The Pipeline Guide to QUEEN AND COUNTRY is a project that began in September. With Greg Rucka's novel about to hit the streets, I wanted to refresh my memory of the series and catch up on the issues I hadn't read yet. That involved reading through seven hardcover collections and, by the time I finished those, three individual issues. The write-ups are lengthy, and the final set of reviews came close to 6000 words. You'll see the first four volumes reviewed here this week, and the final three (plus assorted single issues since then) in next week's column.
VOLUME ONE: BROKEN GROUND
QUEEN AND COUNTRY debuted in 2001, the brainchild of WHITEOUT creator, Greg Rucka. At the time, I hadn't read any of his novels, and I came to Q&C based solely on the strength of the previous mini-series with Steve Lieber. It's only now that I can look back at these stories and see bits of research from the novels leaking through to the comics page. It probably works in reverse, also.
Volume 1 is titled "Operation: Broken Ground" and it introduces us to the world of MI-6, the rough British equivalent of America's CIA. (MI-5 is, again generally speaking, the British FBI. It's also a pretty cool television series.) The book centers on Tara Chace, one of the high ranking agents at the organization -- referred to as a "minder" -- who is sent off on a clandestine mission without official agency approval. She's to assassinate a foreign leader as a favor to those slimy Americans the British Intel types like to sneer at. (Don't worry - the Brits will do slimy things to themselves in later storylines.) What happens after that mission, of course, is ten times more exciting than the mission itself. It's a complicated web of politics, intrigue, spy behavior, and action/adventure.
The book is set solidly in the modern world. Rucka has said repeatedly in interviews and at conventions that he doesn't like to write the book too far in advance. He wants it to be timely and topical. Thus the following storyline included the atrocities of the Taleban, but was written ahead of any American wars in Afghanistan. Putting aside the current events that leak through to the page, QUEEN AND COUNTRY is a series that is serious about the modern world. There is no black and white. There is no one single bad guy to be fought. Each story tells of a completely different struggle, often in far corners of the globe. The Brits are neither the good guys nor the bad guys. They are looking out for the own interests, as they should. They believe they're doing good in the world, and as a whole, I suppose they are. But Q&C is far from a jingoistic tract.
Rucka's dialogue sounds British enough to me. It doesn't rely on cheap British-isms to intimate the accent. ("Lorry" and "brolly" don't show up in the first book at all. Nor does "lift.") Instead, the rhythms of the speech often convey the accent to these American ears, and that's enough for me. Plus, the word "cunning" is used. I've never heard an American use that word without imitating a British character named Baldrick.
It's hard to believe now, but there was some controversy over Steve Rolston's art when the series first started. It was too cartoony, the detractors said. I'm sure they felt silly when comparing Rolston's art to the incredibly controversial artwork of Leandro Fernandez a couple of storylines later. I'll touch on that later, but I think both controversies are misguided.
I like a cartoonier style of art, though. I'm turning into less of a stylist and more of a storytelling fan as I get older. That's part of the reason I enjoy USAGI YOJIMBO so much, or any of those comics created by animation veterans. It's not just the cartoonier style, but also the fluidity of line, and the crispness of storytelling. These are people used to doing storyboards, not just splashing big pictures on the page.
If you read through the Q&C SCRIPTBOOK, you'll see what Rolston had to work with, and why this book was such an impressive debut for him. Rucka doesn't write easy scripts. They're jam packed with sound logic for every scene, plus background details that might never need to be seen, but which are present in the room. Rucka contends that he doesn't have a good visual sense, and so is happy to have artists like Rolston draw the book for him. I think he's being too hard on himself. Reading QUEEN AND COUNTRY, it becomes obvious that he does have the senses necessary to tell a good comic story, but that the visual aspects are probably not the kind he feels comfortable explaining. It's innate. He still has specific ideas and reasoning for every last detail in ever scenario, all of which is effectively conveyed to the artist.
