Graphic Novel Review: “Velvet” Vols. 1-2 (Issues 1-10)

You could probably count on one hand all the iconic spies in mainstream pop culture. James Bond and Jason Bourne share the top spot, followed by Ethan Hunt, George Smiley, Jack Bauer, and – my personal favorite – Harry Palmer. It’s a fair lineup except for one obvious fact: all of these spymasters are men. Yet, anyone who’s ever read a history book or a newspaper would know that women have played pivotal roles in the art of espionage. And with all the recent controversy about Hollywood’s drought in strong three-dimensional female characters it was a breath of fresh air to pick up and read Ed Brubaker’s Velvet.

A remote fan of Brubaker’s work may know that the writer/artist famously came up with the entire Winter Soldier plotline that the second Captain America film was based on.  He was also one half of the duo that birthed masterpieces like Criminal, Scene of the Crime, Fatale, The Fade Out, etc.   So it’s not such a leap that Brubaker would yet again craft an engaging noirish thriller for his readers in Velvet, a series that began its publication run in October 2013.

Casual fans of the spy genre who might think that the book’s eponymously named protagonist is a James Bond knock-off in a skirt set in a Paul Greengrass-esque universe will get a bullet right between the eyes. Brubaker opens the story when Velvet Stapleton is already middle-aged and comfortably working as the secretary to the head honcho of ARC-7, a British spy agency that’s the most secret of secret organizations.  Although she isn’t bitter or actively aching to get back into the field, she returns when a very valuable spy that worked for her agency gets killed and her investigation into the matter forces the people involved to frame her for the murder.

The first volume of the Velvet trade paperback revolves mainly on Velvet retracing the dead spy’s steps before he got himself assassinated.  During this series of adventures she begins to reacquaint her mind and body with her innate abilities in subterfuge and combat. Although the story does not exactly take place in the real world, Brubaker never cops out by giving Velvet superpowers. Every fight she wins is hard earned, usually resulting in her being bruised and bloodied.  Her spy skills don’t require elaborate means, which is realistic for a character low on resources and on the run from every organization in the world.  Though it takes a bit of time for the story to really pick up, by the second trade paperback Velvet is taking the fight to her enemies, in turn uncovering several layers of a conspiracy that will probably be the main focus of a few volumes in this series.

Aside from Brubaker a lot of credit must go to Steve Epting who did all the artwork and also Elizabeth Breitweiser who did the coloring for every issue. Epting superbly depicts Velvet as a woman that is sexy without being highly sexualized, and the way he blocks the mise en scene of each panel makes reading the book a very cinematic affair. Add to that Breitweiser’s use of black against huge swaths of bold primary colors and you have something akin to a modern day neo-noir.

Still ongoing, anyone who loves a good spy thriller interested in reading Velvet can purchase the first two volumes of the trade paperback or buy single issues at their local comic book store.