James Bond is probably the favorite and best-known pop culture spy. The word espionage inevitably evokes images of Sean Connery, Sir Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan—a different James Bond for each generation—and no matter which dashing man in a suit with a fancy sports car you choose, the ever-popular spy is always just that: a dashing man in a suit with a fancy sports car. And usually there’s a sexy woman or two somewhere in the picture. The figure of the spy is larger than life.
In his 2007 graphic novel Super Spy, Matt Kindt examines espionage and its practitioners. The book takes places during World War II and follows a number of spies in and around at least four different countries. But Kindt goes where others have not by turning on its head everything we have come to expect from a pop culture depiction of spies. He has taken the topic and created a work that is riveting but also surprisingly intimate and deeply felt.
Kindt succeeds at this by taking a humanistic approach to his subject matter. The spies of the book, with the two notable exceptions of Super Spy and Sharlink “The Shark,” are regular people in extenuating circumstances (sometimes by their own doing, sometimes by force). They are a mother who encodes her messages in her laundry line; a man who asks his girlfriend to marry him in code; a woman who seeks revenge on the man who killed her family. Kindt imbues his characters with the basic human emotions of love, fear, and anger, making their actions more understandable for the reader and giving the audience a way to relate to them.
Gone, too, is much of the romanticism usually attributed to the profession. The lives of these spies are exceedingly dark and difficult, filled with blood and death. No one coasts out of a scene on a moped while sipping a cocktail or trailing cigarette smoke. Even one of the two larger-than-life spies doesn’t make it (I won’t tell you which). Super Spy feels like Kindt’s honest attempt to understand what it means to do this kind of work, in realistic terms, and why people would choose to do it.
Accordingly, the novel maintains a dark aesthetic. Shadows and darkness dominate the pages, and color is noticeably absent. These choices integrate the style of the book with the content. The art often feels purposefully sketchy and rough, as if it is trying to keep pace with the characters.
The stories of the book also progress quickly, told in vignettes that are arranged in an unendingly non-linear sequence. Kindt does us the service of putting all the endings at the end, but the beginnings hardly come at the beginning. He mixes up and intertwines the tales of his characters, forcing us to do our own decoding work. Like the spies, we are forever trying to read situations correctly in order to forge ahead with the most knowledge
I like to think that if I were a spy, or had been one in a past life, I would read this book and feel excited that something besides James Bond is now out there in the pop culture ether. Kindt has taken an oft-clichéd topic and re-envisioned it. The result is an engrossing, moving, and beautifully rendered tale.