Lettering is by Sean Konot, who sneakily uses a font that's a bit compressed horizontally. I've seen him use it in other books, as well, but never to as great an effect as he does here. Rucka packs panels with word balloons, particularly this early in his comics writing. Using the smaller font allows Konot to comfortably fit more dialogue on the pages in the scenes where it counts. And while much of Q&C is a talking heads book, this is not an overly chatty one. Dialogue is crisp and breezy, even when explaining the terrible little details of foreign intelligence.
The collected edition of the book includes a short story drawn by Stan Sakai for one of the Oni color specials. It's six pages that fill in some of the gaps between issues 1 and 2 of the series. It's nothing that the series NEEDS, mind you, but it is fun to see Stan Sakai drawing a serious story filled with humans. Unfortunately, it's reprinted in black and white, so the art looks a bit muddy. It's not a horrible job, over all, but it is a harsh reality of economics and marketing.
Tim Sale's original covers for these first four issues are also dutifully reprinted in their original black and white form. Five pages from Rolston's sketchbook round out the volume. You'll get to see early character designs from that.
Does BROKEN GROUND actually break any new ground in American comic books? I don't know. It does, however, cement Greg Rucka as a serious American comic book writer with an idea for a series completely unique in today's market. And as Rolston's big break, it certainly has paved the path for another promising cartoonist. Overall, it's an impressive debut for an even more impressive series.
VOLUME TWO: MORNINGSTAR
"Operation: Morningstar" is a different type of story. While "Broken Ground" was a four-issue action and spy piece, this one is a bit more cerebral. We even get that oh-so-popular 21st century storytelling convention: the shrink who hears it all. In the wake of events from the first storyline, Tara Chace consults with the department's psychologist, trying to figure out why she's so miserable. Her drinking is on the rise, her sleep is cut short, and she does stupid things knowing full well that they're stupid. If you've read Rucka's novel, A FISTFUL OF RAIN, you might be a little familiar with this type of character. Chace, however, has more redeeming values and a head screwed on much tighter to her shoulders.
This whole drama is happening at the same time as a mission to Afghanistan. It's mean to recover a list of live British undercover agents before the Taleban finds it. As Stuart Moore points out in his introduction, this storyline was being written in June 2001, three months before Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, and the Taleban (or Taliban) were common words around water coolers. It's a serendipitous piece of storytelling, one that brings much of the revolting shock of the situation's reality to the fore with some expert storytelling.
Rucka doesn't take time to explain everything in this story. It reminds me of the style David Mamet employed for his 2004 movie, SPARTAN. When it comes time for the undercover ops, you had better pay attention and move quickly. The story does just that, and it won't bother stopping at five minute intervals to explain every little detail. That's fine. Sacrificing clarity for pacing, mood, and atmosphere is an acceptable trade-off. Rucka makes it work.
Brian Hurtt's art is uneven throughout much of this book. It's only three issues in length, but goes through two different inkers. As you might expect, the first chapter inked by Bryan ("Scott Pilgrim") O'Malley has a much thicker line. It more closely resembles Rolston's art style, but it comes at a bit of a price. Shortcomings in the art are highlighted by the bold style. Christine Norrie comes in to ink the last two parts, and it's a much cleaner look. The art is less cartoonish, although the thinner line weights and additional white spaces give the pages a much lighter feeling.
Sean Konot is back on lettering for this mini-series, but he leaves after it. That's a shame. His lettering was a big part of the look for the early issues of the series. If you don't believe that lettering can have that big an affect on something's overall look, picture STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION without its highly recognizable font scattered everywhere throughout the series. I would have liked to see Konot stick around as the one visual consistency in the series. I guess his growing career at DC and in Bob Schreck's office kept him too busy. Shame.
OPERATION: MORNINGSTAR is a strong second volume in the series, not falling into the dreaded sophomore slump. Rucka uses this outing to prove that this isn't just going to be a spy series, but will also focus strongly on the characters. It's not that the first volume didn't do that -- we saw subtle glimpses of Tara with her alcohol crutch at home -- but this is the one to drive home the point. There's more to this book than an action spy piece. There's politics and character, too.
VOLUME THREE: CRYSTAL BALL
(Parts of this review can be found in the original review of this trade done for Pipeline #300 on March 11, 2003.)
