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Interview Bryan Hitch
★★Not many first-time writers have the sort of friends that Hitch has to call on for feedback, but then again not many writers have his artistic credentials. “I know this is going to sound like terrible name-dropping,” he says, “but I gave Real Heroes to a load of friends – Joss Whedon, Damon Lindelof, Brian Vaughan, Mark Millar, Brian Meltzer – to get a response based solely on what I’d delivered, not on any preconceptions. I was so enthused by the response that it’s made me very reluctant to reveal anything by way of trying to convince people to read it. If only another million or so people could respond in the same way, I’d
be truly happy.”
★ ★ ★★
but as a celebrity dieter. She’s got this paranoid idea of not being too big, and, of course, her superpower is to grow really tall or to shrink really small. Again, you can play with that as a character type, so there’s a shorthand way of getting to aspects of their personalities.
“So it really wasn’t difficult to find these guys, they just sort of popped into my head. And when I write them, I seem to be writing and not just language, they seem to have their own way of looking at a scene, which is usually a good indication that you’ve got some characters right.”
With characters like these, you’d have thought that there was plenty of opportunity for Hitch to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes – basing their looks on real celebrities and actors. But maybe not quite so blatantly this time…
“Once I’d created the characters it was easy to cast them,” he says. “I played the same game to start with, which was who would I want in these roles? There were a few likenesses in #1 which turned out to be very like those characters, because I kept thinking about those actors. So I’ve actually gone back and redrawn them so that they look more like they do in #2 and #3 – as I drew them more, and got more familiar with them, they got further away from potential likenesses.
“I could easily cast this movie several times over, so if and when that comes around I’ll have my thoughts! I suppose I always like to try and find somebody to base a character on, especially if it’s a new one, as you have to think about how they think, how they act and how they work. They become those characters rather than the stunt casting. Obviously I’m known for that, having cast Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury from the early days.
“Mark Millar and I talked about this a while back. In those days, that was very much a novelty as we’d never seen famous people playing superheroes, and apart from a handful of movies you’d never really seen superheroes in the movies to any great degree, especially Marvel characters. So playing the casting game in 2001 was a different kettle of fish to today, where you’re used to seeing characters that you’re familiar with on the big screen. When we were doing The Ultimates we were thinking of Thor as a young Brad Pitt, and of course, in looks, Hemsworth is very much a young Brad Pitt.”
Ultimate ch allenge
The big challenge on Real Heroes was never going to be picking the superstar models for the characters, though. As Hitch’s first stab at handling both the writing and artwork, it represents a bold step in a new direction. So how has it been going? Pretty well, actually...
“I sort of make it up as I go along,” he says. “I hate the kind of criticism that goes, ‘The writers were just making it up as they went along.’ I rather think ‘Isn’t that the point?’ That’s kind of what I’ve done. I had an outline. I knew how I wanted it to end. Beginnings and ends are always relatively easy. The beginning is the easiest part because it’s the question you ask, it’s the premise of the story – what if this happens? And you kind of know roughly where you want to be at the end, but
I hate the criticism, ‘the writers were just making it up as they went along’. I think, ‘Isn’t that the point?’
you’ve got this huge gap between the two where you need to answer that question.
“So I worked on the outline – by that I mean I walked the dog* a lot and did a lot of thinking. I thought about writing a full script, but as I started to do that it made less and less sense. What I do is write a fairly solid note form outline for each issue, tighten that up as much as I can for the beats, and then use the thumbnailing process of drawing as a way of scripting for myself. Then I make notes on the computer about the dialogue, sometimes extremely specific and complete dialogue for the scenes that are action-led rather than dialogue-led. I go back and forth between the two until the issue is drawn and written. It seems to be working quite well, really.
“I’ve been telling stories a long time – this isn’t exactly my first rodeo! I’ve been coming up with ideas and thinking of stories my whole life. I’ve worked with some of the best guys in the business and I’ve picked up a lot of ideas about what works and what doesn’t. It felt very natural just to do it the way I thought it ought to be done. Certainly, as an artist I’m a bit of a seasoned old hack. I kind of know what I’m doing there, so I was an easy artist to write for!”
“I think anybody who knows the work I’ve done – especially on key projects such as Authority or The Ultimates – has a good idea of the kind of scale and detail I can deliver with the work I can draw. But as every writer says, at heart this is a character story. There might well be an enormous plot, and huge, world-shattering events, but it’s also a story about six people who find themselves in a completely new scenario that they’d never been prepared for. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a pastiche; at heart it’s a big character drama played against huge events that you can only get in big-scale comics. The action in this is going to make The Avengers seem like a Merchant Ivory production.”
faithful, and the art by John McLusky was tidy, gritty and intensively textured. The Thunderball strip was cut short owing to a contractual dispute between Fleming and Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, but was later concluded for syndication to other newspapers.
