At the end of James Bond #4, I suddenly liked what Ellis was doing with his series, but I wasn't sure exactly why. In most ways the issue is very similar to the three that preceded it, with classic elements of a James Bond story showing up in slightly twisted ways as Bond inches closer to the ominous man behind the diseased narcotics. But while there remains very few emotional stakes in 'VARGR', issue four has a focus and a sense of spectacle that is a vast improvement and helps to clarify Ellis' vision for Bond. It may not quite be top hat Ellis, but it's the type of fast-paced pulp that drove Moon Knight, Global Frequency and Secret Avengers. The bulk of the issue involves a duel between the coldly sociopathic Mr. Masters (henchman to the big bad) and Mr. Bond. This at first entails a duel of wits as Masters and Bond try to manipulate each other without letting on that they are enemies. It inevitably becomes a fight scene which, while not a huge set-piece, has Ellis's trademark sense of humor scattered within visceral violence. James Masters (not to be confused with the henchman) does a great job with this fight scene, highlighting the points of impact of weapons and fists, creating a painful sense of the damage each man is doing to the other. His art remains a bit too stiff for me, but the coldness here feels more like a tonal approach and less like a limitation.
This issue also sees some much desired information finally dropped about what has been going on (delivered in the time-tested Bond format of a 'Since you are about to die..." speech). Once again, no single revelation is thrillingly original or particularly shocking, but it's nice to feel like the story is really getting under way. Also, Ellis' ability to mine horror from the description of scientific processes remains as unsettling here as it is anywhere else.
Perhaps simply because the script was doing more interesting things, I warmed up immensely in this issue to the art of James Masters. I still feel that it's a tad generic, but some of the stiffness has worn off, letting the characters breathe a little. The fight scenes feel a little more kinetic and the motion a little less crisp (in this case a good thing). It's still far from being amazing stuff but with the story coming together nicely, the art feels like less of a weakness.
To put it simply, James Bond #4 feels for the first time like a proper espionage series with its own identity and not simply James Bond greatest hits. Ellis' take is grittier and more cynical than Bond fans may be used to (the amount of blood is a sobering reminder of the toll a Bond mission takes), with a sense of inevitability and misanthropy that makes the book itself feel introspective even if the central character remains detached. I hope that Ellis continues after the 'VARGR' arc wraps up, as I think going forwards his series could become something special. As it is, it's just nice to see a book improving so rapidly.
James Bond #4 Writer: Warren Ellis Artist: James Masters Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/10/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital