From Winter Soldier To Woman Spy: Ed Brubaker on VELVET

Credit: Image Comics

After reinvigorating Marvel’s Captain America title and writing the basis for what is next year’s movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (who was the artist on the aforementioned story) are reuniting and going rogue this month in a new creator-owned series titled Velvet.

Credit: Image Comics

In this new Image series that launched October 23, the long-time collaborators follow one of the under-appreciated parts of the spy genre: the secretary. But Velvet Templeton is no Ms. Moneypenny from the James Bond novels; this secretary Allied Reconnaissance Commission was once one of the world’s top spies but left that behind twenty years ago – until she’s forced back into old habits after being framed for the murder of the world’s top spy.

Velvet is my attempt to do a more straight version of a spy comic book,” Brubaker explains. “I’m finding a way to bring a more realistic, Tinker Tailor Solder Spy element to comics, along with that kind of over-the-top spy action thriller. I thought Velvet would be a good way for Steve and I to take the things people liked about our Captain America run but do it without superheroes to appeal to fans.”

Brubaker said the germ of the idea for Velvet came several years ago during a marathon session of binging on ”old spy movies” and non-fiction books from the mid-20th Century that inspired the spy novels such as John le Carré’s.

“During that process, I had a revelation that all the women characters in spy stories are generally really lame and weak,” said the writer. “The secretary role in spy fiction is a sort of archetype, from James Bond’s Moneypenny to the stories of Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. The idea for Velvet came about when I asked what if that girl Friday archetype was Modesty Blaise, with a secret history making her the most interesting person in that work.”

Credit: Image Comics

Velvet turned from an idea of Brubaker’s into a reality when he casually mentioned it to Epting at a 2007 convention just after the infamous “death” of Captain America in Captain America #25. It took several years for both creators to get on the same page to be able to finally start work on the project, but in the meantime Brubaker began fleshing out the world and expanding on his initial idea.

“What started as a twist on a spy archetype turned into an epic story,” Brubaker tells Newsarama. “The time between the initial idea and actually doing the book made the story much richer; I was able to grow as a writer, and the story and its ambition grew as well.”

Rated by Image as one of their “mature” titles, Velvet is described by Brubaker as being on the same level of Criminal and Fatale.

“There’s no nudity in the first issue actually, but we’re not going to shy away from it being sort of R rated,” the writer says. “One of the things we’ve done, as seen in the teaser pages, is that the crux of the story opens with the murder of the world’s top spy. One of the things we wanted to do is blend the world of spy fiction with the more realistic world. When violence actually happens in Velvet, I want the violence to be brutally realistic so it’s not glorified at all. There’s high tension, over-the-top action scenes, but when someone get shit by a train you’ll see splatter. When someone is shot in the head, I want people to believe in that damage.”

Credit: Image Comics

Brubaker and Epting’s previous collaborations on Captain America and 2009’s The Marvel Projects saw them splitting time between the modern day and the war-weary days of the 1940s; in Velvet, the enterprising duo are splitting the difference and putting it square into the height of the Cold War – for many reasons, and also for one specific one: no cell phones.

“[With cell phones] there’s no tension anymore,” Brubaker states bluntly. “Anytime something is about to happen [in modern stories], why don’t they just pick up a phone and call the cops? With cell phones people are constantly in touch and tracked, making an espionage story more difficult – and lamer in a way.”

“I like the idea of a spy being lost in a city, and instead of her touching a thing in her ear and being teleported out she has to navigate it on her own,” the writer elaborates. “With the Cold War going on, there are clear good guys and bad guys, and the murky grey areas are great to explore.”

With the spy genre being dominated with names like Jason Bourne and James Bond, launching a new spy serial with a female lead is somewhat out of the norm – especially given the recent Hollywood revelation that female leads aren’t a big sell according to some. But for Brubaker, its an inextricable part of the Velvet premise.

Credit: Image Comics

“I’ve read a lot of spy novels, but not a lot with a female lead during the Cold War – which is arguably the peak moment for the women’s movement in the 1970s,” Brubaker states. “Part of the inspiration for Velvet came from an old episode of Sandbaggers that Greg Rucka made me watch when he first started doing Queen & Country. In this episode, the main guy who runs MI6 has to get a new secretary, and the whole point of the episode was to show who the person who would be the right hand of the agency head has to be one of the most qualified people, sometimes even more knowledgeable about the agency than the director because they have to weed out the stuff he doesn’t need to know. It was interesting to take that character and put her in a situation where she’s framed for murder like a James Bond-type and then go on the run; it gives it a much more interesting back-story.”

Although Ed Brubaker has been involved in creator-owned comics for decades both before and after his runs at DC and Marvel, for Velvet artist Steve Epting it’s a first – despite working in the industry for 24 years. When asked about bringing Epting out of the work-for-hire world and into the sometimes precarious world of creator-owned comics, Brubaker said that the recent high-profile launches at Image were what finally convinced Epting to do Velvet.

“For awhile Steve was unsure it was going to happen; that he would be able to make a living,” Brubaker reveals. “I think the fact that since Fatale launched in January 2012 and has been doing better and better sales each issues that Steve agreed to do the book at Image. The way Image is set up, it’s perfect for established creators, and also creators in general. But for established creators, if you can bring your audience with you it’s a lot easier because the Image model is so simple: they  help you publish, and the bulk of the money goes to creators. And when people see that in action with a check a couple months after the book comes out, they realize they can make more money here – and they own all the rights.”

Comparing creator-owned comics to Obamacare, Brubaker says that once comic professionals try it that they’ll rethink the reluctance to do creator-owned comics.

“I feel there’s a revolution happening in creator owned comics; not about established guys doing books at Image but simply people creating good stories people want to read. I think Kim Thompson said something 20  years ago about how comics would improve in general if more crap was made. What he meant by that is that comics needs its John Grishams; it needs genre stuff that’s not just superhero, and finally that world is starting to happen. There’s stuff aimed at mainstream readers, from thrillers to horror to mystery. Last time I went to a comic store I bought twelve books, and ten of them were creator-owned comics, by some of the best writers and artists in comics.”

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