Drawing the Floating Box: An Examination of the Art of Queen & Country
More and more every year, I miss Queen & Country.
As the new millennium grinds on, it becomes clear that the global war on terror isn't going anywhere and neither is the intelligence and military apparatus that's put in place to combat it. As terror attacks continue to happen, and as we respond with escalated military force and increased intelligence powers, none of it feels under anyone's control or within anyone's understanding. In the face of that, I yearn for a narrative to put a face on it all and assign it meaning. For a long time, we all had such a narrative with Queen & Country, possibly the best spy comic ever published.
There is an espionage term called a "floating box," where a target of observation is tailed and watched from multiple angles, forming a box that moves as the subject moves. This term never appeared in Queen and Country, but it wouldn't be out of place, because Queen & Country always tried to keep its espionage as realistic as possible, consequences be damned.
Queen & Country itself had a floating box around it, coordinated by series writer Greg Rucka and carried out by a small army of comics' finest, observing its ongoing narrative from a variety of perspectives and angles. None of the various artists that Queen & Country employed were rubber stamps of each other. No slight is intended on the other terrific artists who worked on Queen & Country, but for the purposes of brevity, this article will be focusing on three of the most distinct, and how their styles shaped the book.
The first Queen & Country artist is probably the most paradigmatic, as Steve Rolston essentially created the default look of the series on "Operation Broken Ground". Rolston's art completes the tricky task of depicting a dirty world cleanly, and doing it while competing with gorgeous series covers by Tim Sale (seen above.) The two locations in the first issue are the middle of a bombed-out city in Kosovo, and the smoke-filled station that is the Ops Room, and neither is a glamorous locale you'd love to visit.
Rolston's renderings are clear, bold, and most importantly for the establishment of a new series, iconic. There's clarity to the storytelling both when it comes to the tricky business of rendering a chase sequence and the arguably trickier business of keeping a conversation interesting (and there are a lot of conversations in Queen & Country, a series where battles are fought at desks as well as with bullets).
Every subsequent take on the principal characters – Tara Chace, Paul Crocker, Tom Wallace, Ed Kittering, Don Weldon, Kate and the rest – is based on Rolston's initial depictions, and his visual characterizations carry forward perfectly. His perpetually fatigued Tara Chace, his stern-as-starched-sheets Paul Crocker, his easy-to-smile Tom Wallace; all tell the stories of their characters with confidence and craft. Rolston sets the standard by which all subsequent artists will get measured.
Incredible as it seems, not only did Queen & Country debut before 9/11, but it had a story dealing with the Taliban in its second arc, which was plotted and drawn before that fateful day. In the first two volumes, there is consequently a sense of fatigue and a seen-it-all attitude towards spycraft, which vanishes with the third volume, "Operation Crystal Ball," with art by Leandro Fernandez.
This is probably the most out-and-out conventional story in Queen & Country, or at least, conventional by the standards of the cinematic spy thriller. There are still bureaucratic battles that are fought, but they are mostly won. There's still conflict between the Minders about the burgeoning relationship between Chace and Kittering, but it comes to no messy end. The story's final page focuses on the World Cup, a celebration of the world coming together in sport. This is a story from a time of high anxiety, high passions, and a temporary suspension of distrust in the trade of spycraft. It's all reflected in the art.
Everything about the art is taken to extremes, reflecting in retrospect how distorted and exaggerated everything was in the months following 9/11. Figures are more dramatic and caricatured. The page is drenched with ink, but it's a bold, solid ink with no room for greys. Paul Crocker is a dysmorphic, haunting scarecrow of a man; Tara Chace is a dynamic action heroine; Tom Wallace, a hard boiled spook with some fire left in him.
This story not only came out after 9/11, it's the Queen & Country story that had to come out after 9/11. Six months on either side of that event and it wouldn't have fit the series. It's the only time that firing a gun in each hand would actually thematically work.
How unusual that is in the series, is underscored by the other extreme: "Operation Storm Front," with art by Carla Speed McNeil, probably the bloodiest and most harrowing Queen & Country story of them all. McNeil's figures are the most down to earth of the series, with everyone still recognizable, but with a sense of vulnerability that starts on page one and never goes away.
"Operation Storm Front" is continuity-heavy, relying on callbacks to an earlier story set in the spin-off prequel series, Queen & Country Declassified, Vol. 1. Like that offshoot, everything goes wrong, but in the series proper, everything really goes wrong. The relative good luck of the Special Section runs out all at once, and within pages of the opening, one Minder is dead, and he'll be joined by two more members of British intelligence by the time it's all over, with none of their deaths being even remotely heroic, but due to random, stupid chance.
Thinner, wavier lines contribute to the sense of fragility and instability. One of the first things you'll notice when reading is how "Operation Storm Front" eschews traditional computer lettering for hand-lettered dialogue, extending the concept that nothing is safe or reliable even to words on the page. The art takes a dramatic shift upon an ambush midway through the story that suddenly soaks the pages in either charcoal or carefully smudged pencil. Whatever technique McNeil uses, it's potent. This story is relentlessly unnerving.
Greg Rucka has made occasional noises about Queen & Country returning, with Tara Chace in the role Paul Crocker occupied and with a new set of Minders to ride roughshod over. The debate over the role of espionage in society has shifted again, with the revelations about government surveillance abuse and the recent attacks in Beirut and Paris bringing these issues to the forefront. But they never truly went away, and I doubt Greg Rucka stopped paying attention. The comics world awaits the return of the Minders and Tara Chace, and the new generation of artists that would bring them all to life.
Hopefully no one will complain the art's not realistic enough next time around.
Notice of disclosure: One of the editors of ComicsAlliance has a financial relationship with Oni Press, the publishers of Queen & Country. That editor had no participation in the commission of this piece.