Postmodernist Identity, part 1: IPCRESS, Bond, Austin Powers, and G.I. Joe

OK, time to get really geeky. Paul’s recent post mentioning Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962) jostled a few thoughts I’ve had about—well, about G.I. Joe. And pulp. Which I’ll get to. But first:

The Unnamed Spy

The IPCRESS File is a first-person Cold War spy novel. We never learn much about the novel’s narrator, other than that he once worked for Military Intelligence, wears glasses, enjoys good food, and doesn’t love his job (he doesn’t seem to make much money). Deighton conceived of the fellow in response to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, making his spy everyday and working class where 007 was glamorous and dashing.

Throughout the novel and its seven sequels, we never learn the spy’s name. At one point, someone calls him “Harry,” and he thinks,

Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been. (31)

What’s more interesting is that the unnamed narrator of the later novels might not be the same man who narrates IPCRESS. Throughout Spy Story (1972), the narrator is regularly addressed as “Patrick Armstrong,” and Deighton changes the character’s age (making him younger by about twenty years). And the novel begins with the narrator entering his apartment to find it refurnished, with a different person replacing him in his photographs. But there are also clues that it’s still, somehow, the same man…

Fred Broca

Most things from my childhood are fused somehow with G.I. Joe. I’m speaking here of the 1980s TV series, but also of the Marvel comics series written by Larry Hama (who designed the characters for the toy line; the comics and the TV series were ads for the toys). Larry Hama was basically tasked with promoting merchandise, but the man had a vivid imagination, and appreciated some fairly black humor.

The Cobra Commander of the cartoon was something of a diva, very shrill (memorably voiced by the late Chris Latta), and constantly getting one-upped:

After a while, you started feeling sorry for the guy:

In the comics, however, he was much different character: far more ruthless and clever. Who occasionally sounded as though he were being scripted by Donald Barthelme:

G.I. Joe issue 29, "Beached Whale," pages 5—6 (details). Written by Larry Hama, art by Frank Springer and Andy Mushynsky.

See what I mean about Hama’s imagination and humor? Throughout G.I. Joe, a comic fetishizing US military superiority, he nonetheless managed to repeatedly satirize the US way of life. Take another example: Well before The Simpsons, Hama situated Cobra’s base in the “pleasant little town” of Springfield (state unspecified), a postmodernist Everywhere-ville:

Issue 29, page 3 (detail).

Among Cobra Commander’s troops were a line of soldiers called the Crimson Guard:

If you bought a thousand of these, you'd have a real army!

They were rooted in US anti-Communist paranoia. Basically, they were sleeper agents who lived ordinary lives in ordinary towns (like Springfield), but who at any moment could don a red uniform and mask, pick up their rifle and bayonet, and charge into duty. A blond, blue-eyed father out back cooking hamburgers with his family? Might secretly be a member of the Crimson Guard:

Issue 29, pages 6–7 (details).

From their file card (written by Hama) we learn “[t]hey must hold a degree in either law or accounting”…and their initiation ceremony is “too hideous for description. (Like Yale grads.)

The comics took this character concept even further. There, Crimson Guardsmen underwent plastic surgery, transformed into identical-looking men with the same name. That way, if one of them fell in the line of duty, he could be replaced by a fellow agent:

G.I. Joe issue 32, "The Mountain," page 24. Written by Larry Hama, art by Frank Springer and Andy Mushynsky.

The comics featured a line of characters called the “Fred series,” all named “Fred Broca,” and who acted like de facto Crimson Guard leaders:

G.I. Joe issue 36, "All the Ships at Sea!", page 4 (detail). Written by Larry Hama, art by Rod Whigham, Mark Bright, Larry Hama, Bob Camp, Andy Mushynsky, and Mike Esposito. (I have no idea who actually drew this page.)

Fred II lasted only one issue, battling Scarlett and Snake-Eyes on a ferry:

Issue 36, page 19 (detail). I won't even get into how characters like Snake-Eyes problematize identity.

