Today, Greg and Shelby are discussing Velvet 5, originally released May 21st, 2014.
Greg: When I come home from work — hell, when I come home from a light jog — I’m often dog-tired. I feel drained and emaciated, like the only thing I have energy to do is crash in front of the TV. I have, at time, uttered the phrase “This day beat me up” out loud. However, after reading this particularly haunting and emotionally draining issue of Velvet, I realize that my pity parties are a grain of sand compared to how massively exhausted Velvet — hell, even other fictional spies like Bond and Bourne — must feel after an average day. The day beat her up, alright. Physically, emotionally, and everything in between.
The issue doesn’t start in duress; at least, not on the surface. Velvet and Richard are trying desperately to have a normal honeymoon (even though it’s their fourth), and for a moment they seem to be succeeding, exchanging playful banter and giving each other long, From Here To Eternity-esque smooches on the beach. Yet when a waiter leaves a napkin that doubles as mission instructions, everything changes, culminating in a realization that he is a double-crosser who must be killed. Here, I must note the brilliant use of color from Elizabeth Breitweiser; as Velvet’s emotional state of mind grows darker and more abstract, so too does the color palette. The bright and sunny beach is far away from the dark and shadowy room that Velvet and Richard have their final battle in.
As Velvet figures this out, going on what, under other circumstances, would be a routinely clandestine tailing of Richard, writer Ed Brubaker intercuts Velvet’s recollection of her mentor, Pauline, a tough-as-nails agent who whips Velvet into shape, both despite and because of their shared gender. With Pauline, Brubaker continues to explore the often jarring disparity between how we perceive spies (Roger Moore’s Bond) and how they must actually behave (Daniel Craig’s Bond). Velvet, in her youth and at the beginning of her rumination, tends to treat Pauline like an idolized spy, her tough love approach and terse way with words seeming to reveal an infallible human. Slowly, however, Velvet begins to see cracks reveal, understanding that a superficial toughness is not enough to mask real traumas like post traumatic stress disorder, memories of war, and alcoholism. To put it bluntly, Velvet comes to understand that spies are people, too, and it all culminates in this heartbreaking realization.
I’m gonna shift topics abruptly and talk about VH1 and MTV dating shows from the mid-2000s for a second. The real scuzzy, sleazy, guilty pleasure shit: Rock Of Love, Daisy Of Love, A Shot At Love, and the like. By all accounts, none of the human emotions expressed on that show should be categorized as being “real,” given how manufactured the circumstances are. A group of attractive people shoved into a mansion, liquored up, competing not only for the “love” of a person they’ve never met before, but also for screentime? Smoke and mirrors, it has to be.
And yet, when the people on these shows break down and cry when being eliminated, give passionate monologues on why they’re the right pick, or nakedly (sometimes literally) express their love, I straight up believe them. And I think they straight up mean it, too. Hell, if I was a contestant on one of these shows (“I’m just here to make friends! Anyone wanna play Clue?), I’m confident I would straight up mean it, too.
So what’s this have to do with Velvet? Well, I think human beings have a need to express and satisfy certain feelings and desires, both emotionally primal (hunger, sex, dominance) and complex (love, affection, comfort). In our “real world”, we have plenty of natural, organic opportunities to pursue these needs. Yet when our “real world” is taken away from us and replaced with a “manufactured world” — say, a reality dating show or an existence where you’re always on the job and can’t trust anyone — these needs don’t go away. Thus, to compensate, the brain treats this manufactured world as being real. It explains why, when Bret Michaels has to leave the show in tears when a contestant leaves on her own, I believe him. It also explains why Velvet, even after knowing the falsity of Richard’s relationship, still feels pangs of raw and real connection and emotion, rendered expertly by Steve Epting’s disruptive use of text over nothingness.
At the end of the day, Brubaker continues to knock these spy stories out of the park, both adding clever twists to familiar tropes, and just plain spinning good yarns. Shelby, did this issue of Velvet work for you? And if you were the center of a VH1 dating show, what would your “of love” be? Mine would be Netflix Queue Of Love, and whenever I eliminated people, I would say something like, “You’re no longer available for streaming.”
Shelby: Mine would have to be something like Drinking Alone…of Love…, and I imagine it would get cancelled pretty quickly. That being said, this issue worked immensely well for me; I’ve been curious about how Velvet ended up an amazing bad-ass spy, so I was more than a little excited to get this glimpse into her past.
Unsprisingly, this is the point in the post where I want to talk about gender. Greg, you mentioned briefly that Velvet’s teacher was hard on her “because of their gender, ” and I think this is a huge point. We’ve seen Velvet underestimated because of her gender before (remember in issue one when all the awesome spy dudes suddenly realized the lowly secretary was sleeping with all of them?), but I believe this is the first time we’ve really seen Brubaker address what it means for Velvet to be working in a male-dominated field. I’m going to use that phrase I hate to use: as a woman working in IT, a very male-dominated field, I completely understand the kind of pressure Pauline was under to make sure Velvet was up to the task. All the guys I work with are great, but I still find I hold myself to very high standards and get very stressed out about mistakes I make, because I don’t want to prove the stereotype that women aren’t smart/good enough to work in technology. We all know there are plenty of assholes out there who want nothing more than a reason to validate their misogynistic, hateful conceptions of what women are capable of, so you find yourself constantly trying to be perfect at what you do: not so you can out-perform the men around you, but so that you avoid giving them reason to think they’re better. It’s hard, believing (or in Velvet and Pauline’s case, knowing) that the most basic slip-up that any man would make will be held against you forever based solely on your gender. Add to that the regular stress of being a spy, the PTSD, etc., it’s easy to see why Pauline’s life took the tragic turn it did.
I don’t just identify with Velvet as another woman working in a male-dominated field, however; I completely feel for her in regards to her relationship with Richard. I’m pretty sure the four honeymoons they refer to are all work-related; they’re all times they went undercover as a couple on their honeymoon. So she’s got this man she feels…something for. She might not be totally sure what that something is, but she knows it’s there. But she’s stuck doing what I like to refer to as “playing house.” They’ve got this fun, fake little relationship going that they both know isn’t real; spy work is basically glorified play-pretend, am I right? To go back to your reality show examples, Greg, Velvet and Richard have an engineered on-screen romance. It’s good for the show, the audience eats it up, but everyone is operating under the knowledge that it’s all fabricated for the cameras. Velvet knows what they have isn’t real, but she’s got these real feelings underneath her fake ones. The only way she can express those real feelings is through the mask of this fake situation she’s in. I know I’ve found myself in the same sort of situation before, liking a guy who, for reasons real or imaginary, I can’t actually be with. You don’t deal with it, when you’re playing house like that, until something big happens, and you find that suddenly (and painfully, usually) the honeymoon is over.
This book is really something special. Brubaker has created in Velvet a woman ahead of her time. She’s dealing with issues related to her gender and issues from just being a person; her personal story is relateable and interesting, all before it get wrapped up in a pita pocket of espionage and intrigue. Also, did anyone else love how unfunny Richard found it when Velvet suggested he take her last name? Because I know I did.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?