What if one of the Bond girls was James Bond?
That's one way to frame the new series Codename Baboushka: The Conclave of Death just announced at Image Expo. Antony Johnston and Shari Chankhamma flip the Bond formula on its ear with Contessa Annika Malikova, a former Russian crimelord known as Baboushka, who left that life behind to live in relative wealth and mystery among New York high society. But she's then blackmailed by a government agency to work for them as an secret agent and away we go.
Newsarama spoke with Johnston about this new spy thriller, delve into who Contessa and Baboushka are, what she's getting herself into, and also the long history of British spy drama that only begins with James Bond.
Newsarama: Antony, what is Codename Baboushka about?
Anthony Johnston: Codename Baboushka is an action-packed modern pulp spy thriller, in the sort of British tradition of Modesty Blaise, New Avengers and of course James Bond.
It’s a book about Contessa Annika Malikova, the last of a noble Russian line and an enigmatic, mysterious figure in New York high society. What they don’t know is that she was a leader in the mafia and a killer known as Baboushka. But her empire crumbled, forcing her to flee to the United States to live in secret among Manhattan elite. She thought her secret was saufe until she was approached by the Extrajudicial Operations Network (EON). They’re a covert government agency and they somehow know who she really is, and use that to blackmail her into doing black ops and dirty jobs for them that are so classified that even the C.I.A. won’t touch them. To do that, she’s forced to delve back into the international criminal underworld to become Baboushka once more. This is the story of her missions for EON and her quest for revenge against them.
Nrama: What is Contessa like?
Johnston: Contessa, a.k.a. Baboushka, was a leader in the Russian mafia. Hardnosed, ruthless… very much her own woman. She’s a martial artist, marksman, and good with guns and gadgets as any good pulp spy should be. She’s supported by her constant companion Gyorgy Gyorgyov, an old friend of her family who was in fact her KGB handler and inventor. He returns to her side as she begins working for EON.
But as I said, Baboushka is very much her own woman and doesn’t take crap from anyone. She’s more than capable of handling herself, and always has one eye on gaining the upper hand in any situation. And in her civilian guise, she’s the last of a noble Russian line. She’s wealthy, noble and glamourous – but rarely seen in public, in order to maintain a mystique that she thought would keep wolves away from her door.
Nrama: I have to ask – the agency name of EON, is that a tip-of-the hat to the real-life film production company Eon who hold the rights for James Bond films?
Johnston: It’s a coincidence that I only realized later, but when it dawned on me what I had done I enjoyed it.
Nrama: So we know who Contessa is, who she’s working for, but what is she up against?
Johnston: The Conclave of Death is the story of her first mission for EON. It’s where we first meet her, and see her getting blackmailed by EON. The “conclave of death” itself is a meeting of the leading criminal masterminds and crime lords from around the world. One of them, an ex-C.I.A. operative and corrupt man named Felton, is retiring, and putting up all of his criminal data up for auction at this meeting. So the participants are invited to bid for all his secrets. EON would like to get a hold of these, naturally, but Felton would never sell to them – but might to Baboushka, with EON bankrolling her.
The second problem is that the conclave is invite only, and with Baboushka being retired is not invited. So her first obstacle is how to gatecrash this conclave and get in on this bidding process, whilst also convincing everybody she’s there for herself and not for any government. For that, she has to carry out the assignation of a crime lord and attend the conclave herself. Not to give too much away, but things start to unravel quickly. Best laid plans and all…
Nrama: How deep are you delving into the Russian aspects of this?
Johnston: it informs the character, but we’re not doing a treatise on the Russian mafia. I thought it would be cool to do a turnaround; normally the sexy Russian woman is a Bond girl, and not the hero. SO you have all the aspects of someone who would previously be a secondary character, but here she is the hero. Being Russian informs her character, but its not something I’m going to hammer throughout the series.
Nrama: This is a bit of the twist on the spy tropes of James Bond, similar in some regards to Velvet or Modesty Blaise. How’d this come together for you?
Johnston: I’ve been working on Codename Baboushka for several years before Velvet was announced. So, yes there are going to be some similarities, or what appear to be similarities, but as soon as people see our book they’ll know it’s very different. It’s more pulpy and action-packed, if you like. Obviously our heroine is quite different and not someone no one expected. Like I said, I’ve been working on it for several years and now is finally the time to launch.
Part of that was finding Shari Chankhamma, the artist and co-creator. I’d known Shari from coloring Fuse and also Ed Brisson’s book Sheltered, but she’s also an awesome artist. When I saw what she could do, I thought, ”Hang on, this could work!” so I asked her if she’d be interested and wound up bringing her in as co-creator.
For the origins of the Baboushka character herself, it was a few years ago. I can’t remember exactly, to be perfectly honest, but I may have been watching a James Bond movie or some pulp European spy thing. Then thinking “wouldn’t be interesting if the sidekick sexy girl in the high split dress was the lead rather than the usual glowing, grunting disunited secret agent?” And that got me thinking.
Modesty Blaise is not well known in the United States, but in the United Kingdom she’s an institution – especially for a comic book reader of a certain age. She’s a wonderful creation, and her strip ran in newspapers for a long time. So whenever female spies come to mind for us, they think of Modesty Blaise. So that had an influence as well.
Nrama: Last question, what can readers expect, big picture, with Codename Baboushka?
Johnston: As I said, modern pulp spy things. Guns, martial arts, gadgets, explosions, exotic locations. What people familiar with my work will hopefully expect. And a great character to follow, as I’m very proud of Baboushka. Shari id a great job making her visually striking, and she has an interesting and unusual enough personality that’ll keep readers interested. So necks getting snapped, high kicks, explosions… just what you’d expect.