“Jason Bourne” opens in theaters later this month, but I don’t need to see it. I think I’m done with James Bond for a while, too, because Velvet Templeton’s story — which wraps its big conspiracy plotline in “Velvet” #15 — makes them both look like chumps.
Since 2013, “Velvet” — Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s story about an operative forced back into the field — has unfolded with some of the most intricate twists and turns in comics. The creative team, whose espionage-influenced stories breathed new life into Captain America last decade, has topped themselves with this book. This issue lays all the cards on the table, while still delivering amazing action and a few more shocking moments.
Velvet has been on the run from ARC-7 — a British spy organization, but even more secret — since she uncovered a conspiracy surrounding her lover’s murder. Think James Bond, but without his biggest arch enemy: commitment. Throughout the series, Brubaker and Epting have shown how her former employers underestimated her abilities because of her age, gender and time away from the field. Time and again, she has smoked them all like chickens on a grill, even as she inches closer to the truth. Coincidentally, in “Velvet” #15, we open in a morgue with the charred remains of what is identified as Velvet, before everyone else sits down to parse through the details. Then, of course, we get two more twists right before the curtain call to remind us all just how cunning and cold our title character can be.
Mysteries are difficult to write because they’re like Jenga towers; if they’re missing the wrong piece, the whole story structure collapses. Brubaker, then, is a master Jenga builder. This issue is a change of pace from the breakneck speed the book had been travelling, but the writer’s dialogue keeps this chapter from stagnating. I wanted to know everything revealed here, and it felt satisfying to get those answers, even if it meant I hated some of the characters even more. He even lets fan-favorite characters make choices that are cold as ice, like when Velvet pumps lead into the man that was once her father figure, before climbing out the window lamenting that she doesn’t even have tears for the man anymore. That’s just great writing.
But what is a spy story if it’s not stylish? Never fear! Epting and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser provide style in spades with every single issue. This book takes place in the 70s, and it just drips with style. If this were Hollywood, Velvet — a woman in her 40s with a shock of Rogue-like white hair — would be a background player with kid on her hip. Epting flips the bird at this convention, giving us a strong, athletic woman with incredible intelligence. During the scenes on the Riviera, she’s stunning, a 15 out of 10 that would make Jason Statham blush. Breitweiser also takes a story that happens mainly in the dark and finds a palette that fills the emotional spectrum. They know how to pick their moments, too; there’s a scene here where Velvet makes her final play, and — though it’s a small panel on the page — it contains a big, iconic shot, while the art team renders her in a soft hue reminiscent to the cover. It’s a hero moment worthy of a movie poster.
In spy thrillers like the “Bourne” and “Bond” series, the action is fast and furious, like a Mazda being dropped out of an airplane into a skyscraper. In a lesser art team’s hands, that would be a dividing line for a comic, considering movement is a challenge in a still life art form. Nevertheless, Epting bends his pages with panels that stimulate the eye and insinuate movement by choosing specific moments and angles that make everything feel like it’s happening in real time. Car chases, motorcycle drive-bys, showdowns on trains — all of it has the urgency of pages flying by at 300 miles per hour. In other books, the illustrations are often just people posing while they talk. Epting’s work acts.
“Velvet” #15 ends pretty definitively. It leaves everything in a place where it could get picked up once again, but — if the team ever chose not to return — then we would still have this great three-act espionage tale with a solid conclusion.
I really can’t recommend this series enough. It’s a noir spy thriller more satisfying than last year’s “Spectre.” Velvet is a protagonist that defies expectations, and Brubaker, Epting and Breitweiser continually create moody, thrilling action. We’re in a media adaptation era, and — after “Ghostbusters” proved that people are idiots for thinking women can’t carry action — this book screams for a Hollywood option.
The Bournes and the Bonds and the Ethan Hunts and the Transporters and xXx’s should take note: Velvet is out there, somewhere, and — even though she’d be in her 80s today — she could still hand your ass to you.
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