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Pipeline, Issue #392

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Pipeline, Issue #392

The Pipeline Guide to QUEEN & COUNTRY began last week, with a look at the first four collections of Greg Rucka’s spy series. This week, I cover the following three collections, plus all the issues that have come since.

When all is said and done, that’s over 30 issues reviewed in two weeks.

VOLUME FOUR: BLACKWALL

This is a nice follow-up to the DECLASSIFIED mini-series. It has a similar pace to it, separate from the heavier and more involved storylines preceding it. In BLACKWALL, the international politics and story twists of previous storylines take a back seat to a much more personal mission and plot line. Rucka focuses on the growing relationship between Minders, here, and perfectly parallels it with a case of international blackmail with a touch of espionage. Tara Chace’s private life comes under increased scrutiny from the senior Minder, forcing action on her part. When a friend of hers is involved in a scandal she doesn’t know about yet, Chace is on the scene to look out for British interests. Luckily for her, it also means helping out a friend whose life of blissful ignorance is something Chace has to be envious of. The Minder’s job is one that tears away at you piece by piece, as Rucka has increasingly shown with each storyline.

To put it more sensationally, this is the sex book. If you’ve read the Q&C SCRIPTBOOK, you saw the pages in which Rucka talks about the one nude photograph of Chace he asked Rolston to draw. Several sketches went back and forth until he got just the right look he was asking for. I can only imagine the e-mails that went back and forth over the opening three pages of this story, which is much more graphic. It is NOT, however, gratuitous. It’s tough to write a review where the word “sex” isn’t immediately modified by “gratuitous.” I’m glad it’s true here, as it was one other time in this series already.

I had a harder time adapting to J. Alexander’s art than I had with Leandro Fernandez’s. There’s a learning curve associated with his style. Up to this volume, every artist had a certain cartoonier look. Brian Hurtt, Steve Rolston, and Fernandez are in the same general category of art. It’s iconic, if we wish to use Scott McCloud’s terminology. Alexander, however, takes a sharp turn to the left with artwork that looks more like Eddie Campbell’s or Bill Sienkiewicz’s style. It’s that scratchy photo-referenced looking thing with a lot of stylistic touches. If you liked Michael Gaydos’ art on ALIAS, this art style will appeal to you.

The artistic high point of it, though, comes from Tara’s eyes. Of all the things Alexander draws in this volume, it’s Tara’s eyes that are the most haunting and most piercing to me. He has ways of drawing them so that every emotion that’s going on inside of her shows in her windows to the soul. It’s uncanny and startling.

Like the first DECLASSIFIED volume (the second begins next month), this storyline feels fairly breezy. That isn’t to say it’s unimportant or a let down. It just doesn’t twist as much as the others. Rucka throws the reader into the middle of the storyline at the start, complete with French dialogue. (My rusty high school French picked up a few phrases, but not enough to follow everything.) It isn’t until the second issue that we really know what’s going on in France.

After that, though, there’s no room for padding or authorial flourishes. The story rolls along at a rapid clip. The emphasis, though, is the growing tensions between Edward and Tara back at home, as well as the pressure Tara puts on herself, as seen all along.

One curiosity for the whole thing, though: Alexander’s cover to the trade paperback edition of this volume and issue #14 of the series focuses heavily on Tara in possession of a gun. Rucka, however, repeatedly points out how very little guns are used by British intelligence, to the point where anytime one is authorized, it’s his short hand for telling us that this is a Very Very Dangerous mission. In her one physical confrontation of the book, Tara kicks, punches, and swings a pole of some sort at her opponent. No firearms.

You know what? The covers look cool and maybe I shouldn’t be overanalyzing them so much.

The introduction this time around is a light two pager from GLOBAL FREQUENCY producer and QUEEN AND COUNTRY movie scriptwriter John Rogers. Three sketch pages round out the book.

As much as I like looking into the personal lives of those occupying the Minder position, I’m hoping the next book swings back to the political mindgames of earlier storylines. It’s a delicate balance.

VOLUME FIVE: STORM FRONT

OPERATION: STORM FRONT, is the thickest Q&C volume so far, clocking in at five issues. It doesn’t feel at all like that much, though, because Rucka whisks you away into a real page-turner of a thriller. Again, he combines the best of the political with the best of the personal. This is probably the best mixture of the two so far. While there are some nice parallels between the A Plot and B Plot, there’s also no attempt made to link everything together in a forced way. This story isn’t a novelist’s attempt to look clever. It feels much more natural than that.

