How Alan Moore ripped James Bond to shreds
With No Time to Die finally opening on Oct. 8, Entertainment Weekly is celebrating all things 007 with 25 Days of Bond. When considering the history of 007, though, it's crucial to take a closer look at another, extremely unofficial, utterly fascinating version of the character. Join EW's Darren Franich and Christian Holub for a closer look at the worst man of the 20th century: Jimmy.
DARREN: In 2006, James Bond changed forever. Casino Royale reset the decadent vanities of the Pierce Brosnan years, bringing 007 down to earth in a gritty espionage thriller. Daniel Craig's debut marked a bold new direction for the franchise, adapting Ian Fleming's first Bond novel into a post-9/11 tale reflecting the run-and-grunt style of The Bourne Identity. Or anyhow, at the time, I would've said all those words. I was a Bond kid growing up, with three decades of 007 recorded on videotape from annual TBS marathons. But I was also an Alan Moore kid, and those two fascinations were on a collision course. Precisely one year after Casino Royale opened in theaters, Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill unveiled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier.
Previous volumes of League combined Victorian literary characters into a proto-superteam. Black Dossier leaped forward to the 1950s, which let Moore introduce "Jimmy," a dashing secret agent with some very familiar-looking kiss-kiss-bang-bang methods. He's also a terrible person. It takes maybe four pages for Jimmy to try sexually assaulting someone. The United Kingdom he lazily serves was only recently a fascist dystopia. Now the government concocts Jimmy's famous adventures for propaganda purposes. And this famous British spy is actually an American double agent, who murders an older English hero in cold blood.
Jimmy isn't quite a central villain in Black Dossier, since the project's anthology structure keeps pushing the 1950s plot into the background. But he haunted later editions of League, which brought Moore's vast critique of modern everything towards an apocalyptic present day. The writer says he's done with comics, so at this point I'm inclined to call "Jimmy" his last great comics invention… or rather, reinvention, a stunningly reversed variation of a famous character that fully integrates a pre-existing mythology (while avoiding any potential lawsuits). Watchmen's humanistic deconstruction of the superhero myth looks comparatively quaint. It's clear that Moore viscerally hates James Bond, and the character's League appearances played out like a stunning counterargument to the Daniel Craig era.
Christian, can you talk about how Moore lays the groundwork for Jimmy's arrival?
CHRISTIAN: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen started as, essentially, a Victorian-era Justice League. What if you assembled a bunch of the most interesting heroes of late-1800s British pulp fiction in order to fight threats greater than themselves? But despite the starry names involved in League's original lineup — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man — the very first page of this now decades-long comic saga belongs entirely to an original character. This rotund and well-dressed representative of the British Empire is unfamiliar to us, but his last name certainly is. This is Campion Bond, and his importance to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen only seems grander in retrospect.
Before we see him light a cigarette on the Cliffs of Dover as he awaits the arrival of Dracula's Mina Murray, Campion also delivers the book's opening epigraph: "The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters." This fictional quotation has several specific resonances within the comic's first story arc — Jekyll and Hyde go without saying, plus there's the eventual revelation that British intelligence is in fact headed by Professor Moriarty, with Campion his loyal toady — but it also seems indicative of Moore's feelings about James Bond. After all, Moore clearly sees Bond as so important to the history and trajectory of British pop culture that he invented an ancestor in order to tie the concept of Bond to a story initially set in 1898.
Campion Bond first appears to us amidst the glory of imperial Britain — the second page of that first issue is a magnificent piece by O'Neill depicting massive statues of British symbols adorned with the first chapter title "Empire Dreams" — but James Bond initially arrived at its twilight. Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale was published in 1953, less than a decade after World War II's conclusion saw Britain finally lose its status as global hegemon to the ascendant United States. Bond's debonair confidence and globe-trotting adventures helped British culture salve the humiliation of watching one's empire disintegrate. Bond could therefore be interpreted as a figure of cultural reaction, proudly standing athwart the changing tides of history and saying with a murderous smile, "this was all better when we were in charge."
