Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review - Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1

Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1
Written by Greg Rucka; Art by Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt, and Leandro Fernandez
2002 Eisner Winner for Best New Series

I need to clear this up before I do anything else: the Eisner award was just for Rucka and Rolston. Hurt and Fernandez each provided art for later story arcs that are included in the book.

Spy stories tend to either be whirlwind adventure stories where the secret agent fights criminal organizations in a two-fisted style or paranoid cold war thrillers where no one can be trusted to be exactly what they seem. There are a few stories that take another direction and look at the everyday world of operatives. The working man's espionage agent who clocks in at nine, leaves at five, deals with the usual office politics, and occasionally has to go to some unpleasant corner of the world on a boring business trip.

And that's Queen & Country in a nutshell. There are occasional bits of action but it tends to be the exception instead of the rule. The second operation in the book, for example, is run with out a shot being fired. It's a book about MI6 as a workplace rather than globe-trotting adventures.

Within MI6 is the special services division, a group of three operatives and their support staff who are brought in to deal with especially sensitive situations. The book opens with an off the book favor to the CIA where one of the operatives assassinates an arms dealer. This leads to the Russian mafia performing a rocket attack on SIS headquarters in downtown London. The section chief decides that an attack on the home office cannot be tolerated so despite the fact that operating on British soil is illegal they take steps to bring the organization down.

The next time out a pair of the operatives go to Afghanistan to recover some missing intelligence before the Taliban can locate it. The last storyline included is the most traditional of the stories in the book and features the group trying to unravel and stop a terrorist plot.

The key difference with Queen & Country and most other books about spies is that Queen & Country often places the emphasis on the details outside the operation. It's about the politicking to get permission for a controversial decision, the jurisdictional conflicts between branches of the government, how the British class division can interfere in the workplace. The waiting for that three a.m. phone call to say that everything is okay is just as important as slipping through the border undetected.

Rucka outdoes himself with his cast in Queen & Country. Most of the stories focus on the lone female operative in the special services division. On the surface she appears to be the standard tough woman who is emotionally dead and capable of taking down any man. It quickly becomes clear that this is a facade; it's the role she's expected to play and so she does it while being pushed to her mental limits.

The biggest downside in Queen & Country is the artwork. I was never really satisfied with any of the artists in this book. None of them are really bad but they all pulled me out of the story at different points.

Rolston, to start at the beginning, has a very clean style that could be thought of as "cartoony". He does a great job with facial expressions but sometimes the figures he drew were distorted in just the right way to make the character look like they suddenly turned into a child. Fernandez, whose work comprises the conclusion of the book, does terrific stuff with heavy shadows combined with tiny ink lines around the white areas. Individually it looks phenominal but he also uses some wildly exaggerated figures that tends to make all the characters look grotesque. It also has the effect of muddying some of the actions. As for Hurtt, his big crime is simply being unmemorable; he gets the job done and does a decent job but not so well that it stands out.

Queen & Country is a terrific series thanks to Rucka approaching the usual spy material from a slightly different angle. The Definitive Edition gives you a lot of bang for your buck with three story arcs, a full twelve issues, worth of material. I enjoyed it enough from the first volume to order the other three.