Saturday, 24 May 2014

Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End Review (Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting)

What if Miss Moneypenny was more than just a secretary – what if she was actually deadlier than Bond? And what would happen if she was backed into a corner?

Velvet Templeton is a desk jockey in an MI6 facsimile called ARC-7 at the height of the Cold War in 1973. X-14, the agency’s best spy, is killed by an unknown assassin, as is the retired agent who trained him – and Velvet has been framed for the murders! 

Hunted as a traitor by her former employers, they quickly realise she’s far more accomplished than she let on and is extremely dangerous. So begins Velvet’s investigation to find the real killer and clear her name, a journey that takes her deep into the Soviet bloc, the world of double agents and her own past – who’s working for who?

The first, last and only thing that needs to be said about Velvet is, oh lordy trouble so hard, Steve Epting’s art is INCREDIBLE!! His work on previous collaborations with Ed Brubaker over at Marvel, like their amazing Captain America run which included The Winter Soldier, as well as The Marvels Project, has always been first class, but his work on Velvet - man, who knew that by taking away the masks and capes, Epting would find a near-zen level of art? 

It’s photorealistic in a way that’s not too real and not too unreal either - it’s a perfect balance that mixes comics with reality in an enormously pleasing way. And, unlike other photorealistic art styles, his figures never look clunky or stiff, which is crucial because there’s a lot of fast-paced action in this book. The car chase in the second chapter is something else, he plots it so well, panel by panel, that it’s like watching a film - in fact there’s something to say about every set piece here in the way Epting’s chosen to execute it, but it’s the quieter moments that you get to see the genius in his work through his subtlety. 

There’s a scene in the rain at night when a subordinate goes to his boss at the front door of a gentleman’s club where he reports to him that Velvet got away. The rain’s coming down, their conversation is lamplit, and… it’s breathtaking. You can almost hear the rain in that scene and I swear, if you look at the panels askance, the characters freaking move! 

You know what, I’m going to stop there because I’m starting to foam at the mouth (and I haven’t even mentioned the Carnival of Fools sequence!) but my word, Steve Epting - his work on Velvet is a career best from an already impressive career. 

Let’s talk about the story because the “spy on the run” thing has been done before and yet somehow Ed Brubaker’s managed to breathe new life into it. Brubaker really proves that it’s not the originality of the concept but the execution that matters, and, despite noting plot elements from other spy stories, Velvet’s journey into the dark hearts of international government affairs is never less than riveting every step of the way. 

Lest you think it’s all spies sneaking in shadows with tiny cameras, Velvet proves she’s got the goods several times here, destroying groups of armed soldiers and assassins in hand-to-hand combat, driving insanely into oncoming traffic, leaping off of buildings, going to casinos, using cool experimental gadgets, even bedding hot younger men - she IS the female Bond! 

Spy stories can sometimes get a little convoluted when double agents are introduced and the reader has to follow who’s really working for who and who’s selling out who, but Brubaker is able to keep all the threads straight so that when he utilises flashbacks (sparingly), it’s to full effect, fleshing out the current scene while keeping the plot propelling forwards. 

And while I’ve mentioned Bond, Brubaker’s Velvet highlights the dark side of the spy game showing the effects it has on the spies themselves rather than just focusing on the flashy, exciting good times. It really is Brubaker’s best work in years. 

Velvet’s creative team fires on all cylinders with both Brubaker and Epting spinning their most compelling collaborative effort yet with an outstanding original character. It’s also one of the best spy thrillers I’ve ever read - comics or prose fiction - and easily the best looking one too thanks to Epting’s work. Do NOT miss this masterpiece in the making!

Velvet Volume 1

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