Does your job involve assassinating Russian weapons smugglers? Retrieving crucial intelligence before the Taliban gets a hold of it? Or stopping Islamic fundamentalists from unleashing poison gas on a packed soccer stadium?
It does for Tara Chace and her fellow ‘Minders’ at Her Majesties Secret Intelligence Service –more commonly known as MI6. Welcome to a fast paced modern spy thriller and today’s must read graphic novel!
But this isn’t just another James Bond rip-off! Tara, the other Minders and Director of Operations Paul Crocker spend as much time working around bureaucratic red-tape and politics as they do fighting bad guys. A realistic look at the ‘Great Game’ of international espionage.
Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol. 1 raises hard questions about the War on Terror, government ‘intelligence’ and whether there really is such a thing as ‘allies’ in the spy game. Here’s why you should read it today…
Tara Chance is a member of MI6s’ Special Section –a small elite unit focused on ‘direct action’, i.e. bureaucratic talk for ass kicking and, sometimes, killing bad guys. In theory the Minders, as Special Section’s members are called, exist to proactively protect British interests and security. Sometimes, though, things get blurred.
Queen and Country: Definitive Edition Vol. 1 collects the first 12 issues (and three story arcs) of the series.
Operation: Broken Ground
In the first arc of the novel. Tara (Minder Two) is sent to assassinate former Russian General Igor Markovsky, who turned mobster, in Kosovo as a favor to the C.I.A. Markovsky is in the country to buy arms to sell on to Chechen rebels. Naughty, naughty.
But MI6 isn’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. In exchange for killing the General, the Brits will get access to American spy-satellite support for their operations in North Africa and Asia. Horse trading in the shadows… what could go wrong?
While Tara manages to ‘neutralize’ her target, she gets injured while escaping. And her boss Paul Crocker has to explain himself to the Deputy Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S) Donald Weldon. He makes it clear that if Tara can’t get out she will be disavowed.
Trekking to her extraction point while avoiding mobsters, Kosovar rebels and U.N. peacekeepers –Tara makes it home to the UK.
Only to have things get really interesting.
The Russian mob doesn’t take kindly to people screwing with them and killing off their executive management. That’s just bad for business. So they send a strong protest to MI6 in form of a rocket into S.I.S headquarters in London. And put a price on Tara’s head.
How will Tara and the Minders defend themselves against a ruthless enemy? Especially when British law doesn’t allow MI6 to operate or arm its agents at home. Throw in inter-service politics with MI5, the British counter-espionage and domestic security service. MI5 wants to use Tara as bait to draw the Russians out… hmm.
All the ingredients for a volatile situation that can only get worse.
This act is as much about consequences, or ‘blowback’ as it is about introducing us to the world of MI6 and Tara Chance. If you strike at people, they will strike back. Who is left standing at the end? And at what cost?
In the second arc of Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1, the story shifts to Tara’s colleagues Tom Wallace (Section Supervisor –Minder One) and Edward Kittering (Minder Three). An MI6 agent named David Macmillan operating as a journalist in Afghanistan has been arrested by the Taliban (this is pre-US invasion folks). He was carrying intelligence that could lead to the arrests and execution of MI6’s entire Afghan intelligence network.
To save their assets, Paul Crocker launches a retrieval mission. First priority, the intelligence. Secondary priority, save Agent Macmillan.
Tara has to sit this one out. Both because of a departmental psych evaluation and because frankly as a woman she wouldn’t have the freedom of movement needed to effectively fulfill the mission. This doesn’t mean she likes. But practicality and reality dictate intelligence work. Not personal opinions or social standards.
Will Tom and Edward be in time to prevent the destruction of the intelligence network? Will they manage to save Agent Macmillan?
This story shows the difficulty agents undergo operating in hostile territory. And that intelligence work is about making choices that aren’t based on morality but on results. And, more often, on the need to avoid political embarrassment.
Operation: Crystal Ball
The third and last story arc is about an Islamic fundamentalist plot to attack the soccer World Cup with poison gas.
