Y'all remember that back in the 1960's, comics didn't have a particularly good reputation.
Stanley Lieber credited his work as "Stan Lee" to avoid the shame of comics, because one day he wanted to write a serious novel. Most adults considered comics as "worthless rot" at best, and "dangerous mind-corrupting filth" at worst. The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings to determine the effect of this violent, dangerous drivel on our vulnerable youth!
And so in 1961, as those vulnerable youth pawed their grubby copies of Marvel's "Tales of Suspense" and "Strange Tales", their fathers were doubtless relaxing with Marvel's inspiring, quality, adult-oriented products such as "Bachelor", "For Men Only", and "Stag". Err... no, of course they were not! Surely the studious-minded father-figures were reading the sophisticated, true-to-life, instant-classic novels from Ian Fleming's works concerning that famous international espionage agent, James Bond.
Published from 1953 to 1966, Fleming's Bond novels perfectly bracketed the origins of the Fantastic Four and of the Marvel Universe as we know it. Of course, Bond and Fleming were British, but the novels were also popular in the 'States, especially when the movies began in 1962.
I read these books myself, as a teenager. Not in hardback, of course. My budget didn't extend that far. For me, the true "James Bond" was the wonderful Raymond Hawkey covers of the Pan editions. Like most other readers of the time, I found them inspiring and imagined them to be realistic, insightful revelations of an elite, international world to which I could only aspire. James Bond was someone to admire — a brilliant spy, a man among men, and a lover without equal. He moved freely among the world of the privileged, but was secretly their superior in every way.
Later, at the age of twenty-something, I suddenly realized than I had out-grown James Bond. I can't recall exactly when or why, but I gave away my collection of James Bond novels — that is, until recently, when the gift of a James Bond paperback inspired me to re-acquire and re-read the collection (which I have been doing steadily over the past year).
We lie to ourselves twice about the things we once loved. First in their favor, and then against.
Here's the fact of the matter. James Bond is a terrible spy, and an equally terrible person. The magical elite world of elegant casinos and perfect hotels he supposedly occupies is non-existent, as are the perfect women he encounters. Frankly, Bond is a chain-smoking, alcoholic, brutally sexist, mildly racist, ignorant, stupid, willful, son-of-a-bitch.
Putting aside his appalling personal habits, the most egregious of his attributes is his sexism. At one point, he seethes with anger at his superiors for assigning him a secretary who is not beautiful. With the notable exception of M's secretary Miss Moneypenny (with whom he restricts himself to shameful flirting), he ignores ugly women, patronizes the weak beautiful women, and works to break-down and overcome the strong ones.
By contrast, Bond's racism is relatively benign. Sure, he indulges liberally in sweeping generalizations regarding the limitations, incivilities, and quirks of all races and cultures on the wrong side of the English Channel. But to be fair, he's more than happy to shag any skinny young girl in a pretty dress, regardless of the color of her skin. So he's pretty open-minded below the waistline, at least.
But his professional abilities are criminally inadequate. His idea of "espionage" is simply to "run in and stir-up shit until something happens." He rarely makes an effort to sustain a "cover", but when he does, he typically blows it quickly through carelessness or overconfidence. He lacks judgement when assessing his own personal situation.
His worst professional sin is his negligible communication skills. On discovering some interesting lead, his immediate response is to "go in" single-handedly and "investigate" (i.e. shit-stir, see above). "It's probably nothing," he says to himself as he enters the villain's lair. Well, Bond, it's enough to make you dress in dark clothes and break into a fortified private compound under cover of night, so perhaps you could at least leave a damn note to tell people what you've learned and where you've gone to, just in case you don't come back?
But wait, there's more. Bond isn't actually a very good field agent. He doesn't shoot particularly well, and his record for driving isn't good either. In the first two car-chases of the novels, he both times crashes his vehicle and leaves himself unconscious. His fighting skills don't have a great track record, either. Overall, Bond tends to survive (and succeed) via dumb luck, not by brawn and certainly not by brains!
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm very glad indeed that I decided to go back and re-read this series. Bond's universe is a wonderful snapshot of what we all thought "a real man" looked like, back in the 1960's. We can learn a great deal about our grandfathers' attitudes when we consider these puerile fantasies of marble hotel lobbies, green baize-covered chemin-de-fer tables, and tanned girls in black velvet cocktail dresses with "full, kissable lips."
By comparison, Spider-Man comes out looking pretty good.