Since going all creator-owned at Image Comics, writer Ed Brubaker has been working with the genre closest to his heart in the form of the crime/horror mash-up "Fatale" with Sean Phillips. But as he steps into his second regular gig for the publisher, Brubaker is exploring the other side of the shadowy intrigue coin with "Velvet" – a new Cold War-era espionage series created with longtime "Captain America" and "Marvels Project" collaborator Steve Epting.
Telling the story of a former gal Friday who is revealed to be a top assassin all her own. The series launches on October 23, and so Image brought Brubaker together with the press for a call detailing the origins and plans for the ongoing series.
"'Velvet' is my attempt to do a more straight version of the super spy comic book," the writer said, noting that most comic fans are used to the more fantastic take on the genre popularized by Jim Steranko. "I felt like that was a good way for me and Steve Epting to take what we did on 'Captain America' that people liked and bring it out in something that wasn't superheroes...wow, that sounds crassly commercial!"
Joking aside, Brubaker's own origins with the story comes from both his interest in the historical Cambridge Spy Ring from the 1940s and '50s and how it impacted the stories of the spy genre. "I had this inclination that all the women characters in the stories were lame and weak...it's the Moneypenny archetype...but what if that archetype was more like a Modesty Blaise? What if she had a secret history?"
After years of chewing on the idea, Brubaker pitched it to Epting almost five years ago, but took years for the artist to free up the time from his Marvel schedule to do the book. "What started out as this twist on spy archetypes turned into this epic story." Brubaker said, noting that the time it took to come alive helped strengthen the pitch.
Brubaker said the series opens with the murder of a spy which helps kick off the story with an act of violence which was brutally realistic as opposed to the kind of high-tech action
Asked why he was setting the story in the Cold War rather than the modern day, the writer had reasons both big and small. "#1: No one has cell phones," he said. "They ruined the movies in a way because there's no tension anymore...the ability for people to be constantly gotten in touch with and tracked makes telling an espionage story more difficult...I like the idea of a spy being lost in a city and having to find their way out.
"But I felt with the Cold War, there was a war going on...there's a murky gray area to explore there about how the various intelligence agencies worked back then," he said, adding that modern espionage between the world's governments and corporations makes it hard to give the reader someone to care about.
As for the female lead of the series, Brubaker felt that a secretary for the head of an intelligence agency would be the kind of person who had more information than almost anyone in the spy milieu. "I've read a lot of spy novels, but I've never read one that had a female lead in the Cold War...kind of at the peak of the women's liberation movement...I'd seen all the other stuff, and Black Widow was almost always more interesting to write than any character she was in a book with. That helped too."
"Initially, this would have been much more of a straight action adventure story." he said, noting that over time he learned more and more about what a female agent would have had to do in the '50s and '60s. "It opened my eyes to a whole different way to look at the story...I spent most of that time whenever I'd come back to the project reading a lot of non-fiction about the field and trying to get as much history about the Cold War as I could...you don't actually find much about women spies except for Russian women spies or the odd British woman spy." One key anecdote he found was about a 1940s attempt by British intelligence to use a female spy to seduce a friend of F.D.R. to influence America to get involved in World War II.
As for the collaboration with Epting, Brubaker said it had mostly been years since they'd worked closely together. It took a few pages of trying to find a new style before they realized they should just do what they love to do. "I'm so used to working with Sean and so used to working with Michael Lark and so used to working with Steve...when I got to the first big action sequence in the story, I knew in my head how to describe things," he said. "The collaborator is the most important part, and I think that's one of the things we're seeing now with people leaving the bigger publishers and coming to Image or wherever they can publisher their own stuff, they can bring their collaborators with them...I don't think I could have done this book without Steve."
At present, there's at least a year to a year and a half of stories set for "Velvet." The release schedule for the series will be similar to Image hit "Saga" where each arc will ship monthly, then see a trade released and come back after a short break with a new arc. "Tonally, it's not as dark as 'Fatale,'" he said about how the series is shaping up. "Velvet is narrating the book, and she's got a good sarcastic sense of humor."
Brubaker did say that his instincts were to let the story lean more towards the likes of "Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy," but because it is a comic book, he's been pushing himself to give Epting big action set pieces to draw. The final result will be the writer's take on what if a writer like John le Carré had more big action in his books. "It's a murder mystery, and to solve the murder mystery, Velvet has to retrace the steps of one of the world's greatest super spies," he said. "Some of it is about blowback and the consequences of your things...we never see what happens to the Bond girl if she survives. What happens to her after she gives up all her country's secrets while he gets a medal?"
The long gestation time for the series helped Brubaker develop Velvet as a character who would go from being a Black Widow-type spy to being a desk worker. "What happened that broke her, basically, and got her put on a desk?" he said. "That part of it helped flesh her out as a much bigger character. And if you read the opening sequence when the agent Jeff Keller gets killed, you see how the way that she acts at the office and around people is a total act...that was one of my ways into her character. All these special agents think that she's in love with them, but she's just playing them all."
Brubaker has spent the past few years working in TV – on two pilots, one of which he knew would never get made because it was very dark and featured a mostly Japanese cast and the other which was sent back to him to make the lead female character younger and more romantic – and from the experience, he's mostly just wanted to let his comic books be comics. He said he's experiencing "the joy of not having notes from people who don't know anything about anything."
All in all, the writer's life on the other side of superhero comics is "pretty good" though "Switching from company-owned stuff to creator-owned stuff is pretty stressful." He was forced to approach this book differently because could no longer lean back on the expectation that readers picking up his new #1 issue already knew the rules of the Marvel Universe. He also felt like there's a finite amount of time where a writer can write so many stories at a fast clip without everything starting to sound very similar. "Steve and I have always had an editor cracking the whip on us, so I brought on David Brothers to be our editor since he works at Image now. And it's nice to have David on our backs to make us finish the work."
As with his past books, "Velvet" will have some back matter to it to help build the audience for the monthly comics. "I want to make sure that that's how it feels every time one of my books comes out...I always want to have an extra special thing." The writer said that people often forget how creators at Image don't get paid until after the single issues sell at retail. "We wouldn't be able to afford doing the book if we didn't have people buying it all the time." Additionally, "Velvet" #1 will have seven or eight extra story pages on the average mainstream monthly comic.
Overall, the writer said while the Image way of making comics has had its learning curves, it ultimately offers more to the creators in the way of freedom, control and pay. "Once you try it and see it actually works, a lightbulb goes off in your head, and you go, 'Why haven't I been doing this for years?'" he said. "I think Kim Thompson said something 20 years ago that the thing that would improve comics in general...is that comics needs its Tom Clancys and its John Grishams...we need mainstream genres that aren't superheroes." In his estimation, the market has more of that kind of material than ever before, and it's a huge boon to the medium in general.
"Velvet" #1 ships on October 23 from Image Comics.