By Andrew P. Stevens. Image Comics’ Velvet launches issue #8 immediately after last month’s cliffhanger, and moves us deeper inside the dark mirrored corridor that is this espionage story. Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser further display their impressive creative talents in the midpoint of The Secret Lives of Dead Men arc.

Let’s recap: Velvet takes place in 1960s London. A clandestine spy organization, ARC-7, recently had their secretary, Velvet Templeton, leave the reservation and reveal herself as a retired super-spy. From there Templeton weaves her way through a complex backstory that involves her deceased husband, double crosses, and internal agency corruption, culminating in Velvet’s penetration ARC-7’s nerve center, a move telegraphed in the end of issue #7 when Velvet sent a photograph of the bureau chief holding the morning’s paper with a bomb strapped to his chest.

Taking a narrative leap backwards can often feel clumsy and unnecessary. With Velvet #8 Brubaker generates suspense with this motif, a skill that highlights his expert-level craft, and through it, his temporal gymnastics land smoothly. We rewind six hours to before Velvet snapped the photo of her former bureau chief-turned-hostage: the satisfying logistics of Velvet’s coercion and manipulation of the chief play out and merge us seamlessly back with present.  Velvet’s narration guides us as we move between the chief, the pool of agents tasked with rescuing him, and Velvet’s invasion of ARC-7’s HQ. The story then moves forward to the issue’s conclusion, one that teases a high-tempo finish to this arc. The use of three time spaces (immediate past, shifting present, and projected future) keeps the story careening down the highway.

Artist Steve Epting presents Velvet as a woman who dominates with skill, not sexuality. He communicates her aptitude with a deft handling of silenced pistols, handcuffs, and stealth suits. And what impresses more is the way Epting uses the formal elements to underline the agency of Velvet’s character. Through the entire issue Velvet breaches the borders of his panels, and becomes the largest image on a given page – and with a gun in her hand, she also becomes the most powerful. And while Velvet’s strength is projected thusly, we also see Epting telegraphing her equals when other characters, namely Sgt. Roberts, also breach the panelwork. This revs up the action while also making this dichotomy the centerpiece of the issue.

Epting moves between a loud, bone-crunching onamonapia etched in garish red and orange, to the subtle flourishes of his panel placement to offer the staccato style readers have come to expect with Velvet. Alongside him colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser manages the bleak color options of an office building and parking garage with a minimal pallet that never feels dull.

The pyrotechnics at the issue’s center may seem minuscule compared to the series’ previous gunfights and high body counts, but what Brubaker, Epting, and Breitweiser construct instead is a collision of well-established characters that offers more impact than a battalion of faceless Russians. A satisfying conflict means employing more than simple narrative mechanics, and so Velvet‘s team places one force against the other, with the setup of two issues’ worth of momentum behind them, and lets us as readers see the outcome. The subsequent emotional charge, compounded with our patience for Velvet‘s ultimate conflict, operate together like a well-placed beat of silence during a musical piece, and it shows that this team knows the rhythms of their story.

However, the scenes of violence occasionally run aground: risk and consequence separate moments of violent character interactions into categories of “believable” and “farcical.” (If a character is struck several times in the head with the back of a pistol and has their arm broken, one wonders how they would ever be able to get back up.) Too much distortion of these character’s mortality leave the characters appearing invincible, and the stakes feeling low. The team ought to allow a maiming or a death in future issues in order to reestablish the real potential for harm in this world.

The comic takes a dramatic turn at the end by switching the book’s main point of view towards two lowly, unnamed characters. These characters offer commentary and exposition, and in keeping with genre tropes, seem expendable. Velvet careens forward in its final panels, and demonstrates that this arc is all warmed up and ready for big reveals down the road.

Serialized narratives bump against numerous problems that are unique to their format. For the most part, each issue is expected to end on either a failure, a surprise, or a question. When one considers these three options, and the multitude of innovation the creative team of Velvet offers, one can’t help but be impressed. By issue #7’s end, we get the standard leap forward and expect the next story to fill in the gaps, rewind us back through time, and show the accumulation of steps that allowed such an outlandish moment to occur. Issue #8 offers that accumulation (and it fills in those gaps), but where lesser stories might go for a similar cliffhanger – say another leap forward hinting at yet further gaps to be filled – we instead encounter a new set of questions, while having the satisfaction of a puzzle piece slamming into place. (Namely that Velvet, after all these issues, has a plan). Brubaker balances the overall arc of The Secret Lives of Dead Men with the overall story of Velvet, and manages both with the micro format of a single issue.

While it might seem obvious in pointing out what any weekly subscriber of comic books already knows, this is worth remembering: one can approach each month with the fear that any given writer will capsize these titanic narratives and ultimately render our time (and money) lost. It is with relief and joy that Velvet #8 has a beginning and an end, that our protagonist holds a plan, and it seems that by the end of the next two issues that plan will finally enter the spotlight. That promise – coupled with the explosive nature of this issue – marks Velvet as a must-read.

Image Comics/$3.50

Written by Ed Brubaker.

Art by Steve Epting.

Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.

8.5 out of 10