Retro review–Mike Grell’s James Bond graphic novel, “Permission to Die”

Prior to 1989 the only James Bond that ever made it to comic books were standard adaptations, like an early comic book version of Dr. No.  With the film Licence to Kill starring Timothy Dalton as Bond, writer/artist Mike Grell, known for his work on Green Arrow, Warlord and Jon Sable, was asked to create the adaptation.  Before entering the comics world in 1972, Grell had worked in the military as a member of the U.S. Air Force based on Asia.  According to stories he shared at a convention a few years ago, he served in several capacities, including intelligence work, which filtered throughout all his best comic book projects.  Each of his characters has a bit of James Bond in them.  So it’s not surprising that Eclipse Comics asked Grell to create a new Bond story in comic book form after his successful Licence to Kill adaptation.  Grell’s Permission to Die was the first James Bond graphic novel not adapted from one of Ian Fleming’s original Bond stories, and although Dark Horse would later license Bond for comic book stories, it is Grell’s that stands out as the truest to both the original novels and the films.

In Permission to Die we first meet Bond at a dinner party.   This is a Sean Connery-era Bond (or even Grell’s character Jon Sable playing the role of Bond) sporting a Scottish kilt as terrorists storm the mansion.  Bond forgoes his PPK here and uses a knife tucked in his sock flash to end the encounter with only the bad guys’ blood spilt.  From there Bond moves from woman to woman and explosion to explosion through a very 1960s era Cold War story, true to classic Bond plots but upgraded with 1980s technology.  M calls in Bond to plan and carry out a mission whose ultimate goal is securing an efficient and inexpensive “Star Wars” strategic defense prototype system from a Unabomber-meets Phantom of the Opera-esque villain harbored in a hidden Idaho compound.  The man behind the system will hand the prototype over to the British government, but only in exchange for the return of his niece, being held against her will and unable to leave the grasp of East Germany behind the Iron Curtain.

In carrying out his mission he must blend in with a group of traveling gypsies with the help of a daughter of an old friend, carry out a rescue in a mini-helicopter with a train chase through mountain passes, all ultimately leading to Victoria, capital of British Columbia, as the target of a nuclear missile attack.

Mike Grell’s work in Permission to Die is equal to that of his other notable works.  His story and visuals are cinematic, using new dialogue delivered just as Connery would, throwing Bond in entirely new situations with new villains, yet all of these could easily be found in the next Bond movie.  Grell’s art includes fantastic splash pages evoking classic Bond opening credits scenes as well as movie poster poses and designs.  He even brings in traditional Bond CIA friend Felix Leiter for an added bonus.

One surprise Grell uses that I have never seen before is taking a famous major musical work and using the notes of that work to illustrate and foretell a coming scene with one of the villains of the story.  For those that can’t read music you might just skip over this bit, but for those who can you find yourself humming the score at the right time.  This use of written music is brilliant–I can’t believe I haven’t seen this done before.

Permission to Die was released over two years in three prestige format comic books beginning in 1989.  It was later printed in a trade and hardcover edition.  It is out of print, so the best place to find it is watching at this link or on eBay.

C.J. Bunce

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