"Codename Baboushka: The Conclave of Death" #1 has the seeds of a great series, but it doesn't add up to a great first issue. Antony Johnston and Shari Chankhamma offer up a cool premise, dynamic cast and smooth aesthetic, but "Baboushka" can't quite decide what it wants to be. As it shifts between modern thrills and Bond-riffing playfulness, the reader doesn't get a clear sense of where the series is going or what it wants to accomplish. "Codename Baboushka" is an enjoyable reclaiming of the Russian Bond girl, but I finished it without a strong sense of what's coming next -- something I should have gotten from a first issue.
"Baboushka" follows Contessa Annika Malikova, a former Russian mafia boss who's been blackmailed into covert operations by the U.S. government. In this issue, Annika and her right-hand man, Gyorgy, are tasked with assassinating one gun-runner and purchasing valuable data from another. Johnston gives Annika a superspy's self-assurance and a fun bag of one-step-ahead-of-you tech tricks, but she's something of an enigma. Even though she narrates, the captions don't give away much of her personality. When the issue opens, she sounds quite serious. "He is wrong. Today, as this table, I will kill him," she promises, before ominously advising that "sated men are slow and lazy." During her escape, though, she's all light-hearted antics, with captions like "Sorry, boys. Not today" and "Whoops." The narration keeps with the pace of the story rather than with the voice of a character. This helps to keep the issue moving neatly, but it doesn't help me get to know Annika.
Still, the issue is structured well, with Annika's backstory nested midway through her mission to assassinate Goran Sablic. The mission itself is straightforward, neither riffing on nor subverting standard spy stories, but the quick pace and cool gadgets keep the reader from getting bored.
Artist Shari Chankhamma excels in creating smooth environments that feel very super-spy. Goran Sablic's mountain retreat is all cool grays and purples, while Annika and Gyorgy's restaurant of choice is bathed in neutrals and light greens. These backgrounds look straight out of boutique hotels -- so effortless and chic that I want to nestle inside them (except I'd feel drastically out-of-place). It's clear Chankhamma has worked as a colorist; she really knows how to create a mood, with techniques that look downright painterly at points.
However, some of the costumes suggest more juvenile playfulness. On her first covert mission, Annika wears a full-on traditional French maid costume; while on a cruise ship, she lounges in a rustic straw hat. These elements coexist with the sleek, posh parts of Annika's life; however, while I wouldn't want a superspy story without some humor, those elements contradict rather than complement each other in this issue.
All told, "Codename Baboushka" #1 is many things, and its flexibility and layers could become an asset going forward. There's plenty of potential here to harness and I'll pick up issue #2. However, for a first issue, I'd have preferred a stronger pitch and a touch more editing down.