The Coldest City – perfect spy thrills

Published On July 30, 2012 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

The Coldest City

By Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart

Oni Press

“November 1989. Communism is collapsing, and soon the Berlin Wall will come down with it. But before that happens there is one last bit of cloak & dagger to attend to. Two weeks ago, an undercover MI6 officer was killed in Berlin. He was carrying information from a source in the East – a list that allegedly contains the name of every espionage agent working in Berlin, on all sides.

No list was found on his body. Now Lorraine Broughton, an experienced spy with no pre-existing ties to Berlin, has been sent into this powderkeg of social unrest, counter-espionage, defections gone bad and secret assassinations to bring back the list and save the lives of the British agents whose identities reside on it. Written by Antony Johnston, with art and a cover by Sam Hart.”

I know Johnston’s profile (and bank balance) benefits from all of those nice Alan Moore adaptations he does, but I do wish he’d find time to do more of his own things.

I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I’m always impressed by the sheer range of genres he’s worked in, and his writing is always enjoyable, often excellent, and in Three Days In Europe he made one of my favourite books.

He does romance, espionage, crime, action thriller, and so much more. And dammit, he does it very well. Case in point; The Coldest City.

It’s a wonderfully constructed, by the numbers and bloody good because of it, espionage thriller. A very British spy thriller done European comic style, although Hart’s black and white work, so reminiscent of Steve Yeowell and others, brings to mind classic 2000AD.

Like all the best spy thrillers, its strength comes not from plot construction but from mood and style. Setting it in Berlin, right on the cusp of unification, with social unrest all around, the unthinkable fall of the wall fast becoming a reality, is perfect.

The intense paranoia of the time practically drips from the page. It’s full of Cold War distrust, set in the city of spies, where everyone seems to have a cover story, in the strange days immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We join a population of agents even more paranoid and edgy than usual, their worlds changing, shifting beyond their control.

It all starts with Lorrainne Broughton’s return to Blighty, for debrief and post mortem after her Berlin mission went bad. Slowly, with suspicion, mistrust, and doubt at the front of our minds, we are told of the mission to Berlin, looking for that list of spy names gone missing following the murder of MI6’s number two in the city (BER-2).

The Coldest City isn’t the over the top glam spying of Bond et al. No action adventuring in here. This is the grim, grubby, intense spying of Le Carre or Deighton. And all the better for it, as it’s a definite page turner, a read in one sitting thing.

And yes, the plot is eminently guessable, but that in itself isn’t necessarily a criticism, there simply aren’t that many twists and turns you can throw into a straight forward, classic espionage thing is there? But it’s done in such a splendid fashion that you wont mind. In fact, the classic setup and reveal of the plot is actually all part of the appeal.

The Coldest City is a good, old fashioned piece of spy fiction. The surprise is that there’s not more off this stuff out there. But that means that every time something this enjoyable comes along, we need to celebrate it, to shout it from as many rooftops as we can, and keep our fingers crossed that Johnston keeps going with his own stuff. The Moore work may mean more work, but it does mean his own excellent name, and his own excellent work, rather gets lost beneath the name of another.

Want to see a little more? Oni Press have a sample section at their website.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton

– Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he’s written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard’s day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children’s graphic novel library in the country.

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