Greg Rucka doesn’t look like the kind of guy who could kill someone with his bare hands. But any of his characters—bodyguard-turned-fugitive Atticus Kodiak, ex-assassin Alena, British Special Intelligence Services spy Tara Chace—could take you out with one well-placed punch. “A few years ago, people would have said that I look like the people I write about,” laughs Rucka over coffee in Portland, Ore., where he lives with his wife and two children. “But not now. I guess I’ve gotten soft or put on weight.” Bantam, who’s published Rucka his entire career, will bring out Walking Dead, the seventh installment in his series featuring the dedicated but tormented Kodiak.
He readily admits that Walking is a “hard book, very dark.” Atticus and his ex—hit woman lover, Alena, are living under assumed names in a small seaside town in the Republic of Georgia when their next-door neighbor and his family are brutally murdered. All except 14-year-old Tiasa, who, Atticus learns, has been sold on the black market as a sex slave. Even though getting involved threatens to destroy the life he and Alena have built together, Atticus is determined to find the girl.
“It’s an exceptionally violent book,” says Rucka, noting that the body count was up to eight by the 20,000-word mark. Rucka groups Walking with 2000’s Shooting at Midnight, which had Atticus taking the backseat to his volatile friend, New York City private eye Bridgett Logan as she faced down a dangerous pimp, and 2005’s Private Wars, the second in his series featuring British spy Chace, based on his Queen & Country graphic novels, in which Chace is confronted with torture in Uzbekistan. “It’s all fiction, and the goal of fiction is to entertain and tell a good story,” Rucka says. “But I do feel like I should take a bullhorn and say, ‘Look what’s going on here!’ I could try and sugarcoat [the issues], but that’s a lie and it’s unfair to the people who have survived them.”
Rucka is unequivocal when it comes to the inspiration for his novels. “I write about things that piss me off,” he says. In Keeper, his 1996 Kodiak debut, the bodyguard is charged with protecting a pro-choice doctor. “Even if you don’t agree with abortion, you don’t shoot doctors,” Rucka says.
A Terry Gross interview on NPR with Benjamin Skinner, about his 2008 book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Day Slavery ,was the spark that led to Walking. “I’d been aware of trafficking as a drama—or even a genre—staple,” Rucka says, “but it’s been fetishized. I went out and bought Skinner’s book the next morning and read it cover to cover, with a couple of breaks for vomiting.”
Though the Kodiak novels have never been light reading, Rucka didn’t forsee that Atticus would eventually shed his (legal) bodyguard duties for the (less legal) role he finds himself in first in 2008’s Patriot Acts and then in Walking. “I did know that if I was writing about professional protection, I was going to have to write about professional assassination. It’s plausible to me, having never met anyone who does it, that there are people who kill people for large sums of money.” Rucka sees it as a logical extension of governments, “that have soldiers who are trained to kill. Murder becomes an element of policy.”
In addition to his Queen & Country graphic novels, Rucka is a prolific contributor to major comic series, from DC Comics’ Batman to Hellboy by Portland’s own Dark Horse Comics. When Rucka discovered Marvel comics in the eighth grade, he thought he’d be putting it all away when he grew up,” but, he says, “by the time I got to college, there were all these renaissances in the form.” He tried his hand at writing a few, getting friends to illustrate them, because “I can’t draw.”
Dennis O’Neil from DC Comics, a fan of the Kodiak series, gave Rucka a tryout. “The next thing I know,” says Rucka, “they were shoveling work at me.” He became an anchor writer for No Man’s Land, the year-long Batman story. “Even though there’s a joy in playing with other people’s characters”, he says, “the flipside is that you’re limited because the characters aren’t yours.”
He’s about to start Batwoman for DC’s Detective Comics and considers it an important piece of work. “I won’t own it, but when all is said and done, if I’ve done my job well, I will have helped to create a a strong female character who’s queer and out.”
And what about Atticus’s future? “Thematically, Walking Dead is about him trying to reconcile the man he was with the man he’s become,” says Rucka. “He’s had a very dark ride, so right now, I think this might be the last one.” There may be another story or two to tell down the line, but there’s a piece of Rucka that’s telling Atticus, “You made it. You can rest for a while.”
And Walking Dead is a departure in another way. “I think it’s a redemptive ending,” Rucka says, “which is not, frankly, very much like me. I tend to fade out on a bleak gray.”