Thursday, March 13, 2014

Back Matter #7 - Queen & Country and Escapo

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


As a teenager Greg Rucka found himself floating free, unattached to any of the familiar high school cliques, and it was remarkably bad, as all who have traversed that gauntlet of adolescence know full well.  One bright light in that miasma of homework and locker combinations and pimples was a British television series his local PBS station was running, The Sandbaggers.  A severe take on the British Secret Service revolving around a small team of operatives and their controller, one of the few sandbaggers to survive long enough for such a promotion, it lasted for only twenty episodes spread out over three seasons.  Despite a lack of funding apparent in the cardboard sets and dated costumes, there was a passion and intelligence underlying the whole thing that shone through the meager trappings of the production.  The dialogue was witty, the plots complex, and it captivated Rucka from the opening scene. 

At this time, Rucka first began writing creatively and it was only natural for him to write a spy story.  Rucka continued to write, working at his craft, until he eventually sold his first novel, Keeper, starring private detective Atticus Kodiak.  He has since written a number of novels, including five more starring Kodiak.  This experience landed him work scripting his first comic series for Oni Press, Whiteout, illustrated by the talented Steve Lieber.  Things being cyclical, Rucka eventually made his way back to the inspiration that began this long trek of his and developed a series for Oni focusing on the British Secret Intelligence Service and its Special Section known as “minders,” Queen & Country.  Sound familiar?  Queen & Country is Rucka’s homage to the series that started him on the road he now walks, and walks quite well.  With the series making its return from a too-long hiatus, while Rucka worked on the two Queen & Country novels – A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars – I thought it appropriate to go back and look at where it all began for the British SIS, the Minders, and the main focus of the series Tara Chace.

Former Russian General Igor Grigorivich Markovsky, now part of the Russian mob, is buying guns from the Kosovo Liberation Army and selling them to the Chechens.  As a favor to the CIA, and without proper authorization, Paul Crocker the Director of Operations who commands the Special Section has sent Minder Two, Tara Chace, into Kosovo to assassinate Markovsky.  She has one gun, one egress plan and no backup.  Simple. 

The intelligence business being what it is, it takes little time for Crocker’s superiors to get wind of what he is doing off the books.  D. Ops (Crocker) is upbraided by his immediate superior, Donald Weldon, as he attempts to explain the benefits for British intelligence, keyhole support and analysis from the CIA for Britain’s current operations in North Africa and Asia, not to mention the fact that the CIA will finally owe SIS a favor.  That gives little consolation to Weldon and will likely not appease those higher in the chain of command if things go badly. 

Back in Kosovo Chace makes the shot, taking down General Markovsky, but her egress does not go as smoothly.  With soldiers everywhere and Chace obviously not a native, she needs to move quickly.  Unfortunately, she does not move fast enough as a Croatian soldier comes across her on one of the many deserted streets and begins shouting, alerting others to her presence.  Chace runs but is clipped in the leg by a stray bullet.  Fortunately, she finds an area crowded with women and children doing laundry in the morning.  Losing herself in the crowd, Minder Two manages to procure an abaya, a traditional overgarment worn by some Muslim women, and makes her way through the streets to a parked car.  Hotwiring it she drives off just as a U.N. soldier, having noticed the blood at the base of her pants, attempts to stop her.  Now mobile, Chace manages to pass through a checkpoint – utilizing a well-placed nude photograph of herself within her forged passport – and makes her way to the British station in Istanbul where she is flown out of country.

For most comic stories that would be the end of it, but this only encompasses the first issue of the initial four-issue arc.  In the novels and comics written by Greg Rucka it is fairly common to find oneself reaching the climax for the initial impetus of the story at hand and realize that over half the book, or half the comic, is left to read.  With Tara Chace home, the real story begins as the Russian mob retaliate, firing a rocket at the fifth floor of the British SIS building.  The fifth floor houses the Foreign Office of British Intelligence, the one out of which the Special Section and Minder Two work.  The motive for the attack is obvious, and the stakes are raised when it is learned that a one million dollar bounty has been placed on the head of Tara Chace by the Russian mob.  Being a domestic affair, this is an investigation that falls under the purview of MI5 rather than MI6, where Crocker and his Minders reside.  Despite that fact, Crocker wants retaliation, swift and final.  He knows that David Kinney, the director of Security Services within the United Kingdom, will wish to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for the attack.  That isn’t good enough.  He tells his Special Section as much and also relays his thoughts on the matter to his superiors – Weldon and the head of the SIS, Sir Wilson Stanton Davies.  They are surprised at Crocker’s apolitical stance and argue against his plan vehemently, telling Crocker to work with Kinney and allow MI5 to do its job. 

From here the tension ratchets up exponentially.  The bounty on Chace’s head has the Russian mob stalking London, waiting for Chace to show herself so they can take her out permanently.  With that in mind, Crocker arms the Minders, something expressly forbidden by policy.  He is soon ordered by the Deputy Chief to have them return their weapons to materiel.  Crocker then goes to Angela Cheng, CIA liaison in London, looking for help.  Playing on any guilt she may have at initiating this whole debacle when she asked for help in getting at Markovsky he is disappointed with her response.  The international scandal that would come from a United States sanctioned assassination of Russians on UK soil would be nothing short of disastrous, whether done by CIA operatives or with CIA weapons.  Ultimately, Crocker arms his Minders with pellet guns picked up at a toy shop as Kinney orders Crocker to have Chace draw out the Russians.  But how can they hope to survive against armed thugs when all they have are toy guns?  And if they do survive, what will happen to the Russians?  The answers will surprise you.  Guaranteed.

