Velvet: Sex, spies and stereotype
Thursday, May 11, 2017
I recently saw a trailer for the upcoming film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, a 2014 film based on a comic by Mark Millar and frequent collaborator, Bryan Hitch. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman recaptured the over-the-top violence of their earlier collaboration Kick-Ass but was playing in the sandbox of a Bond-style spy-action-thriller.
In fact, the film was essentially a Bond spoof and, while it sought to make a point about class prejudice (although what that was I’m not exactly sure), their approach to women was much more in the vein of having their cake and eating it too. The female characters in Kingsman: The Secret Service are almost entirely sidelined, silent or uncomfortably sexualized. While womanizing has been a part of the Bond-style spy movie since its inception, is it a necessary part?
Well, if you want a spy thriller every bit as Bond as Bond (or Kingsman) but without the uncomfortable sexism, I’d highly recommend Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet (colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, letters by Chris Eliopoulos).
Published by Image Comics and recently released in its entirety in one hefty hardcover, Velvet is a 1970s-set spy-thriller where women are not at all sidelined, never silent and - while still sexual - they are not sexualized.
In the eponymous hero, mid-40s secretary, Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have perhaps created the perfect antidote to James Bond and his ilk, but when the reader first meets her she’s every bit as sidelined as most women in spy fiction. Brubaker has stated that part of the motivation for Velvet was to tell the story of the secretary or assistant character that appears in many spy stories and that’s exactly where we find Velvet at the beginning of the series.
In the opening scene of the first issue, an extremely Bond-looking spy (in a tux and everything) carries out a mission for the spy agency ARC-7, but in a shock twist, he's brutally assassinated. It’s a classic cold open set-up, as well as being a neat way of stating the premise of the series: the spy we expect is gone, this story is about someone else. Velvet, like any traditional Moneypenny figure, has been sleeping with this agent. Instead of getting weepy in the typing pool, however, Velvet decides to do a little digging into his demise. It’s around this point that the authors start revealing that Velvet Templeton isn’t the quiet, ordinary figure she seems, but rather someone far more complex and far more dangerous. By the time she’s beating the hell out of a room full of highly trained agents, we're completely clued in that Velvet is far more than meets the eye.
That’s a (very quick) rundown of the first issue of Velvet and as first issues go, it’s pretty much perfect. It introduces its key players, establishes setting and tone, and teases at what’s to come - as well as delivering some brutal action itself. Most importantly, it sets up its key premise: taking a woman who has been sidelined and moving her into the spotlight.
As well as accomplishing this through the narrative, Brubaker and Epting make sure to establish Velvet as a fully formed and complex character. So often in spy fiction the characters, especially the women, are little more than cyphers - the very anonymity of spying leading to characters without background or depth. Not so in Velvet.
In the scene in which our heroine is introduced, Velvet is informed of the death of Jefferson and responds with two sentences: “Damn.” and “I’ll be right in, Sir.” This straightforward response speaks of a character who is practical, and who is doing her duty - either despite her own feelings, or even using her duty to bury them. In this scene, Epting depicts Velvet’s sadness through her facial expressions as she gets out of bed and showers, but in the next few pages, as she enters the offices of ARC-7, her face is an emotionless mask.
Looking at this artwork, the reader is able to see how Velvet is burying her own emotional identity under the role she is forced to play. In just a very few pages, then, the authors have established the character and her place in the world. Her decision to investigate the murder and not just sit on the sidelines - and her seemingly cold reaction to the news of his death - paint a picture of someone with a complex inner life. It’s not unusual in both comics and the spy genre for women to be sidelined and under-developed, even when they’re ostensibly the lead, but as this story continues, Velvet only becomes more complex as details of her life are revealed and she reacts and responds to the trials she faces.
Not only is Velvet the centre of the action, but she controls an awful lot of it too. Women are very often robbed of voice in fiction, speaking and doing little as their male counterparts hoard all the agency. In this comic, Velvet starts in the archetypical position of silent passivity, stationary behind a desk while ARC-7's men are active out in the world. Although she does become the victim of a conspiracy, it is in part due to her choice to investigate Jefferson’s murder that the spotlight falls on her. Nor does Velvet remain a victim of this conspiracy for long, instead, she embarks on a world-spanning game of cat and mouse, repeatedly leading the other ARC-7 agents exactly where she wants them.
Velvet isn’t the only female character in this comic and the other women who appear present differing levels of independence in the face of patriarchal domination. One of the first significant women Velvet encounters is the mistress of a Russian minister, who has been locked away and tortured following her seduction by one of the ARC-7 agents. Here Brubaker is showing the reader the realistic outcome for the many women that spies traditionally seduce, use, and discard during their missions. Marina isn’t just a victim, however, but is one of the few people to outsmart Velvet and use her to get her own revenge.
Brubaker and Epting also showcase a few of Velvet’s fellow female agents, such as the woman who inspired and trained Velvet, Lady Pauline. Pauline was a hero of WWII who became a training and recruitment officer for ARC-7. She eventually ended her career with a drinking problem due to post-war trauma. For Velvet, Pauline was “the toughest woman in the world” and she stands in for all the pioneering women who paved the path for future generations, while ending up with nothing but pain for themselves. Still, Pauline is another example of a woman who was not silenced - rather a woman who made a career and a life for herself and used that to help cultivate the same ambitions in others.
Of the three accusations I’ve thrown at the spy genre in terms of female representation, the one in which Velvet skirts closest to the line is sexualization. It’s undeniable that Velvet is neither sidelined nor silenced as she controls all the action in the story and totally dominates the plot. It is equally undeniable that Velvet is a very sexual character, and here, I think, is the distinction between Velvet and the majority of women in the spy genre. Velvet is in total control of her sexual encounters and they happen on her terms. Although she uses sex to get what she wants and to control men (and occasionally women), this demonstrates her agency. In art terms, the sex and nudity is not gratuitous and is more often suggested than actual. Velvet’s also not depicted as having porn-star proportions and, like the other characters in the book, is drawn with an eye to realism.
So the key difference in Velvet is that the female characters may be sexual, but are not sexualized. They may have been sidelined by a male driven society, but most of them do not stay that way or, even if they do, are given character and motivations of their own which means they are not silent stand-ins like so many women in fiction. By taking the tried-and-true conventions of the spy genre and flipping them on their heads, Brubaker and Epting have created one of the best spy thrillers around and it has a great female protagonist. If you want a spy-thriller that has its cake, eats it too, and won’t leave a bad taste in the mouth, look no further.