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At this point, Ed Brubaker seems to be able to write a taut espionage story in his sleep. In the same week that the trailer for the new Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie, which is said to be based largely on the comic book arc of Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, is released, the two creators reunite for a series for Image Comics called Velvet. The first issue is a master class in how to set up a suspenseful story that is still full of character and plot twists.
There are secret agents and then there are agents so secret that even other secret agents don't know about them. That's the world of the "X-Operatives," part of the ARC-7 group. They're a secret agency that is summed up best by this line from the issue: "The agency where every mission is a Black Op..." Velvet Templeton seems to be simply a secretary to the director of ARC-7. However, when one of the best X-Operatives, Jefferson Keller, is gunned down on a mission and the signs point to another operative, Templeton suspects something is amiss and starts investigating, which gets her into all kinds of bad trouble.
It's clear from the first issue that Velvet isn't simply a secretary. She is mid-age, somewhere in her late 40s or early 50s, but from her investigative instincts and some fighting moves she pulls, we can tell that she's been a field operative before. Perhaps she wasn't an X-Operative but something like it. It's an interesting choice making the protagonist of an action-espionage story be a mid-age woman. It's not uncommon now – you might even call it fashionable – to make your action story have a badass female lead, but they're usually young women. Velvet is not young any more, but she does seem to possess some things that young agents might not: wisdom and insight.
It's also clear from the first issue that Velvet does not resent her administrative position. She seems content to be in her position at this stage of her life. It's the murder of one man that she cares about and what she sees as a frame-up of another man she cares about that leads her to action. Even then, though, Velvet doesn't set out to hunt the killers. Rather, she simply is following leads and hoping to warn the framed agent, Frank Lancaster. However, Brubaker pulls a neat Hitcockian trick by pushing the lead character into dangerous events out of his/her control. By the end of the issue, Velvet fits into two of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite protagonist boxes: she knows a dangerous secret and she's wrongly accused.
However, what Brubaker and Epting craft in Velvet #1 is really closer in tone to the espionage movies of the 1970s than a Hitchcock movie. The story is even set in 1973 and while there is a bit of James Bond in the secret agent-ness of the story, Velvet is actually closer in feel to movies like The Conversation or The Day of the Jackal. Interestingly enough, these are the types of movies that were supposedly touchstones for the production of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It shouldn't be surprising, though, because that tone was present in those Captain America issues. It's something that Brubaker and Epting do quite well.
The art of Steve Epting really adds a lot of the tone for this kind of story. His faces scowl and look shocked in a realistic way. As is important in most suspenseful spy story, Epting has a strong command of darkness and shadow (and Elizabeth Breitweiser also does a great job in coloring this issue). The background settings look lovely in a washed-out way. Epting has much in common on all these areas with Michael Lark, who's currently working with Image on Lazarus.
Unlike Brubaker's other works for Image – Criminal or Fatale – there is no hint of meta-human capabilities here. Velvet is a stylized spy story set in a realistic world. Still, we get a real sense of Velvet from her narration and her actions. She's a capable woman who understands the dangerous world she inhabits but also still develops allegiances and attachments to people. The tense pacing of the issue is also impeccable. There doesn't seem to be a superfluous panel in the whole issue.
Image Comics has been rolling out a lot of new series lately. Many of them (such as this week's Pretty Deadly) have had promising but flawed first issues. Velvet #1 is probably the strongest first issue of any new series Image has released over the past few months. With a set-up so promising, I'm really looking forward to seeing where Brubaker and Epting take Velvet Templeton in this series.