After that there followed many more Fred’s, including, eventually, Fred VII, who murdered Cobra Commander—and then took his place:

G.I. Joe issue 61, "Beginnings... and Endings," page 11. Written by Larry Hama, art by Marshall Rogers and Danny Bulanadi.

That lasted only so long, as well. A few years later, Cobra Commander returned, with more Freds to replace the doomed Fred VII:

G.I. Joe issue 98, "He's Back!", page 7 (detail). Written by Larry Hama, art by M.D. Bright and Randy Emberlin. ...It takes a Kabbalist to fully parse the Byzantine plot that is G.I. Joe.

My conclusion: There are as many Freds as there are numbers.

Harry Palmer

The Unnamed Spy named Harry Palmer.

The success of the James Bond books and films inevitably led to adaptations of Deighton’s spy novels. When it came time to do the first one, IPCRESS, producer Harry Saltzman (who was also one of the forces behind the Bond movies) decided to give the agent a name. According to Caine’s autobiography, Saltzman asked the actor for the most boring name he could think of. Caine replied, “Harry Palmer.”

(Once again we have the trope of the bureaucratic spy using a “boring name” like the ones that the Crimson Guardsmen adopted—”Fred” and “Smith.” Later, The Matrix (1999) would name its agents things like “Mr. Smith” and “Mr. Jones.”)

Michael Caine went on to play Harry Palmer five times, including every Deighton novel adaptation…except for Spy Story (1976), where Michael Petrovitch played “Pat Armstrong.” (Spy Story is the basis of most Harry Palmer conspiracies.)

Caine also arguably played Harry in the the film Blue Ice (1992), in which Caine portrayed a former spy named “Harry Anders.”

…It’s ironic that the Bond series has seen multiple actors assume the role without comment, a trope that would have been better suited to the Harry Palmer films. Indeed, in the unofficial, original adaptation of Casino Royale (1967), James Bond is played by no fewer than seven actors (the film having been directed by no fewer than six directors!). What’s more, those actors include David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Ursula Andress…and the characters Miss Moneypenny and Bond’s daughter with Mata Hari (Mata Bond)! The resulting plot is more convoluted than anything Larry Hama ever wrote for G.I. Joe. As the Wikipedia summarizes the ending:

While sightseeing in London, Mata Bond is kidnapped by SMERSH in a giant flying saucer, and Sir James travels with Moneypenny to Casino Royale to rescue her. They discover that the casino is located atop a giant underground base run by the evil Dr. Noah, who turns out to be Sir James’s weak-kneed nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). Dr. Noah/Jimmy reveals that he plans to use biological warfare to make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4-foot-6-inch (1.37 m) tall, leaving him as the “big man” who gets all the girls. However, The Detainer foils his plan by poisoning him with one of his own atomic pills.

In a huge and disorganized finale, the casino is overrun by secret agents, including a French Legionnaire (Jean-Paul Belmondo), stereotypical movie cowboys and Indians, George Raft, and Ransome. Eventually, Jimmy’s atomic pill explodes, destroying Casino Royale along with practically all the characters.

Michael Caine got the opportunity to play something like Harry Palmer one last time, in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)—a movie that opens and closes with a film-within-a-film, in which different actors play the Austin Powers characters: Tom Cruise, Danny DeVito, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey… It also features flashbacks in which various characters are played by younger versions of themselves. And, of course, by the third film, Michael Myers is playing four of the central characters (a feat—and bit of homage—that I think Peter Sellers would have admired).

Another spy series, then, that trumped Deighton’s creation at his own game. But an even better solution for the Harry Palmer series, in my opinion, would have been a trick Luis Buñuel employs in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Buñuel cast two actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of Conchita, partly to dramatize two halves of that character’s nature (chaste and wanton), but partly for its surrealistic effect.

