Comic book reviews: Velvet #1-2

I’ve been looking forward to the new Image Comics series Velvet since it was first announced.  The team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting did really great work on Captain America, and I was excited to see what they would do on a creator-owned project.

Velvet is an espionage / adventure series set in 1973.  The main character, Velvet Templeton, was once a field operative for the ultra top secret covert agency known as ARC-7, participating in numerous operations between 1949 and 1956.  After leaving the field under circumstances as yet unrevealed to the reader, Templeton became the secretary to ARC-7’s director.  Think of her as Emma Peel crossed with Miss Moneypenny.

Velvet 1 pg 4 and 5

The opening arc of Velvet, titled “Before the Living End” (Ian Fleming would have loved that), begins as one of ARC-7’s top operatives, Jefferson Keller, successfully completes an assassination in Paris.  But en route out of the city, he is ambushed & murdered.  When news reaches ARC-7 headquarters in London, it is immediately suspected that the killer was acting on inside information, meaning that the organization has a leak.  Templeton takes part in the investigation, poring through Keller’s field reports & paperwork.  Before she can make much headway, evidence emerges that one of ARC-7’s former agents, Frank Lancaster, is the traitor.

Despite this, Templeton, who once carried a torch for Lancaster, believes he must be innocent.  She heads over to one of his off-the-record safe houses, hoping to find him and talk to him.  However, when Templeton arrives, she finds Lancaster has been killed, brutally stabbed to death.  And before Templeton can make sense of what is happening, the investigative unit of ARC-7 bursts into the room, accusing her of treason.  Not knowing about her field experience, and thinking her a mere secretary, they are quickly caught off-guard when Templeton goes on the offense, attacking them and fleeing the scene.

Now on the run, Templeton realizes that, in the course of her examinations of Keller’s paperwork, she unknowingly must have come across something that would have eventually led to the real traitor in ARC-7, and so was framed by the true culprit before she could connect the dots.  She quickly decides that the only way she will ever be able to clear her name is to immediately get out of the country and conduct her own investigation.

Brubaker does excellent work setting up the scenario for Velvet.  The protagonist of Velvet Templeton is definitely an interesting one.  While it is quite obvious that she is reluctant to have to wade back into the danger & violence of field work to prove her name, at the same time she has to acknowledge that being in action once again gives her a genuine adrenaline rush.  I’m looking forward to seeing her character and back story developed further in upcoming issues.

Velvet 1 pg 21

Another thing I like about Velvet Templeton is that she is an older woman, but she’s still depicted as capable, dangerous, and beautiful.  Most of the times in Western pop culture & fiction, male protagonists are able to age gracefully, but women are considered over-the-hill when they get to be 40.  We haven’t yet been given Templeton’s exact age, but we can do some guesswork.  Let’s say she was in her early 20s when she got started with ARC-7 in 1949.  That means she would be in her mid 40s in 1973.  It’s shown that, despite her years sitting behind a desk, she still works out and is in good shape, so I have no problem believing that she’s capable of some serious ass-kicking.

At the same time, Brubaker does not make her some sort of unstoppable killing machine.  I always had a problem with action heroes who seem invulnerable, taking out dozens of bad guys without breaking a sweat, rather than ending up all black & blue.  That’s one of the main reasons why I really appreciated the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, as well as the very first Die Hard movie.  Yes, the literary version of Bond was a dangerous professional, but he often took quite a beating in the course of thwarting the bad guys.  The same goes for John McClane in his debut cinematic outing.  Such is the case with Velvet Templeton who, despite her abilities & experience, is out of practice & outnumbered, and consequently makes her escape from ARC-7 somewhat the worse for wear.  That makes her a much more human, believable character.

Actually, aside from Templeton’s “stealth suit” that looks very much like something from the Steranko issues of Nick Fury, so far this series has been very low-tech.  I think that’s one of the advantages of the story taking place in the early Seventies, before the computer revolution and miniaturization.   It looks like Templeton is going to have to conduct some old-fashioned sleuthing in order to clear her name, rather than spying on the bad guys with some kind of “nano-bugs” or getting a misfit hacker genius to magically uncover the evidence she needs.

I guess the only reservation I have is that, based on Brubaker’s past writing on both Captain America and Gotham Central, he does tend towards a decompressed style.  Looking at the pacing of these first two issues of Velvet, it is probably going to take a while for events to unfold.  Perhaps this is going to be one of those series that reads better as a trade paperback.  Well, I’ve already purchased the first two issues.  I can always just wait for a few more to come out and then read them all in one sitting.

Moving along to the art, it is exquisite.  I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Steve Epting’s work.  When I first saw it about two decades ago on Avengers, it was quite good, full of potential, although perhaps somewhat overwhelmed by Tom Palmer’s inking.  On each subsequent series that Epting worked on (X-Factor, the three part Invaders storyline in Marvel Universe, Aquaman, Crux, Captain America, Fantastic Four) you can witness the steady growth & improvement in his abilities.  His art on Velvet is some of the best he has ever done.  The covers for these first two issues are just superb.

By the way, when I first saw the cover to Velvet #1 previewed online several months ago, I immediately thought to myself “That’s Claudia Black!”  Yes, really, I think that Velvet Templeton looks just like Claudia Black of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame.  I actually asked Epting about this on Facebook several weeks ago.  He indicated that he had never seen either of those shows and was unfamiliar with Claudia Black.  But Epting did admit “She does look the part though!”  So there you have it.  If this ever gets adapted into a movie or TV series, Brubaker & Epting have the perfect suggestion for who should portray Velvet Templeton.  (And now I’m probably once again going to get some more grief from my girlfriend about having a thing for hot older British women.  I’ll just have to inform her that Claudia Black is actually from Australia!)

Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!
Yeah, I definitely think this casting could work!

Okay, enough with the fantasy casting.  One other contributor whose work I must give credit to is colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser.  She did great work in the past on Captain America and other titles, coloring such diverse artists as Butch Guice, Chris Samnee and her husband Mitch Breitweiser.  It’s really nice to see her paired up with Epting, who she previously did not have an opportunity to work with.  They really make an excellent team here.  Breitweiser utilizes a very effective, vivid palette that conveys a palpable atmosphere, while never overwhelming Epting’s line work.  It’s a really delicate balancing act achieving that.  The importance of colorists, like inkers and letterers, are often underestimated.  Breitweiser’s coloring on Velvet has the quality of almost looking painted.  It’s brilliantly done.

As I find myself drifting more and more away from the Big Two, most of the comic books I read nowadays are from the smaller publishers.  I’m really glad to see two immensely talented individuals such as Brubaker and Epting on a creator-owned title.  Here’s hoping Velvet is a big success.  So far it’s off to an impressive start.

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