May 28th of this year (mark your calendars now!) is the 100th birthday of Ian Fleming, creator and writer of James Bond, British secret service agent. (He also created Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, but that's a whole 'nother post.) Whether you're a fan of or scoff at the sometimes brutal, occasionally elegant prose of Fleming, you can't deny his, and his creation's, impact upon world pop culture. And while the original novels and short stories that introduced Bond to a world desperately in need of a Cold Warrior are perhaps not quite suitable for a little stuffed bull's nighttime reading, they're still among my favoritesI think that From Russia With Love is one of the finer spy novels of the genre. Fleming has inspired hundreds of imitators, not merely in the movie field (everyone from Matt Helm to Austin Powers, Derek Flint to Bart Fargo owes a debt to Ian Fleming. And so do you!
Because a world with James Bond is a world of justice, pop culture isn't letting the Fleming centenary pass without hoisting its martinis. There's a new Daniel Craig 007 movie out this fall, of course, London's Imperial War Museum is hosting a year-long exhibition saluting Bond and Fleming, and and a brand-new Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks will be published on May 28th, not to mention a new "Young Bond" YA novel by Charlie Higson this fall. There's also a London museum show of the design and imagery of the James Bond book jackets. Wait a minute. Book jackets? How exciting could that be, you scoff?
As far as little stuffed me is concerned, pretty darn exciting. While the rest of the world is worrying about whether or not Amy Winehouse is gonna do the theme song for the new Bond film (A: nope), I'm more interested in seeing what the tie-in books will look like. I don't collect Flemings the way I do Wodehouse, but I have several copies of many of the Bond books, and part of the fun is the gorgeous and iconic cover design on the many editions from the 1960s through today. In addition to the exhibit show at the Fleming Collection, the UK's Royal Mail issued this year sets of James Bond book cover stamps, showing the evolution of the 007 classics. Collect 'em all!:
The early Fleming book covers ranged from subtle to lurid, from literary to pulp fiction (the latter especially on the iconic Pan UK paperback series, several shown below with the yellow rounded title box at the top of the front cover):
Many of the Pan covers were painted by the illustrious art team of Sam "Peff" Peffer and Pat Owenthey worked on more than 400 Pan covers, as this excellent interview from the definitive Pan Paperback Collector's Website shows.
Ah, they don't make 'em like they used to, you sigh, gazing over the classic iconography of Bonds-gone-by. As Sean Connery himself might tell you: "That'sh not very bloody accurate." In recent years the good design folks at Penguin Books have turned out several series of eye-catching and vibrant book jackets for the Bond series, reflecting in their work the reverence and love collectors and readers have for the character and series. I'm very fond of this recent Penguin Modern Classics design, which re-invented the book design as high literature alongside other Penguin Classics: using a gunmetal-grey modern horizontal bar, an modernization of Germano Facetti's 1960s Penguin Modern Classics design. It's accompanied by photographyin some cases using stills from the motion pictures:
Sadly, these covers are out of print now, replaced by a more "commercial" approach using the same photography but large lettering and more symbolic imagery:
The Penguin Modern Classics redesign isn't my favorite, sacrificing the classic Penguin look for more newsstand-friendly larger typography. But if this book cover series seemed to be a step backwards in my book (no pun intended), then the next set of Penguin Bonds was a bold leap forward by utilizing iconography and design of the past. This series referenced the old pulp covers in colorful, brilliant painted covers, each like a mini-movie poster for the book, uniform in design but each featuring their own typography and visual elements appropriate to the plot, as well as those famous Bond Girls:
I've treated myself to the entire set o' these, and gorgeous they look on my bookcase. If you like 'em, you're in luck: these are the current editions now on sale in bookstores, and you can, as they say, collect 'em all. Each of the Fleming Bonds is available in this gorgeous redesign, with another volume coming this fall: Quantum of Solace, collecting all the 007 short stories in one volume. Those short stories are already in the individual books like For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, so this volume isn't a must-have unless you simply must have it for the cover art. Which, judging by the Bond Girl on the cover, suggests to us that maybe Scarlett Johansson is starring in the new 007 movie. If so, good show! Scarlett Johansson: Always a Very Good Thing.
But wait? Are those The Best Bond Covers Ever? Well, until recently I woulda said yes sir, but the forthcoming Penguin uniform hardcover edition (being release May 28th in the UK, no scheduled date yet in the US) is about to give 'em a run for their money. The entire Fleming series of James Bond novels has been redesigned with new cover paintings by Michael Gillette: bold colorful graphics of the great Bond Girls from Honey Ryder to Gala Brand, from Vesper Lynd to Tracy di Vincezo, from Vivienne Michel to...um...to Miss Pussy Galore: Check out some of them, but keep your eyes in their sockets, please:
Wow. I love these designs, and to paraphrase Ash Ketchum, "gotta get 'em all." Even the penguin in the Penguin Books logo is getting in on the 100th anniversary celebration act:
You can see the entire series and read more about the Fleming cover redesigns at the Penguin UK website...be sure to click on the small cover thumbprints to get the really huge blow-ups of each and every cover.
Everybody has their favorite Bond actors and moviesbut if you've never read an Ian Fleming novel, you owe it to yourself to pick one up and see how Britain's super-spy started out. You might be surprised: Bond's a rougher, crueler, more ruthless and misanthropic character in the books than the movies, minus most of the gadgets and wisecracks but with plenty of action, thrills, and that trademark writing trick known as "The Fleming Sweep," in which Ian tells us about Bond's likes and dislikes in travel, clothing, food and wine, giving us an entertaining brand-name review of the products he's using. Whichever book you choose, you'll find Fleming's characteristic touches. My favorites are Casino Royale (the recent movie was in many ways remarkably faithful to the book, more so than any Bond movie since the late 1960s), From Russia with Love (a solid novel that works as a spy thriller even if it didn't star Bond), and the very atypical The Spy Who Loved me (in which Bond is merely a supporting character to the life story of a young girl). The weakest of the book is The Man with the Golden Gun, so I wouldn't recommend it for your first Bond novel. But if you go for one of the recent Penguin Books editions, you can pretty much know that although you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, those covers are pretty amazing too.