Review: "The Coldest City'' (a.k.a. The Graphic Novel That "Atomic Blonde" Is Based On) by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart
For those of you who went to see Atomic Blonde in theaters this past weekend (see Tori’s review) and grew weak in the knees every single time Charlize Theron was onscreen because she is that awesome, you may have been slightly surprised while reading the opening credits to learn that the film was adapted from a graphic novel. The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, is very close in plot to its film adaptation. Set during October and November of 1989, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to Berlin after another operative is murdered while carrying a list containing the names of every active agent. That list is now gone and Lorraine is sent in to recover it, no matter the costs. The costs turn out to be higher than expected for Lorraine, as bodies end up dropping and when it’s all over, Lorraine is forced to sit in an MI6 interrogation room and explain everything that happened, amidst the growing suspicions of her superiors.
The similarities between Atomic Blonde and The Coldest City are fairly significant, but nothing that makes the story completely unrecognizable. The film’s punk-rock, our-field-of-fucks-to-give-is-absolutely-barren vibe isn’t present in the comic, as the vibe that comes off every page is that of a cold, unpredictable existence that can ruin or end your life when you least expect it, and of trained, battered-down professionals who are all too familiar with it and yet keep their heads up as they go from one day (and assignment) to the next. There is little to no hand-holding throughout The Coldest City, so if you’re expecting subtitles for the German dialogue or any explanations as to the codenames/acronyms that are used…well, always remember that
Google is your friend.
However, David Perceval (the veteran agent who is recruited to escort Lorraine around Berlin and help her in her search for the list) looks and acts nothing at all like James McAvoy or his portrayal in the film, and Delphine Lasalle (a French intelligence agent working and sleeping with Lorraine played by Sofia Boutella) is actually Pierre Lasalle in this story, and would probably be played by Olivier Martinez if not for the fact that Theron insisted on Lorraine being a bisexual.
To dive any further into story details would lead to Spoiler Territory for both film and comic, so I’ll just state that Antony Johnston, who wrote several issues of the comic-book series Queen And Country (which still remains one of the best works of spy fiction ever made) does a highly impressive job of showing the enormity of what Lorraine must deal with, as she must protect her fellow agents and retrieve the list while on unfamiliar territory and having to deal with overt displays of sexism from Perceval while trying to stay alive and realizing that her assignment is far more dangerous than she thought. (Think Prime Suspect, but with secret agents) The level of research that Johnston has done for this is crystal-clear from beginning to end and done in a way that doesn’t at all scream “LOOK AT ME!” while demanding to be noticed. Much like Greg Rucka on Queen And Country, Johnston knows how important and invaluable research is, but if it’s more interesting than the story being told, then it really doesn’t matter.
Sam Hart’s beautifully-drawn artwork is as every bit as impressive and invaluable at bringing The Coldest City to life as Johnston’s own words. The usage of black-and-white on the page is as masterful to absorb as Hart brings us into the life of shadows that Lorraine and her fellow (and rival) agents operate in, and show us that as popular and beloved as James Bond/Jack Bauer/Sydney Bristow and their adventures may be, this is not that kind of story and despite the fact that Lorraine is telling all of this to her superiors (and to the readers), there’s no guarantee that victory will be achieved by Lorraine as we turn to the final page.
Whether or not you’ve already seen Atomic Blonde or have any intention of seeing it, The Coldest City is a worthy and highly entertaining read, and deserves to be mentioned alongside many other classic works of spy fiction.