“This royal throne of kings, this Sceptred Isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
William Shakespeare, Richard II
Written by Andy Winter, art by Mick Trimble,
Cover by Declan Shalvey
“Britain is broken” reads the tagline for this new tale from Brit small press Moonface, written by Andy Winter who many of you will remember from the well-received Hero Killers and Blood Psi which we’ve mentioned on here before (in fact Hero Killers won last year’s Eagle Award for Best Black and White Comic). As you might guess from that tagline, a title like Septic Isle riffing on the more usual (and grandiose) Sceptred Isle name and a very dark, brooding cover (by Declan Shalvey who worked with Andy on Hero Killers and who is himself on the Eagles shortlist this year) this is not going to be a barrel of laughs. What it actually delivers though is a dark-edged, modern-day spy story for the War On Terror era Britain (although to those of us old enough to remember the IRA campaigns it seems like we’ve been in that era for decades).
And the good news is it does it very well, with a nice twist and lack of sentimentality or relying on Bond-style fantasy; this is a spy story far more in keeping with contemporary events, with far more in common with the dark, murky, treacherous and morally ambiguous worlds of Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country or the BBC’s Spooks. Yes, this is a tale about terrorists in modern Britain. Yes, there are Muslim suicide bombers. No, this is not going to unfold the way you think. Those suicide bombers are not some ‘radicalised’ youngsters, disaffected with life in today’s Britain and seeking a violent outlet, they’re caring family men, probably upright citizens in their community. And they’ve got no choice.
Andy and Mick do something remarkable – they make you feel sympathy for a suicide bomber. And no, I don’t mean in a bleeding hearted liberal kind of way as in ‘oh it is an awful act but we should try to understand what desperation drives a person to do such a thing.’ No, this is a horrible, brutal act – not just the actual bombings themselves, but the reasons behind them. A group of white supremacists have decided to wage their own terrorism campaign, starting with British Muslims. Kidnapping children from the streets they are forcing Islamic parents to blow themselves up where they are instructed or their child will be violently killed. In one scene a kindly-looking grandfather is in tears as he hold up the switch for his suicide harness, preparing to trigger it, begging forgiveness but unable to refuse to detonate it because the neo-Nazis have his grandchildren. Its horrible and you can’t help but wonder what you would do if your family were threatened.
(Andy Winter and Mick Trimble deliver a rather different suicide bomber from the news images in Sceptic Isle, (c) Moonface Press)
It’s a vicious twist on the already appalling suicide bombings we see too much of in the news and it gives Septic Isle a very different take on terrorism, moving it from what could have been a fairly straightforward, predictable tale where anyone who practises Islam is demonised and the spy is the hero protecting the nation. No, this is much darker and murkier than that and it shoves the dramatic levels up considerably as a result.
The central character is Jacob Marley, a nice Dickens reference for a man who’s almost a ghost of his former self; once a top MI5 agent during the 70s and 80s, now a middle-aged man in his fifties, retired and now pushing himself back into service, partly driven from survivor guilt – his daughter, Isobel, was a victim of the London July bombings and, in that irrational way that it does, guilt twists him – what if he hadn’t retired, what if he had still been on duty, wouldn’t a top agent like him have stopped that atrocity in time? What if, what if… Reluctantly the director allows him back on duty to hunt down a rogue agent, Jerome Quinn, an agent who had been detailed to infiltrate far-right organisations but who now looks like he has gone native, the man they think is directing the neo-Nazi terror campaign against anyone who isn’t ‘Aryan’ enough. A man who knows MI5’s procedures, may have a mole inside feeding him tips on their movements to capture him and who is sure he isn’t a villain but a patriot acting in defence of his country.
“The bus bomber was a terrorist. You are a terrorist. The only difference is at least he had the balls to blow himself up,” Marley refuses to buy Quinn’s view of himself and his skinhead thugs as patriots defending the British way of life.
Spy versus rogue spy is always going to be entertaining as a thriller (especially arrogant young turk versus seasoned old school player), but Andy and Mick invest it with some realism in the Harry Palmer mould so it never becomes too ridiculous; in some extras at the end there are scenes from an earlier draft which showed a hi-octane speedboat pursuit along the Thames, which was dropped because it didn’t suit the darker atmosphere of the tale. Which I think was a wise choice – old-style Bond, much as I love it, just isn’t as suited to tales based on events of today (even the Bond producers recognised that, making Casino Royale far dirtier and grittier) and it would have jarred. The more Harry Palmer or Smiley’s People, realistic spy is far more appropriate here and also very British.
(it’s not all doom and gloom, touches of surreal humour – although sadly based on reality – also crop up in Sceptic Isle, such as the deluded neo-Nazi rock bands; (c) Moonface Press)
Mick’s black and white art suits Andy’s story well – he doesn’t try to do ‘superhuman’ poses, going for a more realistic styling, while even large action scenes like a fight or a desperate escape from an exploding block of flats, while satisfying our guilty action desires still don’t cross the line into being too cartoony or over the top, showing commendable restraint because it would have been too easy to go down that route. Declan’s wraparound cover is very stylish and moody, the only bright(ish) colours being the background Union flag and even that is subdued and darker than it normally is, fading to a burnt orange at the bottom, hinting maybe at a sunset (the sun setting on the Empire and the old order?) or perhaps hinting at the flames from explosions against a silhouette of London. I can see fans of Queen & Country or even Shooting War picking this up and enjoying a story which eschews gee-whizz gadgets and heroics for a more realistic tale which avoids the stereotypical plot traps of many of its fellows.
The finish is very professional – a proper binding rather than a straight comic-issue stapling makes this into a short but effective 52-page graphic novel which can sit happily alongside releases from the larger publishers, but at a much smaller cost (a mere £3.95, bargain). Septic Isle will debut with an inaugural limited edition printing at the Bristol International Comics Expo in May and if you are there you should swing past the Moonface stand to say hi to Andy, Mick and Declan and avail yourself of a copy; for more details check the Moonface Press site.