Daniel Craig may not come back as James Bond. The will-he-or-won’t-he saga, which has somehow sprawled out to include a NASCAR heist movie, has people once again arguing about whether or not Bond should stay a white guy. The internet put Idris Elba up for the role for a while, and the discussion has since evolved into a debate over whether or not it’s time for a female James Bond. It started largely thanks to Twitter, with Gillian Anderson sharing a fan-made poster of her as Bond, and was fueled by Quantico‘s Priyanka Chopra saying she’d rather be Bond than a Bond girl. This has led to arguments for and against, most notably Alyssa Rosenberg’s argument that Bond is an examination of masculinity and women would be better served with a Bond-like role of their own. And, in fact, should anyone want to make a movie starring Anderson or someone else, there’s one already out there: Velvet Templeton.
Templeton is the title character of Velvet, Image Comics’ ’70s-set spy series written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Steve Epting, the team behind a long, well-liked, spy fiction-inspired run on Captain America. When we’re first introduced to Velvet, we’re led to assume she’s a receptionist, the series’ Moneypenny, but with an unusually striking hairdo. We quickly learn, however, that Velvet is a dangerous and crafty secret agent who’s chosen a desk job for reasons revealed later. The book’s Bond stand-in dies, supposedly committing treason, and Velvet then goes after the killer, unfolding a vast international conspiracy in the process. The book is a tribute to the “dirty martini,” spy fiction that blends the bureaucracy and research of real-life spycraft with the exotic locales and explosions of superspy exploits. Velvet is as likely to have a tense game of cat-and-mouse with an assassin in a dark parking garage as she is to spend a week digging through archival records.
On a deeper level, though, Brubaker and Epting are up to something more elaborate with the series, which starts, seemingly, with the idea of “James Bond, but a woman.” Brubaker, in an interview with Comic Book Resources, notes that the idea had never really been explored:
I’ve read a lot of spy novels, but I’ve never read one that had a female lead in the Cold War… kind of at the peak of the women’s liberation movement… I’d seen all the other stuff, and Black Widow was almost always more interesting to write than any character she was in a book with.
The idea of “James Bond, but a woman” has been around since Dr. No hit theaters. The ’60s featured The Avengers‘ Emma Peel on TV, Modesty Blaise on movie screens, and a litany of femmes fatales in Bond movies — most notably the highly competent, if unfortunately named, Pussy Galore from Goldfinger. But none of it has really explored what being a woman who racks up a body count and sleeps with whoever she pleases would entail in reality. In Velvet, the obvious question of sexism comes up, but is executed in a number of different ways: Velvet often slips through dragnets or disassembles operations because the people after her are all men. She knows how they think, but even the men who see her as an equal have never stopped to consider how she views the world. They act as if she’s just like them, except a woman, and that’s often their undoing. In one sequence, for example, they’re fooled simply by Velvet giving another woman the distinctive white stripe she has in her hair.
It’s that tension between how Velvet is seen, as feminine or not feminine, as a supposed traitor, as a supposed wounded lover, and what she actually is that drives the story. Velvet herself is complex, willing to help a domestic violence survivor, but equally willing to throw an innocent person straight to the wolves if it will throw her antagonists off her trail. Her motives only unfold as we get further into the book, and they’re far more complicated, both professionally and emotionally, than you might expect.
Whenever a character shifts away from the race or gender they usually inhabit, there are complaints. In fact, Daniel Craig was controversial among some Bond fans because of his hair color, proving you really can’t win. But in truth, it doesn’t matter who’s playing Bond. Since the late ’80s, the series has attempted, repeatedly, to bring him out of the ’60s and into modern times, only to find itself reverting to form. There are simply too many elements audiences expect, after more than 20 movies and 50 years of tradition. Every time Bond has been recast, there’s been an attempt to move him toward realism. The Living Daylights lingered on a corrupt Russia’s collapse as a KGB chief turns out to be an amoral arms-dealing capitalist. Goldeneye had Bond’s own supervisor calling him a relic of the Cold War to his face. Casino Royale brought in many elements of the Bourne franchise.
And yet, every time, the series has reverted to form, because that’s what audiences, ultimately, want most. Even if a woman took the role, she’d be hemmed in by what audiences expect. With Velvet, there’s something we haven’t seen before, a new kind of movie spy, and that ought to be a more exciting prospect than simply recasting the familiar kind as a woman.