If nothing else, writer Greg Rucka hopes his new comic-book series, “Queen & Country,” makes one thing perfectly clear about life as a spy: It sucks.
In real espionage, there are no dashing super-agents who wear tuxedos beneath their wet suits. There are no gorgeous femme fatales who would just as soon bed you as kill you. There are no gadget-filled sports cars, and definitely no gimmicky villains with funny names like “Oddjob,” “Dr. No” or “Goldfinger.”
And there is little gratitude.
“It is a thankless job,” Rucka says. “And more often than not it is one that really seems to be pointless, and it takes a toll on lives and relationships. These are people who are asked to do difficult things, and then on top of that they find themselves consistently hamstrung by their own government, the government they are trying to serve.”
“Queen & Country,” a bi-monthly regular series that debuted on March 21, is designed to be a more honest portrayal of the real spies who lurk among us – the men and women who regularly risk their lives to protect nations of people who, for the most part, don’t even know they exist. Published by Oni Press, the gritty series debunks the myths perpetuated by the James Bond films, Tom Clancy’s novels and countless other fictional adventure stories that have glamorized a profession that is anything but.
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Rucka, a veteran novelist who only turned to comics a few years ago, is a longtime aficionado of the mystery and spy genres. It shows in his original novels – “Keeper,” “Finder,” “Smoker,” “Shooting at Midnight” and the upcoming “Critical Space” – and in his monthly gig as the writer of DC’s “Detective Comics.” Even the recent “Black Widow: Breakdown” mini-series, which Rucka wrote with Devin Grayson, is a cloak-and-dagger tale. The 31-year-old writer’s passion for secret agents and government intrigue kicked into high gear as a teenager in California, thanks to a British television show called “The Sandbaggers” that was being broadcast on the local PBS station. Despite the program’s horrendously shoddy sets, costumes and camera work, the stories had a big impact on Rucka. He was particularly fascinated by the way the show depicted how spies were psychologically affected by the violence that came with their jobs, and how every undercover operation had serious repercussions that lasted long after the mission was completed. “That was an exceptionally formative series for me,” says Rucka, who now lives with his family in Oregon. “It was dramatic as hell. And it was so smart. The acting, the dialogue – I had never seen a show this sharp.”
Rucka can only wish readers feel the same way about “Queen & Country.” The book is Rucka’s latest project for Oni, the company that launched his comics career in 1998 with the mini-series “Whiteout.” A sequel followed in 1999, “Whiteout: Melt.” The new series tells the exploits of British intelligence agent Tara Chace, the latest in a long line of powerful-yet-conflicted female protagonists for Rucka. The first “Whiteout” series focused on a tough-as-nails U.S. marshal named Carrie Stetko and an equally feisty British spy named Lily Sharpe, and “Melt” was Stetko’s story as well. Rucka also has written about the DC Comics crime-fighter known as the Huntress, most recently in last year’s fantastic “Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood” mini-series.
“There’s a certain type of female character I keep coming back to, but I don’t know why,” Rucka says. “I don’t know what it is that compels me to keep writing about these characters. They’re all basically hyper-overachievers who, for one reason or another, feel utterly inadequate. And the source of that inadequacy is all over the place. I don’t know why it’s consistently with female characters. But the same issues keep cropping up. It’s even happened in a couple of the novels. Obviously I’m working something out (psychologically). But I have no idea what it is.”
Maybe Rucka should ask the real-life Tara Chace, a friend of his since high school.
“When I started writing this, I called her and said I wanted to name (the character) after her. And she was like, ‘OK! Go ahead!'” Rucka says. “She’s a linguist who has something like five languages under her belt, and I only half-jokingly ask her, ‘What’s the CIA got you working on today?’ She protests and insists she is not (a spy), but then again if she were, she wouldn’t say it, would she?”
Contrary to other stories in the comics press, Rucka says fair-haired, British secret agent Tara Chace is not actually fair-haired, British secret agent Lily Sharpe. Because “Whiteout” is on its way to being made into a feature film, Rucka is deliberately separating the “Queen & Country” and “Whiteout” franchises. “We’re actually trying to make it clear that these are two different entities and two different characters,” Rucka says.
“Queen & Country’s” first arc will last for four issues. It starts with Chace committing a very illegal political assassination in Kosovo and then trying to escape the war-torn nation in one piece. The rest of the story will depict the chilling fallout from that deadly act.
