Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Before Atomic Blonde, I Venture Into The Coldest City.

The Good: Good use of jargon, Well-constructed plot, A fast read
The Bad: Terrible artwork, Plot is telegraphed completely, No empathetic characters, Inability to connect with characters, Jargon and plot-heavy
The Basics: The Coldest City is a graphic novel worth, perhaps, one read-through . . . and it severely lowered our expectations for the forthcoming film Atomic Blonde.

It takes quite a bit these days for a movie preview to have an effect upon me. I am not saying that I only watch the things I am interested in already - far from it! - but rather that film previews have such a habit of giving away all of a film's best moments, telegraphing the plot entirely, or completely failing to intrigue me, that it is rare that watching a film preview actually generates interest from me. So, when I saw Alien Covenant (reviewed here!) and I ended up more enthusiastic about the preview trailer for the film Atomic Blonde that played before the film, that's actually saying something. With a month and a half to go before Atomic Blonde hits theaters, I took the intrigue I had from the preview trailer and tracked down the source material, the graphic novel The Coldest City, to get my fix.

No matter how good or bad Atomic Blonde ends up being, arguably the biggest shock of the film will be that it was made at all from the graphic novel The Coldest City.

Yes, despite the on-cover endorsement by Greg Rucka, whose works I have generally enjoyed, The Coldest City is that bad. The Coldest City is a spy book and it is assembled in such a way that the first read-through of the book is the only one that holds water; within eight pages in to the second read, readers who know how the book ends will sit up and say, "How was I so stupid that I didn't notice that the first time around?!" Despite the problematic narrative set-up, all other things being equal, The Coldest City is neither complicated-enough, nor long-enough to make is seem like credible source material for a feature-length film.

Opening on November 11, 1989, Lorraine Broughton returns to an MI-6 office for debriefing. There, her superiors ask her to recount for them her latest mission, as the last remaining asset the intelligence agency had in the area, Perceval, has been killed. Flashing back to October 28, 1989, Lorraine recounts getting her mission. She is being sent to Berlin because MI-6 asset BER-2 has been killed. BER-2 appeared to have been killed by the Soviet spy Yuri Bakhtin, who supposedly came into possession of a list of all intelligence assets - on all sides - working in Berlin, but Bakhtin was killed before he could return to Moscow without the list on him. Broughton is being tasked with recovering the list and BER-2's body, because the leaders of MI-6 no longer trust BER-1, David Perceval.

Undercover as a lawyer sent to recover BER-2's body, Broughton arrives in Berlin, where she meets with the sexist Perceval and begins to trace the clues that might lead her to the mysterious Spyglass, the agent who allegedly created the list of spies. Perveval is not very helpful to Broughton and her short mission soon drags on. As Broughton encounters intelligence agents from the CIA, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union, she hunts for the list and tries to determine the truth surrounding BER-2's death.

One of the difficult aspects of The Coldest City is that it is heavy in realistic spy jargon. People are constantly referred to by code names, "asset," etc. and the mental acrobatics of keeping the various code names and ethnic names straight is not rewarded by any form of payoff in the volume's climax. In fact, the unrelenting pace at which new names are dropped becomes problematic as the book nears its end. "Stachel" is referenced for the first time fairly late in The Coldest City, so the emotional reaction of the reveal of Stachel's identity is more an eye roll than a gasp of revelation. The Coldest City fails to make the reader actually care about any of the characters sufficiently to get the reader to invest in the fates of any of them.

The setting for The Coldest City might be the most intriguing aspect of the book, as Berlin - West and East - in the days before the Berlin Wall fell provides a great backdrop for the book. For a book where everybody is a spy, The Coldest City makes it credible that everyone would be a spy!

Unfortunately, there is little to talk-up about The Coldest City and the fundamental problem with the graphic novel is the artwork. Like The Walking Dead (Volume 1 is reviewed here!), The Coldest City is a black and white graphic novel and the artwork works in detriment to the story. The simplistic artwork does not make it easy to tell who the characters are or what is happening in each panel. The settings are very basically rendered, so few locations resonate, and action is far more implied than illustrated. As a result, the dialogue-heavy The Coldest City does not utilize the graphic novel medium particularly well.

Ultimately, that is the death knell of The Coldest City; the artwork obscures, the nonlinear narrative is designed to throw the reader off, but ultimately, after the reveal from the first reading, there is nothing to go back to The Coldest City for again. We can only hope, the basic ideas from The Coldest City are fleshed out in such a way to make Atomic Blonde not saddled by the same issues.

For other graphic novels, please visit my reviews of:
Lost Girls By Alan Moore & Melissa Gilbert
Uncle Sam By Steve Darnall And Alex Ross
Fathom: The Definitive Edition By Michael Turner


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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