Reviews: “Be seeing you” – the Prisoner returns

The Prisoner,
Peter Milligan, Colin Lorimer, Joana Lafluente, Simon Bowland,
Titan Comics

Patrick McGoohan’s mind-twisting The Prisoner is pretty much the definition of cult television, a show that was as fascinating and perplexing as it could be confusing and exasperating (and yet always compelling to watch). There’s nothing quite like it (we shall ignore the lamentable modern attempt in TV-land). It was a regular repeat on TV when I was a kid in the 70s, and it still crops up today, is still often discussed by both fans and academics, referenced endlessly in articles and debates, it has permeated the culture. To this day I often take my leave of colleagues with a “be seeing you” and the little salute, although I am not sure most of them know what I am alluding to. But they’ve never been chased along a Welsh beach by a giant inflatable ball roaring away…

Trying to do a modern take on a classic, especially a super-weird classic, is pretty difficult – even the presence of Ian McKellen couldn’t rescue the modern television version (yeah, I know, I just said we’d ignore that, sorry!). But the fact Peter Milligan is writing this take for Titan gave me some confidence that it would be done right, with respect for the original but not a pale imitation or parody, because Peter’s too experienced a scribe for that, and I was glad to see Colin Lorimer joining him as artist.

This is a contemporary tale – Peter and Colin are using the myth of The Village, but it is a modern setting, the post-9/11 world of fractured alliances and counter-counter intelligences and where anything and anyone may not be as they seem. We follow Breen, an MI5 agent on the run – actually on the run from page one, leaping through a window to escape pursuers from his own organisation. It looks like a stereotypical superspy/action moment, the protagonist leaping through shattering glass from an upper storey window to land, deal with his pursuers violently and flee. Except he has been caught with his pants down, literally, having to pull them up while berating himself for being caught off guard so easily, and it’s a lovely touch showing Peter and Colin are going to take some of the well-worn tropes of the superspy genre but also play with them, knowing how ridiculous some of them are in reality. It’s a good sign…

Breen is wanted as a traitor, and this isn’t just the security services sweeping covertly for an agent gone bad, his face is plastered on the media as a wanted man. He needs to get out of town fast, adopting disguises, travelling across counties, looking over his shoulder, watching for possible tails and other spies. Along the way we get flashbacks to a mission gone wrong, a colleague he became involved with in the field being captured while he escaped, of orders given once home, orders he can’t stomach, a man who signed up for Queen and Country but is now jaded and sees it is all short-term political gains, not really about security of the realm. And now he is being hunted by his own people…

Or is he? Is he really a traitor, and is the mysterious Village – a myth to most in security services – likely to sweep him up to interrogate or use? Or has his treachery and escape run been carefully manufactued by MI5 to be the perfect bait to tempt the Village to try to capture Breen, the ideal way to infilitrate this organisation with no affiliations to any nation? Or could Breen be playing both sides with his own agenda? You see how convoluted this is, even only one issue in? This is The Prisoner though, so it should be twisted and convoluted and the truth should always be shimmering like a mirage.

I’m not going to get too deep into more of the plot for fear of spoilers. However it cracks along at a damned good pace, right from that opening page dramatic/comedy escape, and Colin takes care to give us some more delgihtfully odd-looking, almsot surreal images, such as a man, resplendent in chequeboard suit, playing chess by himself over the sink in a lavatory of King’s Cross station (hardly the oddest thing that’s happened around that area though, I’d wager). All very in keeping with the visual oddities of the original series. And, without giving too much away, there are a couple of moments that fans of the original TV series will find familiar and be pleased with (I could almost hear the series’ music at one particular reveal, it is so ingrained in my mind).

Playing on the classic series and acknowledging it (one character refers to The Village as not a myth, and a place only one man has ever escaped from, I think we all know which blazer-wearing chap he is talking about), but very modern, this first issue did what a first issue should, got me hooked and intrigued to see where it goes next. I think it will be a very interesting and twisted ride…

Be seeing you…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

SHIELD by the great Steranko

SHIELD by Steranko: the Complete Collection

Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby et al

Marvel

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Don’t Yield! Back SHIELD!

