From Russia with Love
Since it’s been awhile since I list did a list, figured it was about time to return to one of my favorite things: kickass women. Specifically, spies. Espionage has long been a man’s game as far as most fiction is concerned, unless you consider all the femmes fatales that Bond and his like are always running into. Happily enough, times they are a changin’. Black Widow has become a major component of the Avengers despite having no superpowers. And in July, another Cold War spy will be coming to the big screen, Lorraine Broughton of Atomic Blonde. In honor of these heroines, I wanted to share my list of the best graphic novel spy stories in the last few years, some of which already have film or television components (and one of which desperately deserves it).
3. The Coldest City – Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
This is the story which Atomic Blonde is based on and is a great spy thriller set in Germany right as the Berlin Wall comes crashing down. As the events surrounding the fall of communism ramp up in Germany, an undercover MI6 agent is killed while carrying a secret list that contains the name of every spy in Berlin. Worried about the implications of such a priceless document, MI6 sends in a veteran operative, Lorraine Broughton, to recover the list at all costs. Unfortunately for Lorraine, Germany is an absolute powderkeg of secrets, double agents and espionage that may be the end of her if she can’t track the list and get out as soon as possible.
What makes The Coldest City simultaneously a brilliant story and an incredibly frustrating read is a combination of Hart’s minimalist art style and Johnston’s sparse, tension-filled writing. The entire story is done in black and white ink with minimal detail, using both white and black space to create a starkly illustrated story of dubious loyalties and double crosses galore. In addition to this, Johnston includes a fair amount of German dialogue that is not translated and often cannot be understood just from context. It helps to contribute to both the uncertainty of readers and the historical mood of the story but it also contributes a fair amount to the confusion. Lorraine’s attempts to get to the truth of the agent’s murder will have your heart racing to the end, even if it requires a few readings to figure out what exactly happened. I will be very curious to see how closely the movie resembles the source material, as it could be either a brilliant or a terrible adaptation.
2. Black Widow: The Itsy Bitsy Spider – Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones
Since I brought her up at the beginning and she’s the quintessential Russian spy, it’s only natural that Natalia Romanova made this list. While there are plenty of Black Widow stories, this is one of my favorites. Unlike series by Phil Noto and Nathan Edmundson, The Itsy Bitsy Spider feels like it captures all the ruthlessness of Natasha and also her conflict about being one of the best spies in the world. In this story, Natasha goes head to head with a young woman, Yelena Belova, who has been trained by the Russians as their replacement. According to the Russians, Natasha is a traitor who has ceased to be loyal to the Motherland and no longer deserves the designation of “Black Widow.” When Yelena interferes with Natasha’s mission to deal with a dangerous new biochemical weapon, Natasha decides to teach her a lesson about what it means to be the Black Widow.
What makes The Itsy Bitsy Spider such a fantastic story is the lengths to which Natasha will go to save Yelena from the fate to which Natasha long ago succumbed. While Yelena sees herself as a heroine of Russia, protecting the Motherland’s interests, Natasha has accepted that as the Black Widow, she does terrible things which must be done to protect others. She sees no glory in it even as she accepts the work as necessary. It’s this grim resolve that carries Natasha through missions that require terrible things of her. Instead of focusing on a repentant Natasha, Itsy Bitsy Spider shows what Natasha is willing to do to protect another woman. Yelena may be Natasha’s equal in skill but her naivete is no match for Natasha’s ruthlessness. I particularly liked that while Natasha believes she’s doing the right thing, Grayson never makes her out to be a heroine or someone who makes the “good” decisions. She lets Natasha be as heartless as she needs to be in the service of helping another.
1. Velvet – Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
There was no chance that this wasn’t going to top my list. There is no one better at noir-style thrillers than Brubaker and no female spy better than Velvet Templeton. You may argue if you wish, but you’ll be wrong. Velvet is the story of a veteran agent, Velvet Templeton, who comes out of retirement after being framed for the murder of another agent and must get to the truth before her enemies get to her.
I’ve talked at length of my love for Velvet in a previous review but now that the final volume has been released and the arc has been completed, I had to bring this story up again. Velvet is a shining example of Brubaker’s gritty, intense style and flair for flawed but ultimately sympathetic lead characters. Velvet has been out of practice for decades and despite being largely considered “too old” for fieldwork and female spies in general, she’s seriously kickass and sexy as hell. She doesn’t have the showy flair of Widow but she’s damned good at what she does and doesn’t let expectations due to her age or her gender slow her down. I love Velvet precisely because she’s not a young femme fatale, she’s a seasoned agent out of her element and desperate to get to the truth. If you only read one female-led spy story, make it Velvet. And please for the love of God, let them make a movie of this. On second thought, perhaps not. Not sure I could take it if they messed it up.
Velvet, Black Widow and Lorraine Broughton are my three favorite female spies in recent memory but did I miss some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments and see you next week!