Trouble with Comics

Spy Vs. Spy - Zero Vol. 1 and Velvet: Before the Living End

In the interests of declaring my critical biases upfront, let me first state that in the past couple years, I’ve seen the time I’ve spent reading comics diminish substantially, in favor of this Golden Age of TV many agree we’re living in, as well as catching up on movies old and newish. When I buy comics, I’m pretty much a wait-for-the-trade consumer, and more and more those dollars go to projects from creators whose work I trust, with the occasional flyer taken on something with good buzz. 

That good buzz led me to take a chance on Ales Kot’s Zero Vol. 1: An Emergency, and I liked Ed Brubaker’s and Steve Epting’s work, together and separately, enough in the past that the first volume of their new creator-owned series, Velvet, subtitled Before the Living End, was a no-brainer. Both happen to be spy series, quite different in execution but both hitting beats familiar to anyone who has seen one or two spy movies.

Zero is set around 20 years in the future, at least in its framing stories in issues #1 and #5, where an old spy, Zero, is about to be murdered by a young spy perhaps on one of his first assignments. Being a hired gun, basically a tool rather than a person, means you’ll eventually be replaced. The rest of #1 through 4 show us Zero at various points, completing an assignment to retrieve a piece of technology from some sort of augmented soldier or perhaps just a kind of robot, and as a boy being indoctrinated and trained to be a master spy and assassin. If you guess that at one point, this coldblooded super-assassin may feel a twitch of emotion, and that that emotion makes him a liability, then good for you, you’ve seen Hanna or any of dozens of other films dealing with this theme. It’s not that Kot does a bad job with it, not at all, and I’d be willing to follow this to another volume based on its baseline competence and an intriguing, perhaps genre-mashing twist at the end, but it’s nothing really special, either. My main problem is that Zero is, so far, an undeveloped character, and that’s one of the hazards when you create a character raised in a kind of bubble where all they know is killing: they have little interior life, few points of reference other than weapons and heartless slogans. Often, you want to give them some kind of life before they’re put in a program, or get them away from the action for a while where they can interact with, and learn from, regular people. I also wasn’t really knocked out by any of the five artists used (a different one for each issue/chapter). The first, Michael Walsh, I liked the best, and would have preferred he handle the entire arc. I think when you have multiple artists on one story arc, it can be distracting for the reader, pulling them out of the story as they recalibrate their expectations and their understanding of what the characters look like.

Velvet's first volume, on the other hand, while the same length (and both go for $9.99 each), is much more efficiently structured, as one should expect from seasoned pros like Brubaker and Epting. In its five chapters, we learn about middle-aged intelligence administrator Velvet Templeton as she investigates the death of a respected agent. It leads her to a seeming frame-up, so she's now on the run, quickly scraping off the rust of her previous career as a field agent, in an unfolding tale that keeps twisting and doubling back to put what Velvet previously believed into question. 

Brubaker and Epting settle on a great design for Velvet, physically in better shape than average for her age, but nonetheless aged in face, a woman who has known not just 50 years but some of those years being sad ones. The white streak in her hair is a theatrical touch, reminiscent of Countess Valentina, the occasional girlfriend of of Marvel’s Nick Fury, but it also marks her as dangerous. 

The elegant structure, carried through each chapter, has a short suspense sequence, then credits, and then the rest of the story, ending with a cliffhanger or twist each time. Brubaker portrays Velvet never as a cynical spy nor particularly as a zealot or blind patriot. She’s a professional but one able to separate work from personal life, until such time as they mix and she’s fighting for her life, stung by guilt and the realization her unassuming professionalism has made her a perfect target for a frame. Crisply illustrated and written, Velvet is more satisfying and surer in its craft, but Zero, with a lead character arguably more challenging to give dimension, shows promise.

