Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Heroes & Monsters and James Bond


"Well, it's certainly not writing for the fans, or for an audience of any sort, really. I write primarily for myself. It's largely if there's something that I want very much to exist in the universe and it doesn't. Then, rather than wait around for somebody else to make it exist, then it generally seems to work better if I do it myself." -- Alan Moore

I picked up a copy of Jess Nevins' Heroes & Monsters this week at the local thrift store, thinking I would just give it a quick read-through to see if I had missed any arcane material in Moore & O'Neill's League series. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book goes well beyond a play-by-play recap of who appears in what panel of each page. Nevins presents some interesting insights into the backgrounds of the main characters and their derivations in popular culture, never shying away from the more unpleasant aspects of Victoriana. The included essay on the history of "yellow peril" characters is itself worth the price of the book. Plus, there's a fun interview with Alan Moore, showing some of his associative ideas, and his willingness to work with great illustrators as O'Neill, rather than just dictating to them.


"Now he proposed to kill the sting ray because it looked so extraordinarily evil."
Speaking of unpleasant aspects, here's the always problematic James Bond for me to deal with. I've been going through a pile of 1960s Playboys, partly for entertainment and partly for collage purposes, enjoying the old Ray Bradbury stories and Shel Silverstein cartoons. Nothing really goes with the Playboy package of soft-focus nude photography, cocktail recipes and high masculine fashion more than the appearances of Ian Fleming's reluctant spy.

The March, 1960 issue features "The Hildebrand Rarity," which has been collected in the recent Quantum of Solace anthology. Here, readers would have encountered it right after finishing Dr. No or Goldfinger. Bond is on a working vacation in the Seychelles, happily hunting fish with a harpoon gun, apparently to the consternation of some of the locals who don't share his enthusiasm for swimming with barracudas and sharks.
"It's damned silly. Everybody moans about how poor they are here although the sea's absolutely paved with fish."
His native friend, Fedele Barbey, does poke fun at him a bit for his colonial attitude, but this is part of the gentlemanly image presented in all the Bond novels, irritation at others' not being up to the same standards as the "civilized" world. It's a weird mixture of nobility and racism. Later on in the story, when he meets the villain of the piece, it's not enough to describe Milton Krest as a ugly American, but he has to be German on top of it.
"So that was it! The old Hun again. Always at your feet or at your throat."
It's also not enough that Krest is an annoying bully, he also abuses his wife, beating her with a sting ray tail. Apparently, even the natives don't sink that low and have made such things illegal. Bond doesn't do anything about this however. Typically, he spends most of the story being indecisive about what the proper course of action should be.

Eventually the dead body of Krest is discovered by Bond one night; he's been killed in an ironic way that the old E.C. comics editors would have been proud of. Not wanting to compromise his identity, or put blame on either of his ship-mates, the German is dumped overboard. Interestingly, we never find out exactly who killed the man. Instead, there's a wonderful tense series of passages where the remaining characters all have to converse without revealing any suspicion of guilt.

This is a very odd entry in the James Bond series, very in-active, but very typical in that the hero is presented as a reluctant participant. For all his snobbery, the character still comes off as fascinating, due I think to Fleming's honesty (and his writing talent). If a conservative gentleman was placed in the position of moral compromise over and over again, he'd probably be an over-compensating Playboy. As a modern reader, however, I'm not sure that Bond is still the male power fantasy that audiences are looking for.

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