Alright. Velvet. Where do we begin?
Velvet is the story of a secretary by the name of Velvet Templeton. She works for one of the largest espionage agencies in the United Kingdom, and directly for the head of that agency. This means she has access to pretty much every secret moving in and out of that agency at the height of the Cold War. That sounds harrowing enough, really, and you could do some interesting stories based on that.
Except, right from the get go, she’s framed as a traitor and her own people are after her. They come to arrest her, some of the best agents that agency has to offer – and she drops them like flies before fleeing into the night.
Here’s the trick, right from the first issue: this isn’t the first time this has happened to her. She came up as a field agent back during World War II, and was widely considered to be one of the best the UK could deploy. When the Cold War started she moved from battling one evil empire to the other without batting an eyelash, right up until there was evidence a traitor was moving among the highest ranking agents at that agency.
Only a handful of agents could have been the traitor and she was one of those suspected. The agency did what they could to deal with the problem, and she was removed from field work and has been behind a desk for more than a decade since. Most of the people working there have no idea who she was or what she’s capable of.
The traitor might have wanted to look into that before framing her.
Because, yes, her skills are a little rusty and she’s aged, but she’s still head-and-shoulders better than everyone else there. Wily, intelligent, and capable, she’s sick of this bullshit and is determined to prove her innocence and find the actual traitor.
Queen and bloody country, indeed.
The artwork is what’s going to draw you in. It’s gorgeous. Every frame is a portrait, and the body language, expression, and shadows of this book play directly into the lethality and paranoia at play. It works to enhance everything, even giving a sense of time, the impact of weather and fatigue, and the distant vagaries of decades past.
But it’s the writing that will keep you. Ed Brubaker does not have the best history with women – Sharon Carter and most of the female characters in Criminal can attest to that – but there’s something engaging and honest about Velvet. This is all the more surprising given the world she inhabits, but it’s an important part of what makes this comic work.
See, this could easily be a shallow exercise in girl power, but it isn’t – Brubaker is one of the best crime writers of our generation, and he’s applied that same intelligence and skill to everyone in this series. There are no idiots here; everyone is doing the best they can with the information and ability that they have available to them.
Velvet herself works to out-think her fellow agents, and has difficulty with the obstacles she’s forced to overcome. Her victories feel earned, and her defeats never weigh her down for very long. She has agency in her story, weight and character, and her decisions and actions make sense because of it.
The combination of Velvet’s character, the shadows of the world she inhabits, and the vibrant artwork weave together to craft something special. This is a spy thriller in the purest sense of the word, where the only certainty we have is that Velvet herself is not the traitor – everything else in her world is unreliable until she can confirm it otherwise for both herself and us.
And that’s what the Cold War was; horrific and full of misinformation. The human world stood on the brink of destruction because of politics and greed, and lies were used in place of weaponry because the physical weapons would ensure the end of everything if they were ever used. Whole generations grew up in terror that the world might end at any moment, and the front-line soldiers were the agents in the field, living lies so that other people could live lives.
It’s not that sort of battle that can be as easily waged today thanks to the communications technology that has become so widespread over the past fifteen years, but back when this story takes place there was no instantaneous anything. Information spread by inches on a map, and what was known someplace could not easily be confirmed anywhere else.
This works both for and against the title character, as the forces hunting her can’t easily find her, but she also cannot just look up the things she needs to know. She has to hunt, to slowly investigate and sift out what intel she has, follow and dismiss leads and see where they take her.
What results from all of this is a James Bond who just happens to be female caught up in a story that Jason Bourne would feel at home in. There’s a reason this comic always always finds a place among our weekly Top Five Comics whenever an issue comes out, and that sense of equity and equality has a large part to do with it.
And, like all good spy stories, Velvet begs that we question authority, that we take nothing and no one for granted, that we apply intelligence and awareness to every situation in which we find ourselves. That we inform ourselves, that we doubt and test the information that we find, and that we not give up in the face of adversity.
In that sense, Velvet becomes a comic that reflects our own times as much as it explores the time in which it is written, and only the very best stories can manage that particular trip.