—Christopher Allen

Spurge Interviews Ed Brubaker

We’re huge fans of both individuals here at TWC, and it’s always great when Tom Spurgeon chats with perennial ace writer Brubaker, which they’ve been doing for years now. This one is maybe just a little more special, because in addition to more familiar territory like discussing the latest work (Fatale, including great insights into the strengths of longtime Brubaker collaborator Sean Phillips), we also get the not-terribly-surprising news that Brubaker is ending his almost eight-year run on Captain America to focus on more creator-owned work. He’s still keeping his hand in with Winter Soldier). That’s great, because it’s easily the best of his Marvel books the past year. It did feel like he was running out of juice on Captain America, and by his own admission here, his short run on Secret Avengers was, quote, “…so not in his wheelhouse”. We also get a well-reasoned perspective on the Before Watchmen controversy (and don’t let any sycophantic critics or online ‘journalists’ tell you it’s not a controversy anymore) and its differences with the Jack Kirby heirs’ lawsuit with Marvel. Some appropriate, if coolly worded scorn for JMS, as well.

I also really loved this quote from him, which is emblematic of a real artist, versus just a scribbler giving people what they expect every time:

"Some of my favorite books that other people have done I think the writers and artists would consider well-intentioned failure. So I figured it was smarter to do something I’m unsure of and fail as opposed to coasting on what I know I can do."

Continued good wishes for Brubaker, and a hearty recommendation for his current horror-noir epic, Fatale, as good a comic as you’ll find on the stands (or in its first trade collection out today).

Christopher Allen

ADD Reviews Fatale #1 by Brubaker and Phillips

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips stretch their considerable creative muscles to make Fatale #1 an electric and delicious start to their newest project together.

I’ve been a fan of this creative team since they first came to my attention on Sleeper, followed them singly and together on pretty much every other title they’ve worked on, and cite their ongoing Marvel/Icon book Criminal as my current favourite ongoing title. “I like it so much I started a blog,” I’m tempted to say.

None of this is news if you’ve been reading me for any length of time at all, so I won’t bore you with further explication of the esteem in which I hold Brubaker and Phillips’s joint comic work; just take it as a given that if they are working together, you’re going to be reading comics in the finest tradition in terms of style and substance. Single issues that read well all by themselves no matter where you are in the storyline, complex characters that surprise and delight; lush, convincing images that invite you in to the world being created before your eyes.

Fatale, like Sleeper and Criminal (oh, and Incognito, too, yes) does all that, and does it all quite well. But it also goes places Entrancin’ Ed and Sure-Fingered Sean never have before; the duo set their new book in a dark world of mystery and horror inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (another of my favourite writers). This isn’t the icy, brutal sexual terror Alan Moore delivered in his excellent Lovecraft homage Neonomicon, however; Brubaker and Phillips craft a more baroque feel for this new world we’re discovering, all dark corners and unknown terrors that invite exploration. The mood is set from the very start, as a dour group of people gather in the rain for a funeral. Strangers meet, words are exchanged, and questions quickly arise. And just like that, we’re immersed in a new world of darkness and wonder.

The first-person narration of main character Nicholas Lash feels comfortable and intimate, but the strange things that begin to happen to him unfold so quickly that you’re as disoriented as he is by the way the world turns out from under him. As he immerses himself in a story-within-the-story in the form of a previously unknown manuscript brought to him by a beautiful and mysterious woman who may be much more than she suggests. The scenes depicted from the manuscript really give Phillips a chance to show what he can deliver, as we get a luminously noir scene-setting city street depiction so detailed and visually stunning that it’s also called-out for the issue’s back cover illustration. We see truly creepy thugs reminiscent of The Strangers in Dark City or The Gentlemen in the “Hush” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but by way of Herge’s Thomson and Thompson. Visually witty but still filled with horror and dread. 