A surprise death at the beginning of the book ratchets up the tension from the get-go. The events of the first DECLASSIFIED volume have aftershocks in this volume, as Crocker relives the events of that mission and attempts to make up for his own perceived failings in it. We even get to briefly see his wife in this one again.

This is also the story for me in which Crocker’s assistant, Kate, becomes her own character, rather than just good comic relief. It’s not that Rucka forces her into action, but that her reactions to the events around her show her to be something more than just the typical droll sounding board for the boss’ cases of temporary insanity. While I don’t want to see her drafted into a mission or anything quite so unbelievable, I would like to learn more about her in a future storyline. Perhaps a future DECLASSIFIED? She’s one of the only completely likable characters in the book. I’m sure that’s only because we don’t know enough about her. Rucka would, no doubt, torture her somewhat mercilessly to introduce her to the readers.

As with Jason Alexander’s art, Carla Speed McNeil’s takes some getting used to. We’re back to a less scratchy and interpretive style. Speed McNeil’s art is a nice blend between the realistic and the cartoony. Her characters are often drawn in inbetween poses, giving a very natural look to the art. It’s almost voyeuristic at times, such as when Tara Chace is painting in her apartment. It looks like photo reference was probably used to get the anatomy and posing right, but it doesn’t feel traced and forced, like so many artists today who eschew good art in the name of realism. If there’s one criticism to the art, it’s that there is an infrequent problem with keeping characters differentiated. You have to pay attention to tell the difference between Wallace, Crocker, and Weldon. I came to rely on hairlines to do the trick.

There’s a level of experimentation and variety in her art that I find refreshing, also. Line weights assume a thin uniformity when sketching in an establishing shot, whether it be of the outside of a building or the inside of an airplane. She uses black and white comics to their full effect, dropping out the panel borders and letting the image float there in a serenity that’s shattered in the next panel as the scene begins. Later in the book when the action occurs outside on the streets of a Russian city, the art goes in the opposite direction. It’s thick lines, charcoal rubbings, and solid blacks to fill out the panels. The feeling of impending doom if strengthened by the dark pages.

I also like that Speed McNeil lettered her own story, by hand. For the first time in this series, it’s not done with a computer and the accompanying awkward balloon shapes to fit all the dialogue in. There are some other problems associated with it, instead, such as a lack of white space inside a few balloons, a layout that’s less than 100% clear in one or two panels, and the occasional unevenness of lettering forms. That’s part of the charm of hand lettering, though. It’s not perfect and the eye easily registers that.

STORM FRONT sacrifices some of the high political intrigue for more of the personal. It strikes a delicate balance of the two, trading one off for the other instead of trying too hard to force it all in. Carla Speed McNeil’s art is a splendid addition to the Q&C pantheon, adding her own touches in while keeping with the original feel of the series as drawn by Steve Rolston.

(Note: Scott Beeler points out on the Pipeline message board that the second story, OPERATION: CRYSTAL BALL was also five issues. The first sentence in this review is in error. When I looked at the books lined up on the shelf, though, this volume is clearly thicker. I finally realized that’s because volume five uses a thicker, rougher stock of paper. Same number of pages, much thicker spine. It holds the art well.)

VOLUME SIX: DANDELION

Much has been made in these reviews of the on-going struggle for Greg Rucka to balance the political with the personal in QUEEN AND COUNTRY. It’s a series that needs both aspects of it functioning at the same time to fully work. Many of the most wonderful moments in the series occur not because of their relevance to the overall plot, but due to their allegiance to the characters. There are multiple moments just like that in this volume, most notably Minder One and Minder Two’s drunken jaunt to Bath at the start.

OPERATION: DANDELION is a turning point in the series. All of the events that have happened so far — especially including the DECLASSIFIED volume — have consequences. We see them here. This isn’t a series with merely a succession of storylines and artists. It is one that builds on itself to form a serial, without the reader being pummeled over the head with forced melodramatic cliffhangers. Each volume stands on its own, but they all come together beautifully. That said, I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning and working your way forward with the collections. While Rucka gives the reader enough prods and nudges to explain the characters as he goes along in these pages, I can’t imagine this book having nearly the same kind of impact if you haven’t been keeping up all along.

There’s plenty of internal politics in here amongst the British intelligence agencies. A new minder is chosen in an unorthodox fashion. The main plot, meanwhile, deals with an attempted overthrow of an African government, which at times might even remind you of some aspects of the Ivory Coast situation today. The entire thing happens without the Bruckheimer explosions and fancy action set pieces. This is a story that relies on misdirection, human intelligence, and spy teamwork. It’s more tense than it is bombastic.

