The most fantastic comics (hell, even films and books in general) I’ve read instantly grab me into their world, by means of their characters, the locale, the plot – basically the main ingredients of a story, stirred up with oodles of charm and care to keep its audience hooked all the way through. Zot! and Bone, two very prominent independent comic titles which have been collected over time into massive tomes, are a very important lesson in long form comics becoming graphic novels – both have engaging plots and wonderful characters, and there are a lot of emotional payoffs during the time one keeps reading it. In contrast, pessimistic but excellent storytelling is found in the manga version of Nausicaä: The Valley of the Wind, being a lot more brutal and honest than its film incarnation about the realities of war.
At least from their very covers I know what I’m getting, and if there’s a twist in the story, it’s more than welcome if the introduction and development is already strong. If you, dear reader, are more than savvy to my reviews on The Cool Bean, you’ll notice that for the comics who are touted as one thing across the board but are revealed to be something else, they often fetch a high word count for a review explaining how they might have failed doing that. So you might want to pop to the loo or grab a snack in advance of my coverage on Velvet.
Velvet popped up online last year as a startling preview of a military boxer and his lover being caught in a smoochy romantic clinch to the disgust of their superior officers. Without further elaboration, it began to look like a serious story that would touch upon LGBT issues, especially in a traditionally heteronormative institution like the military. Acquiring and reading the entire graphic novel however, has completely and utterly destroyed the message in the preview. (Spoiler: it’s not about LGBT issues. At all.)
Garth Cremona has taken the wheel on writing duties with letterist Scott M. Davis. Wayne Cambronero is the artist for all the stories throughout (there are two short stories at the back of the book), but is strangely absent from the acknowledgements page at the start. Velvet, as the preview told us, is the story of Jonathan and his lover Mark who get caught making out by their superior officers, and will be disciplined for their actions. It gets worse.
Mark is beaten and hung to lure Jonathan out, and both are left for dead. Jonathan buries Mark’s body after a tearful goodbye and hitchhikes his way home. Jonathan’s mother urges him to get revenge, and after he buys some fresh guns from a dealer, he begins his murderous rampage on strangers and military alike. It gets weird.
After the soldiers murder his mother and catch up to him, Jonathan discovers that his father Eógan is supposedly alive and well, with the same brutal overpowered killing prowess Jon has, because of their special bloodline. Eógan reveals (after they spend the night together in a nearby house – yep, sexually) he is an alien who possessed the body of Jonathan’s great grandfather and has lived on in the bodies of his male descendants since, and that bloodline has mutated super-genes as a bonus. But rather than pair up with a woman to birth a new male heir, Jonathan entered a same sex relationship, throwing a spanner into the works. It gets even worse.
Incestuous Alien Not-Dad Eógan then reveals his plan to destroy the Earth and threatens to rape Jonathan before he kills him and wears his fresh hunky body like a zentai suit. After smashing his face in and dragging Jonathan by the belt like a briefcase to a secure bunker, Eógan is about to do the dirty until Jon breaks free from his bindings, pummels Eógan and discovers a nuclear bomb in a (labelled) wooden crate right next to them as they fight, ready to go off in seconds.
The story then suddenly jumps to explain the backstory of Anabelle, a girl who has life sucking powers and acidic blood who turns out to be Jonathan’s half sister. She’s not a male host but it doesn’t stop Eógan from finding her in an asylum as an adult, training up her powers, and collecting her blood as samples as she lies in a bath full of it. She hears the commotion of the fight and somehow teleports Jon away from the explosion, taking Eóganwith her in the blast. Finally we cut to Mark, as a lost soul, selling himself to the Devil and as a result is now an undead spectre with the intent to murder Jon, not aware of their relationship before. End of book one.
Let’s put this plot to one side before I get back to its problems.
Presentation wise, Velvet suffers from pixelation and scaling issues for its cover and interior pages. Cambronero’s art is otherwise clean, but gets floaty and blobby as the linework doesn’t meet the edge of the panel, and lacks a tonal range. The character faces lack distinction and at times it’s very difficult to work out which character is which, especially between the men in the story, and this is exacerbated when new (nameless) characters show up. The backgrounds look like Google Sketchup wireframes pasted behind the characters, and some are so blown up the pixels look like scraggly lines. Rather than address this and redraw lines over it to cohesively tie together the page art, the lines are left as is, leaving sparse backgrounds and no sense of location.
Pity, as the two short stories at the end show off more of Cambronero’s quite good design and layout range, leaving Velvet looking very unfinished in comparison (the pages and cover themselves have very fuzzy artifacts, akin to JPG files, and the colour cover suggests variation of skin and hair colour that the pages omit altogether). The lettering is otherwise alright, save for many cropped words and spelling mistakes throughout.
The two short stories at the back of the novel, Cell Block Z and Dawn Boat are short and sweet, and while not necessarily groundbreaking need their own separate publication.
Velvet‘s choppy plot is chock full of bad vibes and terrible implications, since this is not the LGBT issues story it presents itself on the cover. Mark’s brutal murder by his officers would have set this story firmly in the past, but the technology used by Jonathan’s pursuers set this post-millenium. The art nor the story have succeeded to mention a time and place (America) until much later. The motivations of the military are very one dimensional and way too over the top, until we get some lengthy exposition from Incest Alien Not-Dad before his sudden bipolar flip into world destruction – meaning the military were aiding the whole We Need A Male Heir To Help Destroy The World plot, considering the amount of homophobic slurs they scream at Jonathan throughout the whole thing. And the women who birth the heirs (at least one is seen in the story) are also angry at the whole thing but were complacent enough to conceive them in the first place; we don’t really know how they discover the truth, or even do at all. And they all die violently, including Anabelle.
Because of the twists and incohesiveness, Velvet’s message is indecipherable – is it portraying oppression of gay people by presenting heterosexuals as an extreme ‘other’ (and fails), or that the only (living) gay character in the story can, through tragic circumstances, just turn into a brutal unfeeling killing machine because he is double-alien/’other’ himself? Mark’s very death is a gender flip of a very cheap, tired and sexist trope: a female character existing in a story just as ‘the girlfriend’, but suddenly dies in tragic circumstances to advance the male protagonist’s roaring revenge plot. Mark is nothing else but a fellow soldier and bed buddy to Jonathan, so the trope applies.
(Mark’s doomed homosexual soul laughably ends up near Hell of all places: zero mention of an afterlife in Velvet is not the problem here, though Jonathan and his mother take their sweet time to go back into enemy territory to dig up Mark’s body and put him in a proper coffin… marked ‘Willys’. Ha ha.)
The bafflingly swift introduction of Alien Incest Dad Eógan is a disaster, leaving way too many plot threads to be resolved. And everyone effs and blinds exposition because it’s edgy and subtle hints through showing the story is too much effort for the sparse art – every character has two personalities, a choice between ‘I’ll fucking kill you, you fucking faggot’, and as plot device fuck.
Velvet – again, in the context of the Irish comics industry – has cleaved through a fragile net in terms of quality control with a machete, and unbelievably goes out of its way to smash its teeth straight down a concrete staircase, dragging the reader along by the neck. The script is plain awful – a tool that’s meant to string the plot together, as well as direct the art, has failed here. The art as a result does not grab attention, and feels despairing and unfinished. The final proof of the book needs some serious editing and polish, and as a pricey graphic novel it displays severe negligence from the very cover onwards. An absolute disappointment.