On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Queen & Country is just as good as a spy story as it is as a comic book

Queen & Country: Definitive Edition (Oni Press)

by Greg Rucka

Tara Chace, the protagonist of Greg Rucka's Queen & Country series of espionage comics, has been shot, targeted by assassins, used by her bosses as bait for those same assassins, kidnapped and assaulted by Georgian terrorists, lost a former lover, watched one of her colleagues from the British intelligence special operations unit die in action, and had her office hit by a rocket. And all that's just in the first two volumes of the collected 32-issue series, which is now being published in four deluxe paperback editions. (The third and fourth volumes are scheduled for release later this year, and a new series of monthly comics is rumored to be in the works for 2009.)

Whatever you might think after reading Chace's checklist of physical and emotional battering, Queen & Country is notable, most of all, for its subtlety. The series, which ran from 2001 to 2007, is one of the highlights of early 21st-century comics: a smart, absorbing, and thrillingly entertaining masterpiece of both sequential art and spy fiction. Chace's adventures roll out, issue by issue, in a rough comics approximation of real time. Each story arc, however, is set off by months, enough time that the accumulated scars of the job pile up as just so much real-world baggage. It's the same combination of focused detail and broad-canvas scope that made HBO's The Wire work so well.

Chace is the second-ranking of a three-person special ops team, known as the Minders, that handles the British secret service's dirty work—assassinations, extra-legal interrogations, rescue operations, and favors for the CIA. Her boss, Paul Crocker, is a former Minder who's been promoted into a political position. He's forced, more than once, to send his team into potentially fatal situations for reasons that don't quite square with the stated ideals of Western democracy. He also spends a lot of time fending off his superiors and his American counterparts. Chace and her fellow Minders, Tom Wallace and Ed Kittering, are blunt instruments in service of Her Majesty's foreign policy. They're expected to do whatever they're told until they can't do it anymore. Rucka uses them the same way as characters: Only the barest hints of their personal lives are revealed, just enough to keep the plot moving. It's an alternately jaundiced and romanticized vision of the world, adapted straight from the cynical espionage novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarre. As a political position paper, Queen & Country reads like, well, a spy novel. But as a spy novel and a story, its human scale is unmatched in contemporary comics.

And then there's the art. Each three- or four-issue arc is illustrated by a different artist. The work ranges from cartoonish (Steve Rolston and Carla Speed McNeil) to ultra-realistic (Jason Shawn Alexander) to superhero-style exaggeration (Leandro Fernandez). It's all in black-and-white, which makes it seem stark and intimate at the same time. Fernandez' super-sexy depiction of Chace and his unfortunate stereotyping of an Arab informer in the "Operation: Crystal Ball" storyline are the only weak spots in the first two volumes. Ralston's rounded, almost animation-style work on "Operation: Broken Ground" is surprisingly powerful; he captures all the degrees of Chace's wounded rage and self-pity when Crocker sends her on a decoy mission.

The series was initially collected in eight slim paperbacks, one for each story arc. Those were adequate; the hefty new editions are superb—dense, portable, and beautifully designed with cover art by Tim Sale and a few pages of sketches and original cover designs. They look great on a bookshelf, but they're made to be handled. And read.