(The source novel—Pierre Louÿs’s La Femme et le pantin (1898)—was also adapted by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil Is a Woman (1935), but with only one actress portraying Conchita: Marlene Dietrich.)

Postmodern Identity

We have here many different novels and films that play games with their characters’ identities, or that at least bow to the pressures of serialization. (As Peter Yarrow so poetically put it, “Dragons live forever / but not so little boys.”) But to what effect?

It’s a given of postmodernist theory that contemporary identity is fragmentary, hybrid, incomplete. The cause of that fragmentation differs from theorist to theorist (it might be due to language, or late capitalism, or the false belief in the exclusion of the other), but rarely is it argued that the postmodern condition is one of coherence. Some revel in that fragmentation; others are alienated by it.

Are the books and films I’ve been describing, then, mimetic? Self-reflective? Have they anything to say about our contemporary condition?

The Bond films simply steamroll onward, changing actors without acknowledgment. Only the original Casino Royale actually revels in—even anticipates—the ongoing nature of the series: “There will always be a James Bond, slightly modified to appeal to contemporary tastes.” And now that Casino Royale has been “officially adapted,” Bond purists can pretend even more easily that that late 60s Bacchanalia never occured.

Len Deighton’s enigmatic allusions were papered over by the film series retaining Caine throughout (with the Spy Story exception). I’m not really complaining, mind you—I love Michael Caine—but I wonder what could have been.

The Austin Powers series has shown great playfulness in exploring its characters’ identities. (My film-snob friends never believe my claims that these movies are delightful.) But in spite of that playfulness, the result throughout, I’d argue, has been toward coherence. The defining trope of the series is the catchphrase—the “memorable quotes” approach to pleasing an audience. (People sure do love quoting lines from movies!)

The most unnerving moment in the entire series may come when Dr. Evil gives two separate accounts of his childhood. In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) he tells us:

The details of my life are quite inconsequential…. Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a 15-year-old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize; he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes, he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament… My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon… luge lessons… In the spring, we’d make meat helmets… When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds—pretty standard, really. At the age of 12, I received my first scribe. At the age of 14, a Zoroastrian named Vilmer ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum—it’s breathtaking… I suggest you try it.

Later, in Austin Powers in Goldmember, he’s revised it somewhat:

I never knew my birth parents. There was a car accident. My birth mother was incinerated, and I only survived because her smoking carcass had formed a protective cocoon of slaughtered human effluence. A Belgian man and his fifteen year-old love slave were looting the accident scene, and came across a blood soaked baby, moi. They raised me to be evil. You know, that old chestnut.

This is silliness for its own sake, and worthy of Buñuel. For the most part, however, Dr. Evil, and all of the characters, are instantly recognizable by tics and tropes repeated in all three of the films. (Hence Myers’s tendency to add more characters every film, in order to add something new.) But it makes sense that Myers would have to work very hard to insist upon Austin Powers’s identity: the character personifies Jacques Derrida’s argument that identity is always borrowed. Austin Powers is a collage of gestures and clothing articles borrowed from previous persons and fictional characters: The Beatles, Caine’s Alfie, George Lazenby’s Bond, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, Danger Man, The Bionic Woman, Simon Dee, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, and Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls:

(And more.) [Update: Peter Wyngarde!!!]

Of all of the artists I’ve mentioned, I might argue that it’s Hama who explores the most troubling aspects of incoherent identity. Not unlike the protagonists of most Philip K. Dick novels, his Fred characters are simulacrums, clones, copies of copies, fakes. When Fred VII asserts his identity, he does so only to assume the persona of a dead man. Even the Joe’s possess identities only through their codenames and weapons accessories; their real names, their real lives, are irrelevant, classified, unknown.

Hama’s exploration of the fundamental lack of self is rooted, I’d surmise, in comics’s pulp nature. (The shock ending of Fred returning home to his children who know he isn’t their daddy is pure pulp.) This is one way in which pulp can be as serious as any other art form.

The real horror is: does anything at all lie underneath?

