicted to donuts, and fast.