Pullbox Reviews King of Spies- When time is short, let ’em see you coming

The world’s greatest secret agent has six months to live… now it’s time to go after the REAL bastards.

Regarded as Millar’s masterpiece, this four-issue series left jaws on the floor as renegade superspy Sir Roland King uses his remaining days to brutally execute the presidents, popes and prime ministers he knows deserve to die.

In the noddiest of nods to the genre, King of Spies drops readers right in the middle of the action as covert operative Roland King hustles to stay alive. It’s 19990 and his current op has gone about as well as could be expected as what seems like the entire Panamanian army is after his head. But with superhuman prowess and a cheeky grin, Roland faces all obstacles like a man in his prime. Life is good.

Until, as is so often the case, it isn’t.

Think of the chaos that a James Bond could raise if he decided that he hadn’t always been on the side of the angels and that, with a limited time left on the books, it was time for a radical course correction. Consider the paranoia blossoming in the minds of those of high office, knowing in their heart & soul the dirt that someone like that would have on them. And just imagine the hate & discontent that person, a super-agent disavowed and left to fend for himself as he killed his way through his own personal hit list, could leave in his wake.

That’s the story written by Mark Millar and without spoiling anything in this review, it is amazing!

 Anyone familiar with Millar’s work should be able to guess that Sir Roland, the titular King of Spies, is going to do anything but fade quietly into the night. After putting together titles like Wanted, Kick Ass, and Kingsman, no one can doubt that Millar can crank the action dial past 11 and well into the teens when he wants to. But where some may find a surprise or two, particularly those more familiar with Millar’s work through his comic to screen adaptations, is in the quiet moments. Sir Roland (is it weird that I have trouble referring to a comicbook character in an overly familiar way?) isn’t just a wrecking ball let loose on the world of evil men. He’s also a failed husband & father, a man whose morality has been severely skewed after a lifetime of doing horrible things for Queen & Country, and a tired old man whose life expectancy is measured in months at best. He’s looking back at the trail of bloody destruction left in his wake, and has nothing left to live for but the barest possibility that he might be able to do something to reset the scales.

Sure, all of that sounds good, right? But comicbooks are defined as stories told through sequential art. If we can all agree that King of Spies is a comicbook, it stands to reason that we’ll be addressing the work of Matteo Scalera. Like, a LOT. From the first pages, a reader can grasp that they’re in for a helluva ride. Scalera’s style, all rough edges and angles, suits King of Spies to a tee. Sir Roland isn’t a soft man living in a soft world, a concept wholly embraced in these pages. When the action starts, Scalera attacks it like he’s angry at the page. There’s no filter obscuring the violence, or the reality of its lingering consequences… kind of a crazy balance to find when you consider just how outrageous some of these sequences are. In the same way, Scalera walks that insane tightrope throughout the quieter moments of the book. Sir Roland’s guilt is an open wound, eating away at him faster than the cancer that’s killing him, and the artwork in those introspective moments is as emotionally resonant as any comic has the right to be.

Matteo Scalera’s work could stand on its own, and I think it would hold up very well in black and white. But with the stellar work of Giovanna Niro, it doesn’t have to. She puts the finishing touches to Scalera’s line work, taking all of the kinetic energy implied and wringing it for all its worth. Where there are heinous people doing heinous things, Niro has just the right color palette to highlight the violence in all its visceral glory. When there are moments of introspection and kindness, she uses color and shading to perfection. The reader gets the sense of the emotional impact the characters are going through. A colorist works within the context of the story as its been written & drawn. They set a tone that stays within that framework where it could easily be undermined, and Giovanna Niro’s work is a fantastic example of that understanding.

Finally, because King of Spies is a complicated piece of work, full of moving parts, I can’t put the cork in this review without the highest of fives being offered to letterer Clem Robins. Through all of the dialogue, the text boxes, the sound effects, Robins uses space in the panels as well as anyone else I’ve seen. The dynamics of Scalera’s artwork is never interrupted or diverted as a reader tries to follow the flow of dialogue. No action shots are blocked by poorly placed sound effects, but enhanced by it as Robins integrates his work into the shot. I’ve said before that a bad bit of lettering can tear a good book out at the roots. With all of the raving I’ve done about this book so far, I’m just gonna leave my praise for Robins’s work with a slow clap and back away from the keyboard.

Okay, I’m back.

Mark Millar is a master storyteller who’s collaborated with the best artistic teams in the business. Moving forward in his current agreement to adapt his list of titles for Netflix, I can only hope that his successes continue to accumulate. Regarding King of Spies, all I can say to sum it up is that with the number of comics I’ve read over the years, it’s great when one can still take me by surprise the way this one did. The pounding action sequences, the unexpected beats of humor, and the emotional gut punches rolled together a delicious comic burrito, ready to be devoured in a single sitting.

Final Score: 13/13

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