Velvet: Brubaker and Epting’s superb take on the superspy genre

Velvet Volume 1 : Before the Living End
Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting,
Image Comics

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There are some genres that never truly go out of style, and the superspy tale is one. When the Cold War was over many thought the genre would fade away, but it’s adapted to an ever-changing world and new creators have come along to put their own unique twist on it. And when those creators come in the shape of Captain America team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, you know you should be paying attention. And you should, because with Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have crafted a superb, edgy, sexy, intriguing superspy tale with real 60s/70s style and swagger, not to mention a powerful, assured, intriguing female central character.

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There are the tropes we expect in the genre – the oh-so-cool car (rather familiar looking model, of course with “all the usual refinements”), the glamorous locations, swish parties in Paris, New York, chilled champagne on ice, impeccable evening wear, superbly capable, ruthless but charming secret agents, conspiracies to investigate, sudden death and, naturally, sex. And the coolly reserved secretary to the chief, efficient, calm, flirting with the boyish secret agents, perhaps even falling for them, the eternal Moneypenny type…

Except Velvet is far, far more than a secretary to the chief of the agency, and yes, while she’d had her head turned by some of those charming, suave secret agents who risk life and limb for democracy, queen and country (and the thrill of it), while they think she has fallen for them they don’t realise she’s arranged the trysts and the sex on her terms. And each of them thinks they are the only one she has fallen for. These agents may be at the top of their spy game, but they have the emotional depth of a petulant schoolboy… And they have no idea that before taking her desk job Velvet did the same job they did, but she did it better, equally able to use a knife or gun or her sexual appeal as a weapon to get the job done (on the latter she can’t help but comment “men are so easy” as she uses her charms rather than gadgets or violence to find out what she needs for her mission. Take notes, boys, the female of the species is often deadlier than the male!). The opening skillfully sets up a James Bond style male spy hero only to bring him crashing down shortly afterwards – it is not a story about him – it is Velvet’s story.

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Those secret action days are behind her now, and almost no-one knows about them, but when the agency’s top spy is killed on a mission she is suspicious. Doing a little digging into the records she starts to come to the conclusion there may be a connection between his death and someone high up in the agency – a mole, a traitor? Before she can take it further she finds that for her troubles she has been framed for just that role, set up as the Oswald to take the fall.

Forced on the run, Velvet’s old training kicks in, and an entire team of younger agents finds themselves hopelessly outclassed by this mature woman with the streak of grey, a woman who sat calmly at her desk for years while they undertook dangerous missions, and here she is showing them what a real superspy is. And Velvet is going to need those old skills and connections if she is to find out the truth behind the murder and clear her own name – assuming her own side don’t kill her first.

Velvet is a superbly stylish, well-paced, tight tale of spies, conspiracies, betrayals, action, sex and death – everything you want from that Bond-style 60s/70s superspy story. But here very much from the female perspective, and for a genre which has so often treated women as disposable (literally) eye-candy characters for the main chauvinistic hero it is refreshing to see not just a female lead, but such an elegant, powerful lead. She’s simply better than the boys, faster, better reflexes, she know all the tricks they do but she did them before they ever started in the business, and she did them better. Determined, resourceful, beautiful, lethally efficient.

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Velvet has its cake and eats it, gleefully enjoying using those 60s superspy tropes – the gadget filled car, public school bully boy yet charming secret agent, even the chilled ’45 Rothschild on the balcony bar, the glamorous locations and action – but at the same time acknowledging the strong streak of misogyny that ran through many of them and giving it a damned good kicking from Velvet, who can easily stand alongside Black Widow or Emma Peel. Epting’s art is, as always, superb, and he is as deft in depicting glorious aerial night shots of Paris, or swanky rooftop bars in Manhattan as he is dark, close, intimate scenes, lit only by the slatted light coming in the blinds as spies trade theories in darkened rooms. Velvet herself he depicts as elegant, physically attractive but not overly sexualised; fit and toned to be sure, but still realistic, not the unbelievable physiques often used for superheroines (and superheroes, come to that).

Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.). All of this plus the always-fun convoluted conspiracy to unravel, the action, sex, travel and a genuinely cool heroine you’ll warm to quickly – no wonder the first few issues of this made my Best of the Year back in December. If you missed those issues here’s your chance to catch up with the first collected volume.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Velvet #1, superb old school superspy thriller with a twist

Velvet #1

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting

Image

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There are some sub-genres that never go out of fashion, and the spy thriller is one of them. Brubaker and Epting’s Velvet gives us all the trappings of a proper, old-school spy adventure yarn, very 60s/70s in feel, the handsome but cold and ruthless, incredibly able super-agent in immaculate evening wear, parties in expensive locations in cities like Paris or New York, the oh-so-cool car (naturally with the ‘usual refinements’), sudden death, conspiracies and, of course, sex – not to mention the panting secretary at the agency that is so secret most other spy agencies think it is a myth, if they’ve heard of it at all that is. The eternal Moneypenny type, efficient, prim, always in love with the daring secret agents who risk life and limb against impossible odds for Queen, Country and World Security (and a chilled bottle of ’45 Rothschild, naturally).

But that’s not Velvet at all – yes, as I said these are the trappings, instantly recognisable from the stories and movies of the 60s and 70s spy tales, but this is not about the super X-operatives agents, not really. This is about that secretary who adores the handsome young men who go on those missions. And she’s not at all what most of those men – supermen in terms of their spy abilities but overgrown schoolboys when it comes to emotional depth – think she is. Oh yes, she’s fallen for an agent and slept with him. But as one agent finds out she’s done that with numerous operatives, each one fooled into thinking he was the only one she doted on. The sex here is purely because of her choice and played her way. And there is much more to Velvet than the hidden sexual side. A whole side most of the department would never dream of…

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We open with a great scene in early 70s Paris, a tuxedo-clad assassination in an expensive restaurant, the daring escape through night-time streets to the waiting car (an Aston Martin, naturally) and… A trap. Bang and our superspy able to escape everything is simply taken by surprise and shot. Just like that, no coming back from this, the man we thought was being set up as our main character is gone within a few pages, his death the trigger for what comes after. The department is woken in the small hours for the news and secretary Velvet Templeton is both upset (she actually liked this particular agent) and shocked – despite the extreme danger of their missions, X-operatives rarely get killed in the field. And not in a common ambush like this. Someone must have known his escape route – there is a mole…

Questions are asked, the entire department turned upside down, and soon a suspect is named, a man seemingly once above suspicion and yet there is some evidence that hints he may well have been the perpetrator. Velvet is not convinced though, she knows the man and also finds something amiss in the records she researches. Has this older agent really turned on them, or is there a deeper mole than thought, someone with the ability to manipulate the department, set someone up? And if so, what does she do – not to investigate means ignoring a security breach, digging further may turn attention to her…

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I won’t blow the ending to this first issue by going any further, but suffice to say, as we learn in flashbacks then in the present, Velvet has not always been a secretary, and while she may be up against unseen opponents using her own department colleagues unknowingly, she has abilities most of those younger agents have no concept of…

This is a rollicking read – it has its cake and eats it, with the old-school superspy set-up, the public school bully boy mentality macho male agents, the gadgets and glamorous locations and sex, but it also has a clever, powerful, extremely able female lead, up there with Mrs Peel in her ability to look like the refined, middle-class lady one moment and the unstoppable super-agent the next. It’s a great combination, both paying homage to those older superspy tales while also tacitly acknowledging their sexist streak and playing against it, glorying in the glamour and devices yet showing how all the gadgets in the world don’t help when someone simply blasts a shotgun at you from a few feet away.

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Epting’s art is suitably dark – dimly lit meeting rooms at the headquarters, some wonderful night-time scenes in major cities (some lovely, atmospheric colouring work there too by Elizabeth Breitsweiser, which deserves a shout out). Tense, sexy, intriguing and with a powerful female character cutting through those 60s style Boy’s Own superspy conventions, plus the always-fascinating and compelling nature of a good conspiracy, it all adds up to a cracking and quite cinematic debut issue. Well worth picking up.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog