Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Velvet 10, originally released April 22nd, 2015.
Patrick: Aren’t spies just the coolest? They’re up there with ninjas as some of the most fascinating types of heroes. Part of what makes them both so damn irresistible is their impossible levels of competency. It’s the same reason we love Sherlock Holmes – we can’t fathom a scenario that he can’t clever his way out of. That makes their day-to-day lives the stuff of fascinating stories, even if we have every confidence going in that they’re going to come out victorious. But then, why’s it so satisfying to watch these infallible heroes scramble? There are few moments as narratively disarming as the odd beats when James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Ethan Hunt are caught off guard. It’s like a violation, seeing the most capable people out-matched. Velvet 10 shows our already on-the-run hero set even further back, and the scope of the story broadens rapidly, mutating so quickly that we barely have time to understand one development before the next steamrolls everything that came before. It’s dizzying, disorienting, and leaves the breathless reader just as lost as our hero.
The first 13 pages of this issue are all one long escape sequence. That’s scrambling at its most desperate, but it’s also kind of where we have concede agency to Velvet. During the train escape scene, Steve Epting’s panels may be small and irregularly shaped, but that’s just us trying to make sense of what she’s doing, and doesn’t really reflect her state of mind. In fact, while she’s kicking dudes and climbing out windows and jumping off moving trains, she’s not even thinking about her next steps. Velvet’s voiceover is mostly kicking herself for trusting someone in the first place. Prophetically, that is the more pertinent concern in this issue, just not the most immediate.
As soon as she’s off the train and into the woods, Epting’s panels level out, and feature more of the series-standard wide-screen panels. Ed Brubaker also shifts the focus of Velvet’s voiceover to the present: she proposes Damian’s probable courses of action, questions whether she’s getting slower and even convinces herself not to kill the dogs attacking her. Those are all tactical concerns, and we’re sort of back to understanding Velvet as in-control of the situation. It’s funny how there’s no real change to the level of action or violence, but just reading these kinds of thoughts feels more natural from this character. Getting a blow-by-blow from her is almost comforting.
Almost immediately after this little victory, the twists start. Velvet sneaks into a garage on a farm, hoping to snag some wheels, but Bellinger is already there waiting for her. He questions her for a hot minute, but the questions end up revealing just how much he must be scrambling here. I love the moment Velvet utters the name “Pierre Duprey” as if just to fuck with him. It’s a little bit of a power play, even if neither she nor the readers really know what she’s talking about – it’s enough just to see Bellinger squirm. But that just leaves us primed for the next twist.
Or rather, the REAL twist. Bellinger knocks Velvet unconscious and the panel goes black. We’re momentarily trapped in Velvet’s perspective, rather than comfortably hovering outside of it. You turn the page and there are still four more panels of blackness. The only thing close to welcoming the reader to their own understanding of the situation is Velvet’s voiceover, and the copy here is pretty trippy – certainly trippier than I’m used to from this series. The sequence is amazing, so let’s take a look at it.
Elizabeth Breitweiser’s color work here is outstanding. So much of what we see is limited by the light coming in from outside, and those ambient reds and blues prove to be withholding of so much crucial information. Again, we’re at Velvet’s mercy when it comes to the details here – she says she’s in the back of a car, but it’s not moving, and we’re sort of forced to believe it because the visual information we get is incomplete. It’s also fascinating the way the gutters on this page fade from white to black – signifying the immanent shift in our fundamental understanding of the series.
For as much as we’ve been relying on Velvet’s expertise, it appears as through she’s got nothing on this Damian fellow, and this issue demonstrates just how frightening his competence can be. Spencer, I felt my stomach drop out when we saw Bellinger and his men shot up in the front of that car. It implies a narrative and a history that we weren’t even aware of, but are now suddenly forced into. I’m still pretty confident in our hero’s abilities, but damn – Damian’s got some moves. Plus! That Epilogue! (Again, announced by a full-page black-out.) Spencer!
Spencer: Patrick! I’ve barely picked my jaw up off the floor yet after that epilogue, and I can’t even begin to imagine the ramifications. Were Damian’s victims involved in this conspiracy somehow? Will the murders be blamed on Damian, or will he find a way to pawn them off on Velvet?
(Also: are these the Dead Men whose secrets this arc is named after? Or would that be Bellinger and his crew?)
All I know for sure is that Damian is one terrifying dude, and what’s most impressive about that realization is that Damian only appears on one page throughout this entire issue — and the last page at that! Patrick already mentioned how closely Brubaker and Epting stick to Velvet’s perspective throughout this story, which keeps Damian off the page by necessity, but also builds him up to be a bit of a bogeyman in the process. No matter what Damian is dangerous, but the fact that he can do so much harm to Velvet without even putting in an appearance elevates him to almost supernatural levels of competence.
Interestingly enough, Damian and Velvet end up being dangerous in very different ways. We spend much of this issue watching Velvet beat down people (and dogs!) with a variety of cool moves, but up until that last page Damian favors a decidedly more hands-off technique. Like any spy worth their salt, Damian’s most valuable asset is information — Velvet’s no slouch in this department either, as her extensive knowledge of the inner-workings of ARC-7 has kept her one step ahead of her pursuers thus far, but Damian simply knows more than she does about pretty much everything that’s important at the moment.
I could see this dynamic getting turned on its head somewhere down the line, though. If Damian’s greatest advantage right now is his intel, then if Velvet were somehow to get more information than him she’d gain the upper hand. I mean, Velvet is already catching onto Damian’s plans, just too slowly to avoid being continually captured and attacked — with the right intel it seems likely that she could finally out-spy Damian, at least for a while. Of course, that’s easier said than done — the information she needs is the same information she’s been chasing since the beginning of the series, and we’ve seen how little luck she’s had obtaining it thus far. To get the information she’ll need to clear her name Velvet will have to take down Damian, but to take down Damian, she needs that information — it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be fast, and it’s fascinating to see what losing, waiting, and being betrayed like that does to Velvet’s attitude.
As the audience we’re privy to Velvet’s thoughts, and can thus see for ourselves how Damian’s betrayal has distracted and disoriented her. Yet, Velvet’s emotional upheaval never shows. She remains as calm and collected as ever on the outside, but inside the anger builds up until she reaches her breaking point after being forced to choke out Rin Tin-Tin — and even then, while Velvet losing her temper is terrifying and dangerous, she’s hardly out of control. All of this just goes to show how perfectly suited Velvet is to being a secret agent: no matter how bad things get, she always keeps her cool, and boy, do things get bad.
Yup, nothing screams “this is bad” more than Velvet essentially admitting that she’s scared, and that she probably should have been all along. More than any other moment in this issue — even that Epilogue! — this is the moment where everything changes. We count on Velvet to be unflappable. We’ve all seen that this conspiracy is a real, deadly threat, yet just assume that Velvet will be able to skate right through it unscathed because that’s just what she does. But that clearly isn’t the case anymore. The stakes have just skyrocketed, and as bad as that may be for Velvet, it’s fantastic news for all of us. The arrival of Damian has already made Velvet more tense, more exciting, and more action packed than ever before, and as the stakes continue to rise, I can’t imagine that changing anytime soon.
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