James Bond: Permission to Die
(1989-1991 - three issues, prestige format, co-published by Eclipse (USA) / Acme Press (UK))
Written and illustrated by Mike Grell.
Though there had been a James Bond newspaper strip as far back as the 1960s, the character didn't really start to intrude upon comics until the 1990s, when more than one publisher tried some Bond mini-series. The first one was Mike Grell's Permission to Die. The publishing history of this mini-series is, in itself, curious. It's three, 48 page issues...but one where there was a two year gap between the second and third issue! What's equally odd that is one might almost think it was only intended as a two-parter which then Grell decided to add to a little later.
The premise has secret agent 007, James Bond, assigned to get a woman out from behind the iron curtain (this being during the cold war) -- her uncle, a wealthy recluse, has offered Britain some rocket technology in return for this favour. And the first two issues pursue this story, ending with Bond getting the woman out. Which seems like a reasonable finish and, indeed, in the 1996 edition of the Comic Guide, they mistakenly list the series as being two issues long. The third issue then has Bond delivering the woman to her uncle and becoming embroiled in a, more or less, separate story, as her uncle turns out to have a hidden agenda and, in true Bond fashion, lives in a hidden HQ. But the fact that Mike Grell goes to great lengths to describe the uncle in the first issue (complete with mysterious disfigurement and enormous personal resources) even though he doesn't appear until the third, suggests Grell had, indeed, intended the whole series all along.
Anyway, Permission to Die is a moderately enjoyable adventure -- with the slightly separate nature of the plots being fun, in that you get two stories in one. There has always been a disagreement among Bond fans as to whether he was better served by the slightly grittier, more sedate novels of Ian Fleming, or the over-the-top action movies. And Grell seems to try for both. The first part of the story is more down-to-earth, with Bond running around the European countryside with Gypsy allies, his most flamboyant adversary simply a high priced assassin; then the second part gets a little more heightened, as we meet the enigmatic uncle, his (of course) sexy but deadly Girl Friday, and learn of his earth shaking plan. Though Grell throws in a certain ambiguity with the villain, so that he's not quite a complete black hat -- something not very common in either the books or the movies.
It's as if Grell couldn't decide which version of a Bond story he liked better, so he incorporated them both. Of course, the idea of the "super villain" with the secret base originated in the novels, so maybe the whole thing would be seen as a throwback to the novels. After all, a weakness with the mini-series is that it's not exactly fast paced, brimming with breathless action. Grell, in fact, seems to lack a certain sense of fun, so that some of the series can seem a bit, well, dry. Like I noticed with Grell's run on Green Arrow from that time, he can kind of fall in love with his own prose, writing static, verbose sequences of characters just sitting around talking (though the Gypsy parable about the wolf is memorable). Despite the flamboyant trappings of the third issue, even there Bond spends more time discussing things than investigating them. In fact, the plot is jumped forward by the fact that he meets someone who has already done the preliminary work on her own and can tell Bond about it! The third issue seems a little like Grell maybe should've stretched it out over two issues, to really develop it, particularly as it seems a bit rushed and with questionable logic.
Artwise, Grell's Bond evokes a young Sean Connery (without quite encroaching upon any copyright issues), adding to a sense of resonance, and the first issue, in particular, is well drawn, with particularly well handled faces. Grell can be an artist of varying skill, delivering effective, almost breathtaking work on one story...then scratchy, rougher art on another. The art slips as things progress, becoming a bit rushed and even crude by the final issue -- particularly problematic in the action scenes. In fact, one almost wonders if the lapse between issues two and three might've reflected some problems Grell was having, either meeting deadlines, or with his health, or something (each issue credits an increasing number of "art assistants"). The colouring, too, gets a little off centre in the later issues.
There's also a grittiness to the series that, ironic for a comic vs. the movies, can be more than the films, with some violence, and scenes of Bond and romantic interests rather underclad (albeit, mainly in shadow).
Permission to Die isn't a great Bond saga -- it's a bit thinly plotted, a bit dry, a bit reliant on talking heads. But it is enjoyable, reasonably evoking Bond and his milieu, and told with enough maturity to not seem like a dumbed down comic book version. Not a classic...but not a disappointment either.