Review by Frank Plowright
With The Man Who Stole the World Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting conclude the first story arc for Velvet Templeton, begun two books previously in Before the Living End. Set in the early 1970s (apart from the occasional flashback), Templeton was once an active member of the secret agent community, but as the story opened had long retired and was carrying out administrative duties. Everything changes when she begins investigating the murder of an agent in Paris. She proves extremely resourceful, but isn’t coming close to why things have occurred, although has pretty well shredded her career as she’s been framed to appear very guilty.
At the midway point, Ed Brubaker slips the name of a hotel into his dialogue and it’s like being slapped round the face with a cold tuna. In itself it actually explains very little of the labyrinthine paths we and Templeton have been led down, but all of a sudden there’s some context.
Epting’s pages are wonderful throughout. Several of his collaborations with Brubaker on Captain America were set within the murky justifications of espionage, but the additional challenge for Velvet is reconstructing the period. Epting’s impeccable, with timeless attire accompanied by period technology and the occasional signpost, such as posters advertising Aladdin Sane. It’s all produced with a classical polish referencing newspaper strips mining similar material in the 1970s, elegantly drawn by the likes of Jim Holdaway, John Prentice, and Al Williamson.
Until the revelation, Brubaker’s taken us for some ride without providing any more idea about events than Templeton herself has figured out. She’s already proved smarter than many gave her credit for, but as The Secret Lives of Dead Men vividly displayed, she’s hardly infallible. There’s someone pulling strings, and she remains unaware of who that is. Post the midway point the revelations provoking the plot begin to trickle through, and the final motivation comes as somewhat of a disappointment. It’s well within the boundaries of spy fiction, but unless Brubaker intends it as an indication of the puppet master being unhinged, and that’s not clear, the logic behind what they’ve set in motion lacks any kind of consideration of possible consequences. This is up to and including the death of several people who might otherwise be imagined to have some future purpose along with those considered stumbling blocks. As plans go, it’s very much of the seeing what sticks to the wall variety when persuasion rather than manipulation would have been far more lucid.
Still, that route wouldn’t have resulted in three largely enthralling graphic novels. Does the ending undermine the entirety? No, it doesn’t, and this book alone encompasses some thrilling action, an audacious abduction and fine use of the era’s limited technology. An Omnibus edition will read even more fluidly and be a true graphic novel.