REVIEW: Velvet #1

Sometimes you know you’re going to love a comic from the second you first hear about it, and so I’ve been anticipating Velvet ever since news of it broke at Image Expo.  Although I had been aware of his work beforehand, and even read and enjoyed stuff like Batman: The Man Who Laughs, I think what truly made me a fan of Ed Brubaker was the work he did on Captain America with Steve Epting.  Reimagining the mythos of Captain America – a superhero I’d never found particularly interesting – as a kind of spy thriller with shades of 1970s conspiracy pics like The Parallax View, Brubaker and Epting crafted a dark, dangerous world that leapt off the page, feeling utterly distinctive from the rest of the Big Two’s superhero output, even the good stuff.  Spinning out from that, I became an enthusiast for Brubaker’s work, which meant that long after I drifted away from Captain America, I was seeking out Incognito, then Criminal, and now Fatale.  The more I read of Brubaker’s excellent works with his most prolific collaborator, Sean Phillips, the more I specifically began to identify Brubaker specifically with that Phillips style.  When Brubaker works with Phillips, it brings out a certain style in his writing that fits Phillips’ visuals: cool, detached, a quiet accumulation of dread slowly bubbling to the surface.  And that’s a style that works very well.  But as soon as I saw that preview art, it was like scales dropping from my eyes, and I remembered that before I loved the work of Brubaker/Phillips, I loved Brubaker/Epting.

So, I’ve been anxiously awaiting Velvet, so keenly that it in turn reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brubaker’s Fatale.  But then something funny happened: out of nowhere, Zero came along and emerged as one of the most dazzling debuts of the year.  Here was another Image spy comic, one that handled the genre incredibly well in a manner that felt fresh and exciting.  Had Ales Kot and co stolen Velvet‘s thunder?  I have to admit that was in the back of my mind as I picked up Velvet this week, but I needn’t have worried.  Velvet is a very different comic from Zero, approaching espionage in the classic James Bond/George Smiley mould as opposed to the sci-fi tinged “wetworks” of the latter that seems to draw more from the likes of Nikita or the Hitman games.  It’s too soon to say if Velvet is better than Zero, as Zero has set the bar very high, but its definitely established itself as very much its own thing.  I think there are two things in particular that set Velvet apart.  One of these is the 1970s period setting, which as we’ve seen in the likes of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or TV’s The Americans allows us to explore a more low-fi approach to espionage, even if there is the occasional nifty bit of tech.  The other, the comic’s biggest secret weapon, is Velvet Templeton.

As far as protagonists go, Velvet is instantly engaging.  First off, there’s the fact that she’s a middle-aged woman, the kind of character who sadly doesn’t get to be the star of many comics, certainly not action thrillers.  Beyond that, though, Brubaker injects her with a fascinating personality: hardened, self-assured, and with just enough touches of ambiguity to make us question the reliability of her narration.  She’s a senior secretary for secret spy agency Arc-7, and so at first it seems like we’ve got a story of Moneypenny having to deal with the death of James Bond, which as far as elevator pitches go would be interesting in itself.  But as we learn more about Velvet, it becomes clear there is more to her than at first meets the eye, that she has a past that is going to come rushing into the present of the narrative.  And under Epting’s pen, she is lovingly rendered.  Whether she’s twirling her glasses in her fingers, puffing out cigarette smoke, or making what quickly becomes her trademark facial expression of the gears silently grinding in her mind as she pieces together an intricate puzzle of clues… Epting imbues her every motion with an iconic quality, where she feels like a larger-than-life character walking through the story in the same way that Captain America did in that series.

Admittedly, at this early stage at least the rest of the ensemble aren’t particularly interesting.  But as far as lead characters go, Velvet Templeton is already one of the best new creations of 2013.  Brubaker has given her a distinctive, credible voice, Epting has given her a gravitas and physical presence, and together she is a rock-solid foundation upon which to build this new world.  I for one am incredibly excited by the prospect of the creative minds that so reinvigorated the world of Captain America now turning their minds to crafting a new world, one that exists within a similar genre and promises a similar tone, but which will be totally fresh, totally shaped by Brubaker and Epting.

I’ve written positively about Fatale in the past, and I still buy it monthly, but even in my positive reviews, I’ve talked about Fatale as a book that withholds its dark pleasures, Brubaker adopting a pace where he keeps his narrative cards gripped close to his chest and only gradually reveals his horrific hand.  I’ve found it rewarding, but those who may have deemed it too slow will have no such qualms with Velvet.  Here, we launch into action from the very first page, and the first issue is a very brisk read.  Not in terms of being light in content, it’s actually quite dense in that regard, but in terms of how the intrigue and quickly-escalating pacing carries you through the comic.  This is an immersive world, and by issue’s end the stakes have been dramatically raised in a manner that sets the stage for a wild issue #2.

Epting’s art, meanwhile, is just a delight.  The luscious cover put me in mind of the sepia-toned quality of Epting’s art when paired with the colors of Frank D’Armata in Captain America.  But Elizabeth Breitweiser’s darker pallette – with its cool blue washes interspersed with seedy orange hues – brings out a more biting, sinister quality in Epting’s visuals here, a world that’s more treacherous.  But Epting’s gift for beautifully-rendered characters remains a constant, thankfully.  There was more than one occasion while reading the comic that I just stopped and thought, “This is a beautiful book!”  I think the framing of the page layouts is interesting as well, as for the most part this is a very restrictive comic for the characters dwelling within its panels.  Lots of long, narrow panels, mixed in with a few tall, thin ones, with most pages averaging 5-6 panels.  It creates a tense, stifling atmosphere, with the occasional moments where characters or objects pop out of the border generating little sparks of excitement.  It’s an arrangement reflective of how stifling Velvet finds her situation, which could be part of why the last page works so well.  Just as Velvet goes off on an unexpected new direction, we open up into an expansive 2/3 page splash, and it looks like Velvet crashing out of the confines of those narrow and thin panels and into something wild and new.

Overall, Velvet #1 was a resounding success.  Of course, I expected it to be.  Image is really spoiling us in 2013 with this ridiculous number of quality comics.  It seems like near every week there’s a new noteworthy debut from the company, with more and more high-profile creative teams launching exciting new projects with them.  I’m starting to think we’re in the most exciting time for comics since the proto-Vertigo of late 80s DC with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing paving the way for the likes of Hellblazer, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol relaunches, and The Sandman.  

Velvet1Velvet #1 is available now in all good comic shops. 

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