Who doesn’t love spies? The drama, the intrigue, the double- and triple- crossing, the helicopters stashed away in tiny, leather attache cases? The Cold War between the American, British and Soviet superpowers gave rise to the spy era, inspiring writers and directors like Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sydney Newman to tell stories involving agents tracking down secret documents and plugging leaks within their organizations. When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, it was a boisterous end to an era as Russia’s commitment to Communism wavered, a divided nation became whole, and, with two warring superpowers embracing one another on friendlier terms, many no longer saw the need for spies (naive to think now). Antony Johnston’s graphic novel, The Coldest City, details the final moments of Russia’s grip on Germany and for the British government, the end of the Cold War requires a lot of hasty house cleaning and tying of loose ends.
Set mere days before the breaking of the Wall, the graphic novel depicts a fictional account of a British MI6 agent killed on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall after acquiring a list containing the names and aliases of British and Soviet operatives working on both sides of the Russian barrier. The task of recovering the list falls upon the shoulders of operative Lorraine Broughton who must travel to Berlin, a city mere moments away from boiling over with social unrest and upheaval. The Coldest City weaves a thrilling tale as espionage and counter-espionage drive the players in a narrative that is split between Broughton’s debriefing by MI6 superiors and her experiences in Germany. Presented in stark black and white, Lorraine’s mission is marked by headbutting with her superiors and the perils inherent to being a secret government agents (the effort needed to maintain her cover makes for some tense moments).
Sam Hart’s artwork is conservative and doesn’t attempt to wow the reader with grandiose artistic flourishes because, honestly, that would be out of place here. Spy thrillers, for the most part, are all about chasing (or running from) shadows down dark alleys and losing tails by blending in with large crowds – an easy task for Broughton given the protests going on around her. Those hoping for Jason “I kill dudes with magazines, pens, and books” Bourne-style action scenes will come away disappointed as our heroine doesn’t get many opportunities to engage in epic fist fights. When Broughton is forced into a hand to hand combat, the battles are short and simple, a credit to her training. No, the closest analog to The Coldest City would be Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – slow burning, with a strict focus on those who see the end of their careers off in the horizon. As such, the work contains little offensive content, as the action is quick and very little blood is spilled.
The Coldest City will find fans with those who enjoy spy fiction that favors drama over gun fights.