Queen & Country, Volume 7: Operation Saddlebags (Oni Press):
I'm an unabashed Q&C fanatic. This is it folks, this is my favorite series. I own all of the hardcover trades; they sit handsomely on my bookshelf with their crimson spines and golden lettering, the ominous "Report of Proceedings" begging to be read. I have signed and framed original art from Carla Speed McNeil's run on the book. I buy every single issue, every single softcover trade, and then pass those on to others when I ultimately upgrade to the hardcovers. Queen & Country is unquestionably my favorite mainstream comic book title coming out right now. The fact that I can even refer to a black and white book from an independent publisher as "mainstream" is fantastic and would not have been possible a few years ago. I have a lot of respect for what Oni Press has done. And for me, this is their flagship title.
The art always serves the story beautifully. Oni has a knack for pairing the story arcs with each successive artist in the most appropriate way. By no means do I want to undermine the significant contributions that a rotating cast of talented artists have brought to the book, but for me the real hook is Greg Rucka's writing. I'm really not one to make direct comparisons of work, but Rucka readily admits that BBC's The Sandbaggers served as some inspiration for the series. So my advice to you is that if you are a fan of books by John LeCarre, Tom Clancy, the little known works of Trevanian, or BBC's excellent MI-5 series (known as Spooks in the UK), then you risk failing. If you're not reading Q&C, you are failing to discover the most wonderfully taut, intense, developed, and enjoyable espionage work of our time.
Gail Simone provides one of the best introductions I have ever read, where she informs you of what Q&C is not. Let me tell you what it is. It's realistic. I get the impression that people really talk like this in these circles, that these incidents and conversations are really occurring out there somewhere and we're invited in to voyeuristically listen as a fly on the wall. It's unpredictable. Notice how for the last few arcs, the roster in the book housing the character profiles indicates that one or more are deceased. Anything can happen here. It's unapologetic. Every single character, no matter which side of the presented conflict they're on, is absolutely committed to their cause. They believe in it deeply and it drives their actions. It's smart. It doesn't insult your intelligence with expository dialogue or even bother to translate foreign languages for you. Rucka just lays it out there and assumes that the audience is intelligent enough to keep up and that his artistic partners are talented enough at graphic storytelling to depict meaning. Thanks Greg.
Operation Saddlebags chronicles an encounter with Tara's mom, further develops an already well rounded Nick Poole, and introduces the rookie Chris Lankford to the team. The scene with Ed Kittering's motorcycle helmet is heartbreaking, proving that Tara is capable of connecting with people under all her bravado and skill, but not capable of sharing or discussing the experience, even with family. While tailing a mark, we are reminded that real spy work is monotonous. It is often long periods of boredom followed by brief periods of sheer terror. Paul Crocker, Tara's boss, reminds us that real spy work is about using your brain. It's about rolling over information, evaluating it, reassessing it, executing against a plan, evaluating the outcome, reassessing, and executing again ad nauseum. When rookie Chris Lankford makes a mistake, Tara's reaction is a telling moment for her character arc. She knows the options that were available and berates Chris with the choices he failed to see. Tara makes Chris feel small. It's the same way Paul later makes Tara feel small. She didn't see the options, she didn't choose correctly. In my mind all of this serves a point.
And it's a point that this arc really hones in on. Tara is an outsider. Always. She is distant from everything in the world. She is an outsider to her mother's world of raucous behavior. She is an outsider to her friend's lavish, Euro-trash lifestyle. She is an outsider because her intellect and skill intimidates her peers and subordinates. She is an outsider from the world of her political superiors. She is unable to reconcile her life, even naked and alone in the shower, with water washing her body and soul, at the bottom of a bottle of alcohol.
She's an outsider even in her own skin.
Don't miss the beautiful sketches by Mike Norton in the bonus section. If ever I was to cheat, Q&C would receive bonus points and blow out the grading scale, but I'll play fair... Grade A+.