Retro Review: Queen & Country by Greg Rucka et al

Review by Luke Williams

By Greg Rucka, Brain Hurtt, Steve Rolston, Jason Shawn Alexander, Leandro Fernandez, Carla Speed McNeil Chyna Clugston Major, Chris Samnee, Mike Norton, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Christine Norrie, Stan Sakai, Anthony Johnston and Christopher Mitten

Queen & Country #2 (Oni Press) by Greg Rucka

Queen & Country is that rare beast in comics: an espionage thriller. Less the flash bang and occasional pop art of Nick Fury, more the world weary ennui and politics of ‘George Smiley’, published by Oni Press and running for 32 issues in the early noughties – and largely forgotten by many, perhaps?

The driving force of the book, Greg Rucka, has gone onto higher profile projects for the big two, including celebrated runs on Wonder Woman, Batman, Gotham Central and the Punisher. With his artist partners, Rucka has also generated creator-owned work material, such as Lazarus, The Old Guard and Whiteout all featuring strong lead female characters. 

His penchant for hard-nosed, strong female characters, started here, with “Minder” Tara Chace, one of the special section, a three member team attached to under the Special Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6. Operating abroad, they’re tasked with protecting the United Kingdom from international threats via assassinations, kidnapping, defections, or just purely stealing information from foreign enemies with maximum deniability theft. “Wet” work and dirty tricks, in the “interest” of UK security. 

Tara is complicated. Unlike other members of the section, she had no career in the military prior to recruitment. Born to a privileged background, talented at her job, a future “Minder One“, if not more (if she lives that long), but more hang ups than a wardrobe. A troubled character, the stress and strain of missions means she smokes and drinks too much, while resisting direction from her superiors to seek advice from the service’s psychiatrist. 

It’s a quiet book, but that’s not to say there is no action, but that tension and drama is as likely to be generated in the ops rooms, C’s office, or in the double dealing between the rival services as it is in the field. All the while, Tara and her colleagues are risking life and limb for “Queen and country”, flashes of violence amongst the tension generated by the political double dealing. 

It’s not always clear who the good guys are. Rucka successfully questions the morality of SIS actions, not all “ops” are successful and a Minder’s actions can have significant consequences. With the (then) contemporary setting, Rucka, with his talent for research and eye for detail takes the opportunity to comment on the geo-political place that the UK found itself in in the early 2000s as, post 9/11, it dealt with the Balkan War and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rucka has been open in the inspiration for the series: the classic Yorkshire TV series from the late 1970s, The Sandbaggers, Rucka taking these themes and situations from that drama, and updating them to the early 21st Century. 

The team is headed by Minder One Tom Wallace, an affable and dependable ex-soldier. Tom reports to that rare thing, a survivor of active service with the special section: Director of Operations or “D-Ops”, the perpetually grumpy, irascible, barely approachable but fiercely loyal Paul Crocker. In turn, Crocker has a tempestuous relationship with his superior former field agent – Donald Weldon – and his boss, “C“ – Sir Winston Stanton Davies, a political animal and civil servant, who is answerable to the elected members of Her Majesty’s Government. Crocker makes enemies wherever he goes, be it in the on/off working relationship with London CIA chief Angela Chang, his PA Kate, or his “partner” UK security services, like MI5. Rucka has a talent for believable characters and realistic and compelling dialogue and its these moments with the artists avoiding drawing talking heads, makes the series gripping.

Each story arc is split into Operations, with a different artist for each “operation”. For the most part the art is clear open and unfussy, occasionally cartoony, an odd counterpoint to the gritty dialogue and plot. Gradually the art becomes darker; there is a gradual transition from Steve Rolston’s work on the first arc, “Operation Broken Ground”, and Bryan Lee O’Malley working with inkers on the second arc, to the shadowy, rakish line work of Leandro Fernandez’s work on “Operation Crystal Ball”. Further on the run, it flits back and fore between an open clear line style to the grittier inky style of Jason Shawn Alexander (“Operation Blackwall”) and back again. There is early work by Mike Hawthorne, Bryan Lee O’Malley and Chris Samnee, too.

  • Queen & Country -Operation: Broken Ground - art by Steve Rolston
  • Queen & Country - Morning Star - Operation: Morningstar - art by Brian Hurtt, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and Christine Norrie
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Crystal Ball - art by Leandro Fernandez
  • Queen & Country: Operation Blackwall  - art by Steve Rolston
  • Queen & Country - Operation: Stormfront - art by Carla Speed McNeil
  • Queen & Country- Operation: Dandelion - art by Mike Hawthorne
  • Queen & Country - Operation: Saddlebags - art by Mike Norton and Steve Rolston

Towards the end of the run, the series takes a sideways jump into novels, integral to the complete storyline, the first two novels A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars sit either side of the final comic arc, “Operation Red Panda”, with the third and final novel “The Last Run” following on directly from “Wars”. The change in medium doesn’t affect the story, Rucka maintaining the momentum, tension and depth of the comic series and are worth picking up.

There were three “Queen & Country: Classified” spin offs, too, effectively original stories for Crocker and Nicky Poole, who becomes Minder Two about halfway through the parent series, the latter written by Antony Johnston.

The series has been collected: slim trade paperbacks collecting an operation at a time were released, alongside some snazzy handsome hardback leather bound volumes. However, these are quite rare now, and also out of print. Easier to find are the “definitive editions” which, despite having extensive back matter (development sketches, scripts etc), are smaller than the original comics they are derived from. Convenient that may be, but for those of us who like their definitive editions to be oversized, these are disappointingly diminutive, but rather that than not be able to read this classic series at all.

Rucka feels that Chace’s story is done, so won’t be revisiting. But what he and his collaborators left behind is a classic, self-contained espionage series.

Luke Williams

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Categories: Comics, Features, Reviews, US Comics

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