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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, June 4th, 2005


 

Queen and Country #01: Operation: Broken Ground

by Greg Rucka and Steve Rolston

A review by Chris Bolton

On occasion I'll get an email like the one I received a few weeks ago, after my review of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues, which essentially stated, "I'd love it if you would write about the book and not the book reviewer." Fair enough.

Admittedly, I might not be the right guy for this gig. For one thing, reviews without some kind of personal context always strike me as similar to the guy on the bus who turns to you and says, "You seen that new Star Wars movie yet? Well, you should -- it's the best movie of all time."

I don't know this guy. He's just someone riding the bus who blurted an opinion at me without giving me any indication of who he is, or trying to determine what kind of person I am. He didn't ask any qualifying questions -- "Do you really care what made Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader?" -- he just spat his opinion at me, the same way he'll likely spit it at a dozen other perfect strangers. In other words, why should I give a damn what this guy thinks?

And why should you give a damn what I -- or any other reviewer -- thinks? We're just strangers on the bus, spitting opinions. But in the right context, I think opinions are pretty damn interesting... as long as I know something about the person who's giving them.

Hence, to my way of thinking, it's important to ask those qualifying questions. And since, in a book review, one cannot ask questions and then wait for a response, the best I can do is try to tell you about myself -- who I am, what I think, and why I think it.

So if I tell you that I like Greg Rucka's comic-book series, Queen and Country, which is collected in several trade paperback editions, what does that mean to you? That I read comic books? That I have read them since I was a child, and I still love the comic form and believe it's capable of greatness? That it isn't merely the younger stepcousin of prose and film, but rather its own perfect medium, a brilliant synthesis of the two forms? And what does any of this really mean, other than I like to write rhetorical questions?

Here, then, are some background bits you need to know for this review: I like comics, although I read them less as I get older. I like espionage stories, although I'm more interested in cloak-and-dagger intrigue than in 007 Stunt Spectaculars. And I'm more interested in head-to-head conflicts between flesh-and-blood characters than in shoot-outs and car chases -- although those can be fun, too.

Which brings me to Greg Rucka's Queen and Country, an espionage series about Tara Chace, a young woman who works for the Special Section of Britain's Ministry of Defense -- or "Defence," as the Brits would spell it. Chace is a "Minder," the code-name for government assassin. As the first volume in the series, Operation: Broken Ground, begins, Chace is in Kosovo, where she assassinates a general in the Russian Mafia. The Mafia, of course, isn't happy about losing one of their own, and promptly tracks down the trigger-woman, while simultaneously taking bloody revenge on the agency, itself.

All of which reads like the set-up for a pretty standard thriller -- something Hollywood would cough up with a huge budget and huger explosions. But Queen and Country is a different kind of espionage story, more John le Carré than James Bond. Tara Chace doesn't dodge an army of killers, leap over speeding cars, jump out of exploding planes in mid-air -- in fact, she doesn't do much of anything in the first volume, aside from wrestle with her own conscience after murdering an unarmed man at a safe distance, through a sniper scope. And herein lies the crucial difference between Queen and Country and an action series like the TV show Alias: the human element. Tara Chace will agonize over her actions throughout the next couple of storylines, and ultimately will have to confront her ambivalence about committing murder for a "greater cause" when a similar assignment arises.

Queen and Country could very easily translate to a TV series; in fact, writer/creator Rucka has said one of his inspirations was the late-'70s BBC series The Sandbaggers, which depicted the lives of spies as decidedly unglamorous, even downright depressing. There is action in Queen and Country, but it is sparse, and on a scale that is generally believable -- with consequences that resonate throughout the series.

Each volume has an introduction by a screenwriter and/or comic book writer, and they all share the same gist: "Greg Rucka is a brilliant writer, and Queen and Country is an amazing comic book because it focuses on the human element and its cast of characters come brilliantly to life." These points are all true enough as far as they go. Rucka's writing is more than serviceable -- he does a nice job of moving his plots along, and gives his characters interesting things to say -- but are we really going to be so cavalier with the use of the word "brilliant"? Because, let's be honest, Rucka is only breaking new ground in comic books. Le Carré trod all over this terrain in novels, and Graham Greene before him; The Sandbaggers nailed it on TV, and more recent shows like the BBC's MI-5 continue the tradition. Mainstream films are a little too fast-paced and short on time to delve so deeply into the subject, but a handful have waded in; I would cite Spy Game and The Tailor of Panama, the latter based on a le Carré novel, as recent notables.

And now comics have caught up. Queen and Country has the flavor of a beloved TV series that one revisits with excitement each week, although it lacks some of the punch. The static image is one of the strengths of the comics medium, but it doesn't allow for the same hyperkinetic intensity that film or even well-written prose can bring to chase scenes. For that matter, one can only stare at so many drawings of talking heads debating matters of state before one wishes for the voice and presence of great character actors -- like, say, the cast of The West Wing. I don't think Rucka has found the perfect way to integrate these elements into the comic-book form, which has its own advantages and its own, distinctive weaknesses.

Comics aren't just read, they're seen. That makes the choice of artist an important one, and each storyline of the series features a different artist. The first volume, Operation: Broken Ground, has perhaps the best artist of the series in Steve Rolston, who sets the tone with a cartoonish touch that is sometimes lamented by critics. I found Rolston's pencils cleverly stylized and feel they do a good job of cementing this storyline in the comics world. Subsequent artists are sometimes quite good -- the quality varies, somewhat unreliably -- but no one has quite equaled Rolston's use of thick black lines and exaggerated features to balance the banal and the violent.

What I can't quite decide about Queen and Country is whether someone who doesn't read comics should give it a try. I can't think of anything in this series that one can't find somewhere else. For comics lovers, Queen and Country is an interesting, entertaining diversion that has a sense of novelty within this medium. I try not to think about what could be done with this premise if executed by a writer like Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) with an artist like Dave McKean (Cages). I keep wanting Rucka to push the envelope a little, take this intriguing idea and turn it into something you could only find in a comic-book series.

One reason there hasn't yet been a Sandman film, despite countless screenwriters' efforts, is that Neil Gaiman's masterful series utilized the comics medium to its fullest extent, and transferring it to any other medium would require a grotesque number of changes, rendering it essentially unrecognizable. Ditto Art Spiegelman's Maus and Craig Thompson's Blankets, which would surely turn into just another generic coming-of-age love story without Thompson's distinctive and powerful montages, which cut straight to the core of the characters and their emotions.

In that sense, Queen and Country feels less like a comics innovation than a comics adaptation of a film, novel, or TV series. It's fine, it's fun, it's entertaining -- but does it do anything that hasn't already been done in another medium? I leave it to the strangers on the bus to decide how important that is.


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