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. 

REVIEW: Zero #2

I never did get round to writing a full review of Zero #1, the highly-acclaimed new espionage series from Image Comics, but it made a strong impression on me.  For starters, based on the strength of that opening chapter, I picked up writer Ales Kot’s earlier Image comics: Wild Children and Change.  I also nabbed the first volume of Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, as I now found my appetite whetted for further morally murky comic book spying exploits.  The concept of the series, for those unfamiliar, is that Ales Kot would forego a highly-serialised narrative in favour of a series of oneshots – standalone episodes linked by their title character: British super-spy Edward Zero – each drawn by a different artist.  The first chapter was a deft piece of storytelling.  Going in many might have been expecting some high-octane James Bond action, but while they were treated to one of the most brutal fight scenes to show up in a comic in quite some time, this wasn’t James Bond, it wasn’t even Bourne.  It presented the spy as ghost, hovering silently on the edge of the action movie stuff and waiting for the right time to silently, efficiently strike and retreat.  But what I perhaps admired most about issue #1 was the comic itself as a physical artefact, packed literally cover-to-cover with narrative, with even the inside cover sleeves serving as story pages.  So I was a bit disappointed when that ended up not being the case for this chapter, which has a more conventional comic book layout – save for the credits being bumped to the back cover.  My disappointment was short-lived however, as Zero #2 managed to not only live up to the high standard set by issue #1, but totally eclipse it.

Let’s make this clear: Michael Walsh is no slouch.  He was the artist for Zero #1, and if I’m honest, it was my familiarity with his work on Comeback that drew me to that debut issue more than Ales Kot, who I’d heard of but never read anything from.  And he did a killer job of it, crafting a slick, minimalist style that instantly made the bleak, cynical world of the story associated in my mind with the visuals of Walsh.  So imprinted was Walsh’s approach in my mind that I went in fearing Tradd Moore wouldn’t be a natural fit.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Tradd Moore.  I loved The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, thanks largely to his spectacular artwork, but it was his very resounding success in that series that made me think Tradd Moore was your go-to guy for crazy, bombastic action with a dose of gore-slapstick.  Now, the grindhouse madness of Ghost Rider, that seemed like a natural fit for Tradd Moore to me!  But moral decay and disillusionment? The quiet mechanics of a trained killer?  Tradd Moore is a very different artist from Michael Walsh.  But, as it turns out Zero #2 is a very different story from Zero #1.  And Tradd Moore rises to the occasion with the finest work of an already-decorated young career, uncovering all new dimensions and nuances to his craft.

Zero #1 presented a Zero at the height of his powers, already a ruthless, lethal operative.  Zero #2 takes us not forward from there, but back, presenting us with Zero as a child, taking us through his harsh training in the mysterious academy – serving as home, school and indoctrination centre all in one – and ultimately building to his first mission.  And when Moore’s trademark enlarged heads, big expressive eyes and cartoonish figures are applied to the design of children, it conveys a highly potent sense of innocence, an innocence all the more poignant due to the inevitably of it being crushed, as the previous issue already indicates.  While the more muted style of Walsh was the ideal match for a tale where any emotion was deeply repressed, this is an incredibly emotional, moving story, and Moore just absolutely nails the heartbreak of it all: the blighted sweetness of Edward spending time with fellow student Mina, the doomed happiness of Zero’s intended victim, the tragedy of what young Zero must become.  It’s all in the eyes.  Throughout the issue, look at Zero’s eyes, and the amount of emotional wallop Moore gets from his drawing of them.  They go from vulnerable, to lonely, to happy, to scared, to determined, to devastated, and finally, to dead and cold.  And then we quite powerfully don’t see them at all.

While the Luthor Strode series is very much “widescreen comics”, with lots of grand splashes, the average page here is a 12-panel grid.  and that results in a very different pacing from Moore.  Our eye is drawn right in to the minute details of a scene: a component of a room, or the flicker of emotion on a face.  And the violence is much more unusually paced, the exuberant carnage of Luthor Strode replaced with this quiet dread, with one page in particular – a frantic search for a gun juxtaposed with repeated shots of an empty doorway we know a gunman is sure to appear at any moment – ramping up the tension.  And Moore pulls off some truly masterful layouts: the page with young Zero in training, locked in a box underwater, is sure to be one of the most striking pages of comic art we’ll see all month, if not all year.  This is just a book dense in content, one that rewards close reading and then rereading.

The artist may shift with each issue, but the colorist is set to remain consistent, and on this front Jordie Bellaire is triumphant once again.  As I’ve said before, she has quickly emerged as one of the most talented, diverse colorists in comics.  And while I knew from Comeback that she could provide understated, grainy tones to ideally compliment Michael Walsh’s style, the revelation this issue is the crisp, clipped pallette that ensures Tradd Moore’s lines have never looked better.  I look forward to seeing Bellaire bring out the best in each artist that steps into the book going forward.

Of course, Ales Kot also deserves a lot of credit for, in each issue of Zero thus far, crafting a story perfectly tailored to the skills of the artist he’s working with.  In the case of issue #2, there is a certain weight of inevitability to what must happen before the chapter is complete, but Kot still manages some shocking wrinkles and surprisingly cruel additional twists of the knife.  But while the first issue was very plot-driven, and was dominated by the scenario established by the high-stakes mission, the focus here is much more heavily on character.  And so Zero, who was something of a ghost haunting his own book in issue #1, here becomes more fully-formed under Kot’s pen.  Particularly potent is his relationship with Roman Zizek, his Agency handler.  It’s an intriguing, thorny relationship, as Zizek is something of a surrogate father figure for Zero, but the nature of his official role as partains to Edward and what Edward is expected to be enforces a certain awkward distance, in spite of a suggested need for that familial intimacy in the relationship from Zero and even (perhaps moreso) from Zizek himself.  Zizek comes across as a conflicted figure, going off on a big rant about rabid dogs around the issue’s halfway point where it seems unclear – least of all to Zizek himself – whether he’s talking about the target, Zero, or himself.  Based on his presence in the first issue (making him the only recurring character other than Zero himself) and the focus of this issue’s backmatter, it seems that Zero/Zizek is being primed as the relationship at the core of the whole series, at least in these early stages.

Which brings me to another point: much has been made about Zero foregoing a serialised structure and being a series of stanalone one-and-dones that can operate independent of one another.  But I actually feel like we’re being hoodwinked by Kot on that front, as I can definitely feel an overarching narrative already taking shape.  It might not be immediately apparent in a strictly chronological/serialised sense, but it feels like we’re getting pieces of a puzzle.  There are threads connecting these first two issues: if the ending of the first issue featured the pivotal moment where Zero’s long-dormant humanity resurfaced, here we see the pivotal moment when his humanity was first cast down a deep, dark hole.  I feel like there’s something being said about childhood as well, as the dehumanisation of children seems to be popping up again and again.  There was the child killer sent to kill Zero at the beginning of issue #1, a lot like Zero himself is sent to assassinate his first target here.  Issue #1 also had the dead child caught in the crossfire, which provoked such a strong reaction from the seemingly detached and mission-focused Zero.  Issue #2 juxtaposes Edward the Agency trainee and would-be child killer with the children of Kieran Connelly and the happier, more “normal” family life they live.  It’ll be interesting to see how any overarching threads continue to develop with subsequent issues.

I considered Zero #1 to be a great single issue, but Zero #2 cements this comic’s status as a great series.  Ales Kot’s vision for Edward Zero and his world is more fully taking shape, and Tradd Moore floored me with heart-rending, career-best work.  Is issue #3 out yet?  Is it?  IS IT?

Zero2Zero #2 is out in all quality comic shops now.