Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Review: Velvet #1 - Girl Friday, and a Breath of Fresh Air

The last week has been pretty great. Just, you know, in general. But especially for comics. I picked up some real gems at the shop on Friday, both of which are worth writing about. Here's the first:

Velvet #1

I feel like saying "this has been a long time coming" is a little bit cliche. Or even a lot cliche. But I have been waiting for this issue to be released for a number of months now, and I was more than a tad excited when I walked home holding it for real. A little bit of background. This is a spy comic that was announced back in July of this year, to be produced by the fabled creative team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. I met Brubaker once, briefly. Our 30-second conversation outside his and Greg Rucka's ECCC panel on crime comics consisted of a handshake and determining that he didn't have time to sign my Death of Captain America collection because he was late for lunch. With someone definitively cooler than my 19-year old fanboy self. Honestly I don't blame him, and that never should have come up in this blog post. Anyhow...the man is a legend. His run with Epting on Captain America post-Civil War was a thing of beauty. So when it was announced that the same team was taking on a creator-owned spy fiction project, I may have gotten a little excited.

Hype is a strange thing, usually best avoided. It twists our perception of creative works before they are actualized, and alter our experience of the work when we encounter it, often for the worse. Despite the hype I had built around this comic for myself, Velvet #1 did not disappoint. I suppose that's the thing about dealing with as skilled a writer as Brubaker. I had seen a short preview of some Velvet pages, and it looked great. I assumed I was seeing the opening scenes of this story, and therefore drew conclusions about what I was going to be reading. None of those pages appeared in Velvet #1. The story took a very different road than I'd expected, building slowly, introducing the Cold War setting from various angles and setting up character roles in a skilfully subtle manner. It was fun to read, in part because I know Brubaker's just playing. The espionage flavour was something he had introduced in small doses to the pages of Captain America, but he could only take the action-oriented superhero genre so far down that road. He jumped back past the Cold War to Noir and the 30s and indulged his love of crime fiction and Lovecraftian horror, and we've been able to revel in the glory of Fatale as a result. In this, we finally get to see him let loose all his pent-up espionage ideas, and I'm loving it. The characters are everything you want and never quite what you expect. More than that, they're real and believable people...a damn rare quality in comics which I've probably ranted about at length before. Brubaker makes us believe his world, which is easy, because it's our world. I guess it's something we'll have to get used to, seeing this guy write about the world without monsters and capes. It's the 1960s, when people were still allowed to have names that were names. Velvet Templeton and Jefferson Keller meet at a rooftop party in New York. They talk about wine, before getting into a muscle car where they light up a joint as they take off into city traffic. They end up in a casual relationship, he the secret agent, her the boss's secratary, before he gets bushwacked with a shotgun in Paris. It's clean, beautiful, believable. It feels vintage, in a way best associated with old wines and finely-tuned cars.

Ed Brubaker is half of what makes this issue a pleasure to read. Steve Epting and his art is the other half. Nowhere have I seen an artist capture The City this way in a comic before (Darick Robertson's art on Transmetropolitan is genius, but that City is a little different...). I had art history class this morning, looking at turn-of-the-century representations of New York and views of modernist painters dealing with new urban landscapes. Three key features are suggested for the painting of the modern city: light, angularity, and focal point. Epting embodies that, especially the first. I miss New York. It happens to me about twice a year, that I hit a couple of weeks or months where I pine for that city and find myself folding my pizza slices and listening to Billy Joel on repeat. Part of what I miss is the lights, a landscape of brilliance that makes you understand the phrase "city that never sleeps". Steve Epting gets that. He puts you in a tailored dinner jacket and leather shoes looking out over the golden glow of a city that is as alive at midnight as it's ever been at noon. You're looking through electric towers at a slate-grey sky, and then you're flying over pavement of that same colour, under the glow and past the embers of glaring traffic lights glaring, driving at a terminal velocity that makes all the marquee lights blur together and snatches of lettering jump out of the world outside your smokey windows..."CHERRY BABY". Epting puts you in the city unlike any artist I've had the pleasure of reading. It's a beautiful thing.

There is a cold side to Epting's city as well. It exists in the underground marble-tiled halls of agencies we don't know the names of...but all that is best left for you to discover yourself. We the readers have been granted privileged access to this world of intrigue, by a man I readily consider one of Comics' most gifted storytellers and one of his greatest collaborators. They have chosen to operate outside the guidelines of their chosen genre to give us a story we simply won't see coming. Spy aficionados will love the wild ride where nothing is what it seems. Feminist readers will appreciate the overturned gender roles. Artists like myself will look at and breathe a sigh of, "ooh...pretty". I won't say that it's the perfect comic, because that's ridiculous. I will say it's really damn good. In the words of agent Jefferson Keller, "Press that button that looks like the lighter...

...and hold on."

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