In the espionage game, it’s difficult if not impossible to know who to trust — a situation keenly felt within the intelligence community at the end of the Cold War. “Wasteland” writer Antony Johnston and artist Sam Hart spin a complex tale of shifting allegiances, ambiguous rendezvous, and a city at war with itself in “The Coldest City,” an original graphic novel hitting stores May 16 from Oni Press.
Set in the days immediately preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, “The Coldest City” follows two British spies through the streets of West Berlin and across the border to the East as they attempt to recover an item of vital interest to national — and international — security. CBR News cornered Johnston for more encrypted data on the book.
CBR News: First, Antony, what made you want to tell a spy story? Are there any books or films that influenced how you saw “The Coldest City” developing?
Antony Johnston: I’ve loved espionage and Cold War stories since I was very young, first with basic British YA fiction about spies in WWII and the like, then growing up and moving on to the classics like John Le Carre, Len Deighton, and so on. And of course I’ve always enjoyed a good Bond movie, ridiculous as they may be.
The funny thing was, I’d never considered actually writing spy fiction — I don’t know why, it was a weird blind spot — until Greg Rucka asked me to do a stint on “Queen & Country,” writing a “Declassified” miniseries, and within a week of starting I realised it was the most fun I’d ever had writing a story. So that kind of set me on the path, and from the moment I finished that book I started planning “The Coldest City.”
As for influences, it’s hard to pin any one thing down. I love the spycraft of Le Carre, the bleakness of Deighton, and the political mundanity of shows like “The Sandbaggers” (like so many other comics readers, I came to the show because Greg championed it endlessly when he launched “Q&C”). “The Coldest City” definitely reflects those tastes, it’s very much a “grounded” spy thriller. But there isn’t really anything specific I can point to and say “that was directly influenced by this movie, or this book.”
This story takes place at a very specific moment in history. What did Berlin look like in the weeks and days immediately before the Wall fell?
The thing that’s always struck me about the fall of the Berlin Wall is that most people in the West had no idea anything unusual was going on.
Much of the impetus for the Wall’s destruction came from East Berlin. There’d been some relaxation of travel between the two sides in the months beforehand, and Gorbachev had been relaxing controls of a few Eastern Bloc countries with the glasnost and perestroika programs, but there was nothing to indicate what was about to happen — unless you were informed about what was going on over the other side of the wall, with unprecedented street demonstrations by East Berliners demanding free access to the west and a reunited city. And the people who would have been best informed about that were in the intelligence and diplomatic community. Though I doubt any of them thought the Wall would come down quite as quickly, and dramatically, as it did, which is something I remark on in the book.
So there was an atmosphere of high tension, definitely. But it was covert, visible only to the spies and diplomats on the ground — like so much of the city’s history during the Cold War.
The intelligence agencies of various nations seem to be particularly active, sometimes friendly with one another, and, unfortunately, susceptible to switching sides. What sort of environment does this create for the city, and what does it mean for the agencies themselves trying to sort out who’s playing for whom?
That’s the Great Game, the way the Cold War had always been played all over Europe. What made Berlin different, and the “coldest city” of all, was that melting pot of nationalities. The British, the French, and the Americans carved West Berlin up between them, and then invited their allies along for the ride. So you had spies and officers from Italy, Holland, Spain — and that’s before you even get to the native Germans trying to get on with their lives, the other Germans secretly informing for one side or another, and the Russians keeping a watchful eye on their borders.
Every country with people in Berlin, no matter how small, had an agenda. They all distrusted one another, even their allies, because everyone wanted to “win” the game of intelligence. But they were in such close proximity they couldn’t help stepping on each other’s toes, interfering with missions, overhearing tantalizing secrets — it was an impossible game, where perhaps you could win individual battles, but not the war. The war was endless. Or so everyone thought until the end of 1989.
The opening sequence has this great, cinematic title sequence feel to it. What sort of tone were you looking to set by introducing the story this way?
It’s partly to attract readers of spy novels who wouldn’t normally read a comic. But I also wanted to get across the scope of the grand, world-changing events on the night of November 9, and juxtapose them with a spy’s death — undignified, unnoticed, unmourned by everyone except his colleagues. There’s a lovely contrast there between the sweep of history, and the seedily anonymous world of espionage.
The story centers around Lorrainne Broughton, an MI6 agent who’s just returned from a disastrous mission, as she recounts her story. Without getting into too much of the skullduggery, what sort of situation had she been dropped into?
It’s a bad one. MI6’s number two officer in Berlin, or BER-2 as he’s codenamed, has been killed. He was returning from a trip into East Berlin — always a risky business, for a spy — where he’d been given a list by a secret source. According to the source, the list contains the names of every spy working in the city, on all sides. It’s dynamite.
But BER-2 was killed before he could get that list back to base… and when they pulled his body out of the water, it was missing. MI6 is desperate to prevent the list falling into Soviet hands.
The problem is, MI6 don’t trust their own officers or allies. Berlin has become a cozy place for spies, with everyone becoming just a little too friendly with all these other spies they rub shoulders with. So they send in Lorraine Broughton, an experienced spy with no ties to Berlin. She doesn’t even speak much German. They want someone untainted, unimpeachable, to figure out what the hell is going on over there, and find that list.
What Lorraine walks into is a powder keg of social unrest, counter-espionage, betrayal, rogue spies, defections gone bad, and worse.
Perceval — BER-1, the local spymaster — is an interesting character, a British spy who’s come to prefer life in Berlin. What’s his take on this new agent’s arrival in his city?
Animosity, mistrust, suspicion, misogyny — the usual. He’s just lost his number two, a man he’d worked with and trusted for almost ten years. But does London send him a replacement? No, they send a woman who’s never set foot in Berlin, who barely speaks the language, and whose job is to recover a situation that, it could be argued, is Perceval’s fault. She’s a constant reminder that his bosses don’t trust him to do the job by himself. Naturally, he feels wronged.
The artist on this book is Sam Hart. How did you come to work together, and what does his style bring to the story you’re telling here?
I’ve known Sam for some years, originally online and then later at conventions. Although he’s British, he’s lived in Brazil for many years, so he doesn’t get to as many cons as he’d like! But we’re about the same age, and his grandfather worked with MI5 during WWII, so I was confident he had a good grasp of the required feel and atmosphere.
Sam has a lovely, stark style of harsh blacks and whites, with an emphasis on storytelling over flash, which I’ve always favored. It reminds me of Steve Yeowell’s early work, in some ways, which is a big compliment. I knew I could trust him to focus on the story, and the noir feel of the book.
We first spoke about “The Coldest City” more than two years ago, when it was still pretty early in development (and had a slightly different title). What are your thoughts on finally seeing it out in the world?
Yes, it’s a book I worked on for several years, and which I’m very happy with — something I rarely say about my own work!
I’m already writing a second book, also set in Berlin and with some of the same characters, with the working title “Dead of Winter.” And I have plans for a third book, maybe even more. So naturally, I just hope people like “The Coldest City.”
Anyone interested should head over to the website, thecoldestcity.com, where there’s a big preview of selected scenes from the book; more info about the story, me, and Sam; and all the ordering details.
Finally, we also made a trailer.
“The Coldest City” goes on sale May 16, 2012. Read a longer preview right here on CBR.