‘Velvet, Vol. 1: Before the Living End’ by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
I have been carrying the first volume of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet for quite literally years. I love Brubaker’s run of Captain America comics and, when I heard he was doing a stand-alone mystery series starring a female spy, I preordered the first volume. It arrived in summer 2014 and I’ve been moving it around with me every since.
Upon its release, Velvet got glowing reviews, so I think I waited to read it like you wait to open presents until Christmas morning: you want to savor something good as your expectations grow over time. Fortunately for me, Velvet delivered. This is a book worth saving, savoring, and then enjoying repeatedly.
As promised, Velvet is an espionage-style mystery, taking place in the 1970s with flashbacks to the ’50s and ’60s. Our hero (the titular Velvet Templeton) is a middle-aged, lowly secretary at a super-secret spy agency, but, of course, nothing is quite as it seems in this stylish graphic novel.
Unlike any other comic or graphic novel that I’ve experienced, Velvet makes the best possible use of text and images, creating something akin to an immobile movie. The comics equivalent of a musing voice-over in rectangular text boxes introduces us to the world of Velvet as a murder is slowly revealed, kicking off the main plot of the story. And this skillful mix and creative use of words and illustration stays strong throughout the book; it’s positively cinematic, but perhaps better than a movie in that you can stay on each page and savor it for as long as you like.
Artistry aside, the character of Velvet and her world are pretty excellent, too, and the story is a page-turner. I personally love these kind of heist-y, slightly kitschy spy stories. They’re like an updated version of the swashbucklers of earlier eras. Velvet isn’t remotely goofy, and is actually fairly violent, but stylistically it still fits in with a certain mid-century era of spy stories (think ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ or Bond novels). There are gadgets and baddie communists and shadowy organizations managing the whole thing. Basically, it’s great. Plus, Velvet has a bit of The 39 Steps-style conspiracy to really add an extra dollop of intrigue.
I really enjoyed Velvet and am eagerly awaiting volumes 2 and 3 at my local library. It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s a cool break from a steamy summer. Pick up a copy for your next trip to the beach or pool!