After coordinating a raid in Germany on behalf of the C.I.A. Our S.I.S agents get their hands on a hard drive full of information on the network of one of the worlds most wanted terrorists. The Americans want this man, Mugheniyeh, dead. But the raid misses him.
At the same time a young Arab Frenchman walks into the British Embassy in Egypt and claims he has information on an imminent attack aimed at British nationals. Tara is sent to investigate and establish if his claims are true.
The informant claims he has information on terrorist attack that involves chemical weapons. He wants a lot of money and offers MI6 GPS coordinates that he claims will verify his story.
Our ‘reformed’ terrorist gives Tara the deadline of a few weeks and demands that a deposit be paid to him before the next meeting.
The coordinates lead to a site in the Sudanese desert. Only problem is that the Brits don’t have any trusted assets in Sudan. So Director of Operations Paul Crocker asks the CIA Station Chief in London, Angela Chang for help.
Thing is that the CIA won’t give the SIS satellite cover of the site in question unless the Brits do a little favor for them. Chang says that ‘The Company’ (i.e. the CIA) still want Mugheniyeh dead. She shows Paul pictures and claims Mugheniyeh is in Iraq. If MI6 assassinates him for the CIA, the Brits will get the satellite support they desperately need to confirm the informant story about an attack.
Crocker agrees. Although he is pretty sure that the person they are about to kill isn’t Mugheniyeh.
The hunt is on. Will MI6 be able to stop a catastrophic attack on a world sporting event? Is the informant fake or a terrorist setup? Will Edward survive his trip to Iraq?
This story is all about the extent to which one is willing to go in order to keep the homeland safe. It shows that there are no friends amongst nations (maybe), just interest groups.
The Art and Writing of Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1
Greg Rucka writes a good spy thriller. He’s publicly stated that the inspiration for the series came from a 1970’s British TV show called ‘The Sandbaggers’. In fact the premises of Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1 reads very much like The Sandbaggers. And that is a good thing. Because one of the things the series inherits from it spiritual ancestor is a close look at the personal cost the agents pay for their work.
Tara is a conflicted character. She is a strong and independent woman. And she knows her job will forever isolate her from the rest of society. She works long hours. Everything she does is covered by secrecy laws.
When she has to kill for the first time in the line of duty. It has an effect on her. She isn’t some cold blooded killer who loves it off, has a vodka martini and plays a round of roulette.
Tara tries to process her guilt over taking a life. Her shock at almost dying. With alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
Rucka creates complex characters and realistic relationship dynamics. The constant fighting between Paul Crocker and Donald Weldon is especially real. Crocker is a realist, wants to get the job done. Weldon is more politically aware (and exposed), fears fallout and jockeys for position.
The art of Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1 serves its purpose –it tells the story.
The series’ first couple of issues have beautiful cover art by Tim Sale of Batman fame.
Every arc is illustrated by a different artist. Steve Rolston drew Operation Broken Ground. Brian Hurtt helped bring Operation Morningstar to life. And Leandro Fernandez provides visuals for Operation Crystal Ball.
Out of all this I really love Rolston’s version of Tara. She is attractive put not overly so. Being too good looking would be a liability for a spy with her particular job description.
Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1 is exclusively illustrated in black and white. And the artists manage to pull it off. While their styles lean a little more to the ‘cartoony’, this doesn’t distract from the serious nature of the story.
This isn’t James Bond. There are no cool gadgets, bikini clad babes or outlandish villains here.
This is a look at real espionage.
Which is often as much about avoiding bad press and political consequences as it is about keep the nation safe. Sometimes bureaucrats and social climbers are more dangerous to national security than any terrorist or mobster.
Yet, aside from these big picture issues. Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1 is an awesome action packed spy thriller. If you like this genre or are looking to read something of the beaten path. Check this one out. I can’t wait to read more from this series.
PS: If you like spy-thrillers, Brits and skulduggery you will like Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition Vol.1. Get it here.