And just as a pop culture maven, I appreciated the references to MI-5 (“Spooks” in the U.K.) and THE PRISONER that Rucka sprinkled into this volume. There’s probably an obvious SANDBAGGERS one that I’m missing as well, but I haven’t gotten to those DVDs yet.

Mike Hawthorne takes his turn drawing this storyline. This is a nice middle ground of art styles for the book. It doesn’t bend quite so far to the cartoony as Rolston, but it doesn’t lapse into the attempts at the more realistic stylings of Hurtt or Alexander. Hawthorne draws iconic characters and doesn’t try to hide it with needless crosshatching. It’s a classical style, in many ways, reminding me at times of Jack Kirby and Keith Giffen, with just a bit of Bruce Timm or Darwyn Cooke thrown in. It’s a solid storytelling style, as well, keeping itself confined to a grid approach without visual spectacles like broken panel borders, bleeding margins, or pin-ups. Hawthorne restricts himself to a more serious and subdued manner befitting a realistic spy drama such as this.

This series, for all its dramatic real world politicizing and procedural details, seems most comfortable with an artist that isn’t trying to draw photorealistic imagery, or a stylized impression thereof.

Hawthorne can also pull off drawing a sexy Tara Chace without going to the extremes that Leandro Fernandez did a few volumes back. There is a subtle beauty here that you might not pick up on right away. When the script calls for Chace to be more overt with it, she pours it on without going to a cartoonish extreme. Who knew Chace could look so classy?

Half the book is talking heads, but I never get those heads confused for one another. With the help of the roster page at the beginning, it’s very easy to get a grip on Who’s Who. In fact, many of these characters look more distinct here than they ever have. Weldon, for one example, develops a large chin and slightly more bloated and weary facial features. He looks a little like Slam Bradley or an aged Dick Tracy here, which I like.

This is the first volume that I wish had been colored. Don’t get me wrong; Hawthorne’s style is suited for black and white books. He doesn’t make the rookie comic artist mistake of drawing something the same way for black and white as he would for color. There are solid black areas, a varying line width to all his drawings, and a stark simplicity that keeps things clear to the eye. But I kept imagining Lee Loughridge’s colors applied to this book. Give it something softer and colorful, with only slight gradients to it. The book would look perfect. One day in the future, when the series is over and the movie trilogy is wrapping up, perhaps Scholastic will offer to reprint the whole thing in color.

John Dranski’s lettering doesn’t suffer from many of the cramped awkward balloon shapes that the series had earlier on, but it’s not perfect yet, either. The balloons often have lumpy shapes, with flat tops or bottoms. There are too many tangents between the balloons and the panel borders. The biggest thing that Dranski needs to figure out how to do is butting balloons up against panel borders. There are too many awkward overlaps in this book. This book has looked best so far with Sean Konot handling the lettering in the first volume.

In the end, DANDELION shows a clear progression in the series’ storyline, while experimenting with another art style in a successful way.

VOLUME SEVEN: SADDLEBAGS

There is no volume seven on the stands yet. It hasn’t even been solicited in PREVIEWS. Don’t rush to your store to look for it.

However, it seems likely to me that the seventh volume in the series will be comprised of the standalone Q&C #25, and the three part “Operation: Saddlebag” storyline from issues #26-28.

Like the collection, issue #28 isn’t out on store shelves yet, so you can consider this an early review.

First things first, though: QUEEN AND COUNTRY #25

Stories are primarily about character. I am of a group of writers who believes that the plot is not the most important thing. The character is the most important thing. Especially in a soap opera, and that’s what comics are. They’re soaps. People come back to them over and over again because they love the characters. Every now and then they get really excited about the story, but the reason they care about the story is because of the characters.

That’s Greg Rucka discussing writing fundamentals in the recently released WRITERS ON COMICS SCRIPTWRITING 2 book from Titan Press, written by Tom Root and Andrew Kardon. I think it speaks volumes for what QUEEN & COUNTRY #25 represents. This isn’t a summer blockbuster movie; it’s a quiet character piece.

And Steve Rolston returns to this issue so that Rucka can write THE PINK PANTHER.

That’s not really fair, though. This isn’t a story of a bumbling detective on the ski slopes of Switzerland searching for a stolen jewel. It is, however, my point of reference. Q&C #25 feels a lot to me like a classic 60s movie taking us to the ski slopes of the rich and decadent Swiss culture. In this one, though, we meet Tara Chace’s mother, who is busy taking on a suitor half her age and living life without a care in the world. She’s the center of her own world and looking for whatever fun may come her way. Tara, of course, does not approve. Tara’s too much of a stick in the mud government agent, despite her occasional dalliances to the contrary.

