By Taylor Pechter — In comics about espionage and spying, the stories usually don’t focus on the political or personal ramifications of the craft, instead dealing in flashier things like action, intrigue, and sex. On rare occasions, however, those more realistic aspects do shine through, creating a grounded look at the world of espionage. The best spy comics find glory in the monotony of the work, using a stronger focus on the real people involved as well as how their escapades affect their lives.
While these books might be rare, they are out there, and today I’d like to look at some of the best spy comics of all time. Now let’s get into the books...
The Best Spy Comics
Queen & Country
Writer Greg Rucka, a 25-plus years veteran of the industry, wrote Queen & Country from 2001 to 2007 for Oni Press. Queen & Country follows SIS agent Tara Chace, designate Minder Two. and the book is broken into sections that follow separate operations undertaken by the organization. For example, the first story Operation: Broken Ground has Tara in Kosovo on an assassination mission trying to take down a former Russian General turned mob enforcer. She gets the job done, but in response, the Russian mob puts a bounty on her head. However, more important than the operations is Tara herself, and it’s this focus on character that makes Queen & Country so special.
Tara is a headstrong and sarcastic (if a bit in-over-her-head) agent. After the assassination, she is put into therapy. It is here Rucka plays with the psychological aspects of the profession. In therapy, Tara is jittery and untrustworthy of the doctor. As she opens up, however, you really see how important her job is to her, even though it wreaks havoc on her personal life. Another aspect Rucka focuses on is the political ramifications of the craft, whether it’s dealing with the home office (MI5) after a rocket attack or capturing a politician selling secrets to the Russians. Politics take center stage in most of the stories.
This creates intrigue, and Tara and her team of Minders (special agents) have to be sanctioned by C, the head of the service, to go on missions. On these missions there is action, but action scenes are few and far between. What readers see is the real monotony of spy work: tailing, gathering information, and reporting it back to superiors. Within this monotony is where characters shine through their interactions. All of these aspects make Rucka’s creation what I consider to be the quintessential espionage comic.
What happens when you are an agent left in the cold, no one to help you, and you work for a madman trying to take over the world? This is the story of Holden Carver, the lead character of the WildStorm series Sleeper, which is one of the earliest collaborations between the superstar creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
Sleeper is a tale focused on morality. Holden Carver is an agent for International Operations, the most prominent intelligence agency in the WildStorm Universe. Carver’s mission is to infiltrate a corporation run by former Wildcat-gone-bad TAO (Tactically Augmented Organism). To complicate things, however, John Lynch, former director of IO and Carver’s handler, is stuck in a coma after an assassination attempt and having his file burned. With an expunged record and no help, Carver must find a way to make sure TAO and his men don’t discover his secret while also proving to the agency that he is actually on their side.
It’s through this dichotomy that Brubaker crafts a story of a man who has done despicable things for both sides searching for purpose. Will he be corrupted by sex and violence, or will his humanity shine through? It’s a stark contrast from TAO, who is devoid of morality. In his final confrontation with Holden, TAO exclaims, You want to know the main difference between you and me Holden? You’re like the rest of humanity, you have two people inside. One is the person we see. The other is the person you think you are. It’s a powerful idea and it brings Holden’s arc full circle. This, along with the raw and unrefined art of Sean Phillips, grounds the series in a dark and twisted, yet fantastic world. Sleeper is often overshadowed by Brubaker and Phillips’ later works, but it is one of the definitive superhero noir comics.
Another series penned by Rucka, Checkmate follows the exploits of the eponymous UN sanctioned organization in the wake of Infinite Crisis and the death of its former leader, Maxwell Lord. Checkmate in this story has been restructured via the Rule of Two, which states that for every powered member of the team, there must a non-powered member. Checkmate’s mission is monitoring metahuman activity and defending against metahuman threats.
Like Queen & Country before it, this book focuses heavily on political ramifications, especially when it comes to conflict between Sasha Bordeaux (the Black Queen), and Amanda Waller (the White Queen). Through this, Rucka explores themes of duty versus morality, the price of deception, and new beginnings. At the series’ start, Sasha is more carefree with her actions. During a raid on a Kobra outpost in the Gulf of Aden, she instructs Beatriz Da Costa, also known as Fire (Black King’s Knight) to set the compound ablaze, killing upwards of 50 cult members. Sasha’s own Knight, Jonah McCarthy, dies in the crossfire.
