The Tom Clancy world of espionage and intelligence is a crock. The Cold War?s over, and no one in the spy business remains under the childish illusion that there?s a big red octopus out there digging its tentacles into the Third World. Clancy is content to just invent a new big international enemy, but, in reality, that?s not the threat we face today. Threats are pluralistic, allegiances are liquid, and if you entertain doubts about what happens in covert operations, try and imagine what it?s like for the agents in the field. How do they maintain faith in their paradoxical and quixotic orders?

This question is at the heart of Greg Rucka?s Queen and Country, from Oni Press. Rucka is a successful crime novelist, and this has been his first foray into comics. To preserve the illusion of continuity between articles here in Comickaze, here?s what Warren Ellis (creator of Transmetropolitan, featured last week) has to say about Queen and Country in the foreword to the first collection, ?Broken Ground?:

Queen and Country is the best illustration I know of the cold hard fact that a lot of people try to ignore: Of all the visual, narrative media, comics are now the place where the most intelligent and challenging work is done. Start here, with one of my favorites.

Tara Chase, the main character in Queen and Country, is an agent for the British SIS. Designated ?Minder Two,? she?s part of an elite branch of covert operations that handle the most sensitive missions. Three years in the service have completely ground away her soul, leaving her a hollow, cynical husk of a woman. She?s long since lost her patriotic spirit, and executes missions now with a total lack of concern regarding the reasons for or effects of her actions. At home in London she drowns herself in alcohol, shutting herself in her flat. She has only the sting of fear from each mission to remind her that she still possesses the will to live.

Another interesting character is Paul Crocker, the director of operations for the Minders. Crocker is an explosive mix of paranoid obsession with international threats and passionate need to assert the effectiveness and relevance of the Minders in the post-Cold War world. This quest to be a big fish in a shrinking pond often lands him in trouble, as it makes him vulnerable to simple manipulation from the CIA. In the first story this weakness puts Tara in danger with the Russian mafia. The increasingly dangerous missions Crocker arranges contribute to the accelerating pace of Tara?s psychological downward spiral.

Several artists have worked on the project. Steve Rolston, the original artist and greatest contributor, established a largely caricatured and emotionally transparent approach to the characters that?s been upheld throughout the series. Mike Norton signed on as artist this past month, picking up the slack on the ?Saddlebags? story arc, which takes place in Moscow. Norton?s style is more polished, and it brings a whole new slant to the telling of the story.

The main thrust of the story, however, is its poignant political, moral, and emotional complexity. Rucka leaves lots of space in the plot to let the characters meander through the many different reactions and perspectives that could be drawn from the intense situations in which they are mired.

What Queen and Country is not, however, is another rehash of the old ?Do the ends justify the means?? spy thriller hook. Queen and Country offers a deeper level of insight. Through a more existential lens, Rucka questions whether there are even ends or means in the first place, and whether espionage has any realistic meaning whatsoever, in a modern context. Perhaps the missions impose their own meaning to rationalize the continued production of a culture of espionage that manufactures its own drama. But the story does not blindly overshoot in this thinking; the very existence of threats to peace is not brought into question. The complexity lies in the shape of the organization that has evolved to handle them, and its effects on the lives of its individual members.

If you?re a spy enthusiast, and crappy movies like The Bourne Identity leave you with an uncontrollable urge to gouge out your own eyeballs with a salt-covered spatula, then maybe you should sate your desire for something more than car chases and stop by the Carnegie Library to pick up a Queen and Country collection. Now that?s entertainment with some real intelligence!