Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I didn't believe that Frank Lancaster had killed X-14...
"So I looked into it... and my entire life fell apart."
There are some beautiful books on the market but few more so than this, reprinting all three VELVET softcovers, along with process pieces, the original trailer pages and an afterword by Brubaker on its origins.
Set in Paris, Monaco, London, Belgrade and the States during the 1970s and pulling back even further to the likes of the Bahamas in the 1950s, it is lush with 20th Century fashion from the sleekest sports cars to the slinkiest stealth suits, and wait until Velvet hits the Carnival of Fools, a masque full of masks in Monaco.
By "masks" I mean spies, few more disguised than Velvet.
1973. There is an international espionage agency called ARC-7 so secret that most other ops don't even know it exists. Its agents are so exceptionally effective that the chances of any of them being taken out in the field are minimal. As the story opens, one of their very finest is taken out in the field.
Immediately an inside job is suspected and all fingers point to agent Frank Lancaster. But Velveteen Templeton, the Director's secretary, has doubts: she suspects it's a set-up.
It is a set-up. But what Templeton doesn't realise is that she's being set up to believe it's a set-up and so get set up herself.
What most of ARC-7's agents outside of the Director don't realise is that Velveteen Templeton wasn't always the Director's secretary: she was one of ARC-7s most effective, deep-cover field operatives for so many years. And that may prove the undoing of whoever has just set her up for treachery, treason and murder.
On the run from her own agency, Templeton has to retrace assassinated Agent X-14's steps and his contacts across Eastern Europe, criss-crossing the globe while cross-referencing what she discovers with her own substantial and at times painful history in order to work out why X-14 was murdered from within. What had he stumbled upon in America that made him such a threat? Was it the same thing that her husband discovered? Because he too was set up and Templeton took the fall so far for it that she almost didn't recover.
Brubaker's internal monologues - in CRIMINAL, FATALE, THE FADE OUT and KILL OR BE KILLED et al - have always been compelling, individualistic and often fucked up affairs - but here you're almost as much in the dark as Velvet is, learning as she goes along, so you're even more emotionally invested than usual. Several times I found myself suspicious of what I was being told because it sounded almost too perfect but with the strangest gaps and I wondered if I was missing something.
I was. But then so was Velvet.
During the middle chapters you will have your head whipped round not once, not twice, but three times in swift succession and at exactly the same moment as Velvet's, because these people she's up against are so deviously clever, and who is playing whom at any given moment is far from obvious.
I cannot imagine the physical or metaphorical map Brubaker must have drawn to link all these dates and destinations so intricately, but his CRIMINAL can be exactly the same. Here as there he provides a gripping internal monologue as we keep pace with Velvet's frantic plight in trying to keep one desperate step ahead of those who've evidently planned her undoing for ages.
"The suit's synthetic microfibres stopped my ribs from breaking
that'll have to be good enough. I'll just box the rest away. But then, I'm good at compartmentalising. It's one of the first things you have to master in this field. And not just storing away pain or secrets. It becomes a new way of thinking. A way of surviving. Your mind always running down four or five tracks at the same time. Even now, as I scramble to get away
a quieter part of me is planning an escape route."
At which point artist Epting inserts a mental map of her potential escape route over the nocturnal ducking and diving which he has choreographed immaculately over the dozen panels accompanying that voice-over. It's positively balletic throughout.
Finally, with only one lead left alive to follow, Templeton believes she has no choice but to take the fight back to America, even though she knows that the second she sets foot on its shores alarm bells will start ringing. She's counting on it.
"Every move I make from now on has to be two moves."
Sometimes you won't see the second move coming; often you won't have seen the first move being made.
I love that Templeton is middle-aged and shows it. It's not just the thick, white streak of maturity in her sable hair, it's in the eyes that have seen too much and the suggestion of extra flesh around her mouth which put me in mind of Terry Moore's equally individualistic women in RACHEL RISING. There was an American TV company desperate to sign the series... if Brubaker would just agree to Templeton being in her mid-20s, thereby missing the point and literally losing the plot. This is a period espionage thriller starring a woman with decades' experience at the agency. It's this very history that's revisited which informs her psychological makeup and indeed the whole story.
In addition, so subtly, Velvet's body language changes when undercover as a temp in Paris, her hair dyed grey to fade into the background. She holds a file modestly and meekly to her chest. When she brings a tray of tea to the investment manager's desk, she's slightly hunched in high heels. Successful espionage lies in the details, and the artists reflect this.
Epting and Breitweiser have steeped this series in its period time and place. It's not just in the fashion of fabrics, though the black bathing suit in VELVET VOL 1 during the flashback to 1950s Bermuda was a masterpiece, its white stripe anticipating the streak which will later appear in Velveteen's hair.
It's also evident in the hotel room furnishings, the bar tops, aircraft interiors, office spaces, shop windows, fly-posters, the monumental, white-stone, classical facades and balustrades, cars with their polished chrome, and a particularly posh, trans-European train dining car. Another quick nod to the fashion, though, and I almost wept when she had to ditch that exquisitely patterned, knee-length, black and white pashmina cardigan.
I'm very emotional, aren't I?
As to those Regency facades, there are a couple of early pages I use most often to sell this on the shop floor - on top of the splintering glass shards which Breitweiser electrifies in the first chapter's cliffhanger - in which the heavens have opened on a comparatively calm London town outside an elitist gentleman's club, the street lights are reflected on the rain-rippled pavement, and thin streams of water pour with just the right weight from an umbrella as a cigarette is lit and then *pfuff*...
I have no idea how much time two pages like that must take to colour, but it is all very much acknowledged and appreciated.
Later on Breitweiser introduces some of the more expressionistic effects which lit up the THE FADE OUT and helped draw the eye. However, so much of this takes place at night that you may be enjoying the effects without necessarily noticing their cause.
Lastly - and I mention this only as a love song to Steve Epting for I will not be giving the game away - the final chapter of the first softcover includes a reveal which is visual-only and takes the most extraordinary and subtle command of human anatomy to convey. In retrospect Brubaker slipped in one single clue earlier on, trusting Steve Epting to have laid all the groundwork then pull off the punchline to sweet, ambiguous perfection.