Lotsa great funnybooks came out this week, but tonight I thought I’d focus on just one…
Velvet 1, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting are kind of a meat-and-potatoes funnybook team. You don’t necessarily expect innovation from them, but they’re so very good at what they do that it doesn’t matter. Brubaker, for instance, is often at his best not when he’s stretching beyond his pulp influences, but when he’s reminding us why the genres he chooses to work in resonate with us in the first place. He’s not a re-inventor so much as he is a rehabilitator, and in a field that produces as much crap as genre writing, that’s valuable.
So when I tell you that Velvet is an engaging period spy thriller that’s equal parts James Bond and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy… You should maybe sit up and take notice. The story centers on the title character, Velvet Templeton, secretary to the head of a shadowy international intelligence agency known as ARC-7. To the agents in the employ of the organization, she’s an engaging, highly-efficient functionary. But in reality, she’s a retired agent herself, and one of the deadliest people in the world. When her mentor is accused of treason, she goes back out into the field to find the truth, and (as they say) hijinks ensue.
It’s a well-worn plot, to say the least, albeit one starring an unusual protagonist. But again… That doesn’t work to the book’s detriment. Genre writing is all about the execution, after all, and Velvet tells its story so very well that it’s easy to forget the dozen bad versions of it you’ve seen and take the series on its own merits. Brubaker is clearly energized by working on a straight-up espionage tale, and it gives the book a vitality it might not otherwise have.
Likewise, artist Steve Epting is turning out what might be the best work of his career. It’s the best work I’ve seen from him, anyway, and I’ve seen an awful lot of it. His storytelling and draftsmanship have always been top-notch, but now he’s layering in photo-realist elements with similar aplomb. He doesn’t call attention to it, mind you. Epting’s such a good, highly functional comics artist that some of the amazingness of his work tends to escape notice. For example, look… really look… at what he’s doing on the opening two pages of this thing:
Page One, Panel One: Fucking Paris! Incredible attention to detail here, especially for what’s essentially a throw-away establishing shot. I have no idea if that’s an accurate depiction of the city, but it’s so convincing that I don’t care. Epting has established a believable cityscape using nothing but light and shadow. Also, look at those gentle lines delineating the edges of the night sky. Beautiful work, aided and abetted, of course, by the gorgeous colors of Elizabeth Breitweiser (more on her as we go).
Page One, Panel Two: An explosion of violence! But what’s maybe more interesting than the gun going off is all the stuff around it. The glasses on the table, the toppling flower vase, the flying broccoli, the texture on the chairs, the background characters defined by simple shapes. Nice use of shadow on the victims, too, especially the one on the left, whose coat seems defined mostly by some well-placed blacks. Also… What’s up with the guy sitting at their table? His dinner companions are being gunned down, and he’s sitting there calmly taking a draw on his cigarette like Bogart in Casablanca. If anything gets across the moral vacuum of the spy game, it’s that guy.
Page One, Panel Three: The page’s weak point comes in a confusingly-open panel that makes our super-spy assassin look like he’s taking a flying leap out of the rooftop restaurant ala the Golden Age Superman. But even here, he’s at least jumping in the right direction to indicate forward motion for the reader. And man, that sky behind him sure is pretty (thanks, Breitweiser!).
Page One, Panel Four: More great play of light and shadow over the killer’s face, and some superb work on the jacket, defining it with shadow, and letting some of the outlines drop out at the edges, trusting Breitweiser to define it through color. The wrinkles on his forearm are especially good, both depicting the pull of the fabric and pointing directly to the gun he’s putting away, drawing the reader’s eye to it without being obvious about it. The backgrounds are appropriately ill-defined here, too: you want the reader looking at the man, not his surroundings. Still, those blinds are really nice, especially at printed size. If I have a complaint here, it’s that I didn’t notice the broken window behind our killer until I embiggened the art with my scanner. It’s obvious now that the killer leapt over the restaurant’s glass enclosure and through a window on an adjacent building, but until I saw that broken glass, panel three just didn’t make sense. I like its placement framing the agent’s head, though, so I can forgive the storytelling slip (especially since it’s probably less a slip, and more me not being observant enough).
Page Two, Panel One: More great background work. I couldn’t tell you exactly what kind of facility the assassin’s leapt into, but it looks sharp. Nice use of shadow, again, and good simple figures. It’s Breitweiser who really shines here, though: that blue-green hallway really pops against the colors on the rest of the page.
Page Two, Panel Two: A nicely-framed image here, with the night watchman’s belly forming a foreground arch in front of the real action: the agent makes it to the front door. Great example of panel design and storytelling working hand-in-hand. Breitweiser shines again here, too: the blue-green is a little darker here, but man does it ever look good against the orangey-red light coming through the glass.
Page Two, Panel Three: Maybe the best panel in the sequence. Great work on the central figure of the agent. He fades into the shadows of the alleyway, but Epting’s left just enough detail showing to define his figure: the folds on the shoulder of his jacket (dude is GOOD at drawing jackets), the light reflecting dimly off his white shirt, and (my favorite bit) that upper curve of ear catching the light. I like a good silhouette as much as the next guy raised on Frank Miller comics, but that’s impressive. The camera angle’s also impressive. That tilt offers the opportunity for some nice perspective work, and gets across the emotional urgency of the scene as the agent hides from the gendarmes. Also? Breiweiser freaking KILLS on that wall behind the agent! Multiple shades of purple mixing with what looks like charcoal shading from Epting… Really, really nice work that almost looks like watercolors.
Page Two, Panel Four: A nice calm panel of the agent suavely escaping down some stairs, with subtle shadings in the sky courtesy Breitweiser, and — HOLY CRAP THOSE BRICKS! Epting draws the shit out of just about every brick wall in this comic, and they look even better at something closer to printed size:
And crusty old guys dramatically lit by blinds!
I think maybe that’s the best illustration I could offer you of the overall effect Epting’s artwork has on Velvet. It’s rock-solid professionalism that simultaneously grounds the book and, without crying out for attention, makes it beautiful to read.
So. That’s an engaging period spy thriller that practically bleeds 1972 all over you, and has artwork that enhances the story simply by telling it so very well. Straight genre comics don’t get much better.