My first encounter with the eventual film adaptation of Casino Royale was also my first encounter with Bond at all. I didn't grow up watching 007 films, so though I've since gone back over the years, the Daniel Craig filmography remains my primary source document for the character. The Craig incarnation does eventually show up in League (his blonde hair makes him easy to spot in O'Neill's lineup of Bonds) but takes a definite backseat to Jimmy, who seems more indebted to the Sean Connery version — or rather, given League's literary roots, Fleming's original vision.
As you say, Jimmy initially shows up in Black Dossier, where he gets his teeth knocked out in short order. But when Jimmy reappears in the final League volume (and Moore's self-professed final comic) The Tempest, he is rejuvenated by the Fountain of Youth, has read the Black Dossier himself, and presents a truly terrifying vision of reaction against the vision of feminist utopia that finally seemed within reach at the end of the previous volume. Darren, what do you think Moore and O'Neill are saying about what Bond's immortality has wreaked on our culture?
DARREN: You're really nailing how the spirit of James Bondness lingers through the whole League project, Christian. Jimmy actually doesn't appear at all in the third volume, Century, but one character mentions him very memorably. By 2009, Jimmy is decaying through late-stage hedonism, suffering from an agonizing mix of cirrhosis, emphysema, and syphilis. He is, we're told, "a national institution," so the British Secret Service keeps his "propaganda myth" going with younger stand-ins.
I always thought this was a snazzy bit of double-reverse metafiction. On one hand, Moore wants you to imagine what would actually happen if the James Bond of Ian Fleming's novels and the film franchise were actually all the same guy, drinking and smoking and screwing his way across the world for several decades of hard living. On the other hand, Moore's version of Bond didn't do much of anything, at least nothing heroic. Past a certain point, he let his doppelgangers handle his faux-heroic appearances — a variation of the "Multiple Bonds In One Universe" fan theory, reimagined as a tactic for totalitarian despots.
Century came out on June 27, 2012. As you point out, it ends on a note of optimism. Moore's protagonist Mina heads off for immortal adventures with a character who is almost certainly Emma Peel, the mod superspy originally played by Diana Rigg in The Avengers. They're also joined by Virginia Woolf's gender-bending Orlando, so you're getting a sense of the future-is-female-and-not-just-cisgender sunlight on Moore's horizon back then.
Precisely one month later, the 2012 Olympics began in London. Daniel Craig's James Bond was four years away from his last appearance in 2008's remarkably unpleasant Quantum of Solace. Craig was coming off Cowboys & Aliens, which stunk, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a very meticulous snooze. His 007 legacy did not seem especially solid, but solid Skyfall buzz and general cultural inertia carried him into a very buzzy Opening Ceremony sketch, where Craig's Bond escorted the actual Queen Elizabeth II to the Games. It was a brilliant piece of monarch-sponsored advertising — and a few months later, Skyfall grossed a billion dollars and became the first Bond in 46 years to win Oscars. (Worth pointing out that the iconography of Harry Potter also had a starring role in that Opening Ceremony, and a version of Harry Potter had only just been more or less the Antichrist in Tempest. Headline: Moore has negative thoughts about British cultural protagonists!)
I like Skyfall a lot; it's pretty! From our remote perch here in the future, though, the soaring "We Are A Kingdom United!" emotions of that opening ceremony (and the film's accompanying insistence on MI6's moral superiority) look rather tone-deaf. Or maybe I'm not looking closely enough; maybe it was all an early warning of the nostalgia-pumped nationalism preparing to storm across the decade. Certainly, by the time League returned in 2018, Moore's premonitions had turned much pessimistic. Jimmy is the full-on antagonist of Tempest. He chases after the hero-women and discovers the secret of their immortality — and then, having rebooted himself as a virile young cad, he ruins the possibility of anyone else ever living forever. He rains destruction down all around him, in ways that are impossible to explain, except to simply say that Moore's Bond is not merely a racist misogynist with no scruples, he's a racist misogynist with no scruples who also seems to want to destroy the possibility of human imagination.
