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.