In 1966 writer Jim Lawrence and CzechRussian artist Yaroslav Horak took over the job, and the quality rose several notches. Their first effort was The Man With The Golden Gun, based on the final Fleming novel, published posthumously in 1964. In Lawrence and Horak’s version, Bond is given a more personal motivation for going after Scaramanga – the master assassin has very nearly killed a friend. Their take on The Spy Who Loved Me adds even more to the original: a lengthy opening sequence, in which Bond foils a SPECTRE blackmail plot in Canada, supplies story detail that the novel only sketches out in flashback.
Thereafter – aside from an adaptation of the 1968 novel Colonel Sun, the first ever Bond continuation, written by literary lion Kingsley Amis under the pseudonym Robert Markham – Lawrence and Horak generated all-new material. Lawrence, whose only other comics credits are scripts for issues of the UK weekly Super Spider-Man And Captain Britain, certainly knew his way around a great Bondian title – “Double Jeopardy”, “Sea Dragon”, “Death Wing” – but he could lapse into pulpiness, both in titling and plotting, as in “The Golden Ghost”, “The Black Ruby Caper”, “The Xanadu Connection” and “The Phoenix Project”.
The stories adhere to the Fleming formula of exotic locations, alluring females, bizarre villains, worldimperilling schemes and casual sadism. There are cool gadgets: a bullet-firing briefcase, a cigarette lighter that issues a jet of knock-out gas and a backpack fitted with rotor blades. Recurring characters from the canonical novels appear: M, Miss Moneypenny, M’s Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, and Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter. The villainous Dr No even crops up in Hot-Shot, having assumed the new identity of tiger-loving Indian businessman Huliraya.
eerie fireball of doom in “Starfire”, space-alien kidnappers in “Nightbird”, and a vampire cult in “League Of Vampires”. Everything has a rational, mundane explanation, but still these elements would seem more at home in Avengers – or indeed Scooby-Doo – than Bond.
Lawrence’s dialogue has its fair share of clunky moments. Bond is forever calling women “luv” and men “mate”, entirely out of keeping for a former naval officer and an alumnus of Eton and Fettes. He talks of a new club drug that can “groove you out of this world on absolutely cosmic highs” (“Die With My Boots On”) and defends a moment of cautiousness with the line “I never did dig that Light Brigade jive” (“The Girl Machine”). Really, 007?
Horak’s art, though, is consistently impressive. His Bond has the forelock so often mentioned by Fleming, and isn’t a slavish representation of either Sean Connery or Roger Moore. If anything, the character here resembles Hoagy Carmichael, the American singer whom Fleming himself felt Bond should look like. Though the choppy, episodic nature of the daily newspaper strip format can become tiresome when the stories are read in collected form, they’re still hugely entertaining and on occasion are an improvement on some of the non-Fleming novels (we’re looking particularly at you, Jeffery Deaver, and your Carte Blanche).
Comics adaptations of the films have appeared sporadically over the years. The first was Doctor No in DC Showcase #43 by Norman J Nodel, which was published in the UK in Classics Illustrated. It includes a scene cut from the movie, in which a manacled Honey Rider is menaced by crabs, and No himself is killed by electrocution rather than drowned in bird poop.*
Marvel did For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy in the early ’80s, the former boasting Howard Chaykin pencils utterly ruined by Vince Colletta’s inks, the latter not a bad effort from Steve Moore and Paul Neary.
Eclipse Comics then produced Licence To Kill in 1988, which saw Mike Grell on writing and art duties. This was a good fit of creator and material, not least since Grell had already produced the very Bondian Jon Sable, Freelance earlier in the decade. Permission To Die, an all-new three-issue prestige format Bond miniseries from Grell, followed a year later, and it’s far and away the best comics 007 tale there has been. Grell cleaves to the Fleming originals in plot structure and
at the same time acknowledging the influence of the movies. There’s a “pre-credit sequence” which gets Bond into a dinner jacket and kilt, followed by a double-page spread which offers a montage of images from the films.
The story then sees Bond, having been provided with the latest sidearm by Q Branch, travel to Hungary and rendezvous with Luludi, gypsy daughter of Kerim Bey from Russia With Love. The mission is to extract the niece of a former Soviet rocket scientist across the border into Austria and thence to Idaho, where said rocket scientist, Erik Wiziado, has fashioned himself a high-tech lair inside a former US Navy training base. Disfigured by torture, Wiziado covers half his face in a featureless mask and plays a huge, elaborate pipe organ, much like the Phantom of the Opera – and yes, he’s a nutjob who intends to frighten the world into total nuclear disarmament by lobbing an atomic warhead at Victoria, capital of British Columbia.