The funniest and nastiest interpretation of Moore's intentions here is that he reeeeeaaally didn't like what Sean Connery did in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. On a deeper level, though, I admire how completely Moore vivisects the iconography of 007. The Craig films tend to get discussed as darker or more humane variations on the James Bond theme, but he's still a guy who saves the world, leaving a trail of weird foreigners and attractive corpses behind him. I've noticed a general growing tendency in film criticism to give every reboot several benefits of doubt, with a baked-in assumption that any three-decade-later legacy sequel or recast reboot is obviously expressing something thoughtful about a franchise's troubled legacy. With Jimmy, Moore seems to say: Cut the crap. This stuff is rotten, and making it look young and cool again won't make it any less rotten.
Obviously, the Great Alan Moore Conundrum is that a guy who seems ferociously anti-reboot has spent a lot of his career cultivating new angles on old myths. Between Century and Tempest, Moore spent time in the League universe with a trilogy about Captain Nemo's daughter. Those adventures were steeped in look-there's-Doctor-Mabuse referentiality, and they're my favorite thing Moore did this century. Christian, how do interpret Moore's specific takedown of Bond with some of the larger cultural critiques in his League stories?
CHRISTIAN: Lest anyone think that Moore and O'Neill reserve their savage critiques for James Bond alone, it's worth noting here that The Tempest also takes aim at superhero culture. Yes I know, what a shock: Alan Moore has criticisms of superheroes! But since for most people Watchmen is now the name of a 2019 HBO series, I can't blame him for making sure no one misses the point this time.
Watchmen and Miracleman were Moore's twin '80s epics about the possible endgames for superhero myths. In one story, they successfully save the world from nuclear annihilation by becoming their own version of the unaccountable Cold War security state, making decisions beyond democratic input; in the other, the heroes simply take over the globe as an enlightened dictatorship. But whatever you can say about the moralities of Doctor Manhattan or Michael Moran, their fates were timelessly tragic and epic, even beautiful. The same cannot be said for the superheroes seen in The Tempest, most of whom are drooling in an old-age home funded by giant media corporations. "Their franchises might become valuable again, so they're not really allowed to die," one character notes sardonically.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may have started as a "Victorian Justice League," but over time it has evolved into a comprehensive history of pop culture and pulp fiction, from its earliest beginnings through its modern senescence. The final volume concludes that superheroes are the dystopian endpoint of the entire concept of larger-than-life heroes, and that such figures (which include James Bond as much as Superman) are more of a plague on human development than a positive inspiration.
"Our very existence corrodes the human spirit," the albino Monsieur Zenith tells Woolf's Orlando during a rainy duel atop the Paris Opera, a flashback scene hinted at in The Black Dossier but finally seen in The Tempest. "The humans envy, worship, and adore us, live through fantasies of being us. And that is all they do. They come to think only impossible beings are capable of greatness. They cease attempting it for themselves."
Even more damningly, a similar sentiment is later expressed by no less a figure than Sherlock Holmes: "Increasingly, I suspect such personages are to humanity's detriment. Even when benevolent we often make matters worse...our very existence disrupts society." As an example, think of how many modern cop shows still follow the Holmes model of a lovably eccentric detective who solves the crimes no one else can, and then remember the massive protests that engulfed the United States last year as Black Americans tried to convey to everyone else how different real-life police are from such idealized cultural conceptions. That should give a sense of what Moore and O'Neill are talking about.
And yet, as you say Darren, there's always a paradox in the Moore reading experience. Superhero comics' fiercest critic has also written the best superhero comics ever, which continues to this day; each issue of The Tempest comes with a riotously entertaining black-and-white back-up story about a '60s superhero team called the Seven Stars (how far we've come, from imagining a "Victorian Justice League" to parodying the actual Justice League!). And even as he makes his argument against heroic adventurers, he also produces some of the coolest ones ever.
