The comic book world is, rather surprisingly, not short on Russian spies. There’s Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier, who is technically American but was trained by the Soviets. Then there’s his sometime-girlfriend Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow. Both are significant parts of the MCU (Natasha more so), not to mention the various standalone books and prominent storylines they’ve had in titles not bearing their names. There’s even a Black Widow YA novel coming out next week. Now, hoping to join their ranks is another female spy: Baboushka. While the Russian word for “grandmother” doesn’t exactly strike fear into people’s hearts, Codename Baboushka is actually a pretty good spy drama.
Let’s start with the art. While the interiors don’t have the graphic, Bond opening credits look of the cover, they’re still full of color and energy. The style is somewhat cartoon-y and the drawing and panels have a cinematic quality that makes it easy to imagine the comic suddenly coming to life. Artist and colorist Shari Chankhamma uses the rather brilliant device of filling the backgrounds behind the panels with colors that bleed across each two-page spread, creating a sense of mood and vibrancy in the storytelling that’s more difficult to achieve with a regular panel grid and a white background.
Speaking of the storytelling, while it’s a spy drama on the surface, there’s also some superhero comic in its DNA—a hint of Batman if you will. Not only is our heroine a secret crime boss and spy, but her public persona is Contessa Annika Malikova, a rich socialite. Though she’s initially retired from the spy business, a man from a secret government agency called EON (it means Extrajudicial Operations Network, but I’d bet a whole case of microfilm that it’s an homage to the company of the same name that’s made every Bond film) blackmails her into putting on a wig and throwing punches for the good of America.
Though that’s not how the issue begins. Instead, our heroine first appears disguised as a maid and preparing to assassinate a mob boss. However, writer Antony Johnston initially tries to misdirect, using dialogue boxes to set up one of the hard-looking men around the dining table as the assassin. It would work if not for the book’s cover or stated concept. Regardless, the caper offers some fun action that does the dual work of showing how resourceful our heroine is and where the half of the issue flashing back to her recruitment by EON eventually leads.
Watching her garrote a man with her wig and use an exploding earring sets the book up as a spy story that isn’t afraid to laugh at itself too, especially the panels that end the scene by showing her final escape by motorized hang glider. They’d be a perfect ending to the issue, but for some reason, there’s another page after that sets up a cliffhanger. With more build up, maybe the moment would be a good tease for the next issue. Instead, it feels tacked on and takes away from the impact of what came before. But it’s an understandable mistake. Launching a successful comic book is hard. Johnston or Image or whoever can’t really be criticized for defaulting to a pretty reliable way of making readers come back. After all, there are lots of Russian spies in comics.