A different artist will illustrate each successive arc. The black-and-white artwork in the first one is by Steve Rolston, a newcomer to comics who previously designed online animation. Rolston’s clean, almost cartoonish style is dramatically different than artist Steve Lieber’s realistic drawings for the “Whiteout” books – and Rucka couldn’t be happier. “Stylistically, Steve (Rolston) is unlike anyone I’ve worked with,” Rucka beamed. “He’s a remarkably talented guy, and I think he’s only getting better and better.”
Rucka is especially pleased with how Rolston’s crisp style contrasts with the dark realism of the story itself. “It’s a completely different look than I thought I was going for,” he said. “I kept seeing in my head a sort of photo-realistic style, something more along the lines of Steve Lieber’s work. But when I saw Rolston’s work, I (knew) this could go a completely different way.”
Rolston says he was thrilled to make his comics debut with “Queen & Country.” “I couldn’t have asked for a better writer to break in with,” the Canadian artist says. “I think the toughest thing I’ll have to live up to is the fact that I’m not Steve Lieber. I’ve already heard a lot of people say that my style is too cartoony for this story. The thing is, Greg didn’t want a Lieber clone. That’s why the artist is going to change every story arc, so that he can work with a variety of artists and see how each of them translates his stories into visuals.”
Even though “Queen & Country” resembles “Whiteout” far more than Rucka’s work in the tights-and-capes genre, don’t expect to find Carrie Stetko anywhere in the new series. “Their worlds are completely different,” Rucka says of Stetko and Chace. “There’s just no reason to bring those two together.” Still, “Whiteout” fans can look forward to reading one more tale about Stetko’s life in Antarctica – eventually. Rucka says he will wrap up her story with a final chapter, but the project could be three or four years away. Ideally, Rucka would want to time the series with the production of the “Whiteout” motion picture, which has been optioned by director Wolfgang Petersen’s (“The Perfect Storm,” “Air Force One”) film company. “One could feed on the other,” he says.
Rucka came up with the plot for the next “Whiteout” series while walking the aisles at last year’s Wizard World convention in Chicago with Lieber. He’s not very forthcoming with details, however. “The last Carrie Stetko story is how she leaves the Ice,” Rucka teases. “Regardless of the plot of the story, the slug is: ‘Carrie’s going home.’ The real question is whether she’s going home in a box or not.”
Lieber, of course, will be on board to handle the artistic duties. “That’s a no-brainer,” Rucka says. “Steve has made it clear that he’s willing to do it.”
In the meantime, Rucka remains at the reins of “Detective Comics,” a title he took over after scoring big points as one of the writers on the complex “Batman: No Man’s Land” storyline. Many fans like that Rucka’s Batman stories emphasize the Dark Knight’s investigative skills and mental prowess instead of his brawn. That’s not just because Rucka likes detective stories. He actually shies away from traditional action stories because – get this! – he doesn’t think he’s much of a superhero writer. “I think I write very bad superhero books,” he admits. “If you pay close attention to the stuff I’ve written, I’ve consistently avoided any great big costumed fight. I have a real hard time thinking along those lines. For the life of me I can’t do it. They always feel false to me.”
Rucka wrote crime novels before he came to comics, and he has no plans to give up that aspect of his career. He has ideas for at least five more books starring bodyguard Atticus Kodiak, the hero of most of his earlier books (not counting a “No Man’s Land” adaptation and a Grendel novel subtitled “Past Prime”). He’s also considering several books that would focus on the supporting characters in the Kodiak stories. The newest Kodiak adventure, called “Critical Space,” is scheduled to hit bookstores in early October. It’s the sequel to 1998’s “Smoker,” and Rucka promises that its impact on the hero’s life will be dramatic. “It radically changes things,” Rucka says of the new novel, being careful not to give too much information away. “If you like the characters, it destroys the status quo. After this book, there’s no going back.”
When Rucka first started writing comics a few years ago, he considered himself a novelist first and foremost and thought he was “just dabbling” in funnybooks. Today, after success in both mediums, Rucka has expanded his definition of his career. “I’m a professional writer,” he says proudly. “If you come to me tomorrow and say you’re going to pay me to write a stage play, my obligation as a writer is to know how to do that. I can’t guarantee you it’s going to be a good stage play, but I can write you a stage play if you need one.
“Writing a comic-book script is a different type of writing,” Rucka continues. “But drama is always drama, and it doesn’t matter what the medium is. I’m a writer, and I write. That’s what I do.”
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