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The first two issues of Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting have been fast-paced, exciting spy stories. For the first half of the latest issue, I thought that things were starting to become predictable, going for a “hunted becomes the hunter” role for Velvet Templeton, but then the issue makes a twist, introducing a war lord and his much younger, trophy bride. Her unexpected presence makes this issue another winner and also shows that this series is willing to go into the darker realms of spy games.
Velvet Templeton, former administrative aid and former-former secret agent for a company called ARC-7, is on the run after being framed for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s been smuggled out of England by an old ally, Burke. She comes to think that the murder of agent X-14 is related to a day he spend off the grid, following a night spent with Marina Stepanov, the wife of a Yugoslavan general (the story is set in 1970’s when there was a country called Yugoslavia. Look it up, kids!). However, it turns out that Marina already been taken off the board by General Stepanov.
This was the point of the issue where things really took off for me. Velvet is forced to find Marina in a dungeon, but when she finds Marina, she is not the beautiful bride we saw in the flashback (which must take place in Velvet’s imagination since she was not there and X-14 is dead). Instead, she’s been starved, beaten and tortured so that she’s missing an eye. Still, Marina shows a strength that makes her an interesting character. She creates a ruse under which to attack her old husband, screwing it up but forcing Velvet to intercede and kill General Stepanov.
The way that Brubaker and Epting show Marina’s resilience makes her more than a pretty victim. She wants revenge, more than she wants to help Velvet. Also, Marina has no fond memories of X-14. I hope that she is part of this series for a while. While Velvet is an interesting character, it’s difficult to have a character isolated all the time. Instead of dialog, you end up with narration, which can become burdensome in large doses. I’ve liked seeing Velvet interact with Burke, Marina, and even the head of ARC-7. Plus, as much as I like Velvet, I hope she develops some recurring associates to make this a bigger story.
This issue also shows that the creators are not going to only give us a action-movie spy chase, where we see people shot but no other consequences of espionage. I thought that the fate they gave to Marina was much more compelling than if she had simply been murdered. Marina now has some tragedy to her, and it also shows the type of torture and ruthlessness that are a part of the blowback of spying (and sometimes part of the techniques of spying itself). That makes Velvet feel like an exciting story but also one with emotional and intellectual impact, as well.
Although I’ve mentioned Steve Epting’s great illustration in my previous reviews of the series, I think it’s worth pointing out some subtle things he does here. When showing X-14’s seduction of Marina, he only uses one frame, but it is enough. The image is both suggestive and graphic, with X-14 manually pleasing Marina in a room off a party where her husband is talking to friends. This tells us all we need to know about their encounter. It also tells us a lot about the attraction to danger for both X-14 and Marina, which adds to the mystery of X-14’s death.
The third issue of Velvet throws a powerful and effective (and dark) twist after starting with what appears to be a regular continuation to the spy story. We already knew that Velvet can throw intricate plots at us. It can throw great action sequences. Now we see that it can also take things into a darker territory, where the consequences of spying are shown in human ways.