This past week saw the release of the final volume of Ed Brubaker’s Velvet. A triumphant occasion, since the book – or this story arc, at least – began in 2013 and lasted only fifteen issues. That’s kind of a long time to wait for one story of that length. Yet each passing issue and collection made it worth it as Brubaker, alongside artist Steve Epting (who, alongside Brubaker, created the hit Marvel character the Winter Soldier) and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, spun a throwback spy story reminiscent of classic James Bond adventures.
The series begins with the grizzly death of X-14, one of the British Secret Service’s top agents, while on assignment. Velvet Templeton, a retired field agent and now the secretary for the head of the Service, feels like something is amiss with the story surrounding X-14’s death, and begins investigating it on her own. Soon enough she is framed for the crime and forced to go on the run to not only prove her innocence, but also to find the head of the shadowy organization that framed her and killed her friend.
Anyone who has ever wanted to see a woman cast in the role of James Bond should read this book immediately. Taking the Miss Moneypenny role from the classic films and giving her spy skills of her own, Brubaker creates a fun new role to play with throughout the series. What arguably makes her so compelling is the fact that she is no longer young and ready for field work. By making her older and almost past her prime, Brubaker lends a feeling of gravitas and world-weariness to Velvet. She remarks on how things used to be easier and more focused, even with the stealth suit she wears (the only real piece of high tech equipment employed in the series), showcasing the changing times in front of her.
Brubaker also mixes shorter missions in with the larger narrative to help keep the tension up and momentum moving forward. This is where the focus turns towards more covert spy craft. Instead of hard-hitting action, which there is still plenty of at times, many missions rely on more covert tactics like being smuggled into a country at night wearing disguises or infiltrating a prison without being seen. But when the action does ramp up, it feels like the real, dirty thing. From a car chase through the streets of London to a showdown with a rogue agent in a hotel bar in Washington D.C., the series provides readers with plenty of raucous action scenes.
But the action and espionage isn’t the only thing that drives Velvet along. Brubaker also adds in plenty of details to the history of Velvet to give her a leg up over that other classic spy. While Bond relied on simply his personality and savvy gadgets to move the plot forward, Brubaker elects to detail Velvet’s past at several key points.
As the investigation into Velvet by the British agents tracking her deepens, the readers learn more about her adventurous past. The fifth issue alone, the last to be collected in the first trade of the series, is a complete flashback to one of Velvet’s final missions in the field, tracking a double agent who turns out to be her husband. Far from detracting from the main narrative, Velvet’s history adds new wrinkles to the unfolding mystery surrounding her.
What arguably makes this series work so well is the setting. By choosing to have the series take place in 1973, there is a classic feeling that permeates the story that would be lacking from a story set in the present. This is where Epting is most successful, as everything from the clothing styles to the cars being driven make the story feel like an old spy thriller from the period only just being discovered now. The fourth issue of the series, set among a carnival celebration in Monaco, is worth feasting your eyes upon for both the gorgeous landscapes and brutal fight scenes Epting renders.
The setting informs not only on the look, but the plot as well. The changing political landscape is reflected in the journey Velvet takes across the globe, along with the slow change experienced during this time to questioning everyone you know, even your closest allies, and becomes crucial to the final issues. History buffs may know what key event happened at this time, but for those of you who don’t know, the twist coming towards the end only helps to ramp up the tension as the narrative reaches its climax.
Reading Velvet as it was being released was like trying to read a single chapter of a novel every few months. Sometimes the waiting kept me from enjoying the actual narrative, as the tension left by the ending of one issue was lost by the time the next one arrived. Yet now the series is collected into three collections, with an oversized hardcover of the entire series coming out early next year.
Fans of both the action-packed spy novels of Ian Fleming and the slow-burn thrillers of John le Carre will find a new pleasure in Velvet. From the fully realized main character to the twisting mystery and lush illustrations, this series works on so many levels. The ending teases Velvet’s return one day for more stories. But if this series is all readers are left with, then they will be happy indeed.