Nick Fury. SHIELD. Steranko. Three words that are sufficient to give goosebumps to many a comics geek. Starting life as Sgt Fury, fighting the good fight in WWII, the Swinging 60s and the era of such uber-cool superspy productions like James Bond and the Man From UNCLE saw him become Colonel Fury, the eye-patch wearing, cigar-chomping comics king of the superspy genre. There are wonderfully – sometimes ludicrously to modern eyes – over the top plots, conspiracies, crazy supervillain agencies – notably the green-clad HYDRA (“Hail, HYDRA!!”) – amazing action, sardonic wisecracks, sexy, deadly femme fatales and of course, this being the 60s superspy era, the gadgets.

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Oh, the gadgets! From rocket packs to the massive SHIELD Heli-Carrier, oxygen pills concealed inside shirt buttons, wrist video communicators, impeccably sharp 60s suits a Tarantino gangster would kill for and which have bullet-proof linings sewn into them, weapons even concealed inside Fury’s trademark cigars, the list is as long as it is fantastically inventive. Sometimes those gadgets even prefigured something we now have for real today – take a big splash opening page with Fury diving through the sky in a suit with wing membranes between the arms and legs, just like the ‘squirrel’ suits some skydivers use today (of course Fury still holds a lit cigar in one hand while skydiving in this suit).

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To modern, adult eyes some of these stories – often quite short, rapid-fire, all-tension and action throughout – may seem a bit on the simple side, but it has to be remembered that when these were penned in the mid-60s they were, like many mainstream comics, aimed at a far younger audience than reads these sorts of titles today. We’ve effectively grown up with these. But you make allowances for this and then simply let yourself go and just enjoy the sheer pleasure and adrenalin rush of these madcap tales of daring-do and international espionage and world saving the same as you do for a classic Bond flick. It was a different era and it sometimes shows – Fury’s cry to his team of “We got us a female to rescue!” may seem sexist to modern eyes, but this was the 60s, and it was the superspy genre…

In other spots though it tackles this sexism of the age, when an irate, wounded Fury shoves a shapely female agent away declaring he doesn’t need any care or help from a dame she sharply tells him just for that he can address her as “Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine”. It may be the sexist 60s, but as with TV’s The Avengers and Mrs Peel there were some female characters who may be sexy and alluring (Steranko’s depiction of the Countess’ rather pert bottom drew the ire of the Comic Code Authority) but they were also quite certainly strong and independent, the equal and often better at some tasks than the male superspies. Long before Xena or Ripley we had attractive but powerful – not to mention ass-kicking – women characters setting the stage for the strong action heroines who would emerge in their wake.

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The real joy of this collection though isn’t those crazy 60s superspy stories and mad villain superweapons to destroy the world, or even the relentless action and constant wisecracking comments from Fury. It’s Steranko’s art. This is some of the most influential work in comics, and rightly so. The layouts, the splash pages, the double splash pages, hell Steranko creates a four-page splash scene! Kinetic, colourful, full of dynamic energy, not to mention Steranko gleefully pulling in influences from all around him, from comics influences like Wally Wood to the Pop Art of the 60s, psychedelia, Surrealism, anything which caught his imaginative eye and he thought would work on a page. Steranko doesn’t sit back and think, hey this is a young readership, I should make it simple, he treats the readers in a more mature fashion, trusting them to follow and luxuriate in his art, even if they were too young at the time to get all the references (I wonder how many had their first exposure to a wider art world through Steranko’s references?).

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And oh ye four colour comics gods, that art is simply fabulous, from a simple, wordless (save for a few lines in a dialogue box in the first panel) sequence in a cool 60s bachelor pad, man, woman, music on turntable, a rose, romance (it looks like it could have come from Jim Lawrence-era Bond strips) to glowing, colourful, psychedelic effects, montages, and more, astonishing sets for bases that look like Ken Adam’s amazing Bond sets on acid, fabulous aircraft and cars (ohhh, that grand prix racing sequence… incredible bit of comic art) and so much more to simply indulge yourself in here.

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The collection includes extras showing some art before it was altered and naturally those covers, including that utterly iconic origins issue cover, Fury, guns in hand, with an visually astonishing black and white Pop Art background that is one of the best bits of graphic cover design of all time for my money (see here for an amazing animated version of that cover by Kerry Callen). This isn’t just nostalgic tripping back to those crazy 60s superspy tales, this is watching a master at work, showing just how far you could push the envelope in terms of how a comic could work, inventing new visual comics languages and styles that are still influencing creators half a century on. Sheer, utter brilliance.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog