Queen & Country
Writer Greg Rucka has created a gripping spy saga with the Queen & Country series of graphic novels illustrated by a variety of talented modern creators.
Book one, Operation: Broken Ground, introduces Tara Chace, one of three Minders (operatives) for the Special Section of the British Ministry of Intelligence. They’re the ones called in to clean up when missions go bad or sent on morally questionable errands. If something needs to be done but no one’s willing to go on record as doing it, that’s a mission for a Minder.
As the book opens, Tara’s in Kosovo to assassinate a mob-connected general during an undercover arms deal, but that task is only the beginning. If she manages to shoot him, then she has to worry about successfully escaping the country, avoiding both the general’s accomplices and the occupying peacekeepers and checkpoints. Plus, actions have consequences, and missions don’t always end when expected. Tara’s role as sniper makes her a target for revenge-seekers. Players in this world have long memories and complicated economies of favors owed and due.
The Minders are frequently on their own, with a country not willing to admit their mission and unfortunate factors driving the choices around them. For instance, during an escape, they shouldn’t be caught with a weapon in their possession to avoid suspicion, so during the most dangerous time of their lives, they’re often left empty-handed.
In talking about this series, it can be easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not James Bond. It’s not about glamor or sex. It’s not techno-porn, in love with gadgets and fancy equipment. It is a great read, taut action against a background of complicated alliances populated by intriguingly flawed three-dimensional characters. Their work keeps them alone, with only co-workers to understand what they go through. Even then, they’re part of a government bureaucracy, with bosses who may find them expendable when it comes to advancing their own careers.
Warren Ellis’ introduction informs us that Queen & Country has a lot in common with a British television series of the 1970s called The Sandbaggers about operatives of the British Secret Service. Now, though, there’s no longer one big enemy in the Communists of the Soviet Union. Instead, there’s a much more complex geopolitical reality, complete with rivalry between different branches of government as they squabble over who’s responsible for what.
Steve Rolston (One Bad Day) was a terrific choice to start the series. His clear-line style is so easy to read that one forgets how much skill is involved. He starts the book by establishing the home base of the Minders, a combination shared office and command center, in detail, and he keeps the conversations used to establish the premise visually interesting. The jumpy camera angles also set up a feeling of uncertainty and rapid pressure to make the right life-changing decisions.
When the scene switches to Kosovo, it’s a darker, more cluttered, decaying setting, with more black used and more claustrophic panels. The wordless action sequence chase scene that follows is beautifully choreographed with tension. As the story continues, he shows the reader everything needed, including rain-soaked cityscapes and the unspoken bittersweet comfort of a job completed. When Tara’s set up as bait, the emotions involved are complex, tainted by her not yet having dealt with the aftermath of the assassination she performed. Rolston captures all this in the way she sits on the edge of her bed or smokes a cigarette. With so much skill and talent on display, it’s impossible to believe that this was his first professional comics work.
The book also includes a short background story drawn by Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo). By the time it’s over, the reader is left with the taste of ashes. Not as from cigarettes, although the characters are the type who indulge a lot in them and alcohol as temporary painkillers and distractions, but in seeing how loyalty can only exist on the personal level and how it’s only able to accomplish so much when there are bigger agendas at play. Everyone’s expendable.
Book two, Operation: Morningstar, is pencilled by Brian Hurtt (Skinwalker) with inks by Bryan O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life) and Christine Norrie (Hopeless Savages). The style is gritty, well-suited to the dirty events portrayed and a bit rougher than Rolston’s.
The subject matter of this volume demonstrates the risk of writing stories about international intrigue: it starts in Afghanistan, where the Taleban are preparing to execute several foreign journalists. A list of underground contacts is missing, and the Minders need to recover it before it’s revealed to those in power. Given the setting, the story’s obviously been overtaken by events since its creation in early 2001.
The part that’s still relevant is the personal drama. Tara has been ordered to see a psychiatrist to handle the fallout from her previous case. She’s also not eligible for this mission because she’s female, a factor that contributes to her frustration. She’s not sleeping, and she’s engaging in risky behavior — nothing to match her day job, but still a sign of her uncertain mental state. Her freedom to sleep around, get drunk, and smoke also makes a powerful contrast with the repression of the Taleban regime.
The series takes an unfortunate misstep with book three, Operation: Crystal Ball. Artist Leandro Fernandez isn’t up to the material. He’d be better suited for one of Top Cow’s “bad girl” titles like Witchblade, given his emphasis on giving female characters, including Tara, huge breasts, tiny waists, and pouty lips. The men, for some reason, get huge, hooked noses.