Rucka's politics get even more timely here.
It's been a few years now since Rucka wrote WHITEOUT. He's become a very highly sought-after author over that time, working for Oni, Marvel, and DC. He juggles multiple series at the same time. He's no longer the novel-writing comics neophyte he once was. His storytelling skills even then, though, were apparent fairly early one. His judgment and skill in using the events of September 11, 2001 at the beginning of the third volume of the series show a maturity of writing talent in the format that shouldn't be there yet. It's a simple thing, but it sells the story beautifully and knocks the reader for a loop. The first page takes place in the ops room, as the phones quickly come to life and chaos starts to grip the room. The last panel of the page is a simple glimpse of a computer screen, showing the time and date stamp to be September 11. Placing that panel anywhere else on the page robs the scene of its emotional impact. Storytelling is in the timing. Comic storytelling in the layout. Rucka follows that page up with a personal look at Chace's reaction to the events, which again is handled well.
The book then quickly delves into an attempted poison gas attack that spans the globe from the Middle East to Africa to Japan. At the end of the story, I'm left scratching my head. How much of the politics and real world background that I just read was fact, and how much was a dramatizer's license? I haven't a clue, which is only slightly scary. I feel like I learned a lot in this book, but I have no idea how much of it is true. This book needs an annotated script to accompany it.
Rucka once again blends in a heavy dose of politics with some great cloak and dagger activity to effectively drag these characters further into their own hells. We see Chace continue to make bad personal decisions in an attempt to cope with her day job.
No review of this volume can be written without a comment on Tara Chace's breasts. I saved this for last because it's the topic that dominated all discussions of this storyline originally. That's too bad. As I've already pointed out, the story is wonderful. It deserves all the attention it can get. Now that I've made that point, though, let's talk about the artistic choices of Leandro Fernandez.
I can picture him getting the script to the first issue and discovering that he's about to draw a book with a big romantic storyline. It revolves around a young male Minder and the well-trained blonde Minder he works opposite every day. Perhaps with that in mind, he wanted to be sure his art conveyed her sexiness, instead of her trained spook tactics. So she gains a supermodel figure and face, complete with loose strands of hair in front of her face and two obese pillows attached to her chest. It's something that might be overlooked of passed off as an artistic choice if he hadn't posed and clothed her so provocatively. In the first issue, she wears a mesh top exposing a black bra underneath it. That didn't bother me too much. I've seen similar things on the streets of New York City or in local malls. By the second issue, though, she's working in the office and wearing a plunging neckline that shows off about 80% of her now enormous endowment. It's distracting to the point of being laughable.
On the other hand, at a certain point you have to get over that. This is a series with rotating artistic teams. You're going to come up against one or two that you don't like, or perhaps don't fit the overall vision of the series. I think Fernandez's art in this book is spectacular once you get past his issue with Tara's figure. You know what you do? You complain once and then you move on. There's nothing you can do, short of calling George Lucas and having ILM fix her chest in post. That ain't gonna happen.
It's also a dramatic underestimation of Fernandez's contribution to the storyline and his own artistic talents to concentrate on that one aspect. As impressive as Chace's breasts are in the story, Fernandez's ability to draw a talking heads scene with a certain level of drama and anticipation is equally impressive. He does a great job issue after issue in having two people stuck inside the same room look interesting. Some of that is in the staging. He doesn't repeat himself often, and he uses odd angles at times to emphasize points. Not everything is straight on or drawn in profile. His camera moves around the room without being obvious, and his cartoony faces are capable of a wide array of emotions. Sometimes they might seem a bit melodramatic, but they're always interesting and relevant to the story.
Don't let the few artistic glitches in the book distract you from what is a very strong story. It's the series most far-reaching effort and most ambitious, on a global scale.
Like Judd Winick says in his introduction to this volume, QUEEN AND COUNTRY is Rucka's strongest work in comics. Heck, it's his gift to comics. Nothing else he does compares to it. If you like WONDER WOMAN or WOLVERINE or whichever SUPERMAN title it is he's doing, you owe it to yourself to try Q&C. It's a completely different book from those, but it's much more rewarding and, I think, entertaining.
