Wednesday, July 23, 2014

‘Velvet’, And More Words About The Portrayal of Women in Comic Books

Image Comics’ ‘Velvet’, by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting – the team that originally concocted Captain America’s ‘Winter Soldier’ stories – is a story about a secretary at a 1970s spy agency who turns out to herself be a former top agent. It is unusual not so much in that the lead character is a woman, but that she is in her mid-40s. That would be a rarity in most popular entertainment mediums, let alone comics, where the ‘major’ female characters – Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, etc. – are all perpetually in their 20s or 30s. Even alternative comics (not that ‘Velvet’ is really an alternative title) struggle for middle-aged female protagonists, with Luba in ‘Love and Rockets’ being perhaps the most notable exception.

The choice of age for Velvet Templeton does help the title stand out, visually and narratively. Writer Ed Brubaker has said in an interview for ‘Wired’ that some of the advantages of choosing ‘a mature, middle-aged woman’ was that she could have ‘a secret history’, and she is ‘someone who’s lived a real life’. This does indeed give the character a depth that might be lacking in a young or rookie agent; dangers lie not only in Velvet’s present, but may emerge from her past as well. Steve Epting’s workmanlike art – in a good sense – also helps to diffuse the focus away from Velvet’s sexuality and place it upon the plot. In that way, it is almost the antithesis of something like former Image spy series J. Scott Campbell’s ‘Danger Girl’, and even TV series like ‘La Femme Nikita’ to some extent.

However, there are still some things that might make people longing for empowered female characters bristle a bit. In one scene in issue #3, Velvet’s only way of gaining some important information is to have sex with one of the men who have access to it. Now she is hardly alone in using this tactic, and compared to the number of times that, say, Sydney Bristow seduced men in ‘Alias’ it is relatively minor. Other potential mitigating factors are that Velvet is able to exercise some measure of control in picking her target – spurning a fat, bald ministry officer for his more attractive assistant – and that perhaps it is part of the point that, unfortunately, this was the primary way for a female secret agent in the 1970s to be effective.  Nevertheless, some might wish that the story had not resorted to this fairly ‘simple’ method for moving the story forward.

In addition, in terms of the Bechdel test, the series almost fails completely. Most of Velvet’s friends and acquaintances are men, and she seems to have gone through a few male companions in her time. The only other even semi-substantial female character that shows up in the ‘present-day’ story is the wife of a general Velvet is targeting, whose main fixation turns out to be her husband and who is quickly swept aside. This absence of women is partly forgivable – realistically, a lot of the people in Velvet’s world would be men – particularly in the era the story is set in. The series also redeems itself on this aspect to some extent through its flashbacks in issue #5 to Velvet’s tutelage from Lady Pauline, a war hero that provides both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to the young agent.

Still, I think it would be an overly curmudgeonly reader that would hold these potential shortcomings against the series. All in all ‘Velvet’ is for the most part an intelligent and intriguing read, and a refreshing change from portrayals of women in comics like this. Alas, in the same ‘Wired’ interview, Brubaker recounted how when he pitched the series as a TV pilot, notes came back insisting that the main character be 25 years old. Kudos to Brubaker then for sticking to his (metaphorical) guns on that count, and for having brought a little more balance to the types of characters and genres available to comic book audiences.

Velvet #6, which begins the second storyline, is out this week.

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