Ed Brubaker’s comic book Velvet (Image Comics, 2015) sees the writer again explore gritty realism in a strong female character, albeit this time channelling the violent charm and loose sex of Ian Fleming.
Fleming wrote a series of novels in the 1950s and 60s featuring James Bond, an English spy, world-saver, and womaniser- those priorities sometimes in jumbled order. These novels have spawned thirty-two movies, becoming one of the world’s most successful character franchises. One of the more enduring supporting members of the cast was Miss Moneypenny, the secretary to Bond’s boss, M.
In the novel Thunderball, Fleming wrote that Moneypenny “often dreamed hopelessly about Bond.” Moneypenny’s primary function is to frame Bond as an object of desire. She is less than the inevitable Bond girl, the object of desire of the audience and Bond’s inevitable conquest – Moneypenny is merely a prop. The character doesn’t have much of a purpose otherwise in the novels, and not much more than that in the movie series until the 2007 continuity reboot, the second Casino Royale.
Wired Magazine’s review of Velvet makes the fundamental error of assessing the comic as “Bond imagined as a secretary”. The concept is instead more subtle than that. Brubaker makes that clear by having a spy who vastly resembles Bond on the receiving end of a shotgun within the first three pages of the very first serialised issue.
Brubaker’s insight instead is to render Moneypenny, in the guise of Velvet Templeton, as someone lethal and better than everyone else in the room, and hiding in plain sight. Velvet is not Bond as a 40 year old woman: Velvet is Moneypenny’s dark shadow.
In the first issue, with no real hint of emotional make-up of Velvet and a superficial insight into her murky past, there is some counterintuitive sense that Velvet is the secretary of the spymaster, Director Manning of Arc-7. If you were the head of an intelligence agency, with all the paranoia and Machiavellian insight that must run with that, wouldn’t you have the most brutal and smartest of your assets deployed physically guarding you? Velvet dispatches her adversaries with relish and swagger, the sabre finally out of the scabbard. It is a grim and hidden longing for violence finally unleashed, and entirely reminiscent of Bruce Wayne’s struggle with his inner demons in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics, 1986).
The plot of the second collected issue, The Secret Lives of Dead Men, fleshes out Velvet’s background. It becomes clear that through the perversity of being required to assassinate her husband on their honeymoon that Velvet was rendered damaged goods, and put to pasture. While supplying Velvet with a trigger-point for retirement from the field, a stronger character in control of her own destiny might have opted out and taken the job as Arc-7 executive secretary as a deserved rest on her laurels. The sense of a victory lap in the story dissolved with the insight that Velvet mentally crashed.
But Velvet otherwise presents as the chess game’s queen, capable of out-manoeuvring and out-performing (almost) all opponents. (This is done by Brubaker with panache, though some of the scenarios – such as the theft of a yacht, to aggravate an Austrian crime lord, so as to form a trap for her pursuers – beggar belief. But this is no worse than, say, the deus ex machina death traps of Fleming’s Dr No.) When she is outwitted, she immediately sees it for what it is. Seeking an ally in the imprisoned Damien Lake, Velvet is betrayed.
There is a feminist agenda in the text. The powerful woman is de-powered by the male establishment: upon recovering her power, she is betrayed by a man. It is through that filter that Velvet is the antithesis of the James Bond who slaps women and treats them as either sex toys or pawns or both. Sexual abuse forms part of the character make-up of two women in Fleming’s novels. In the novel Casino Royale, Bond’s internal monologue wryly notes why women should not and could not do “a man’s work”. Brubaker’s Velvet is the antidote to Fleming’s Bond. The character treats the agents who “seduce” her as past-times. And in her spycraft and ability to inflict violence, not only can the character do “a man’s work”, she does it much better than any other man in the comic.