It’s a serious story with a moral message but it doesn’t stint on the softcore sex and hardcore violence. The art in the middle issue is a letdown, Grell relying heavily on assistants, but overall the quality remains high. Best of all, Wiziado, unlike other Bond villains, has a conscience about his heinous acts, and is more misguided philanthropist than raving megalomaniac. You’re left wondering, as Bond does, if the world might not have been a better place had his plan succeeded: “Sacrifice a few to save the many. Who knows, it might have worked ... and I’d be out of a job.”
In 1992 Dark Horse picked up the Bond baton and commissioned Serpent’s Tooth from Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. It must have seemed like a good idea – a dead cert, even – since these two were the writer/artist team that had had such a hit with their mid-’70s run on Marvel’s Bond-inspired Shang-Chi, Master Of Kung Fu (see page 162).
Serpent’s Tooth, alas, is a bit rubbish. Moench has Bond investigating the disappearance of agent 009, who was sent to Peru to track down nuclear missiles stolen from a British submarine. The baddie is Indigo, a biogeneticist who has tried to cure himself of a rare blood disease via injections of reptilian DNA. The results have left him with serpentine features and a desire to set off earthquakes which will wipe out 83 per cent of the earth’s population; what parts of the planet remain intact will be his to rule and repopulate using girls kidnapped from local native Indian villages. Oh, and he has a pair of albino henchmen and a bunch of genetically recreated extinct animals too.
Moench shoots for arched-eyebrow oneliners in the Roger Moore mode, but rarely hits the mark. In all, Serpent’s Tooth is just too
science-fictional, too comic-booky, to work as a Bond adventure. And the plot owes more to the movie version of Moonraker than it ought.
Better is A Silent Armageddon by Simon Jowett and John Burns, which sees Bond assigned to protect a disabled teenaged computer hacker genius, Terri Li, who is being pursued by terrorist organisation Cerberus on account of a sophisticated “worm” program she has created. If one can overlook some very dated “information superhighway” virtual reality gubbins, there’s a decent story here and some classy, classically-styled art from Burns. Nice, too, that the principal henchman is the son of From Russia With Love’s formidable SMERSH officer, Rosa Klebb (she of the sensible shoes with spring-loaded, poison-tipped blades in the toecaps). It’s just a shame that only two issues of a projected four ever appeared, owing to problems with late delivery of artwork.
The two-issue Shattered Helix, also written by Jowett, is an effective mini-epic set mostly in the Antarctic, where Cerberus – again – is up to no good, trying to get its hands on a mutagenic virus which uses the human body’s own immune system to destroy a person from the inside out. Bond, accompanied by a beautiful climate change scientist and some marines, infiltrates a research lab beneath the ice and faces the almost unkillable Bullock, who has Kevlar implants under his skin. It all ends in explosions and a page’s worth of eco-preaching. The art, by David Jackson, is passable, but it would have been a real treat to see the man who provides layouts and colours, David Lloyd, illustrate the whole thing himself.
By contrast The Quasimodo Gambit, Dark Horse’s final Bond offering, published in 1995, is unmitigated tosh. The script, from the pen of Don McGregor, lacks sure-footedness, eking out a muddled storyline that has something to do with marijuana smuggling and a plan by religious fanatics to detonate bombs in Times Square at Christmas. A minor highlight is a unique torture-by-leeches scene.
Of course, this being McGregor, the comic is hideously over-written. Narrative captions crowd every panel, striving for eloquent literary profundity and missing by a mile: “There was always an undercurrent about New York that James Bond enjoyed; a constant conflict of impressions – from poised artifice to gutter abandon. He relished its staccato ability to change from block to block.” McGregor can’t even make his mind up whether he’s writing in the past or present tense.
And the art, by Gary Caldwell, is ghastly: stiff, unimaginative, far too reliant on airbrush colouring, with characters all but indistinguishable from one another. The script tells us that the thuggish Maximilian “Quasimodo” Steel has a hunchback; Caldwell can’t be arsed to depict this.
Perhaps disheartened by the awfulness of Quasimodo Gambit, the Ian Fleming literary estate has not granted any further licences to publish James Bond comics since 1995. This is a shame, because Bond still has huge potential in the medium. In the right hands – those of Warren Ellis, say, or Mark Millar – the mix of low-key heroics, quippy dialogue, glamorous women and slick weaponry could be a winner.
But one shouldn’t give up hope. As the endtitles of the movies always promise, “James Bond will return…”