King of Spies #1 is the story of a James Bond inspired character, if he were allowed to grow old and retire. But, it is so much more than this as Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera gives us a man who begins to question his past and the actions he took out of duty to Queen and country. A man who does more than question his role in Britain’s place in the world, and how it got there. And a man willing to do something about it too. A brilliant addition to the spy-thriller genre, but with a somewhat left-leaning take on it as our hero, Roland King, really has no time to die.
Like any great James Bond film, King of Spies #1 begins with a widescreen, adrenaline-fuelled chase sequence in a far off exotic clime. In this case, Panama City, 1990, with our Bond stand-in being one Roland King, in his prime, chasing down a the kind of megalomania mastermind that has always plagued Bond’s life in a similar fashion. With the sparse dialogue of this scene, Mark Millar perfectly recreates the fast-paced, dynamic and dangerous high stakes action of a Bond opening before bringing it to an all-too-familiar close, with our man coming up trumps in defeating the bad guy and bedding the girl.
Fast-forward to the present day and, unlike 007, we get a secret agent who has been allowed to age and retire, but isn’t yet ready to give up his old ways just yet. This is Bond if he weren’t replaced every few films with a younger, newer, tougher model. A man who is surrounded by the material trappings of an England that is in many ways still living in the glow of yesteryear when Britain ruled the waves, and colonized the rest of the world. A world of of mahogany paneling, Savile Row suits, gentlemen’s clubs and public school ties. A world we have seen before in Millar’s previous spy parody, Kingsman: The Secret Service. And a world familiar to many readers. All beautifully realized by artist Matteo Scalera. I can only image the file upon file of references that must have gone into designing this world. His attention to details helps establish this decadent world with one foot in the past, while his deft use of speed lines really help imply the speed of the action.
Undoubtedly, King was a cad and a bounder, to say the least. The man Bond could very well have been if allowed to grow old ungracefully. And not necessarily a man we’re supposed to root for, given his history and achievements. But, has he changed with old age? Does he now, maybe, regret what he did in the name of Queen, country and selfish greed? Is that a touch of tragedy I sense in Millar’s portrayal of this central character? It most certainly is. And the tragedy only becomes deeper after King is faced with a gargantuan personal crisis.
Given the chunky length of this debut issue, Millar and Scalera have got a great deal of comic book real estate to regal the reader in King’s past exploits and current state of mind. All the while painting a highly detailed portrait of his life, lives and losses. And while the opening scene is fast and furious, the majority of the book is told at a more languid and sedate pace, suitable for a man of King’s matured age. And a man no longer in the thick of it when coming to said action. This is a very different tale one may be expecting given the clear lineage to Ian Fleming’s iconic invention. A story of a man with nothing to lose and faced with re-evaluating the life he has forged.
Millar is channeling a particular kind of criticism for what men like Bond ultimately stand for through King and when striped of the overt Empiricist propaganda of James Bond. And it’s glorious! And an overdue examination of such a patriotic, ask-no-questions man of duty. By the end of this book, whatever we’ve learnt of King in his past, you will most definitely be rooting for him in the present.
A well observed criticism of the notions of Empire, the UK’s past crimes across the globe in the name of democracy and decency and the promise of a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners comic book series to come. Through Roland King, Millar is effectively putting a gun to the very concepts his gentleman spy once represented. And he’s more than happy to pull the trigger too.
King of Spies #1 will be out Wednesday 1st December from Image Comics