“ I’ve heard the strange madness long growing in your soul, in your isolation but you fortunate in your ignorance. You who have suffered find where love hides, give, share, lose, lest we die unbloomed.”
you are not in Wonderland.
the strange madness
long growing in your soul,
in your isolation
but you are fortunate in your ignorance.
You who have suffered
find where love hides,
give, share, lose,
lest we die unbloomed.
Secrets, Spies, and Leather: The Masterful Espionage of ‘Velvet’
When the world’s greatest spy is assassinated, it’s up to his secretary to avenge his death and bring his killers to justice. Except the world’s greatest spy is the “secretary” because, of course, the real World’s Greatest Spy isn’t the world famous secret agent, but the operative who has been hiding in plain sight for years while dismantling nefarious criminal syndicates or saving the planet from nuclear annihilation. This is Velvet Templeton, agent of ARC-7.
Such is the premise for Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s brilliant, bloody, and beautiful Velvet, whose final story arc (for now) has recently been collected in a lovely trade paperback entitled The Man Who Stole the World.Velvet could almost be thought of as the last James Bond picture. As in, James Bond dies and Moneypenny, who turns out to be an even better spy than James, goes off on her own violent and sexy adventure to avenge him. Obviously, such a premise could never happen on screen (or in comics due to copyright laws… existing) but the world of spy fiction does not stop with the legendary screen icon that is Bond. From Cold War thrillers to pulp novels to classic films like The Third Man or The 39 Steps, well-told spy stories permeate fiction and imbue it with excitement and style.
That style has never been more remarkable than in the pages of Velvet. Of course Bond has his own signature style that has been a joy to behold for decades. But the best design and artistic choices in Bond films have not just been the great outfits or cool cars (it’s hard to make a tuxedo-clad Sean Connery driving an Aston Martin look bad). Rather, it was the production design contributions by visionaries like Ken Adam who, with his art, turned drab offices or interrogation rooms into screen iconography. Incidentally, it was Ken Adam who designed the shadowy War Room in the classic Dr. Strangelove. In the early Bond films, Adam was a master of accomplishing a great deal with very little. So does The Third Man, turning the sewers of Vienna into a labyrinthine living metaphor for the shadowy world of spycraft and the black market, as well as gorgeous cinema in its own right. The visuals of Velvet work the same astonishing miracle, transforming Cold War office buildings, parking garages, and the beiges and browns of 1970s fashion into breathtakingly beautiful art.
The partnership of artist Steve Epting and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, as seen in the above image, recreate 1970s Time Square (an unclean den of iniquity if there ever was one) into a glowing monument to car chases, nights in the city, and the unpredictable thrill of life as a spy. This sort of magic is summoned all throughout the series, as the events of the story (gracefully scripted by Ed Brubaker) are anything but magical or romantic. Trust is betrayed, hopes are dashed, and years-long friendships are destroyed amid broken bones and bullets, yet the art is so beautiful that the world is one the reader can’t help but want to spend time in. This sort of push-and-pull, the romance with both the aesthetic beauty and the ugliness of the action and setting, is one of the most singular aspects of Velvet. While Soviet Bloc architecture has never seemed more enchanting than when rendered by Epting and Breitweiser, the events that take place in those buildings are rife with piles of dead men and secrets. A wonderful setting for a story but not a pleasant place to physically spend time in.
The story itself is a suitably serpentine tale of backstabbing spycraft, with Brubaker’s plotting and second-to-none character development consistently engaging throughout. Many of the antagonists are current or former ARC-7 agents themselves, trying to do their job the best way they know how in the face of their superiors telling them Velvet, a much better agent than any of them, is a traitor (which she, of course, is not). Many of them are not any more or less virtuous than the KGB goons or ex-agents Velvet encounters. The most reprehensible actors are often Velvet’s superiors, people in charge of her safety and the security of her identity as a secret agent. This makes Velvet a woman apart from the world, unable to rely on her agency’s resources for help, and totally exposed to the perils of being a spy “out in the cold.” Even allies she enlists to help her are not really allies, more like people with the skill set she requires at that particular moment, people she happens to share common enemies with. These alliances are most interesting when they are particularly painful for Velvet, as sometimes she does have a shared history with these individuals, which comes with camaraderie and even affection. The world Brubaker builds is one in which spies can’t trust anyone, live a life devoid of roots, where they know by heart the time it takes to get from London’s Heathrow Airport to, say, a covert airfield in Prague via a land route that would eschew monitoring from any intelligence agencies. When such a person is presented with what, under any normal circumstances, would be a genuine relationship but could never be so because of the perpetual mistrust inherent in spycraft, the reader feels for the tragedy of that life. For Velvet to be so resourceful, to be cognizant of the world around her both in its grandest movements and in the most minute detail, yet unable to protect those she loves (or perhaps could love in the future), makes her a remarkably compelling character. Along the way she kicks bad guys in the face in leather catsuits and crashes cars and makes bureaucratic blowhards grit their teeth in blood-red rage, but these moments are all the more impactful because the reader roots for her to win so hard.
But is it worth jumping in now that the series has come to a potential end point? Enthusiastically, yes. I am such a Brubaker/Epting/Breitweiser fan that I could not resist picking up Velvet issue by issue (frequently re-reading past issues to immerse myself back into the gorgeously cold Cold War story), but now readers have the opportunity to read the entire story at their leisure. With the final story arc, The Man Who Stole the World, the series comes to as satisfying and thrilling conclusion as readers could ever ask for. Even with all the blood, explosions, and existential angst Velvet contained in its 15-issue run, it ends on what might be the most optimistic note Ed Brubaker has ever written for a series conclusion. It’s exciting, fun, beautiful, and with believable characters who communicate in terse spy-speak so effortlessly cool, it’s impossible not to smile while reading. Any fans of spy fiction, Ed Brubaker, Cold War stories, or interesting comics in general owes it to themselves to read this comic.
Rob Zombie shared this piece of artwork for his latest film, 31, along with the promise that a trailer is coming soon. The movie premiered at Sundance in January, and it will hit select theaters on September 16 via Saban Films.
Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr, Elizabeth
Daily, Torsten Voges, Lew Temple, David Ury, Richard Brake, Pancho
Moler, Daniel Roebuck, Ginger Lynn,
Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Tracey Walter star.