September 9, 2014

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Velvet Volume 1

Written by Ed Brubaker
Line Art by Steve Epting
Color Art by Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics

Spy deaths are no surprise, but when a top agent is murdered, the evidence points to the department's reliable secretary. But Velvet is more than just a file clerk, and soon she'll need all her talents to stay alive and prove her innocence in this thriller that takes a new angle on a familiar theme.

It's a little weird to be writing about Brubaker without artist Sean Phillips, but in this case, it's the veteran writer's Captain America partner who is on art duties. That makes sense, given the content. While Philips is perfect for dark, noir-like stories, Epting's slick linework makes him a better fit for a spy book set across the decades following the Cold War.

Velvet starts as a pastiche of James Bond and other similar stories, with Velvet taking on the role of Moneypenny, the attractive but (relatively speaking) older woman in the spy life. She supports those who live lives of espionage and is trusted without question. Extremely smart, she immediately begins to question the death of the agent, and soon is trying to figure out what's gone wrong, which naturally ends up making her look guilty.

It's at that point that we learn Velvet is far more than she appeared at the start of the first issue--she's a retired agent, and she won't just allow herself to be framed.

From there, we discover that Velvet is a former spy who gave up the game for very personal reasons that turn out to be closely tied to the events of the start of the story. She has contacts across Europe, muscle memory that kicks in as she goes, and a determination that won't let her give up until she finds out who the real killer is--or dies trying. We even see that, not unlike her male contemporaries, Velvet has used her charms to get what she wants, which I thought was a nice touch. She makes mistakes, of course, including a few that make her current "mission" that much harder, but as with most spy heroes, she's able to overcome them to remain on top.

Whether or not she can keep up the pace running both towards and against her former handlers remains to be seen, but it's a lot of fun to watch Brubaker use a woman in the starring role here. Generally speaking, including a lot of Brubaker's own crime work, this would be a man's role--framed for a murder, fighting to stay alive, being badass against the odds. The fact that Velvet is a woman--and about a 40-something woman at that--makes this one stand out. Velvet would be a fun, well plotted story even if it was, say, Vander, but the fact that there's a woman in the lead role changes thing in subtle ways to enhance the story.

And I think that's the really notable part about this one. While Brubaker clearly adjusts things to fit his female protagonist, there's never any lengthy, story-slowing monologues about how different she is, or how unfair her life is, or how they don't treat her equally. Velvet wasn't pushed out of spying--she chose to move behind a desk. Everyone involved knows this, and so they know she's as dangerous as any male agent. How she gets past security or her decision to permit a female source one extra moment with her family may vary from what a man might do, but there's no handicapping or worse, pandering.

Velvet is a spy, fighting for her life. That's the point, that's the plot, and there'll be no distractions from it. It's the perfect way to make a typically male-dominated genre more inclusive. Just write the story with the character of your choice and go. Don't try to save the world or "fix" the problems of the past or, worst, of all, have your characters talk about how it needed fixed. Tell a good story, and people will follow. Trust in your readers, and watch them enjoy your new take.

Speaking of watching, it's really fun to see Epting working with Brubaker again. While I had some issues with the portrayal of Cap in their run, I loved the art from start to finish. Epting is the master of detail, and no matter where (or what time) in the world Brubaker sends Velvet, he's up to the task of building the visuals that set the stage. If we need a shadowy office where spies talk about their work, Epting gives us a briefing room with layered tiers of chairs, windows with shuddered blinds, and even wood paneling that's right out of a 1960s decorating catalog. Want to go to a masquerade party? Epting will give you so many costumes you'll almost forget to notice that he's detailed the Monaco skyline to mirror its combination of old and new architecture.

It's a lot of fun to watch just how detailed Epting can get. His style is very realistic, but it never feels photo-referenced. These look and move like people who could step out of the page (and likely kill you), and if you are so inclined, you can count the stitches on the clothing or note the individual hairs in a person's head. At the same time, he can still use shadow to create mood, obscuring when needed or burying those details with the help of colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser. She does an excellent job of complementing Epting's work, not trying to fight it. It would have been easy to make things generically dark, but she uses different tones to make changes in lighting without obliterating what we're supposed to see.

The layouts, too, are very strong. Epting's ability to give a character's face just the right look to go along with Brubaker's dialogue or find just the right scene to place underneath a caption box (such as showing Velvet exercising while thinking in the boxes) do a lot to propel the story. The montages work to show the passage of time, and panel borders are flexible when needed. Action scenes are easy to follow, which is nice, and some of the decisions in terms of the reader's eye really made me stand up and take notice. Something as basic as using her approach to demonstrate she's slipped off her shoes shows care is taken to think about how best to represent the events. Heck, even the obligatory nudity (this is a spy story, after all) is done in such a way that it feels organic. That's where a lesser artist can easily go wrong.

Velvet is a great spy story from one of the best crime comics writers. With the use of a woman as a protagonist and an artist who knows how to get the most out of his pages, it's a highly recommended tale that's just now starting into its second arc. I can't wait to see what's next.

Velvet Volume 1 is available now. Issue 6 came out in July, and issue 7 is due in your favorite comic store or digital device tomorrow.