How does the story Lash reads relate to the death of his godfather? Who, really, is the beautiful and intriguing Jo? Why does the gore and spatter emitted by a chest-wounded thug seem…wrong, somehow? Lots of questions, and you’ll want to read further and get the answers. Brubaker’s best comics writing by now has the same spare confidence and bravado of a master musician, and Phillips brings a level of detail and verisimilitude to this story that is virtually unknown in regular monthly comics these days.

Fatale #1 delivers value for the dollar, too; in addition to a longer-than-average story (24 pages instead of the usual 22 or more recent usual 20 in some titles), Brubaker writes an introductory text page, something that is always welcome, especially in a first issue, as it provides context and communication with the reader that is always off-putting when absent. Additionally, the always-excellent Jess Nevins has been tasked with writing an essay explaining Lovecraft and his works, a piece accompanied by a truly stunning and evocative Sean Phillips illustration of Lovecraft and his greatest, most fearsome creation. 

Fatale #1 is exactly the sort of comic readers need; an engrossing story, superbly illustrated, sharply written and with enough substance and ancillary material to justify the cover price. Any publisher wondering how to do it right should explore every aspect of this issue. Any reader wondering why comics don’t satisfy them anymore should compare Fatale #1 to any other book on the stands, because it blows them all away.

Alan David Doane 

Addendum: Ed Brubaker responded to this review on Twitter, saying “You got one detail wrong, but you’re sort of meant to. The ’50s part of the story is not the manuscript he reads.” 

Recappin’ America

It’s been a busy 70th anniversary for Steve Rogers, the once and future Captain America. Between his titular series, every Avengers book, and the new Fear Itself, there’s not a week that goes by where once doesn’t see the star-jumpsuited soldier judging, counseling or beating someone for the good of Earth or the U S of A.

Captain America: Allies and Enemies

Writers - Rob Williams, Kathryn Immonen, William Harms, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue Deconnick

Artists - Rebekah Isaacs, Ramon Perez, Declan Shalvey, Renato Arlem, Greg Tocchini

I’m referring to the hardcover collection coming out May 18th, but these were the five Captain America and… one-shots Marvel published the past couple months. There’s no strong theme uniting them other than whoever is in the title besides Cap is actually the star of the book. This is especially true with Captain America and the Falcon, which wastes several pages on the tail-end of an Avengers/Lethal Legion fight just to get Cap in the book. The rest is Falcon, Sam Wilson, going back to Harlem to try to help one of his old prostitutes from his pimp days get her son out of the gang life and back into a promising college football career. It’s a shame that no one can write a Sam Wilson story that isn’t about his criminal past or his feelings of being overshadowed by Captain America, but this one isn’t too bad. At least it doesn’t have the expected happy ending, though again, it might have been better with more space devoted to Sam’s story rather than the labored Avengers stuff, especially if Williams could have used that time to flesh out the complexity’s of the mother character, who’s concerned but mercenary at the same time. I also liked how the little bit about the redwing falcon’s resilience in NYC mirrored The Falcon’s. 

Captain America and the First Thirteen fleshes out a little of the Cap/Peggy Carter romance during a mission she’s leading for the French Resistance. It’s fast-paced and nicely wistful at the end, but while it features Cap more prominently than the other one-shots, that ends up being a negative. Immonen writes him as a violent, gung-ho horndog unlike most of the takes we’ve seen of the character over the past six decades. It’s a shame, because she can be a witty writer and some of that is present in how the other characters are written here, but it’s almost like she has an axe to grind here. It seems like where others have written of Peggy as Steve Rogers’ first love, for Immonen she’s just this nervy chick he liked to fuck during the War, until he didn’t. It really wasn’t necessary to tear Cap down to make Peggy and her female Resistance friend look better.

Captain America and Crossbones by Harms/Shalvey is the best of the lot, a dark espionage mission for the unrepentant killer Crossbones involving trying to clean up a government virus experiment gone awry on a small Balkan island. Shalvey captures a Crossbones who’s badass but thoroughly human in proportion, Harms making him an almost completely bad egg with just a glimmer of compassion that expresses itself in a darkly comic ending. Add Captain America and Batroc, an amusing and surprisingly effective character piece by Gillen and Arlem on the type a man a villain would have to be to keep going up against Captain America with no hope of success, and you’ve got the only two essential one-shots of the five. 

Captain America and The Secret Avengers is the weakest effort, so it’s too bad it’s the last one. It feels a lot like an old Solo Avengers story of some inventory piece for Marvel Fanfare or Marvel Comics Presents, so it’s kind of funny that the one-shot is padded with an old MCP story starring Black Widow and Silver Sable, with art by a young, not-as-bad Rob Liefeld (others have featured Lee/Kirby Cap stories). Greg Tocchini handles the art, and it’s kind of like the series of interlocking covers he did for all the one-shots in that there are some nice moments between some very awkward poses and ugly faces (the women on the covers look stoned to the gills). Deconnick comes up with a serviceable reason to get Black Widow and Agent 13 together on a mission: to save young Russian agent Tatiana from taking revenge on a corrupt girls finishing school that’s really a front for assassin training for various dictators and warlords, called L.A.S.S.E.S. (don’t ask). It struck me during the leader, Lady Ashley’s (that’s the L and A in the name, since you went ahead and asked), speech to the gathered bad dudes at the fundraiser, that Deconnick is willing at any opportunity to sacrifice logic and plausibility for jokes and would-be bright lines. Lady Ashley praises the throng for being, among other things, “soulless,” but as anyone who watches the news can see, every Mubarak and Ghadafi can rationalize their bloody acts as being for the ultimate good of their people. Perhaps unintentionally, this one-shot bookends the Falcon one and they’re both about trying to help a young person from making a terrible mistake with dire consequences, but here Deconnick does go for the pat ending after a suspense-free climax. The lasting memory of this one is the running joke about Sharon Carter being called Natasha’s mom. If you think about it too much, the real joke is why anyone thinks former Avenger Natasha can still do undercover work.

Secret Avengers #11

Writer - Ed Brubaker. Artist - Will Conrad 

"Absolutely not, Gary!" It’s not enough that Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead in an arc that made him a brainwashed Russian assassin to the newest Captain America, as well as getting Steve Rogers to hang up the shield and start a team of black ops Avengers, but to finally introduce a character into the Marvel Universe named Gary, never mind one who gets Hank McCoy pissed about something non-mutanty, is really something. Bravo, Bru. In the non-MU, most of us don’t know a lot of John Steeles and Natashas and Hanks (and I’ve had a longstanding rule never to trust anyone named Steve that’s 99% effective). But we all know a Gary, and he’s often a stout, stammering fellow like this one. Whether he’s also a scientist with technology that can show a subject’s memories on a monitor with non-POV camera angles is irrelevant.

As far as the other, Garyless stuff in the issue, it’s the first of a two-parter that will wrap up Brubaker’s uneven run on the series. It’s mainly a WWII flashback story with Cap and Steele against not just Nazis but kinda-sorta zombies and maybe even a Lovecraftian tentacled monster, so there’s that. Conrad’s art is fine but unexceptional, and is in keeping with the general stylistic range of past Cap/SA artists like Deodato, Epting, Perkins et al. 

What’s more interesting about this issue is that it really doesn’t fit the general remit of Secret Avengers, and counting next issue and #6, that’s 25% of the series thus far that’s not really about black ops, Defendery team book adventures. It kind of felt from early on that Brubaker’s heart wasn’t really into the concept of the book, and it didn’t seem like he had any real plans in mind for the team members like Ant-Man, Beast or Valkyrie who aren’t currently being served in their own or others’ books the way Rogers, Black Widow and Agent 13 still pretty much are in Captain America, and I think Moon Knight still has a series, right? I think it’s notable that Nova and Shang-Chi amounted to little more than guest stars, and both were there to serve stories about secret societies, a recurring theme of Brubaker’s. Another recurring theme is reclamation projects and redeeming the damaged or brainwashed (Bucky, Sharon, the ’50s Cap, Zack Overkill from Incognito), with the latest project being John Steele. Brubaker explores these themes well, don’t get me wrong; I just think it’s interesting how a creator’s prime directive will take over despite the purported premise of the book. Which leads me to…