If Bond is the great villain of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then Captain Nemo might secretly be its true hero. They are, after all, the two sources of original characters in League's cultural tapestry, though in opposite directions: While Moore and O'Neill invented an ancestor for Bond, they created descendants for Nemo. The Nemo trilogy Darren mentions — one of EW's favorite comics of the last decade — centers around Janni Nemo, the daughter of Jules Verne's original anti-imperialist adventurer. The Tempest picks up with her grandson Jack, who has built a new kind of Nautilus.
Perhaps you notice a difference here. Darren mentioned earlier that one of Bond's most horrific acts in The Tempest is to destroy the Fountain of Youth shortly after using it, so that no one else can ever enjoy its benefits. The Nemos, by contrast, decline to use the Fountain at all, preferring instead to raise a family and pass on their knowledge from one generation to the rest rather than gallivanting around the globe in an eternal youthful adventure. The result of this organic, humanist approach to life can be seen in O'Neill's incredible spread of Lincoln Island in The Tempest, which shows all the different bases and statues that each generation of Nemo has bestowed on their secret island getaway to strengthen their children and grandchildren. If superhuman adventure stories aren't going away anytime soon, maybe we can at least get more who proudly disobey unjust laws, subvert wealthy colonizers, and chart a new future for humanity.
Darren, since you have a more personal connection with the Bond franchise than I do, maybe you can wrap up by talking about how you reconcile Moore's critique with your childhood love of the British super-spy? Take us home on that big squid-shaped rocketship!
DARREN: One thing you're capturing about the Nemo books is just how freaking fun they are, Christian. I'm here for all of Moore's omni-mythic explorations into humanity's sociocultural existence. (I read all of Jerusalem.) But Moore is very good at creating lushly thought-provoking thrill-sagas that could only exist in the realm of the super-fantasy. Jimmy's scattered appearances across a couple League decades form a great story, yet they specifically form a great James Bond story. This famous hero makes an amazing villain, and his comeuppance is brutally cathartic.
Hard to guess the mind of the Magus, but I assume Moore would be happy with no more James Bond movies (and, for that matter, no more 3,000-word investigations into the James Bond mythos). Jeff Bezos has different ideas, obviously, and even if No Time to Die grosses negative dollars, the franchise has enough generational fumes (and lucrative inline-advertising deals) to keep cruising long past my own death.
I still love the movies on a deep level, but Moore definitely rewired how I perceive them. I blame him for the fact that that I just can't take the Daniel Craig movies as seriously as they want to be taken. It's weird how Skyfall dwells on Bond being out of shape, even though Craig is clearly ripped from months of mandatory workouts. It's super weird Bond's recent adventures are hyper-personal, steeped in the kind of he-killed-my-substitute-parent tragedy that mainly seem designed to over-justify his renegade tactics. (Actually, all the stuff in Tempest about the old icon's doppelgängers and rejuvenation left me skeptical of any neverending franchise where the main white-guy hero becomes an aspirational messiah whose spirit lives on through a new generation. Spider-Verse fans insist Spider-Verse isn't about that, of course, whereas Star Wars fans just want Mark Hamill to be young again by any means necessary.)
What I'm left with is a feeling that James Bond is most important when he's least important. I was such a Connery kid, but now I adore Roger Moore's lighthearted nonchalance. For all the hardcore affectations of the Craig movies, I most enjoy the silly stuff: The parkour chase from Casino Royale, Mads Mikkelsen's bloody tears, Skfyall's killer Komodo dragon, Spectre's assertion Blofeld and Bond were teenage Alpine ski rivals. There is room in this world for cheerful escapism: Beautiful drinking cool drinks in expensive locations, and then KABOOM! The problem is, we viewers always encounter difficulty in distinguishing between our fantasies and our realities. And anyone who tries to be a James always turns out to be a Jimmy.
Read more from EW's 25 Days of Bond, a celebration of all things 007 ahead of the release of No Time to Die.