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.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #15-19

I’ve been following the ongoing Captain America title pretty religiously since 1989.  That’s, what, 23 years?  The series has seen a lot of ups and downs in that time.  On the whole, I think that Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the book has been more positive than negative, although I never did prefer his tendency for decompressed storytelling.  I also have to admit, as I’ve said in a previous blog, I never warmed up to the current volume of Captain America.  But, a few months ago I learned Brubaker would be concluding his mammoth stint with issue #19, and I decided to stick around for the finale.

The current series of Captain America (volume six, for those keeping count… I really wish Marvel would stop renumbering all their series) has seen Steve Rogers cross swords with one-time ally Codename Bravo, who had now allied himself with a faction of the subversive terrorist organization Hydra.  Bravo looked upon the political corruption & social decay of contemporary America, and believed that Cap had failed to lead the nation to a better place.  Bravo also held a long-standing grudge against Steve for, in his mind, stealing away Peggy Carter from him back in World War II.  Bravo joined forces with the Hydra Queen and Baron Zemo to create, as he saw it, a better world.  Unfortunately, like most terrorists, Bravo and his allies felt that if they had to shed innocent blood and tear the country apart to start afresh, then so be it, because the ends justified the means.

Captain America #s 15-18, “New World Orders,” is co-written by Brubaker and Cullen Bunn.  Hydra has successfully taken control of a popular Fox News-type network, and is broadcasting a 24 hour cycle of character assassination against Cap, the Avengers, and the U.S. government.  To bolster the effectiveness of their mass media manipulation, they are utilizing hypnotic Madbomb technology.  Hydra has also dispatched robot shock troops, the Discordians, across the globe to cause chaos & destruction, in order to make it appear that the Avengers are ineffective and unable to preserve peace & order.  Through their propaganda, mind control, and inducing of fear & panic, Bravo and his confederates hope to turn the general public totally against the government and the American political process, presumably to pave the way for a coup.

I think Brubaker & Bunn do a pretty good job of wrapping up the overall Codename Bravo storyline.  To be honest, though, I think “New World Orders” could have used another issue, because it felt rushed in places, especially the final chapter.  That probably seems a strange critique, considering I was previously complaining about Brubaker’s decompression.  However, I think his earlier arcs on this volume were all a bit too long.  It’s a shame that one of the issues from those earlier installments of the ongoing major story was not allocated to “New World Orders” instead.  Still, it’s a decent enough wrap-up.

I was surprised that Brubaker did not do anything to address the apocalyptic future vision that Steve Rogers glimpsed at the end of Captain America: Reborn, the one with the War of the Worlds type alien tripods devastating the Earth.  For a few years now, I had assumed that Brubaker was going to build up to some sort of major storyline involving that.  It looks, instead, that Bunn will be utilizing Steve’s look at the future in the current Captain America & Black Widow comics, although I’m not one hundred percent certain, since I just glanced through those issues in the comic shop.

Captain America vol 6 #16
Captain America vol 6 #16

The artwork on “New World Orders” is of a very high quality.  Scott Eaton & Rick Magyar do great work.  Likewise, the covers by Steve Epting are magnificent.  I was especially impressed with the cover to issue #16.

For his finale on Captain America #19, Brubaker once again assumes to solo writing duties, and Epting, who was there at the beginning of his run, returns to draw the entire issue.  This untitled tale is an insightful and introspective conclusion to Brubaker’s time writing the character.  The writer once again brings back the insane 1950s Cap, the twisted mirror image of Steve Rogers.  Brubaker also addresses something that, truthfully, had never occurred to me until he touched upon it earlier in his run: Steve never set out to be Cap, to become a symbol of heroism & patriotism, to represent an entire nation.  The truth is young Steve only wanted to serve his country by enrolling in the military.  When finally offered the opportunity to do so by participating in Operation Rebirth, he believed he would become the first of an army of super-soldiers.  It was only after Professor Erskine was assassinated that Steve was thrust into the role of Cap, that he was asked by his government to adopt the identity of a red, white & blue super hero, a living propaganda symbol.

What I think Brubaker is getting at is that part of the reason why the 1950s Cap (and by extension some of the other men to briefly adopt the role) failed is because he deliberately set out to assume this enormous responsibility.  He looked upon it as a blessing, and was unable to live up to the tremendous burden that it truly was.  Steve Rogers, in comparison, never wanted to be Captain America.  He took it on only because he felt it was the right thing to do, the best way he could serve his country.  It was his humility, and recognition of the tremendous responsibilities that being Cap would bring, which enabled him to succeed where others failed.  It is an interesting line of though on Brubaker’s part.

Issue #19 has, once again, some superb artwork from Epting.  He is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see how much he has grown as an illustrator, not just over the course of the eight years from when he first worked on Cap, but throughout his entire career.  If you look at his work back in the mid-1990s on Avengers and X-Factor, it was decent, and had potential.  Over the two decades since then, he has continually grown & developed, becoming an amazing illustrator.  I really became a fan when he was over at CrossGen, and my admiration for his work absolutely went through the roof due to his run on Captain America.  I’m glad he was able to come back for Brubaker’s finale.

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover
Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Epting contributed a great cover for issue #19, as did Butch Guice on the variant edition.  I really had a hard time choosing which one to get (wish I had the funds to pick up both) but I finally went with the one by Guice.  He’s another excellent artist who has consistently developed through the years.

Anyway, that’s that for Ed Brubaker on Captain America.  I think that, despite some rough, uneven patches, on the whole he did a very good job on this series.  He certainly leaves the book in much, much better shape than it was when he first came onboard it.

So, what’s next?  Rick Remender is taking over as writer on Captain America, with art by John Romita Jr.  I’m certainly tempted to continue reading the series, since I’m a fan of Remender’s work.  At the same time, the $3.99 price tag and the promise of a lengthy opening story arc leave me unsure.  Especially the price.  Why oh why does Marvel need to charge four bucks for a 22 page comic book?!?  I’m rather more inclined to try Uncanny Avengers by Remender.  Yeah, it’s also four dollars, but I enjoyed the first issue of that, and I like the idea of Cap leading a mutant team of Avengers against the Red Skull and other major threats.  I’ve wanted to see something like that for years.  Well, maybe I’ll just wait for the trade paperback collections of the Remender’s new Captain America series.