Monday, December 24, 2012

The Coldest City

Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Sam Hart

The spy novel has become a victim of the world's progress moving away from the Cold War.  People have tried to retool it in the fight against global terrorism, or have tried to focus on rogue states like North Korea, but the genre has lost some of its effectiveness, mostly because of the sense of otherness inherent in those attempts, at least so far as the mainstream North American and European markets are concerned.

That's why I was a little surprised to see that Antony Johnston, writer of the brilliant comics series Wasteland, among other titles, had written a Cold War graphic novel, The Coldest City.  The book is set in the final days before the Berlin Wall came down, and it is very cool.  Britain's number two spy in West Berlin (known as BER-2) has been killed, and a document he was carrying, which lists the names of every spy from each country active in that theatre, has gone missing.  MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton, one of the best operatives, into Berlin to find the list.

She immediately bumps up against BER-1, who has been in the region for so long that everyone fears he has lost all perspective.  He's a misogynist, but Broughton soon begins to wonder if he's also involved in an Ice Man operation - running his own network of international assassins from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Johnston handles the spy stuff very well - the story propels itself along quite nicely, and like Broughton, the reader begins to wonder who can be trusted, and just which version of truth is the actual one.  The ending has a nice little twist to it which, to be honest, I don't think is fully supported by the story, but I would like to read the book again with that knowledge in mind, to see if I missed some very obvious signs.

If the book has a weakness, it's in Sam Hart's overly minimalist artwork.  It mostly tells the story effectively, but there were a number of times when I wasn't sure who a character was at first, and I didn't feel that there was a lot of excitement in his rather static drawings.

Still, this is a very good book, and it nicely fills the void, at least for a little while, left by Queen & Country, which remains one of the best spy comics ever written.

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