Captain America #616

Writers - Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn, Frank Tieri, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson

Artists - Mike Deodato, Ed McGuinness, Jason Latour, Howard Chaykin, Paul Grist, Travis Charest, Paul Azaceta

It’s the 70th Anniversary issue, clocking in at over 90 pages of comics. Don’t get too excited by seeing Charest’s name there, as he just does a one-page distillation of the basic Cap origin/rebirth for Brubaker, but it looks good. Late greats Jim Aparo and Curt Swan have a couple late career Cap commission pieces in here as well. A big chunk of the book is by Brubaker, though. First is the beginning of “Gulag,” a story taking Bucky to a Russian prison for crimes committed while he was the Winter Soldier and for which he was already tried and convicted in absentia. We’ve already seen Bucky in jail in “The Trial of Captain America,” and prison stories are another recurring motif for Brubaker, but this begins ably enough. Although Steve Rogers’ position in the current administration could ensure better treatment of Bucky by the Russians, that wouldn’t be as dramatic as having him face a former Crimson Dynamo who wants to kill him, or having him battle Ursa Major, possibly to the death, would it? Deodato puts in more effort into rendering an angry bear-man than anyone has a right to expect. 

Brubaker accomplishes a couple things in the next story, first taking us through Steve Rogers’ feelings of frustration at not being able to help Bucky at this time, and also setting up the coming Captain America and Bucky series he’s going to write with Marc Andreyko, as the story is largely a flashback Invaders adventure that gives McGuinness a chance to draw some classic Golden Age characters. Some have said it shows that McGuinness is capable of drawing with less bombast, but to me, a story with the Invaders and the Red Skull could have used more of it. Not bad, though, and it will be interesting to see Brubaker explore moral ambiguity and secret societies during the Greatest Generation/Four Color Comics era. 

The rest of the stories are all about Steve Rogers’ Cap during various times, by various creators, most of whom have little experience with writing or drawing him. The Bunn/Latour “Spin” is an interesting story about a farming town so devastated by the economy that they agree to let AIM set up underground weapons facilities there, while Howard Chaykin uses a fanciful premise of a Norman Rockwell painting of Cap and a young woman as the backdrop for a nice story of romance lost, times passed, and oh yeah, there’s Nazis. 

There’s a goofy WWII Baron Blood/Invaders story where Cap briefly becomes a vampire. It’s funny that Grist does the art, because he already covered so much of this material in his own Jack Staff, which is basically his own Union Jack, who has a nemesis very similar to Baron Blood. It’s nice to see him go right to the source here, but Jack Staff is much better.

I wouldn’t call the Tieri/Azaceta story the worst piece here, as the art is nice, and the Union Jack tale never gets going at all, but it does still leave kind of a bad taste. The idea is that there have been several clones made of Hitler over the years, and almost all have been tracked down and destroyed, but Steve Rogers finds one right in Manhattan, an art gallery curator and artist named Edmund Heidler, who apparently doesn’t know who he really is. Tieri has Sharon Carter, a seasoned spy who has seen many weird things and many good people committing horrible acts (like Winter Soldier), go nuts at this news and want to turn the car around and do some sort of drive-by on Heidler, forcing Steve to practically punch her to get her to cut it out. Tieri’s idea is not a bad one, that Heidler is innocent because he has none of Hitler’s memories and is not himself guilty of any crimes. But the execution stinks, with a risible shock ending where Heidler can’t help this urge to paint the swastika into everything, including a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. He’s also named his cat Eva. Oy vey.

Christopher Allen