We’re used to Mark Millar shaking up the superhero genre, but this is a little different. In The Secret Service Kingsman he tackles super spies, taking James Bond out of Monte Carlo’s casinos and dropping him into the benefits slums of forgotten Britain.
Gary is a lost cause. Seen by the local police as a no-hoper, destined to go no further in life than a prison cell, Gary is stuck in a dreary vortex of petty crime and zero prospects. Until, that is, his Uncle Jack starts taking an interest in him. Jack is the one member of Gary’s family who has escaped the ghetto. He tells everyone he has a lucrative job in IT, but in fact he’s a British secret agent, licensed to kill, cast in the same mould as Bond.
After getting Gary out of jail for stealing a car, Jack sees a spark of potential in his nephew. Jack drags him off the streets and enrols him into secret agent training school, keeping an eye on his progress while trying to solve a mysterious sub-plot, in which a swathe of famous sci-fi actors have been kidnapped.
As usual with Millar, the world around the plot is rich in detail, often left unspoken but adding a depth of flavour that we’re well used to from Millar’s clinically executed craft. This is undoubtedly helped by Millar’s exploration and exploitation of this well-defined genre: there’s no need to explain the gadgets or the womanising that goes on in a Bond-esque world of international espionage. It goes further though, with a villain called James Arnold, based on a naive mix of Silicon Valley millionaire and eco-terrorist. If anything, this character could have done with more time spent on him. He’s deliberately been left as something of a blank slate – a hyper-intelligence with a child-like naivety, who thinks he can solve the world’s problems by wiping out much of its population.
These foundations are clever and well thought through, though Millar sticks to the genre a bit too hard, building on the formulas and clichés so that he can knock them down later. Millar manages to throw a surprise or two into the finalé, which adds a little reward for your time, and Millar has elaborated and fleshed out some more in certain places, particularly in the spy school sections, where we see Gary’s character start to grow. But it’s incremental modernisation, rather than revolution.
Art duties are handled by illustrator legend Dave Gibbons, still perhaps most famous for his work on Watchmen. He helps transform Gary from a spotty car thief to an international man of action in a reasonably believable way, but it’s a Hollywood transformation at heart, with no requirement to ground itself in reality.
The Hollywood connection is an interesting angle, as Matthew Vaughn has a hand in the script and a film was optioned at a very early stage. It feels like a dry run for a movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with that hanging over the reader, it does make you wonder if this is one story that might have been better suited going straight to live action, with its reliance on movie stars and borrowing so heavily from a genre that’s so deeply associated with cinema.