This disregard for human life contrasts with the views of Alan Scott, the White King at the time, who believes they should value human life over mission objectives. This, along with Sasha’s relationship with Mister Terrific (Alan’s Bishop) also gives Waller ammunition to drive her out of the agency. Speaking of Waller, this is her at her most deceptive, which is saying a lot. Throughout the first half of the series she conspires with her Bishop, King Faraday, to throw out the other Royals for violating Checkmate’s charter on the Rule of Two. Amanda’s deception is called out by Sasha and Terrific, and she is later dismissed. It’s all dramatic and well done.
Lastly, there is the hope for new beginnings. At the start of the series characters try to get out from under the shadow of Lord. At the halfway point, following Amana’s dismissal, they become more welcoming of outside help. At the end, after a raid on a Kobra stronghold, much like the beginning they realize the cult is engineering infants into weapons. As Batman confronts Sasha about what happened, Sasha monologues, How do you fight a bad religion? You give it a fresh start. You play the long game. But we can do that. We have time, Checkmate isn’t going anywhere.
Overall, Checkmate was one of DC’s first major modern espionage comics. Sasha Bordeaux was later reintroduced in current continuity by Rucka in his second critically-acclaimed run on Wonder Woman. Here’s to hoping we get a reunion sooner rather than later.
Imagine your entire life was taken away by the people you trusted the most. This is the story of Velvet Templeton, secretary and former agent for ARC-7, a top-secret intelligence service. Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Steve Epting, and colored by Elizabeth Breitwieser, Velvet crafts a story that deals with the burden of secrets, spy life versus regular life, and the bitterness of betrayal.
The story starts with the murder of an operative by the name of Jefferson Keller, designated X-14. This sets off a search for the answers Velvet craves, which ultimately ends in her going rogue to find them. With her on the run, the agency has to deal with her and the ongoing investigation of the murder of Keller, plus a possible mole. With this comes the burden of secrets, which is hidden beneath every layer as Velvet uncovers more. Each answer leads to more questions. Not only that, Velvet also has to accept that being a spy has forever changed her life—a life of sulking in the shadows and not trusting anyone, even the ones closest to her.
Last, she has to deal with her entire life being a lie and her closest allies in the agency setting that lie up. Whether it be the death of her husband, a supposed double agent, or the death of Keller, etc. Brubaker’s writing is sharp and at times darkly comical. Epting’s art is gorgeous in its dynamic brutality. Heavy shadows accentuate the lush colors of Breitweiser. Velvet is a brutal and realistic take on espionage that, like Sleeper, is often overlooked in Brubaker’s catalogue.
Dick Grayson has been many things: acrobat, boy wonder, caped crusader, team leader, and now, secret agent. This exploration of identity is a key aspect of the 2014 series Grayson. Spinning out of the events of Forever Evil, Grayson is written by Tom King and Tim Seeley with art mainly by Mikel Janín with help from Stephen Mooney, plus colors by Jeromy Cox.
The story focuses on Dick after his supposed death at the hands of Lex Luthor. He is inserted as a double agent into spy organization Spyral as Agent 37. Under Batman’s orders, he is to uncover the organization’s secrets and ultimately dismantle it. Within Spyral, he is partnered with Helena Bettinelli, or Matron, who is the head of the boarding school that is Spyral’s cover. As Dick goes on missions, he discovers Spyral is stockpiling information on the secret identities of League. The heart of the series really shows through in issue 14, wherein Dick returns to Gotham. This story demonstrates how important Dick was to the Bat-family, in all of his interactions. Whether it is conversations with Alfred about Bruce, speeches to Barbara about the love they shared, or reminiscing with Damian about their Batman and Robin days, there’s a focus on the Dick’s core experiences, showing us how he became the character he is today.
Janín and Mooney’s artistic styles contrast, but they are brought together by the expert coloring of Jeromy Cox. Janín’s lines are cleaner, adding a Brosnan Bond-esque tone with high action, while Mooney has more lines and darker shadows. These art styles, along with clever writing, combine to make a fun, exciting, and introspective series that redefined Dick Grayson.
Ultimately, the spy genre is one of the most fertile in comics. Spy books are uniquely able to focus on many different aspects that readers don’t find in normal superhero comics. From the psychological aspects of Queen & Country, the moral ambiguity of Sleeper, the politics of Checkmate, the brutality of Velvet, to the journey of Grayson, these comics craft compelling stories with relatable characters. That is what makes them essential espionage material.
Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.