Rating: 3/5 – 2001 Eisner Award Winning Series about a British Special Agent.
Never afraid of trying something new, this book has been sitting on my shelf unread for a few years. News of the possible movie adaptation prompted a time to visit. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not the biggest espionage fan in the world. The BBC has released many excellent versions of the Le Carre novels so I do like George Smiley and company. I have not seen the Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but it sits on the DVR. The old James Bond novels are alright to my tastes but I have never bothered to run them all down. Probably working against this collection is also some of the curious packaging decisions. As if predicting the modern debate, the writer is the only contributor credited on the cover of the book. The first title page also only lists Mr. Rucka. Just one of those pet peeves that further contributes to the divide between “writer” and “illustrator.” I also love the Tim Sale cover but the visual contributors in the body of the work are Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt, Leandro Fernandez, Christine Norrie, Bryan Lee O’Malley and Stan Sakai. While they are some heavy hitters in that crowd, the Tim Sale cover set up an expectation for this reader that was not delivered. You know what they say about books and covers.
The book has three main arcs, one interlude and some back matter designs. It is black and white and sized somewhere between a digest and a regular comic book (six by nine for you mathematical types). Each of the three arcs starts with a very handy one page facebook giving the major players. This was very useful and I appreciated it. It served to immediately catch you up and allowed the reader to be dropped into the action without repetitious introductions. The stories follow a division of British special operations, which has three field agents along with a small support staff. The character most often followed is Tara Chace, one of the three field agents (also called minders).
Our opening story, Operation: Broken Ground, has art duties performed by Steve Ralston. We open up on the control room with Chace on a solo mission. The book quickly sets up the familiar dynamic of the immediate supervisor (Paul Crocker) showing tough love to his charges while as you go further up the hierarchy, the more detached they become. Crocker is also the type of leader that orders the unpleasant missions that have to be done without always getting the necessary approval. This is going to be one of those stories where the bureaucratic struggles are going to imperil the field agents and the overall remit of the department. The stories also touch on the theme of how one set of actions spin out and continue to impact the future beyond what one might expect. What was new to me is the twist that much of the impetus of the missions was horse-trading with the London based CIA branch. This is going to be one of those spy stories where we don’t have impossible gizmos and steely eyed killers remorselessly wiping out hundreds of agents on each mission in between cigarette breaks and one night stands. Mind you, we still get the smokes and the one night stand but these agents are bothered by the killing.
Back to the story, Ralston does a great job distinguishing our principle players. The opening chapter is a successful study in tension as we follow Chase on this kill mission. The mission hits a slight snag but Chase is able to pull it off and make her escape. Ralston conveys the tension and action well. He likes to cram quite a bit of detail in his panel but the figures are not overly rendered. Lots of thick lines and refreshingly regular body proportions, especially compared to your average capes and cowls book. Chace looks like a woman instead of a blow-up doll with no waist and triple D bustline. In the years since this book came out, USA Network released a popular cable TV show called Burn Notice. One of the hooks of the show was a fair amount of basic tradecraft for the spy business. I find that sort of information fascinating. This book is by and large devoid of such, with a few exceptions. There is one trick she uses at a border crossing that was very clever. Probably the opening arc is my favorite. The backstory at the office is that this is an unofficial operation done as a favor for the CIA which creates the expected threats and bluster most of us have seen in covert operation stories with “plausible deniability” and the cruel nature of the game being exposed.
Following that chapter is the interlude, and no offense to the other creators in the book but Stan Sakai (with tones provided by Tom Luth) knocks it out of the park. Always fun to see Sakai work on non-anthropomorphic characters and here he and Luth are tasked with showing some friends of the target tracking down the trigger-woman through rough interrogation. It is a quick tale, well told, brutal and Chase is identified and a one million dollar price is put on her head. Sakai’s largest collection of work, Yusagi Yojimbo, features an anthropomorphic version of feudal Japan and follows a ronin warrior as he travels the countryside. Check it out peoples.
Back to Ralston and we see the blowback from the mission with the hit on Chase. There is a rocket strike against the agency. This creates inter-agency tension and political conflict regarding jurisdictions. Chace is used as bait and not allowed to have a weapon due to it being Great Britain. I thought this was a fun twist although I would have thought that illegal weapons could be secured. We do see Crocker trying to get the weapons, including approaching the CIA but no go. Despite being burdened by these constraints, the good guys win and the assassins are apprehended but we know they are just going to be sent to Moscow instead of properly punished. Crocker cannot work the system to his advantage so while they survive, he does not get the end he desired. We do see Chace drinking heavily and there is a recommendation that she see the department shrink. Ralston certainly gets to work in many different expressions for unhappy in this tale and the mood of futility is well conveyed. We also get one more piece of tradecraft about dealing with a shooter when you unarmed but I will have to take her word for it on its efficacy. While the book only has two more stories, it is odd that this is never revisited. The mob boss put a million dollar hit out on her which you think would attract continued attention but maybe that is approached in later volumes.
We moved to the next arc, Operation: Morningstar, with pencils by Brian Hurtt and inks by Bryan Lee O’Malley and Christine Norrie. Here we get a looser art style with a lot more use of blacks. We open with an agent in Kabul stashing some info and getting arrested. The other two minders (both men) are sent in to see if they can find that information. The spy is executed before they can save him. Chace sees the shrink where we find out this that the previous mission was her first ordered assassination. She did not like it. There is some playful banter between the two and it turns out that she just needs to contribute to a mission in a positive fashion. Chace has added one night stands to her drinking habits. The other two minders have no luck running down the stashed information. Chace is assigned the task to assist them from the office. She thinks to raid the dead spy’s London based girlfriend’s flat. Finds his records and does some detective work to put a best guess where the drop site should be. The other two minders find it and she gets a quick line of support from her boss that seems to help her. This story is less driven by the action and more by the mood. As noted, lots of blacks and lots of cigarette smoke.
The final chapter, Operation: Crystal Ball, features art by Leandro Fernandez. This is our most spy plot style story of them all with the team tracking down a lead regarding a threat of use of poison gas. Fernandez likes exaggerated figures and shadows, which works to good effect. Lots of impossible chins and noses. What works much less well for me is that Chace gains a few bra sizes and loses a few waist sizes. Sigh. This one is a bit more on the plotting and fighting the power. We do have a budding romance between Chace and the newest minder on the team. Don’t want to give away the farm here but I also don’t want to puff up the plotting here too much.
The characters do seem real but they are almost entirely about their jobs so doesn’t feel like they run very deep. Not sure giving them some token hobby would be an improvement but unlike other spy books, there is not really much intricate plotting nor surprise twists. To be fair, that is not the story that they are telling, but absent that and absent the cool toys, we are left with the struggle of the foot soldiers against the arbitrary strictures of the higher ups who just seem to get in the way. That is a satisfying story, but it is also one that has been told, and told many times. I would suggest Charley’s War, about the battle in trenches of World War 1. It is in a nice series of hardcovers from Titan books. Check it out. Part of it may be coming to this material so late in the game and part of it may be unfair comparisons to Le Carre novels. This is well executed material. I would read more if it was presented to me but I feel no urge to go out and secure it. I think the Activity from Image is more to my liking in the espionage field but let me know your thoughts.
Reviewed by: Andrew Sanford – firstname.lastname@example.org
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