“Amateurs borrow, professionals steal,” or so they say. What they really mean by that phrase is that mankind ran out of story telling ideas somewhere around the first recitation of Gilgamesh. Science is magic and magic already did everything we could think it could do before we even figured out how to write. There are only so many different types of person and only so many different relationships one can have with any kind of person, so even if it isn’t a cliche, it is. I guarantee it. So, by the time Gutenburg invented the printing press (or just as likely aped some schematics of a Chinese one off the Silk Road) the mark of a good story lay not in the ability to come up with new stuff, but rather take pre-existing elements and make a story that is engrossing while still setting itself apart from its sources of inspiration. That, to me, is the definition of originality. Star Wars borrows a lot from Flash Gordon, but if you were judging it based purely on that, then it would be terrible.
(Hunger Games, Battle Royale, baka gaijin etc etc ad infinitum.)
The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), like The Michael Swann Dossier and a boatload of other spy thrillers, is a period piece about the Cold War, but while its various elements have all been written into existence before, it does a great job with what it has.
In a way it’s like a spiritual sequel to Petrograd, since it stars more British spies trying to do something to the Russians in the twilight of a political era related to the lifespan of the Soviet state. This time, of course, it’s a different war and different rules.
The Coldest City stars a female British spy named Lorraine who has a problem. You see, Britain got kind of sloppy and decided to write all the names of their secret agents down on a list, and this list was stolen from one of their agents just as the Berlin wall is about to collapse, so they need to send in our protagonist to find this list and recover it before the Soviets get it. It might not be the most original plot in the world, but what matters here is the feel and the execution.
And as far as the execution goes, this is a very well polished story. It can be a little hard to follow at times but the language is clear and the dialogue is concise and easy to follow. There is a healthy dose of plot twists to be found here, especially towards the end, but the most noticeable and strongest facet of this story is the atmosphere and tone. Unlike the Michael Swann Dossier, this is less inspired by the gleefully action-heavy James Bond films and instead relies on a darker, more realistic tone. Spies and their actions are less Hollywood and more strategic, and it makes you feel like you are actually getting to see real spy tradecraft and tactics on display. The setting makes it even more interesting as Lorraine is forced to design her battle plans around the riots and protests, trying to accomplish the mission on a very time sensitive schedule.
Characters are all the kind you’ve seen before, but they are very well done. Lorraine is committed to the mission even if it means making her superiors mad, who happen to be crusty old men just trying to play it safe. The author might have overdone the whole “You arrogant Americans!” motif to differentiate the different character nationalities, but it’s not a giant flaw. The French are their typical romantic womanizing selves, the British are cautious and conservative, the Americans are all holier-than-thou and the Germans are just trying to tread water until the unification. The Russians are barely seen, emphasizing the opacity with which NATO had to deal with in regards to Soviet operations as well as their mindset.
So then, the story is solid and so are the characters. The art is great at conveying the dark tone of this comic. It is yet another monochrome comic in my stable of reviews, but if you are an aspiring artist and you need lessons on how to utilize negative space, read this from cover to cover. Black and white are the only colors here and they are used to excellent effect. Characters are defined sometimes by shapes rather than outlines, but details never suffer for it. It feels sort of like the old hard boiled detective aesthetic but it works great with spy stories too because of how it helps with the deception and hidden danger motifs. Everything is stark and threatening in these colors. Anything could hide in that black, or even in the white.
The Coldest City might seem like just another spy thriller, and maybe it is, but it is very well polished. The historical setting might make this more appealing to people who are better versed in this subject matter than the average comic reader, but I would suggest this to just about anyone regardless of how many thrillers they read, because it is a quality entry in the genre.
TL;DR: The Coldest City is a great comic and you should really read it when it comes out later this month or I will be very sad. Out of pity, like a preacher who weeps for a pagan’s lack of knowledge of the Trinity.
The Coldest City is written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. Published by Oni Press, it will be available for public consumption (not the food kind) May 16. Ask your local comic book shop to order it for your or, pre-order it through our Amazon webstore.
Spandexless received a review copy of The Coldest City through NetGalley.