While making my Wordstock rounds–independent press here, literary journal there–
I stumbled upon Super Spy, a graphic novel by Matt Kindt. The stylized artwork drew me in, as did the promise of pages lined with secret codes and hidden messages. When I took it out of the library, however, I was surprised that what kept me reading was neither the art nor the puzzles (though both were fun), but rather the characters.
I’m not going to delay my verdict on the novel until the end of this post: it was fantastic. Super Spy not only makes great use of the graphic novel medium, but also tells a story which at once captures the thrill of the spy genre and looks at very human issues. It manages to shed the romanticism of spying, and yet, not make it completely unappealing.
How can you exist as an individual, with aspirations, attachments, and desires, when your life belongs to your country? How can you build relationships when your identity has become a swirl of lies? Though there is no lack of gadgetry and secret codes, Super Spy is, at core, about the spies. It’s about an Allied spy who marries an Axis officer and has a child with him, only to feel racked with guilt over the marriage and fear for her baby. It’s about a man who, despite knowing the dangers of allowing his emotions to compromise his work, falls in love with, and reveals himself to, a fellow spy.
Kindt deftly deals with the clichés of spy fiction–the double agent only out for revenge, the cocky egoist, the lose-cannon who loves the killing aspect of his job more than he probably should–and makes us feel for them again. We have seen them before, but in the sketchy lines and sharp dialogue they become real. We care for them, we don’t want them to die, and feel shocked when, almost without warning, they do. A throat is slit; the Nazis come–Kindt early on warns us that the lives of us characters are constantly in danger and can end or change without warning. His characters are always on edge. They constantly debate how much they can reveal to the ones they love. It’s an unfortunate side effect of war, and the fragility of their lives makes them all the more real and precious to us.
One of the really unique aspects of the novel is the narrative structure: Kindt tells us the events out of chronological order, but provides a dossier key in the table of contents so that the reader can go back and read the chapters in order if they choose. Well, I say unique, but it reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, which offers you two different ways to read the chapters, in order, or by jumping all over the book according to page numbers at the end of each chapter (think of a “Choose Your Own Adventure Novel” where the path is prescribed for you.). Though Kindt is not the first person to write a story like this, his use of “jumping chapters” here is fresh and really powerful. Because of the disorganized narrative structure, he creates the odd experience of viewing a character’s
death before we know why we care about them or why they are killed. A character who seemed to be incredibly minor will suddenly become fleshed-out and beautiful. Events have a delayed significance to them, which means that the novel becomes more and more rewarding as you read along, until finally, in the last few chapters, Kindt deftly ties up the lose ends. Like a spy yourself, you have the ability to see only bits and pieces of what’s in store that sometimes don’t even seem to fit together, but you must stick with your contacts (the characters in the novel) until you have a clear picture of what’s going on. I really wish I had my own copy so that I could spend more time looking at the structure. It’s really quite skillfully done.
But, as I said before, what makes this novel really interesting are the men and women whose stories Kindt has created. The characters of Super Spy have to give up a piece of their humanity, their openness, their ability to connect with others, and yet, these are not things that one can force themselves to give up without painful emotional consequences. This becomes particularly clear in his female characters. At first, I was surprised to see an equal number of female spies in the book without one mention of any of them being underestimated or dismissed by their superiors. I was confused at first, and wondered about the historical accuracy, but the point soon became clear–female spies, though never treated as less competent, highlight the sacrifice a spy must make of their body for their country. As a spy, your country owns your body. Suicide missions are well within the range of expectation. But women, more often then men, have to sacrifice their bodies in other ways: they sometimes become exotic dancers and prostitutes, giving their bodies over to others so that a cause may live. And, often, no one considers what that sacrifice means to them as people. It’s heartbreaking.
This is not a graphic novel you just can’t read only half-paying attention. The highly stylized art makes the character designs a little more difficult to recognize, but, as you can imagine, it’s crucial to remember the characters in order to get the full impact of the story. I often found myself flipping back to pick up more narrative clues that I had missed the first time around. This is not a weakness, per say, but something to be aware of. To read this, you have to be involved. Fortunately, it’s perfectly deserving of your full attention.