It’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, and spies on every side are panicked about the fall of the Soviet regime in Russia and where they’ll be left in a post-Cold War world. When a British agent turns up dead in the tinderbox that is the divided Berlin, MI6 send Lorraine Broughton to recover his body and ascertain the location of a list he was carrying at the time of his death – a list supposedly containing the names and true allegiances of every spy, on every side, in the whole of Berlin.
The most striking thing about The Coldest City is the artwork. Sam Hart’s artwork is stark, angular, high-contrast stuff that conjures smoky rooms and snowy expanses brilliantly. This is genuinely one of the best-looking comics of recent years. Despite being almost abstract in places, it never fails to conjure atmosphere and tension.
The plot is less impressive. Broughton is well-written; a character that manages to sidestep the clichéd ‘woman in a man’s world’ tropes that could so easily have adhered to be a hard, ruthless, effective, and yet human. Other characters are less well-rounded, broadly falling into be being either misogynist dinosaurs or just plain foreign.
While not a bad story by any stretch, it still falls into such well-worn beats that it becomes predictable. The 1989 setting may be far later than the genre’s written heydey, but it is not enough to lift the story out of the mire of Le Carré and Len Deighton imitators mouldering on those spinning racks in second-hand bookshops. Even the framing device of telling the story via an agent’s debrief is as old as the genre.
The artwork is great and the story is tightly-plotted if overly familiar. If you enjoy spy fiction you will almost certainly find something to like about The Coldest City, but you’ll also be the poorest served by its slavishness to genre conventions.