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Friday Undercover

Thinking about comics-to-prose last week, it occurred to me I left off one of the best examples of all. What it is and why I think so will take a little backstory, so bear with me.

Spy comics never have done particularly well, not even during the 60’s heyday of Bond, Flint, and U.N.C.L.E. In fact, several folks tried to adapt some of those properties to comics back then with what might be called, charitably, indifferent results. Of those, the longest-running of the bunch was Gold Key’s “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” which ran some twenty or thirty issues. These were… well, they were okay. Not great. Basically you had to love the show SO MUCH that you would take MORE in any form, as long as it was MORE. For hardcore UNCLE fans only, in other words.

Spies and secret agents that are original to comic books are a lot harder to find. Probably the most successful is Marvel’s Nick Fury, but even Nick’s success has been limited at best. I looked it up, thinking that the numbers would be a lot bigger, but if you discount Strange Tales (where Nick had to share top billing with Dr. Strange) then what you are left with is the solo title that Steranko spun out of that book that ran 18 issues, a couple of mini-series and one-shots, and — this surprised me — the 90’s run that went a whopping 47 issues. For a secret agent book that’s huge.

Are they worth getting? Well, the Steranko stuff from Strange Tales and the first few issues of the solo book (“Who Is Scorpio?”, that stuff) is available in trade, and I’d certainly recommend that. The 90’s book… well, I haven’t actually seen it. Some talented folks worked on it — D.G. Chichester, Doug Murray, Jackson Guice — all of whom have shown a knack for macho adventure comics. So maybe if you found a bunch in the dollar boxes somewhere or something it might be worth taking a chance. But really Fury seems to work best as a supporting character these days.

Who else? Well, a sentimental favorite of mine was the original Secret Six, probably as close as you’ll get to seeing Mission: Impossible done for comics. (Yes, closer than the actual IMF comic Marvel put out in the 90’s, smart-ass.) Six outcasts brought together by the mysterious Mockingbird, blackmailed into performing outlandish feats of undercover derring-do.

This only ran seven issues and I adored every one unreservedly. Years later, Martin Pasko and Dan Spiegle undertook to finish the original story in a serial that ran in Action Comics Weekly, with mixed results. It was pretty good, but it didn’t quite have the zest the original one did. And of course now, with Villains United doing a superhero riff on the name that’s pretty much all she wrote for any chance of a revival… not that anyone besides me was hoping for one. Still, it would sure be nice to see a DC Showcase gathering up the seven issues and the weekly serial.

Who else? Well, on the other side of the Atlantic, Modesty Blaise was a huge success… in NEWSPAPER comics. But her strip really never caught on over here, and even though Peter O’Donnell did an original graphic novel for DC (beautifully illustrated by Dick Giordano, who, as it happens, was the editor of — ta da!– The Secret Six) she’s mostly a trivia question on this side of the pond. Although I believe Titan Books is reprinting the strip, packaged as a nice series of paperback graphic novels, that you could probably order online without too much trouble.

There are others. You could make a case for Master of Kung Fu being a spy strip, though that’s a bit like saying the movie Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee is a Bond knockoff… you can make the case but it’s not a very GOOD case.

Anyway. All this is preamble. What got me thinking about spies in comics was our other Greg talking about the new Checkmate and Greg Rucka, and how he should check out Queen & Country one of these days. Which reminded ME that, in talking about prose novels starring comics characters last week, I neglected to mention the two best ones I’ve ever read, period.

They are A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars by Greg Rucka, starring Tara Chace and the gang from Queen & Country.

I already loved Queen & Country the comic, so admittedly the book versions were a pretty easy sell to me. But these two books are unique among comics novels, I think, in that they fit right into the regular comics continuity. I read Queen & Country in trade, and A Gentleman’s Game picks up, essentially, right where volume seven of the trades (“Operation: Saddlebags”) leaves off. And Private Wars is right after that, and so you have to figure that #29 of the monthly comic, as yet uncollected, takes place after that.

It sounds like a stunt but it’s not. I think Rucka took the two-novel pause becvause he had reached the point in the story of the life of agent Tara Chace where he needed to use the prose form, comics would have taken too long. Because these are huge, complex stories.

But then, that’s one of the things I love about Queen & Country, the complexity of it. If Nick Fury is James Bond and Modesty Blaise is Emma Peel, then Tara Chace is the comics’ version of spies like George Smiley or Peter Quiller, the street-level, unglamorous agents doing dirty, unpleasant jobs for an uncaring and stupid government. It’s an incredibly dark and cynical book. Tara Chace is not terribly noble. She is vengeful and crude and mean, she drinks too much and smokes like a chimney and she’s not in the least bit sexy (though she is SEXUAL, almost to the point of seeming slutty) and certainly not idealistic. No Emma Peel here.

Yet somehow, she seems vulnerable, even likable, and you want her to win, even while you are cursing the screwed-up world and the corrupt politics and all the rest of it that she –and we– live in. The structure of Queen & Country is always dual-layered: Tara and the other Minders of the Special Section are out in the field, shooting people and getting shot up in return, while on the home front Paul Crocker, their boss, fights internal political battles just as dirty with other factions of Her Majesty’s Government. It’s all very compelling, especially when the parallel stories converge, as they always do (usually with harrowing results for Tara.) Everything that I don’t care for when Greg Rucka writes DC superhero stories: the dark, adult tone, the relentlessly bleak grimness, the lack of a firm resolution… in Queen & Country, these things are all strengths. This is the kind of story where he really shines as a writer.

The book is black and white, which helps the whole dark, film noir, gritty atmosphere of the thing, and the often-cartoony style of the artists on the book doesn’t take away from the adult feel. Weirdly, it adds to it, because the net effect of having a stylist like Steve Rolston doing the art is that it amps up the emotional content. So Rucka doesn’t have to write a lot of palpitating Claremontesque dialogue or Miller-style internal-narrative captions. The dialogue is terse and to the point; the captions are almost nonexistent. “Afghanistan. 0500 hours.” That’s about as much as you get. The emotions are all conveyed with the art, which is why the prose novels were such a revelation. Somehow Rucka managed to keep the characters true, still sounding as grim and pragmatic as they do in the comics, and yet still seething with all the suppressed emotions his artists usually have to put across. It’s an amazing job of writing.

It occurred to me writing this that with two successful mainstream novels now in print and a movie deal in the offing, Queen & Country may be the most successful spy comic anyone’s ever done (well, stateside — hard to beat Modesty Blaise’s UK record.) Be that as it may, certainly, it’s the BEST spy comic I’ve ever read, and now it’s two of the best spy NOVELS I’ve ever read, too. You should check them out, and the regular book too, if you’re not already.

See you next week.

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