Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting made a name for themselves by relaunching Captain America in the mid-2000s (back before relaunches had really cemented themselves as part of the comics landscape) with one of the few truly excellent Captain America story arcs (it was the basis for the recent movie, Captain America: Winter Soldier). Since then the two have worked on separate projects, but beginning in 2013 they started working on a new creator owned spy-thriller called Velvet. Coming out at a rate of about one every two months it has been a bit slow to develop, but generally the results have been worth it with some excellent storytelling by both creators. The first tradepaperback, Before the Living End, collects issues one through five of this series in a nice, affordable softcover. I am hoping that we will eventually get a hardcover omnibus or something along those lines when this series is further along, but for now this is a nice addition to your shelf.
Anyone familiar with the James Bond franchise will recognize the basic setup pretty quickly. A top secret, off-the-books spy agency runs black ops around the world for the betterment of Euro-American interests, often at great personal risk to its operatives (called X-Ops). This definitely follows the more recent Daniel Craig version of Bond in that it tends to be focused more on the grittier side of the job rather than fancy gadgets, though there are a couple of those, too. The twist here is that our James Bond stand-in, Jefferson Keller, has just been killed on a secret mission and all signs are pointing to it being an inside job. It definitely sets the tone for the rest of the book, and gets thing started off quickly.
The titular character, Velvet, is the office secretary for the man in charge (think Moneypenny), but that is only because she gave up being a field agent after one of her operations went really bad. Tthe actual events of the operation are a fairly hefty spoiler, so I will not go into it in depth, but suffice to say she has a very good reason for not running field ops anymore. Everyone seems to have forgotten that she was once a field operative, though, and dismiss her out of turn as just a secretary. Her position gives her access to all the reports coming in as the team tries to piece together what happens, and her training allows her to recognize that the case is going cold and no good leads have turned up. She thus decides to investigate on her own, and slips back into the routine of doing field work on the sly.
Things are never quite so simple in spy stories, though, and her adventure around the world for answers takes many twists and turns — some predictable, and others less so. One thing that the book does excels at is to explore the paranoia of being a spy. Every contact and every connection could be someone who will turn her in, and the people who were her friends at the office might just kill her on sight if they think she had anything to do with Keller’s murder. In fairness, most of them do not think she did it (though she does not know that), but her actions are not doing her any favors. The reader has only a slightly fuller view of events than Velvet does, and so we have no idea who to trust — even those on her side still have to work on the assumption that they are wrong about her.
Velvet helpfully breaks down her case into four key suspects, but there is also nothing saying that she is not missing something important. Everything she does is designed to determine which of them would have the motive to kill Keller for what he (may have) seen. This is not to say her investigation is flawless, though, and she certainly makes several mistakes during the early parts of her investigation, and is obviously rusty since she has not done field work in a long time. It helps round her out as a character, actually. She trusts character who she should not, and gets burned as a result. She has to work for her information, which puts her in a variety of situations that showcase her ability to blend in with the upper crust, as well as on the mean streets. She makes it look effortless, which is why the doubts she expresses in her inner monologues are so important.
Information is on a slow burn in this series, but it does come just frequently enough to not be too frustrating. Not all of the information is directly about the case at hand, though, as Velvet’s history comes into the story in bits and pieces. There is a good pacing to it and the book flows from one scene to another fairly effortlessly. Unfortunately it also has the tendency to start each issue off as a flash-forward to events that the issue then builds up to. Taken individually this is fine, and when read at a rate of one issue per two months there are no problems with this, but when read in one sitting it is fairly noticeable, and a little annoying. This is particularly annoying when the previous issue ends with a cliffhanger (which is most of them) and the next issue does not actually reveal what happened after that until midway through. It gets old quickly, but I am guessing that this is a stylistic choice they have made about the book as a whole, so chances are it will continue on into the next volume and beyond.
The art is strong throughout, though it does tend to the darker, moodier shades a bit too much. That is par for the course regarding a spy story, I suppose, but it is so dark that when we finally get to the masquerade issue and color is injected into the story it is a welcome relief. I could do with some more issues that did not take place entirely at night. Steve Epting is a talented artist, and he knows his way around both a fight scene and an info-dump. He captures the mystique and glamor of the earlier Bond films, and mixes it in with the grittiness of the Bourne movies in a unique way that works. His rendering of Velvet is easy on the eyes, but there is no mistaking that she is a hard woman who can hold her own. Simply put, it is a comic where the art and the writing are equally worth the cost of admission.
Velvet is a good spy book that anyone who enjoyed the newer Bond movies, the Bourne movies, and maybe even some Burn Notice fans (she has a tendency to describe why real-life spying is different from movies, much like Michael) will be happy with. It aims for a more realistic tone, but it certainly has its moments of show-boating action (Velvet wearing a bullet-resistant wingsuit-diving getup, for instance). The writing is strong throughout, and the art matches it. The color range could use some work, but that is a minor problem. I would appreciate it if it did not hop around so much while storytelling, but I suspect that is something I will just have to get used to. Regardless, this is a good first trade and well worth taking a look at.
Velvet v1: Before the Living End is available at Amazon or your local comic shop