Antony Johnston and Sam Hart have found a cunning and believable heroine in their Cold War spy, Lorraine Broughton.
The spy genre has saturated popular culture for most of the last century, but in terms of its gender roles, it’s arguably only in the last decade that we’ve seen any noticeable movement towards equality. Perhaps the most famous female spy in comics history is Marvel’s Black Widow, who spent most of her career as acrobatic eye-candy before Joss Whedon tried to turn her into a real person in his Avengers films.
Outside of Marvel, however, other publishers have made great strides towards showcasing female characters within the spy genre that are as fully realised and compelling as their male counterparts.
One such spy is Lorraine Broughton, the protagonist of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s The Coldest City, published by Oni Press. Set in November 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Broughton is sent by the British government to investigate the death of an agent and track down a missing list that contains the names of every agent working in Berlin, British or otherwise.
Despite her extensive experience in the field and running espionage operations, Broughton has never worked in Berlin, and is unprepared for what awaits her there. Thrust into a hostile and unfamiliar environment, her male colleagues are as disdainful of her as they are of their Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. They have spent years embedded in West Berlin trying to outwit the Communist regime, to little success; Broughton represents an ‘other’ to these bitter agents, a threat to their careers and to their entrenched masculinity.
The vast majority of The Coldest City is narrated by Broughton as she is debriefed by her superiors back in England. While she initially describes the mission as a catastrophic failure, it is through her calm, calculating perspective that we learn that there was more to this assignment than she was led to believe.
Flashback devices are generally seen as cliché in storytelling, but Johnston uses it to contrast Broughton’s experiences with reflection and add greater depth to her character. Her dialogue and actions are artful and manipulative; she is strong, capable and a cunning spy, able to dispatch her enemies with relative ease while enlisting new contacts to help her. She puts up with misogynist remarks from her colleague Percival, while using Frenchman Pierre’s mansplaining and endlessly patronising “chérie”s to convince him to divulge all the information he has. And when she wants to have sex, she has sex.
The Coldest City is a far cry from the thrill seeking of James Bond. This is the John Le Carré style of spying, where conversations happen behind closed doors, and lies and information are traded like currency. Broughton is ostensibly the perfect agent for the job, but Johnston never makes it easy for her. She makes mistakes and gets caught up in her own deceptions and people end up hurt, or worse.
Artist Hart channels both Broughton’s personality, and the cloak-and-dagger feel of The Coldest City, perfectly. He establishes its language with a strict four panels per page, only changing their structure and number when the action dictates, creating a parallel with Broughton’s narration and demeanour in the interrogation room.
When she is in control, the art maintains its structure, while alternating between silhouettes and bright whites to bathe these shady characters in even more shadow. But later, when she describes being caught in a riot, the panels switch to thinner verticals, squeezing the image into as little space as possible, obscuring Broughton’s view as much as ours. It’s cramped, chaotic and she can’t see what’s happening — why should we be able to?
Hart’s manipulation of the artwork is an impressive reflection of Broughton’s multi-faceted character and how she tells her story. Together, he and Johnston have not only created an excellent spy, but a woman who is smart and competent that has those necessary flaws to keep her character grounded. They aim for realism rather than superheroism in their protagonist, and The Coldest City is all the more compelling for it.
The Coldest City has been adapted into a film! Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton will be released on 11th August 2017. Watch the trailer below, and keep an eye out for our interview with creator Antony Johnston very soon.