A writer would have to be fairly hubristic to take on the Bond franchise; certainly, Warren Ellis has never appeared to lack confidence. And while Vargr does succeed to quite an extant, there is something almost generic about the short stories contained within. A snarky non-descript Bond who flaunts authority and never really falls into any of the Bond actor categories (e.g., Connery, Moore, etc.). And perhaps that is the key ingredient missing: the story doesn’t take the character too seriously, reverentially, or from canon. This is a Fleming Bond predating the Brocolli films with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails.
Story: Vargr begins in Helsinki, where Bond tracks down the killer of 008. This segues into a job involving a drug running operation that was 008’s assignment and now falls to 007. But there is a lot more involved than it appears and Bond will be drawn into a world of cybernetics and world domination.
The use of “Ian Fleming” in the title is important to pointing out the inspiration of this book: this is the 1960s James Bond and not the cult of personality movie characters we are more used to in modern times. The illustration work is almost 1940s noirish: square cut and unremarkable features that are very anachronistic in a modern setting. I almost wish that Bond was operating in a 1960s milieu rather than the modern setting; it’s jarring and unrealistic to see a ‘secret agent’ running around in a suit and tie straight from Mad Men but in 2016.
The book contains a full story arc and then several sub arcs leading to the main plot. As a whole, there’s nothing new here under the sun. We have a bit of the fantastical that is so important to the franchise but nothing crazy here – there are no steel jawed bad guys or guillotine-bolero throwing butlers. Also missing are the Bond girls – perhaps again owing to the Fleming slavishness.
Where Warren gets this right is a series of henchmen and underlings with the right touch of madness and method-to-the-madness machinations. As Bond goes through them and the secret plot is revealed, we get the heart of what makes the 007 stories so fun to read. Admittedly, though, it does take awhile to get to them and they are dispatched fairly quickly and without much fanfare. Ellis keeps the action clipped and brutal.
The artwork is, as noted, an odd mix of 1960s and 2016. I can’t say it works, necessarily, but imagine that this was the compromise to keep Bond Bond-like. You can’t take the icon out of the suit, I guess. Sequences can be hard to follow but the illustrations are clean and non fussy. 1950s Dick tracy color schemes likely had a lot to do with influencing the art.
In all, I didn’t love Vargr. The incongruities in design choices were jarring and I miss the ‘fun’ of Bond. There is humor here and some light moments but for the most part, Vargr can feel very dreary (owing to the linear storyline and clean noirish drawings). But I think those who love the Fleming originals will find much to appreciate in Ellis’ story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.