Rolston’s art is well measured throughout the book. He sticks to a strict grid style of storytelling, often letting moments stretch out for a couple of pages, but never cheating in that. When Chace returns to her apartment at the very start of this issue, it takes three pages for her to unlock her door, pour herself a shot, check back in with the office, and open her mail. Every beat is timed for a reason.

The backgrounds are busily packed with cameos from the likes of Rolston, James Lucas Jones, Jamie S. Rich, and more. Many of them appeared in his initial storyline, too. It’s always interesting to look at an artist’s work over a period of a couple of years to see how it changes. The most obvious change in Rolston’s art style is that he has a firmer grip on the model for Tara Chace. This is likely to be true just because the character has been established for so long. We’re not seeing the character in her early development any more. Rolston.

On the face of it, I don’t see any major evolutionary steps in the artwork. This isn’t a bad thing. For starters, it’s only been three years. Rolston set the bar rather high in the first volume. He drew lots of backgrounds back then, and does the same now. There’s a bit more variation in his ink line weights, but that’s about it. Storytelling is just as strong.

Rucka indulges his desire to include as much French in the series as possible. While I could follow most of it, it does get annoying after awhile. I don’t care how cheesy it is to put the English translation inside of brackets to set it off as translated text. Doing so means that everything is understood clearly by the reader. During a pivotal moment on the slopes at the end, the body language, tone, and reactions are enough to get the gist of the story. I can even make out some bits of dialogue, but I don’t want to be working that hard to get to the friggin’ point of the scene, if not the entire book. I just want to read the story. Even with a foreign film, you get the captions at the bottom to translate everything. I want some of those in this book. These aren’t just useless pieces of dialogue thrown in for color.

As you might have guessed by now, this is a completely different entry into the QUEEN AND COUNTRY canon from all others. It won’t be for everyone, but I also don’t think it’s that much of a stretch from the types of stories Rucka tells on a monthly basis in the series, anyway. It’s very cerebral. Almost a slice of life story. The environment is as rich as the characters. It’s not the most exciting story, but it is compelling.

This issue is a self-contained graphic novellete, clocking in at 42 story pages. That’s also why the price on the issue is bumped up to $5.99. It all works out, though.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY #26-28

This short storyline is deceptively simple, but it’s one of the most tense and certainly the most startling storyline so far.

When D. Ops gets word of a repeat suspicious visitor to St. Petersburg, the SIS is called into action. A simple stalk and search mission gets turned upside down with one not-well-timed Deer In The Headlights look, and things change quickly.

If there’s one fault Rucka has with this storyline, it’s that it too often comes to a halt before being jumpstarted back to life. He risks his storyline feeling too coincidental, that every time they seem to be stuck at a dead end, another call comes in to jumpstart the action. As great as the mood and suspense in this storyline are, I think a little bit of frenzied chaos might have been warranted somewhere.

Mike Norton does a great job in drawing this storyline, fitting in quite nicely between Steve Rolston and Mike Hawthorne. Their styles all mesh together nicely. With Rick Burchett handling art chores next — reuniting the creative team of that HUNTRESS mini-series that seems so long ago — it seems that the editors at Oni have finally arrived at something of a house style for this book. It’s that middle ground between cartoony and “ultra-realistic” that they’re looking for. Without begging for attention, the art remains stylistic but restrained. It’s all very controlled stuff, which is fitting for a series that works hard to keep its feet planted on the ground.

The storyline runs a short three issues, but the ending is sharp enough that I want to see how it affects the characters right away. Waiting for the next storyline is going to be difficult. But, really, what choice do I have?

And just for the prurient amongst you: Two — count ’em, TWO — shower scenes in issue #28. One for the guys, and one for the ladies. There are nipples in each. Enjoy.

CONCLUSION

I should have one here for you. But if you haven’t gotten the gist of the series by now, I don’t think fifty words of glib summation at the end will do the series justice. QUEEN & COUNTRY is one of the best books on the stands today. Period. Go forth and read.

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next week with a look at some art books that would make for excellent gifts this Christmas season.

As we near the end of the year, I’m giving thought to a Top Ten list and a Pipeline Index column. Stay tuned to find out.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: EXTREME MAKEOVER keeps reaching further for special interests; Two hybrid car stories; CRUSADE on DVD; the problems with corporate e-mail; The loss of language; Twins, twins, twins. And more.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page. I haven’t had that account in years, but they’ve yet to delete the page space. Bizarre.

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