VOLUME THREE AND A HALF: DECLASSIFIED
It comes as no surprise to me that DECLASSIFIED Volume 1 was originally intended as a one shot special, before being expanded out into a three part mini-series. This isn't to say that the book feels padded. It doesn't. It's just that unlike the previous stories thus far, this one is pretty simple and straightforward. At the heart of it, it's a story about extracting a man from behind the Iron Curtain. Rucka uses plenty of action to keep the reader at the edge of his seat, but doesn't turn this into a dumb action flic. Instead, the story plays up the character differences of the actors in this drama. There's still some great internal politics at work here, often at cross-purposes that you might not expect.
The book is set in 1986, where a younger Paul Crocker is a mere Minder. He's been drafted to enter Prague to help escape a defector who is a local leader of the KGB. Gorbachev is relatively new to office, and the ensuing mayhem gives the defector this opening. Things, of course, don't go that easily. By the time the story is done, Crocker has had to defend himself, his mark, and his country against enemies from all sides. Along the way, we see the toll his secret intelligence life has on his family, as his wife has a hard time accepting his continual absences.
Although this book is obviously smarter than your average MacGYVER episode, it sure does remind me a lot of that series. MacGYVER took place during the Cold War, and MacGyver often traveled into Communist strongholds to help liberate prisoners, defectors, or spies. In that show, he and his charge would get into increasing levels of danger before things looked very bleak, indeed. MacGyver would get caught by a bunch of character actors with bad accents and stock military uniforms. Then he'd fashion his way out of a dark corner with his Swiss Army knife and the cleaning chemicals locked up in the storage room with him. In many ways, it's a light comedy in comparison to Rucka's gritty Q&C. But at the heart, it's a similar story - snatch and grab, run like hell, hope the plan holds even when you know it won't.
Brian Hurtt illustrates this volume solo, inking himself rather than relying on others as happened in the series' second volume. The difference is dramatic. It's the perfect middle ground between the two art styles we saw in the previous story. He draws characters capable of emotion and action at the same time, mixing in realistic backgrounds with characters who can, at times, seem a little exaggerated or cartoonish. His line weights set him apart here, as he is just as capable of drenching a page in black ink and shadows as he is in lightening it up during a conversation in a brighter room. With the help of some well-placed photo reference, Hurtt's work here is realistic without that fakeness that is often associated with creators who rely too much on their digital cameras and images.google.com.
The beauty of this volume, perhaps, is that you don't need to read the other Q&C books to be right up to speed on this. It takes place entirely in 1986. There's no cute framing sequence to push it into the current chronology of the series. You can give this volume to a friend as an enticement to enter this world. It's a great sampler for the series with all the puzzle pieces in place, but without the extra talking heads scenes. I think this is the most accessible the series gets.
You'll want to have read this one for future reference if you're a devotee of the series. The events in this issue directly related to a storyline a couple of books from here.
Scott Morse's cover paintings are included in black and white (including one rejected cover), as are some sketches and page layouts from Hurtt. The introduction this time around is from Micah Ian Wright. I didn't read it. Who knows how much of it you can believe? It's an unfortunate black mark in the series, but who knew at that time?
DECLASSIFIED VOLUME 1 (there's a second starting soon) is a nice companion piece to the overall series, allowing Rucka to jump back in the series' timeline to tell a story with a ripple effect that's soon to be felt. Hurtt's second go-around as series artist is a much more solid affair, as the kinks have been ironed out.
We are four volumes into the series now, and I've yet to have a disappointing story. How many series can claim that?
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week, I'll dive into the remaining three collected editions of the series, plus the remaining single issues. I think the last of them isn't due out until the end of the month, so it'll be a special preview.
Over at Various and Sundry this week: Jeopardy! tongue twisters, a sad farewell to Ken Jennings, Podcasting, annoying web blinky things, ESPN's upcoming poker drama, shopping at Christmas time, and more.
All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.
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.