Each book in the series begins with a roster, a page with thumbnail illustrations of the key characters explaining their role in the bureaucracy and status quo. This series of head shots is an excellent introduction to the book artist’s style as well as reminding readers of who’s who. In contrast to the more straightforward approach of the previous artists, Fernandez favors unusual angles, off-kilter framing, and other flashy elements to distract the reader from preference for design over clarity.
The story takes place after September 11, 2001. The Minders have busted a terrorist cell in Frankfurt that may have Al-Qaeda ties, and Tara’s sent to Cairo to interrogate a possible double agent. An Egyptian group may be planning to release sarin gas in a chemical weapon attack, and one of their members claims to be willing to reveal the details for enough money.
Without good integration with the inferior art, the text comes across as preachy and overly expositional at times. Some of that “everyone’s talking past each other” seems to be intended for effect, since the story also includes more conflict between the English and the American intelligence agents, but overall, the book’s harder to read than it should be.
Book four, Operation: Blackwall, moves away from politics into corporate espionage, a welcome diversion. A childhood friend of Tara’s has been caught on video having sex with a gigolo, and the French government is using the material to blackmail her father into setting up his new media operation there instead of England in a deal worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the host country.
At the same time, Tara’s continuing to struggle with events in her personal life and the possibility of someone using one of her sexual affairs against her. The world of this series is one where loyalty motivates a lot, and people have sex for a wide variety of reasons, but love is rarely seen.
Artist J. Alexander’s style is another departure for the series. It’s scratchy and detailed, giving everyone shadows under their eyes. It uses more lines and dark areas than the other artists on the series to tell you less, emphasizing the characters’ mysteries and hidden motivations in an illustration-influenced fashion. It’s a great choice for a story about the dark sides of relationships.
Book five, Operation: Storm Front, returns the series to its peak. It’s a complex blend of the conflict between duty and history wonderfully portrayed by the immensely talented artist Carla Speed McNeil (Finder).
One of the Minders is found dead, and the first question is whether it was really of natural causes. Their lives are so full of drama and near-death challenges that it seems ludicrous to believe that someone could pass away in their sleep. They’ve got to quickly find a replacement to bring their department back up to full strength, especially now that they’ve got a new operation.
A Russian businessman has been kidnapped in the former Soviet country of Georgia. It becomes personal for Tara’s boss, because he feels responsible for the death of the businessman’s father long ago (in a story told in Queen & Country: Declassified). Change is tricky to handle at the best of times, but here, old ghosts complicate the inclusion of new staff into the team. No one’s sure how far they can trust each other when powerful feelings of failure are involved.
McNeil’s art is terrific at capturing the emotions of bureaucracy — including fatigue and frustration — on the characters’ faces and through their postures. Her figures are so well-observed and executed that they’re almost distracting in their verisimilitude, and her crayon technique during an unexpected moment of crisis is impressive.
Tara’s determination is astounding. After seeing so many things happen to her beyond her control, it’s refreshing (and a bit disturbing) to see just what she’s capable of, both in terms of the imagination required for her actions and how far she’s willing to go. Now it’s clear why so many people, when working with a Minder, just want them to get away from them as quickly as possible.
Book six, Operation: Dandelion, opens with more change. Tara’s boss’s boss’s boss must be replaced, and the political candidate chosen has a new direction in mind for the Minders, one that makes them less significant. He wants reporting intelligence to take precedence over causing change.
The politics in this issue are all internal, within bureaucracy determining who’s going to be making life-and-death decisions. One faction is power-hungry, demanding the Minders justify their existence and all their operations. Another faction desires the overthrow of the government of Zimbabwe and wants to use the Minders to accomplish it.
The last element of change is among the Minders themselves, with one looking to retire and another replacement needing to be found. The work of artist Mike Hawthorne is a return to the spare style of the early issues, only with a slightly more angular approach. Everyone looks unhappy, angry, and unfriendly, which suits the story.
Book seven, Operation: Saddlebags, opens by exploring Tara’s family background in a story that features the welcome return of artist Steve Rolston to the series. Tara heads to Switzerland to visit her mother, who’s planning to marry a man half her age. She’s hanging out with a crowd of young, rich, oversexed, and aimless beautiful people who happen to include Tara’s old friend from book four.
After her vacation, Tara’s back to work in a story illustrated by Mike Norton. The intelligence service has found out that a government officer has been visiting St. Petersburg when he’s supposed to be in Paris. They fear he’s selling classified oil data to Russians, but they need to find out for sure. Tara and a new Minder are sent on the training mission, but it goes badly wrong.
Since some of the original comic collections are beginning to go out of print, the publisher is now releasing a series of thicker Definitive Editions: