A couple of years ago, when Spy x Family only had one volume out and was considerably less ubiquitous, I was trying to convince someone to give it a shot. I was already hearing good things about this fresh new series, and I had gotten my hands on said first volume. I remember, I started reading it on the way to a dinner at a friend’s place. It was a bad idea. All through the evening, I would sneak out to the restroom to read a few more pages or wait until my dinner companion stepped out for a minute to grab the manga once more. It was very ungrateful guest behaviour and I am sorry. But I couldn’t help myself.
And because I had discovered this manga that I really liked, I naturally wanted other people to share the joy. And maybe make myself look not as bad in comparison when dozens of people started reading mangas in the middle of dinner. I’m not sure my great master plan had any success at all. I never heard about anyone reproducing my faux pas. But I do remember that when I was trying to describe Spy x Family to someone that had never read it and had little experience with manga in general, I said “it all starts with this really suave guy, you see. He’s basically a James Bond type…”
A few weeks ago, I was watching a YouTube series that examined the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. I quite enjoyed this series (here). It mainly discusses how Fury Road subverts the classic action movie genre in subtle and not so subtle at all, ways. Especially when it comes to gender tropes of the genre. And why this makes the movie better or at least more interesting.
To the casual observer, it may seem like I just threw out a couple of paragraphs that have nothing to do with each other. Maybe I’m having a slow stroke of some sort. But I’m going somewhere. I’m just taking a slow and very winding road to get there.
As I was listening and thinking about the Fury Road series, I immediately thought about Spy x Family and how it was subverting the classic Spy Thriller genre in similar ways. And then I realized that I, myself, had thoughtlessly called Loid Forger a James Bond type. Loid Forger is NOT James Bond. And I would like to say that in this case, that’s a very good thing.
Now the fact is, if we just do a straightforward character comparison, you could call the two extremely similar. Almost the same. I wasn’t lying at the time. Loid is a man in his prime. He’s tall, handsome and very good in a fight. He has interesting gadgets and knows how to use them. He keeps his cool in tense situations and stays calm and collected as bullets swarm around him. He is a professional that always gets the mission done and he knows how to deal with obstacles swiftly and efficiently. We’ve even seen him take advantage of the affections of women to get his job done. He’s definitely a James Bond type, right?
I’m hoping this post will be fun to read. Like we’re having a conversation. A little part of me is afraid that this stream of consciousness style is going to get more annoying than anything else. Let me know!
Yes in a straightforward way, Loid Forger is James Bond, just like Spy x Family is a spy thriller and Max Rockatansky (did you know his last name is Rockatansky !?!) from Fury Road is a standard action hero. But in a piece of fiction, it’s not just about what the characters are. It’s not all about a series of qualifiers you can give them. Tall… dark… handsome! It’s about how they make you feel, and what they make you think!
One of the big things that set Loid apart from a lot of classic spy thriller protagonists, is that he’s not the star. It’s an ensemble. Granted a small ensemble of three people but still an ensemble. The story isn’t told from his singular point of view, and we are not meant to relate only to him and his experience. Just that changes everything. Let’s face it, a lot of the action genre and related subgenres of which spy thriller is definitely one, are a power fantasy. And we occasionally hear that expression as a negative but this isn’t how I’m using it here.
A power fantasy isn’t a bad thing. It’s a way for the audience to get the vicarious pleasure of feeling like they have control or they really matter by watching someone on screen be very cool. And that’s very fun. Escapism is one of the things we all look for in fiction once in a while and power fantasies are a great way to escape.
The thing is, power fantasies tend to look kind of silly and much less appealing when the point of view is made external. Loid is cool, but Yor and Anya can clearly see that sometimes he panics, no matter what he might want to tell himself. Sometimes he says something that doesn’t fit the situation, and he doesn’t even notice. What’s more Anya and Yor find him endearing because of that. And because we see the world through their eyes, so do we.
Sure Loid is a super cool super-strong secret agent that can destroy a whole gang of armed men with his bare fists in a matter of minutes. But we like him because, after that, he saw a little girl in the street and decided to take care of her. That’s the really cool part of Loid. And that’s just not something James Bond could do. His lifestyle and character simply can’t work if he’s a caregiver. The impact of the character is completely different.
And when you take a step back, you start to see that the entire show is completely different.
Spy x Family uses all the building blocks of a classic spy thriller. There’s a political intrigue happening in the background. It’s there but not too intrusive. There are nebulous powers that be but we really only care about the specific spy or spies involved. You have a lot of action, out of the four first episodes 3 included high-action battles with bad guys and the last one had a stampede. There’s a nerdy informant who gives us lots of high-tech but believable gadgets. There’s a beautiful femme fatal and an innocent little girl who would be the perfect damsel in distress. There are even innocent bystanders who could nevertheless blow their cover so they have to be both mindful and wary of everyone. It’s all there. A paint by numbers spy thriller.
But that’s not what you’re left with when you read or watch Spy x Family, is it? Sure those things are all there but that’s not the spirit of it. It’s a found family tale. Anya is an innocent child. She could be used as a damsel in distress and was up to a certain point in episode 1. Arguably you could say she had that role again when the mean teacher made her cry. But that’s not all she is. She’s often the comedic relief as the combination of her clumsy cuteness and all the misunderstandings her telepathy causes often makes for some very funny moments. She’s also a hero because there are specific things that only she can do. The story can’t progress without Anya. And she can’t be replaced by anyone else. She’s also a protagonist at times as the story shifts to her perspective and values her experience over those of the others.
And I could say the same for Yor. She’s the gorgeous assassin. A stereotypical female character for these types of stories. Fujiko Mine anyone? But she’s also not, is she? To think of Yor as simply a sex bomb is a little odd. She’s a goofball more often than not. She ridiculously trusting but either through great instincts or great luck, has been able to survive in a very dangerous profession for a long time. So to dismiss her as overly naïve is probably not smart. She has very clear ambitions but they also happen to be quite modest. She wants to give her brother a good life and that now extends to her new family. And these aren’t just incidental traits. Things we learn about Yor in a special flashback episode to really give the character some substance. These are foundational. That is who she is, she just also happens to be pretty and good with knives. A bit too good…
Basically, all of these characters are archetypes. Highly recognizable character tropes of the genre. But the story refuses to see them that way and forces the audience to also see them as people. When you put that together with the way Spy x Family treats action (as a catalyst for introspection and feelings), you end up with something that both clearly is and isn’t at all a spy thriller. That’s kind of great, right? I mean it’s really fun. It could all go downhill of course and there’s only so long you can depend on subversion. Not saying the show doesn’t have anything else going for it. But as a deconstruction, it’s kind of wonderful, wouldn’t you say?
So back to Loid, because I put his name in the title. When you cut through all of it, Loid is a traditionally masculine character. Strong, smart, intimidating, reliable… But with just a few tweaks in presentation and perspective, he’s suddenly unexpected. As I’m writing this, we’re just at episode 4 and we’ve already seen him entirely lose his cool because someone was mean to his fake wife and daughter. He reacted with violence that time but I could see him panicking or crumbling should either of them end up in danger he can’t easily get them out of. James Bond would never lose his cool like that, let alone panic. Ridiculous. But Loid would because he’s not James Bond. And I like that about him.