Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are Pretty Deadly #1, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Emma Ríos, and Velvet #1, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Steve Epting. These two Image debuts put women at the center of genres dominated by men, delivering spectacular stories with broad appeal and stunning artwork. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Women are largely underrepresented in comic books, but one publisher has been making active strides when it comes to putting the spotlight on female characters and creators. In the last month, Image Comics has debuted four new ongoing series with women in the lead roles—Rat Queens, Rocket Girl, Pretty Deadly, and Velvet—and all but the first title have female creators involved in some manner. Amy Reeder draws Rocket Girl, Elizabeth Breitweiser colors Velvet, and Pretty Deadly has Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Ríos, and Jordie Bellaire as writer, artist, and colorist respectively. Each of these books is a strong, distinct read, with Rat Queens and Rocket Girl aiming for a light, fun tone while Pretty Deadly and Velvet are darker, more atmospheric stories in genres that tend to be dominated by men.
The first issues of Pretty Deadly and Velvet land this week, but beyond sharing female protagonists, the two are completely different. Velvet is a noir-tinged spy drama that takes the Girl Friday archetype and makes her the most badass person in the room, while Pretty Deadly is a lyrical Western about the daughter of death and those that cross her path. Both books are by creators who have worked together at Marvel Comics in the past, Velvet’s Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting revitalized Captain America and Pretty Deadly’s creative team worked on two dazzling issues of Captain Marvel, and these first issues showcase the vast creative opportunities that come with moving away from the strict editorial restrictions of superhero comics.
Since the conclusion of his Winter Soldier run in January, Ed Brubaker has completely left the world of superheroes to pursue other endeavors, including the scripts for multiple TV pilots, a Criminal movie adaptation, and his ongoing Image horror series Fatale with artist Sean Phillips. Like Fatale, Velvet focuses on a female character that usually plays a supporting role to a male hero, replacing the femme fatale with the mild-mannered secretary that sits behind a desk or on top of a secret agent when he’s not in the field. Velvet Templeton is the assistant to Director Manning of ARC-7, the English government’s elite, top secret espionage division, but as she says at the end of this issue, “That desk outside the Director’s office, that wasn’t my life… that was my consolation prize.”
In the back matter for Velvet #1, Brubaker writes that his desire to tell Velvet’s story came from the idea that the secretaries and sidekicks swooning over spy and detective heroes might have more interesting stories than all those men put together. It’s a simple concept that introduces an intriguing gender dynamic to the predominantly masculine spy genre, and it poses a multitude of storytelling possibilities in the ways Velvet’s past and present converge. Setting the book during the Cold War adds the retro allure of TV shows like Mad Men and The Americans (this first issue shows events between 1963 and 1973), and Steve Epting’s detailed artwork does extraordinary work evoking the time period through clothing, hairstyles, and classic automobiles.
Velvet #1 puts the titular heroine back in action when her favorite ARC-7 agent is killed in the field, taking her away from her desk so she can investigate his death after her estranged mentor is fingered as the gunman. It’s a remarkable first issue that presents loads of exposition without feeling clunky or forced, creating an intriguing, multi-dimensional character that is unlike any other heroine in comic books. To start, Velvet Templeton has wrinkles. The two-page title spread is a black-and-white image of Velvet holding a gun and wearing a loose-fitting button-up shirt, wrinkles in her forehead and a gray streak of hair covering up her left eye—it’s not sexy, it’s strong, making Velvet’s first appearance one that is powerful and strictly business.
Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring on Velvet uses intense shading to emphasize the realism of Epting’s art. Her work is very grounded, but also understands the importance of color in establishing the tone of a scene. Compare the intense violet and orange of the opening action sequence with the calm blue of the scene that follows it, where Velvet is woken up at 4 a.m. to learn that Jefferson Keller has been killed in Paris. The coloring in the opening is all about creating tension through the use of conflicting warm and cool shades, a tension that dissipates in the rush of blue for Velvet’s scene. That warm to cool dynamic returns for a flashback to Velvet and Jefferson bonding over a joint on a joyride through 1968 New York City, then disappears when the action moves to Jefferson’s funeral, showing how the loss of her favorite hook-up has drained some of the color and excitement from Velvet’s life.
