by Andy Wolverton
“Okay, here’s something you should know… any fight that lasts longer than five seconds is hell. I prefer the one second kind… where I’m the only one who even knows there is a fight.” When we hear these words from Velvet Templeton early in Velvet, Vol. 1: Before the Living End, we learn that she’s no longer a fighter. She’s a secretary for the Director of ARC-7, a MI6-like intelligence organization so good most of their competition has never even heard of them. When she learns that ARC-7’s best agent has been killed in Paris, Velvet decides to investigate the murder herself, despite the fact that she hasn’t been an active field agent in years.
On the surface, Velvet looks like a typical spy graphic novel with the typical twists, turns, action sequences, secrets, betrayals, and other familiar conventions of the espionage genre. But Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (who have collaborated previously on several Captain America stories, including Winter Soldier) have delivered much more than a typical spy story. Velvet is better — far better — than it has to be. It’s one of those rare books that sets a very high standard and maintains it throughout. Perhaps even more rare, it gives us a character we truly care about.
Set in 1973, in the midst of the Cold War, Velvet sits at her secretary’s desk, trying to piece together Agent Jeff Keller’s murder. When you’ve got a photographic memory like she does, inconsistencies drive you crazy, such as an empty space in one of Keller’s expense reports, which translates into a missing day on the job. Velvet digs deeper and soon finds herself on the run; but she’s not even sure whom she’s running from.
I like the fact that Velvet is not young. We get flashbacks to her training and early missions in ARC-7 that take place more than 25 years prior to the current story. She’s got the mind of a veteran agent, but she also has memories of hurt and betrayal. (Sometimes having a photographic memory is not an advantage.) It’s just possible some of the people responsible for those instances of hurt and betrayal are responsible for Keller’s murder. It’s also possible that Keller was just one stop along the way towards targeting someone else. Velvet’s years of experience give her character a complexity and dimension that cannot belong to a youthful agent. In one pivotal scene, Velvet fears not only that her fighting skills may have gotten soft, but also that she’s allowed herself too much sympathy for others — a mistake that leads to tragedy.
Anyone familiar with Brubaker’s collaborations with Sean Phillips on such titles as Criminal, Sleeper, and Fatale know that those books show a creative team at their peak, but Brubaker’s work with Epting is remarkable in a slightly different, yet no less impressive way. While their work is very cinematic, it creates something that brings out the unique strengths of the graphic novel format.
As in film, Brubaker and Epting know how to set up a scene, frequently using a cityscape or an isolated metropolitan street as an establishing shot, then showing a character in the midst of the enormity of that setting, followed by a closer shot of the character. The narration boxes take us inside Velvet’s thoughts, but the images provide us with her decisions, her drive. In a film, the only way to recreate that effect is through a voiceover narration, which usually comes across as artificial. In a graphic novel format, when done right, it carries power and impact.
Epting’s panels are like frozen frames of film. It’s almost as if your eye subconsciously knows what happened seconds before and after each panel, creating a rhythm that works just as well — perhaps even better — than that of film, at least for many of the action scenes. Brubaker and Epting seem to have an innate sense of just what our eye needs to see and what our minds will fill in automatically. That combination and progression of the right words and pictures is nothing short of spectacular.
I mentioned before that Velvet is better than it has to be, that it’s more than just a “What if James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny were a field agent?” exercise, but I have to point out just a couple of examples of the care and detail that have gone into the book. In one scene, the Director and Velvet are in a closed office, having a discussion about Keller’s murder. The only light coming into the room is through window blinds, a very noir atmosphere. The Director is looking into the light, as if he already knows the answer to who killed Keller. Velvet, remaining mostly in the shadows, questions the Director, asking her questions from inside the darkness. She’s in a place of uncertainty, contrasting with the Director’s almost bullheaded insistence that he’s right and she’s wrong.
Second, later in the story, Velvet is ascending a staircase to confront a possible suspect. This occurs at the bottom of a page about to be turned. Instead of the answer on the next page, we get a brief flashback. It’s not much, but it’s just enough to heighten the tension and tell us just a bit of what we need to know. Anything longer would’ve felt like a gimmick or a cheap shot, but what we get instead is careful pacing and just the right amount of suspense.
Velvet: Before the Living End is filled with such wonderful scenes in a story arc that makes us think that we’ve just scratched the surface of something that could very well be not just good, but great. Velvet proves that Brubaker and Epting are in absolute control both of their material and the format.