Super Spy, Written and Drawn by Matt Kindt, Top Shelf Productions, 2007
I’ll freely admit that I’m a sucker for well done spy stories and all kinds of noir-ish writing and films. However, I loathe in general the super-spy genre with its chock-a-block, action-packed dynamism and the cool as a cucumber way 007 types always crack the case, always get the girl, and never find a hair out of place. That sort of cartoonish vision of spying has as much in common with suspense as pro-wrestling does with good body images.
Having already seen Matt Kindt’s vision in 2 Sisters, I was well prepared for the irony implicit in the title of his latest work, Super Spy. No sentimentalist he, nor a mouthbreathing fanboy with iron-jawed avengers and Hindenburg-breasted heroines. Kindt’s characters are normal enough people caught up in something larger than themselves, people who just happen to find themselves on the edges of power. His stories chart what they do, what choices they make. We barely even see the effects in the overall strategies of rival superpowers.
Structured in a chopped chronology, this World War Two era tale consists of 52 fragmentary pieces whose order constantly conflicts with our sympathies. Presented in a preferred non-linear reading order by the author, he also includes helpful “dossier” numbers that can be read in a more straightforward fashion.
This is an old trick, akin to Cortazar’s fiddling with narrative in Hopscotch, but here it serves an even better function. Characters appear in their own milieu with their own motivations and interests only to have things upended further down the road. Often we don’t know who is working for whom; and if you think you do, a later chapter will disabuse you of your notions. What appeared mysterious on page 51 will come clear over a hundred pages later. A fine example can be located in this online chapter, where the narrative spirals in multi-directions.
As such, we are introduced to a variety of characters such as The Pipe Man, The Mole, Henry & Ella, and, touchingly, a nameless man who wanted all his life to be a spy and only gets his chance after he’s dead. Along the way, Kindt drops clues and leaves codes for us to work out on our own, intricately weaves commonplace items into view only to pull back later and show us how they connect to the mysteries. One of my personal favorites is a woman married to a Nazi official who communicates to her British contact by her laundry line. Arranged in Morse Code, her wet nappies, socks, and towels spell out her feeling of isolation and her need for a means out of her trap.
Kindt’s style is at times highly detailed, very expressive, while at others he opts for a crude almost sketchy line for either backgrounds where specific features would be irrelevant or to indicate speed or a character’s distraught emotional state. That sounds rather like I’m suggesting Kindt’s work is highly plot-driven, the pictures merely moving us from one story-point to another and you could certainly get that feeling with the brevity of each of the dossier-chapters. But looking closer you see a character, is she smirking in the background when she should truly be sad? That little wiggle of the hand indicated with motion lines, is that a signal? When a dagger comes into the frame, did we just miss the moment where a spy is flipped and becomes a double-agent?
While the stories do focus primarily on such mechanics of spying, the human element is hardly slighted in favor of just drama. Consider the top-trained spy who lands far afield on his parachute drop whereupon he settles down into a small village, becomes friendly with the natives, marries, raises a family, completely lets go of everything. What are we to make of the most troubled (and troubling of characters) the omnipresent female assassin whose motivations and loyalties are always unclear (except for the Russians; she abhors the Russians)? Even more difficult, how are we to appropriately judge the romances that occur between spies? Are they honest or are they calculated?
Kindt plays with these complicated emotional issues, but he never loses sight of the coolness factor that must fuel readers’ interest in spies. There are booby traps and gadgets galore, there are suicide missions and against all odds successes, but the real story, as always, lies in the mystery of the characters. Matt Kindt cracks this code nicely, neatly, and with time to spare.