Posted by Don MacPherson on November 7th, 2011
Cold War #1
“The Damocles Contract, Part One: The Minds That Matter”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: John Byrne
Colors: Ronda Pattison
Letters: Neil Uyetake
Editor: Chris Ryall
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Price: $3.99 US
John Byrne’s been quietly but consistently working away under the IDW Publishing banner for a couple of years now, and as a fan of much of his past work, I’ve been waiting for something new from him to try out. I didn’t really follow his Next Men when he was first working on it through Dark Horse Comics, and I’m not really a Trekkie and had little interest in his new Star Trek storytelling. So when I spied Cold War on the shelves of my local comic shop, I thumbed through the first few pages. I liked what I saw, so I decided to give it a try. Obviously, the most famous foray into the espionage genre is James Bond, but I’ve never cared for those flicks or read any of the Ian Fleming books. It was my hope Byrne’s take on the spy genre wouldn’t feature a similarly glamorous depiction. While the exciting introductory segment fulfilled that promise, the same can’t be said for the latter part of the book. Byrne hooked me with the opening scene, but the fishing line broke as he tried to reel me in.
In the 1950s, British agent Michael Swann was a spy without equal, managing to carry out a perilous military assassination mission behind the Iron Curtain and escaping with his life. After a brief falling out with his superiors, he agrees to a new assignment, one in supposedly friendlier surroundings. He heads to a rocket research facility in Sussex, England, to investigate the possibility that one of the leading scientists of a key project is considering defection to the other side.
Byrne offers up some strong, nicely detailed artwork here, as good as anything he’s delivered over the course of his career. The skill in his visual storytelling is most apparent in the opening act, which unfolds wordlessly. Byrne gives his readers everything they need to follow and enjoy a somewhat complex sequence of events without any kind of text-based prompting. The architecture of Cold War-era East Berlin is convincing, as are the period uniforms and clothing throughout the book. It all converges to create a convincing backdrop and context for the story. Colorist Ronda Pattison also contributes to the mood of two disparate locales as well. I love how the East Berlin scene is immersed in a dreary grey, conveying the Communist oppression against which the hero is fighting. Conversely, the democratically free England is a land of bright colors. Furthermore, the comic book boasts a striking cover, but I think it’s the design elements rather than Byrne’s cover image that really grab the eye.
Byrne’s portrayal of women in the story leaves a bit to be desired. The vision of Swann’s administrative contact sitting naked on a bed apprising him of his latest assignment is completely gratuitous, and it makes both characters seem incredibly shallow. Later, we meet a woman in an unusual profession — that of a government scientist — which is a nice departure from the typical female role of the 1950s and ’60s. Unfortunately, Byrne chooses to focus the readers’ attention on her sexuality. The upskirt shot of her hosiery-clad legs, complete with titillating garter, adds nothing to the story. Her annoyance with the protagonist seems painfully cliched, signalling clearly she’ll end up enthralled by the master spy’s machismo.
If this series promised scenes such as the exciting, clever and appropriately morbid plotting that unfolds in the opening scene, I’d be a Cold War devotee already. Michael Swann as he’s portrayed in the first act is a Cold War-era Jason Bourne, depicting the espionage game as an ugly, risky bit of business. The consequences are life or death. I love how Byrne choreographs the action in the scene, and it’s plotted in a hectic, even frenetic manner that gives the reader the impression of how quickly and franticly Swann carries out his mission.
And then there’s the Michael Swann of the latter part of the book. Unlike his other self earlier on, this vision of the super-spy is firmly rooted in the James Bond tradition. The life of a spy is its own reward, offering plenty of sex and a life of leisure. The Bond archetype glamorizes the genre, and it’s never something that’s appealed to me. Furthermore, while the premise of a possibly defecting rocket scientist suits the period in which the story is set, it seems like rather mundane fare as compared to the dark, death-defying adventure in the first scene. 5/10
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.