Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Spies who I love: Velvet and the spy genre

The Spies who I love: Velvet and back
by rick olivares

How can I not be a fan of the cloak and dagger genre when I was routinely bombarded from three different media?

There were the James Bond films that were a must watch film not only for the action and stunts, the incredible gadgets, and larger than life villains but also for the gorgeous women. There was Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series that my parents read and secretly picked up when they weren’t looking. And lastly, there was the Modesty Blaise comic strip that I eagerly read in the newspaper.

As much as I love Bond, I’d give a lot of credit to Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise for fermenting my love for the genre.

In only three or four daily panels, Modesty Blaise held me in her thrall. The newspaper strip brought readers to different locales. And perhaps even more incredibly, it didn’t shy away from sex and violence. I have never seen a central character run around in her underwear as much as Modesty and for a young impressionable child like me back then, unable to access Playboy and Penthouse, Peter O’Donnell’s heroine was my Bettie Page; a black and white goddess.

I used to cut out the Modesty Blaise strips but noticed how sometimes the newspaper editor would jump ahead of the story presumably cutting out the sex and violent scenes. So when I recently purchased a couple of the collected Modesty Blaise editions it filled gaps in the story that remained a mystery for decades. But it was nonetheless, a joyful and poignant re-acquaintance of a childhood favorite.

In between, Dark Horse sought to fill in the gaps with their own line of original James Bond stories. The one limited series that I collected because I felt it was faithful to what a Bond story should be was “Serpent’s Tooth” as written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy (who also both collaborated on Marvel’s Master of Kung-Fu).

Today, the espionage genre recently made a huge splashing return to the four-colored medium with Image Comics’ Velvet. Written and illustrated by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting respectively, Velvet reunites the duo that revitalized Captain America for the new millennium with its spy thriller feel. One of the seminal arcs of their run, The Winter Soldier, was the basis for the recent hit Captain America sequel. So you know the capabilities of this tag team.

The plot is essentially, “What if Ms. Moneypenny was framed for the murder of James Bond?”

In expanded terms, it tells the story of a retired spy, Velvet Templeton, who finds herself on the run when she is framed for the murder of one of British spy agency, Arc-7’s top agents. Set during the Cold War, the story moves with Jason Bourne like pace – fast and with a lot of over the top action. It’s a complex web that Velvet finds herself caught in but she’s determined to come out on top.

The allure of Velvet is not that the middle-aged protagonist looks like SHIELD’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (for the white streak in her hair) but because of the artwork of Epting and the moody but gorgeous palette of Elizabeth Breitweiser who also joined the duo in their famed run on Captain America.

When I used to collect The Avengers, I wasn’t that big a fan of Epting’s work. I loved Operation: Galactic Storm but I felt that his art looked too messy. Like a poor man’s Marc Silvestri.

With Velvet, it is as if I stepped out in a Time Warp or am watching an HD version of some old Bond flick. The art literally jumps out at you. There is no need to point a gun at your head to require your attention, you have it from the moment you spot the cover. Now I know what Epting is fully capable of. And if he doesn’t jump to superstar status with his work on Velvet, I’d call for a hit on the industry awards body that should rightfully acknowledge his greatness.

There are stylish elements that remind me of Gulacy’s work – a little imperfect on the human anatomy that adds to the comicbookness of the book – but I love it. I have always believed that a woman’s imperfections add to her sexiness and desirability. And so it is with Gulacy’s work in which there are traces that can be found in Epting’s oeuvre.

The moodiness of the art is perfect as it adds a lot to the shadiness to the espionage storyline. And there’s an element of cool as we those classic Aston Martins and Renaults to name a few of the slick cars we see.

And thus, Epting easily turns in the best work of his career. Knowing that the book is solicited intermittently to allow Epting enough time to finish these killer pages, it is well worth the wait.

As for Brubaker’s prose… he is simply one of the best to come out in the last decade. A man who can do no wrong as he has turned out great stuff on X-Men, Daredevil, Fatale, Captain America, and now, Velvet.

The first arc collects the first five issues of the surprise-hit series in trade form under the title, Before the Living End.

Suddenly, it is like Modesty Blaise all over again albeit in waiting periods of months rather than a day.

Velvet is a keeper. And indeed, like a diamond, it is forever.


Check out Velvet at your local comic book specialty shop.

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