Reviewed by Stephen Aryan
This collected edition of the Queen and Country comic series from Oni press collects three trade paperbacks worth of stories involving Tara Chace. She is an operative of SIS and we see her getting involved in all manner of espionage games at home and abroad. The first mission, Operation Blackwall is a very personal one for Tara which see her visit France and try to get to the bottom of a blackmail case that involves one of her friends who was filmed in a very compromising situation. Unfortunately this person is merely a pawn and it is her father who is being blackmailed. Tara is sent in to find out what is going on, who is involved and to clean it all up before the information goes public. Whilst Tara is away we also find out a bit more about her private life and the cost of being an agent and what she has to personally sacrifice to get the job done. As ever Tara is tough, efficient and very cold when she needs to be. But there are no stereotypes here. She is not a frosty ice-maiden who hates men. At times she has to cover herself in armour to survive, to do the job and get results. Both stories in fact show us a bit more about Tara as an individual and all that she is capable of.
The second operation focuses on a mission abroad with a new recruit and it also analyses some of the politics at home. There are so many factions and internal groups all bickering and vying for power, I’m amazed anything ever gets done. Bureacracy and people who put their own self interest ahead of the greater good are everywhere it seems. As ever Greg Rucka tells it exactly how it is and this is definitely not a comic for those who always want a happy ending. Things go wrong, missions fail, people die and the strangest of weird coincidences sometimes conspire to spoil what should be a simple plan. I’m being careful not to spoil it, but in short Tara find herself in a very sticky situation and is forced to improvise to dig herself out. Unlike an action star in a movie or James Bond, she doesn’t gun down thirty guys, run twenty miles and then sit in a hotel suite sipping martinis until she is extracted. Reality is a lot tougher and more harsh and the world a lot more cruel. But Tara is not alone. She works for a larger organisation that has been doing this for a long time and she falls back on the system, as well as using her own ingenuity, to try and get clear.
All three missions in this collection are very different and each exposes the audience to a facet of being a spy in the real world. I suspect the stories are also a lot closer to reality than most TV shows and the movies, possibly with the exception of Spooks which is equally brutal at times. The other thing that really stood out for me with Queen and Country is that there is not a plethora of fancy gadgets or computer wizardry. Most of the time the problems are solved by the agents, not a DNA swap, or a computer virus, or even a listening device. Sometimes these props might be used, but at the end of the day they are merely tools and it is up to the individual. They must become whatever the situation requires and sometimes this does mean playing a part like an actor, becoming someone else, and at other times forgetting who you are and just focusing on doing the job. I suspect it is the only way to survive and get through some incredibly difficult and stressful situations. I also suspect it’s why so many of the characters seem to drink or smoke, to ease the grief, guilt, pain and blur the memories of what they’ve done for Queen and Country. It made me think about what I would be willing to do to protect my country.
You can just read the stories on the surface and enjoy the action and drama, but the more time I carry them around in my head, the more they make me think. I enjoy espionage TV shows and films and was a big fan of espionage TV shows like Alias, but it was rare it made me think about what it must be like to be a real spy. Part of that is because the show is not even slightly close to reality, but also because at the back of my mind I always knew the good guys would win and everyone would be fine after forty five minutes. There are no such guarantees in Queen and Country. If that sounds bleak, well, it is a little, but the book is also not without humour which I think is another essential requirement for survival in the business.
There are so many reasons why this series is an Eisner-award winning comic, but for me the primary reason is the writer. Each mission in this collection has a different artist, and it also varies in other missions in other collections, but the constant is Greg Rucka. Each artist brings something new to the table but it is his characters that are so real I would not be surprised if I passed them in the street. Greg Rucka has created something unique for those interested in espionage comics, just as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have done for crime and noir comics. An excellent series and well picking up in the collected definitive editions which are also great value for money.