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10 thoughts on “Postmodernist Identity, part 1: IPCRESS, Bond, Austin Powers, and G.I. Joe

  1. You know, I never considered Spy Story to be one of the “Harry Palmer” novels. There were only four of them: The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. Of course, that identification is helped by the fact that when I was reading them they were in a nice uniform penguin edition with Michael Caine on the cover, so we have to take of influences external to the text.

    Other than that I really like this notion of the fluidity of character, and really wish I had more time right now to comment at length.

    • Some people do treat all eight Deighton spy novels with unnamed narrators as part of a single sequence, sometimes called the ‘Harry Palmer’ novels. But really that should only be applied to the first four. In those, the central character is clearly the same man (references to his grammar-school background in Burnley are made), other characters recur (principally Jean, Dawlish in the last three, and – though he’s rarely onstage – Colonel Ross), as do institutions, and they are listed on the title page as “Secret Files #1-4”. I seem to recall that An Expensive Place To Die was received on publication as the next in the sequence, but, though the central character is similar in voice, the novel shares no named characters with the previous books, and I believe (my copy is not to hand) that it lacks the “Secret File” label. Deighton then wrote a number of non-espionage novels, before returning to the genre with Spy Story. This returns supporting characters from the first sequence, but in the preface to a 1980s reissue of his novels, Deighton explicitly said that Pat Armstrong was not the man from The IPCRESS File. In the preface for the next novel, Yesterday’s Spy, which featured Dawlish and Colonel Schlegel from Spy Story, he stated that the protagonist, Charlie, was not Pat Armstrong. He doesn’t say that he’s not the man from The IPCRESS File, though on balance I think not. The final novel, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, shartes no named characters, though again the narrator is similar, and the US Major is very similar to Col Schlegel. Deighton’s next spy novel, XPD, is unusually written in the third person, and the central character is very different from those of the unneamed narrator novels. Bernard Samson, on the other hand, protagonist of nine novels, is very like the unnamed narrator(s).

      Michael Caine played this sort of character a lot of times. As well as the five Harry Palmer movies and Blue Ice, there’s The Black Windmill and The Fourth Protocol.

      • Thanks for all this! You know your Deighton much better than I do. (Ken Russell’s adaptation of Billion Dollar Brain has at this point replaced much of what I ever had.)

        It could be that the narrator of Spy Story is Pat Armstrong in England, but Harry Palmer in the US. From the dust jacket of the 1974 Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich US edition (used also for the audio book edition):

        He is back after five long years’ absence, the insubordinate, decent, bespectacled English spy who fought, fumbled, outwitted, and survived his outrageous way through the best-selling Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, and the rest of those marvelous, celebrated Len Deighton spy thrillers. Once again he finds himself a reluctant habituate of that nightmare world of espionage where a triple cross is as commonplace and regular as the daily paper at the breakfast table.

        • If all one has to go on are the novels, it’s actually not an unreasonable conclusion that the character is the same. “Pat Armstrong” in Spy Story does not tell us his real name, behaves much like the unnamed narrator in the first four novels, and clearly used to work for Dawlish, who was the narrator’s boss in the last three of the Palmer novels, and also has some sort of relationship to Colonel Stok, who featured in Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain (again, my copy isn’t to hand, but I think Stok may even call the narrator “English”, as he called the narrator in the previous novels he appeared in). All there is against the identification is the fact that Armstrong is a lot younger than the man from The IPCRESS File would be in the early 1970s, assuming that the latter aged in real time (as literary characters often do not – cf. the revisions in James Bond’s age even in Fleming), and Deighton’s later explicit comment that they aren’t the same. That latter comment is conclusive, but I can see how someone without that might well assume that this was another “Harry Palmer” novel.

  2. Adam, thanks for doing this. You keep prying loose all kinds of things I’ve buried away. Larry Hama is the root of all narrative for me. I remember feeling cold with excitement getting that Unmaskings issue of G.I. Joe.

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