While Velvet begins with a strong story hook, Pretty Deadly is less concerned with plot and more with immersing the reader in the setting. Where Brubaker’s script is hard-edged and direct, DeConnick’s is smooth and poetic; where Epting’s art is realistic and cinematic, Ríos’ is expressive and stylized, particularly in her page design. Velvet Templeton’s past is detailed through matter-of-fact flashbacks, but Deathface Ginny’s story is told through song and still images, a sequence that shows how comic books have roots in cantares de cego, “romances of the blind” performed by blind men using scrolls with sequential images printed on them. That scene highlights Ríos brilliant layouts, using the blind Fox’s stick as panel borders when he points to different pictures printed on his sheet of fabric.
The above page is constructed of 11 different panels that aren’t completely separated from each other, creating a wonderful sense of fluidity on the page that reflects the melody of Sissy’s song. Music is a heightened form of verbal communication, so Ríos changes her layouts for heightened visual communication. The page has the potential to be difficult to decipher, but Bellaire’s colors and Clayton Cowles’ letters guide the eye. When the song stops, the defined panel borders return and the layouts become less extravagant, but Ríos’ storytelling skills don’t diminish in the slightest. Her body language and facial expressions are incredibly varied, and her layouts are packed with small panels that draw attention to subtle reactions.
One of the standout sequences tells an entire story by breaking down one sentence into four panels zoomed in on two characters’ hands. Hands are notoriously difficult to draw, but Johnny and Sissy’s extremities show the former’s haughty confidence and the latter’s desire to break free. The zoom also serves another story purpose; Johnny is so focused on patronizing Sissy by slowly putting the coins in her hand and punching every word that he doesn’t realize she’s lifting a binder from his pocket. That causes considerable problems for Johnny when a hulking gunslinger by the name of Big Alice corners him in a whorehouse and demands the legal document, which is, unfortunately for Johnny, being used to fuel Sissy and Fox’s campfire in the desert.
A particularly striking panel shows Big Alice walking into a room where a prostitute is washing herself, an image that calls attention to the wide range of female characters represented in this story. On one end of the spectrum is the prostitute, naked except for the leash around her neck connected to a chain around her waist, a subservient figure with wide hips, full breasts, and warm peach skin. On the other end is Big Alice, a giant figure dressed in heavy black clothing that covers any discernible curves. The only feminine feature of Alice is her face, and a huge hat mostly covers even that.
With a title like Pretty Deadly, it’s clear that this book is planning on subverting traditional expectations of the feminine. The “pretty” introduces the concept of beauty, and this is definitely a gorgeous comic, but the “deadly” establishes that this isn’t going to be a story about girls in dresses playing with bunnies and butterflies. There’s a girl, a dress, a bunny, and a butterfly in this issue’s opening sequence, but they’re all brought together for a moment that is as haunting as it is lovely. The first page shows the three creatures frolicking in tall grass on a sun-soaked day, creating a sense of comfort for the reader that is shattered when the rabbit’s head explodes on the very next page.
The girl stands in the grass before a pink desert landscape, holding a gun with pink smoke flowing from the barrel, an ingenious coloring choice that associates the conventionally girly hue with guns and the expansive frontier throughout the issue. (To stress Alice’s dangerous nature, she’s the only character whose lips are colored that same shade of bright pink.) Breitweiser’s Velvet colors bring texture and depth to Epting’s art to make the book look like a big-budget Hollywood film, but Bellaire uses saturated colors that move Pretty Deadly into more animated territory. Like many contemporary colorists, Breitweiser’s shading does an inker’s job and adds dimension to linework, but when the inks are as intricate as Ríos’, using blocks of solid colors accentuates the meticulous detail.
Over the past two years, Image Comics has become an industry leader for captivating creator-owned projects, and the debuts of Velvet and Pretty Deadly are two shining examples of how the publisher continues to innovate. These two are drastically different titles, but they both feature thrilling stories and magnificent artwork, giving female characters the kind of creative attention they need to compete with the plethora of titles spotlighting members of the opposite sex.