Queen & Country: Operation Red Panda
I’ve missed Tara Chace. Now I’m trying to catch up with her, but it’s like meeting an old friend who’s been away longer than I’ve realized, and an awful lot has happened to her in the meantime.
When last I saw her, at the end of 2005’s Operation: Saddlebags, she had failed her first mission as Minder One and was crying, alone, in the shower, with a bottle of whiskey. Since then, there have been two novels that covered life-changing events. According to other readers, this comic collection is set before and leads into the second novel, so not having read them shouldn’t be much of a handicap.
Queen & Country: Operation Red Panda opens with several wordless pages of Tara being met at the airport by her boss. I didn’t connect with the events, because I’d forgotten too much since last time I’d seen the series, so I put this book aside and reread the previous, which gave me much better emotional context for the story to come.
Chris Samnee’s art is impressive. Seeing his crowded airport, the fatherly air of Tara’s boss, her turned-away face, I feel the silence, the resignation, the solitude even in the midst of others. Later on, his ability to craft mature, nuanced faces is a major strength in supporting the dialogue-driven scenes (or interactions based around not saying things). His use of shadow to indicate the planes of the face is masterful.
Tara’s being debriefed after something that happened in Saudi Arabia (the substance of the first novel, I assume). Her unfriendly interregator sees her as a cliché, as shown by his introduction to her, offering whiskey and cigarettes. She’s self-medicating to reduce nightmares, which doesn’t help.
This is perhaps the most unglamorous spy story out there. Tara is often alone, and when she’s not, she’s surrounded by a bureaucracy of fat old men. She’s got terrible habits, and they’re not cool or sexy, they’re vomit-inducing. No one’s truly concerned with her well-being; they pay attention to her health only in the sense of whether she’s ready for work. Due to how events have shaped her, she’s no longer interested in her old source of self-esteem, her job, and she has nothing left to replace it.
Part of the scheming going on at higher levels involves avoiding having to use someone called Andrew Fincher, a character I didn’t recall and isn’t otherwise explained, not even in the short profiles that open the book. I’d love to have known what was so objectionable about him.
As editor James Lucas Jones alludes in his introduction, this is the last volume of the series for a while. Writer Greg Rucka had been doing a lot more work for superhero publisher DC Comics recently, although his exclusive contract with them recently ended, and while he intends to tell further Q&C stories, you never know what the future will bring.
As a series conclusion, even for now, I think the previous book Saddlebags works better. It’s a down note, but that’s in keeping with the gritty tone of the series. Red Panda feels inconclusive, as though it only exists because it was needed to connect up the books and comics, and without knowing the novels, the ending is less rewarding than I had hoped it would be.