What happens to James Bond when he grows old? It’s a question that has been regularly addressed in pop culture since the British spy became a global icon. Readers have seen it addressed in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the latest iteration of the Bond films featuring Daniel Craig even provided the character with a semblance of old age in death. To say that King of Spies is walking well-trod territory is understatement considering it’s not even writer Mark Millar‘s first time addressing it – retirement is a central plot point in The Secret Service (a.k.a. Kingsman). So what more is there to be said about an aging instrument of empire whose existence has been defined by violence, sex, and secrets? If King of Spies #1 is meant to answer that question, then the answer is simply: Not much.
(Photo: Image Comics)
The issue introduces its Bond analog, Roland King, in his prime as he wreaks havoc across Panama in the wake of the United States’ 1990 invasion. It’s an instantly cartoonish scenario as King fires hundreds of rounds of ammunition from two handguns while falling dozens of stories into traffic. All of this looks stunning when in motion as artist Matteo Scalera is one of the most adept illustrators of chase sequences in comics today. The momentum of the sequence is always clear, even when the stakes and perspective are anything but. Fans of Millarworld projects will find the tone and approach comfortable as this spy story is told like Ian Fleming was a roady for Spinal Tap.
Even when readers are reintroduced to Roland at age 65 and coughing up blood each morning as terminal cancer places a countdown on his life, every idea is still turned to 11 leaving no space for subtlety or nuance. Roland remains an unabashed misogynist and purveyor of violence, but his sudden self-admissions about being a terrible husband and father are intended to buy him some sympathy. He might still be wrecking marriages and murdering on impulse, but these are acts of entertainment not intended for examination. Instead, he is set side-by-side with similarly awful men who are defined as bad because they treat the help poorly in addition to all of the other monstrous activities on display.
The mission statement for King of Spies is that Roland is seeking to make up for a lifetime of bad decisions, but the narrative possesses a moral sense that could charitably be described as juvenile. When Roland is active amidst modern colonial atrocities (like the U.S. invasion of Panama), it is simply used as a backdrop for explosive action where Roland can murder a lot of human beings of color. When he reflects upon his own life, his primary regrets are his atrocious treatment of his own family. When he considers how to right his past wrongs, his first impulse is to act impulsively towards someone who annoys him. Every opportunity for a moral reckoning is ignored in favor of something viscerally satisfying. If this approach seemed purposeful, it might make for a commentary on foreign intelligence services and the limits of masculine power. That is not the case in King of Spies #1 which seems to simultaneously celebrate everything it also acknowledges ruined Roland’s life. Womanizing and violence are not problems so long as readers are led to root for the person committing them.
However, the childlike appreciation for fast cars, gunfights, and naked women provides Scalera with plenty of opportunity to showcase his craft. Individual moments and brief sequences are regularly impressive. Roland even manages to make a sympathetic appeal as he inhabits a dad-type mold that appears endearingly pitiful with blood in his beard. The larger narrative often fails to cohere – characters who die midway through the introductory sequence are revealed as corpses many pages later to no effect. Yet the action itself is always exciting and offers readers something of value to provide their attention in a hackneyed narrative that barely contemplates its own premise. Beyond the visual appeal, there’s very little to be said about King of Spies and that seems to be a key selling point of the Millarworld brand now.
Published by Image Comics
On December 1, 2021
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Matteo Scalera
Colors by Giovanna Niro
Letters by Clem Robins
from Ultimate Comic Blog