‘November 1989. Communism is collapsing, and soon the Berlin Wall will come down with it. But before that happens there is one last bit of cloak & dagger to attend to. Two weeks ago, an undercover MI6 officer was killed in Berlin. He was carrying information from a source in the East – a list that allegedly contains the name of every espionage agent working in Berlin, on all sides. No list was found on his body. Now Lorraine Broughton, an experienced spy with no pre-existing ties to Berlin, has been sent into this powderkeg of social unrest, counter-espionage, defections gone bad and secret assassinations to bring back the list and save the lives of the British agents whose identities reside on it.’
Written by: Antony Johnston
Art by: Sam Hart
Publisher: Oni Press
Released: May 16 2012
You may have read our review of the movie Atomic Blonde, and may even know that it’s based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, published about five years ago. Well, I liked the movie a lot, so when I got the chance to grab a copy of the graphic novel, I thought it would not only be a good read but a bit of an interesting comparison too. Which means: Warning for some mild movie spoilers ahead, though I’ve tried to keep them down.
While the movie dazzled with it’s neon homage to eighties aesthetics, this is completely in black and white. Knowing what a colour version could look, with it’s contrasts of stern drab East Berlin’s facade covering a desperate underground culture and colourful progressive West Berlin celebrating a freedom it can appreciate all too well, stark black and white is a bit disappointing. However, it is used to good effect, with carefully staged panels and settings. Sharp silhouettes and a focus on people’s expressions in tense situations helps to keep the emotion high, cigarette smoke trailing through the panels and ominously in front of faces. It’s a little disconcerting that long shots generally involve no facial features on the characters, but the long background scenes aren’t common compared to the close-ups (sorry for the movie terminology while talking about the book). Those silhouettes though create a very distinct feel, and are a common style in Hart’s artwork.
I had already heard that this was much more dialogue than action based, which I looked forward to seeing, and it absolutely relies on misdirection and intelligence (in both ways) than guns. Relying on your characters talking in high-stakes plots rather than fighting allows a good writer to create a lot of tension, expand the characters, and basically prove they don’t need violence to entertain. This is especially important in an espionage thriller, a category where the plot generally hinges on the characters being intelligent (not just good at ass-kicking), and talking their way through situations creates more intrigue than just shooting. Unfortunately, it can also make for bit of an information overload for the reader, where you suddenly find yourself trying to remember which characters are involved in what (and how), and what detail from which bit at the start of the story they’re suddenly referring to that you’re supposed to remember. While a movie can usually pull you along anyway with it’s momentum, you must ensure a reader doesn’t get too lost and slowed down. It can get a little tangled at the start – it does a good job establishing scene with use of code, while not going overboard, but it does set up the expectation that you’ll need to pay attention. And pay attention you must – following a character who’s new to the situation allows for us to be introduced to the major players without a lot of unnatural exposition, but there’s still a lot of information to process (and characters to remember who they are) even though it’s being spread out well.
Speaking of major players, the character of the French operative was changed in adaption. Delphine in the movie is Henri in the graphic novel. I liked that it was changed; the sexual entanglement part of the plot generally played out as expected in any spy thriller, which you could see coming a mile away while reading; a female lead is obviously going to sleep with one of the male co-lead or supporting actors because romance plot/featured female character ending up with someone is such an entrenched trope, but switching up the genders let it mix up the expectations a bit (I think it also created bit of a nod to the venerable tradition of women operatives in France since the Resistance of WWII). While Henri’s romantic bit was limited, Delphine’s was used to create more emotional depth and investment. In both versions, the French operative is a little bit of a let-down though, as they don’t seem to live up to their potential – while the movie covers it by claiming Delphine is inexperienced, for the book here it is claimed Henri is first-rate; I suspect they are a casualty of being a supporting character used mainly as a device to further the cat-and-mouse plot of our main protagonist and associates. The movie also expands on more plot points, leaving The Coldest City feeling like it could have had more in there; but it is a sleek story, keeping it from getting too tangled white still keeping you guessing. Keeping the fight scenes down risks robbing some of the high stakes feeling from interactions, but also stops it from being reduced to shock value, and focusing on the intelligence work and misdirection that espionage stories are made of. I can’t help but be left feeling that a graphic novel adaption of Atomic Blonde would be more interesting than The Coldest City is, but Hart’s cold style and Johnston’s sleek plot make for a good read and you can see why it caught attention.
The Coldest City is an interesting addition to any espionage or reading collection, especially if you like seeing where good movies come from. If you enjoyed it, there’s a prequel story called The Coldest Winter set in Perceval’s past in Berlin too. There’s a ‘preview’ issue containing the first twenty pages available for free through Comixology.com (the full novel I reviewed wasn’t provided by them for review though, it is my personal copy).