Rucka is just a damn fine writer.  His characters are believable well-rounded people whose motivations and desires drive the narrative, and he is not afraid of putting them into impossible situations from which there can be no easy extraction.  A lesser writer would not take the chances Rucka does, and Queen & Country would be far less enjoyable for it.  The political machinations, two-timing, and backstabbing that everyone inherently knows goes on behind the scenes of our political world is front and center in this series, and the only status quo for Queen & Country is that there is no status quo.  In future collections people die - there have already been three or four agents in the position of Minder Three - people move on - Angela Cheng is no longer the CIA liaison in London - and decisions and actions have consequences, real consequences.  This is as intelligent a book as one can find on the comic stands today and the only negative aspect of this series is that it does not get published more often.  One never knows what problems will be lurking around the next corner for Tara Chace, nor what decisions she will be forced to make in the heat of battle.  Luckily for fans, they have Greg Rucka steering the ship, and a better captain would be hard to find.

Paul Pope is a creative genius, melding manga with contemporary sensibilities and a smooth, lush brushstroke reminiscent of the best of Will Eisner.  Pope was one of those critically-acclaimed comic artists whose short works would pop up in Negative Burn and other places, while fans awaited his longer works from Horse Press, a small press publisher that turned out to be Pope’s own self-publishing venture.  He didn’t want it to be widely known that he was utilizing the “vanity” press to get his work out there, and so named it Horse Press in an attempt to distance himself from any negative connotations that sometimes go along with that.  And luckily for comic fans Pope did do that, otherwise there would be no THB, no Ballad of Dr. Richardson, and no Escapo, which is the subject found in the dusty recesses of the vault this time out. 

Escapo tells the story of the book’s eponymous hero, a disfigured escape artist who is the star of the center ring.  In three tales readers are able to get a feeling of what this man, Vic, goes through in his life with the circus.  The first tale shows us the inner workings of the Pinceur, one of the death machines Vic and his partner have put together in order for Escapo to cheat death in front of crowds of awestruck spectators.  A complex contraption that includes razorz, long teethy spinning mouths, an intestinannilation and a final water trap in a series of oblong containers set one atop the other, Escapo must divest himself of a strait jacket while hanging upside down above the Pinceur before making his way through the six stages that will ultimately find him in the middle of the center ring once more.  Requiring agility, quick reflexes, acute timing, and a calm manner it would be impossible for anyone but Escapo to make their way down through the many traps to the exit below.  But in this instance Escapo finds himself lost when he reaches the water trap and is unable to unlock the escape hatch because the roaring water is overpowering the minute sounds of the tumblers.  There’s no other way out, and Escapo is certain to perish when an apparition, a skeleton, comes up to him and announces that it is finally time for Escapo to meet his maker.  But the escape artist is not finished.  He first pleads with Death to let him go – a letter for his sister sits in his coat pocket back in the trailer, sealed and with a stamp but lacking an address, and he needs to get out so that it will get to her – and offers to make a wager with the specter before chancing upon the apparition’s Achilles heel, its pride.  Escapo dares Death to let him to live and in return offers to allow Death to ride his back during the next performance.  Death accepts and gives Escapo a coin to hold onto until he comes back for him, and then gives him the combination of the lock just before the water womb fills up completely. 

Escapo escapes yet again.  But this time it’s more than he is accustomed to.  The incident puts a scare into Escapo and he begs off his act for days, claiming to be sick, before his partner finally convinces him to get back on his horse, pointing out that if he does not do at least five shows a month the circus has the right to throw him to the curb.  Choosing to do an escape other than the Pinceur, Vic finds himself back in the center ring and repossessing a bit of his confidence that had been lost.  This renewed confidence also allows him to finally approach the tight rope girl, Aerobella, with whom he has become infatuated.  Writing her love poems and love letters Escapo goes to her trailer late one night to find out if she feels the same way about him.  She tells him that she needs more time and will have an answer for him in the morning.  His romanticism getting in the way, Escapo tells her that tomorrow when he does his act he will look for her on the sidelines.  If she is wearing a white scarf then it will mean yes, but if she is wearing a black scarf, no.  She agrees and he goes off, feeling confident that Aerobella will be wearing a white scarf the next day.  But will it be white, and if so will it be true?  Aerobella knows the fragile nature of Escapo’s psyche, and the guilt of saying no to someone just before they enter a death trap could be too much for one girl to bear.  The confusion is obvious on her face as she tells Escapo to go to bed, and one can imagine that she has no clue as to how she will respond.  And if that response is in the negative, how will Escapo handle it?

Pope’s characters in Escapo are very real, and very true.  Vic is not the bigger than life hero that was so casually paraded about in the Barnum and Bailey Circus of the early twentieth century, and Aerobella is a girl like any other with feelings and desires that anybody can understand.  The brilliance of this book is how Pope allows us into their minds, most especially into Escapo’s, and lets us see the human fragility that is lying there right under the surface, a human fragility that many of us are all too familiar with.  We know what it is like to be afraid, and we understand Escapo’s heartache when he confesses how he feels about the tight rope girl.  We also hurt for him when the clowns ridicule his longing for such a beautiful young girl. 
“Why’d a girl like that shower attentions on an ugly mug like you?”  “Why, a girl like that wants a boy who’s clean, an’ who looks the same on both sides!” 

Readers don’t need to be told how he feels at these insults; it is evident on his face.  Pope masterfully allows the expressions on his characters to tell the story, and refuses to beat his audience over the head with the details.  It’s these unstated sentiments, produced through his brilliant brushwork, that make Pope’s works worth seeking out.  He is a cutting edge cartoonist who is looking to create the comics of the future, and he is doing it right now.  

No comments: