So here’s a little something out of the ordinary for me. I’m not a big reader of 2000AD, the long-running British sci-fi comic magazine where Jaegir first ran, by any stretch of the imagination. However, I have sampled bits and pieces of 2000AD over the years, mostly the Ian Edginton/D’Israeli collaborations, and I’ve generally liked what I’ve read. In many ways, living in a culture dominated by the American comics industry, British stuff is a breath of fresh air. On top of that, the basic premise of Jaegir, the episodic adventures of a lady cop in a futuristic totalitarian state, is something that is, shall we say, quite relevant to my interests.
Now Jaegir itself is a spinoff to the old 2000AD series Rogue Trooper. It’s not strictly necessary to have a deep understanding of Rogue Trooper to read Jaegir, but some context is helpful. The basic deal with Rogue Trooper is that in the dank depression of the distant future there is only war, in this case between the Germano-Slavic fascists of the Great Nordland Republic and the Franco-Anglo-Americans of the Souther Confederacy. They fight all across the galaxy, but the comic mostly limits itself to the front at Nu-Earth, a strategically valuable world transformed by NBC warfare into a choking hellscape. To triumph in the wasteland, the Southers engineer a superior type of “genetik infantry” who can survive in the environment. Unfortunately, thanks to the work of a traitorous general, all but one of the GIs are killed on their first deployment. The only survivor is, of course, the titular Rogue, who spends the comic wandering the wasteland, hunting for the traitor. In general Rogue Trooper is very much a classic war comic with a sci-fi package, albeit with a bit of an anti-war slant. Certainly the world of the comic is a crockpot of references: given the comic was created in the early 1980s, the specter of Vietnam hangs heavily over it, but also there’s quite a lot that wouldn’t be out of place in a WW2 comic, and I’m tempted to say that the blighted hellscape of Nu-Earth is yet another testament to the enduring hold of the Somme on the British imagination. Rogue Trooper was eventually undone by the fact that it only had one story in it; after Rogue finally caught and ventilated the traitor-general, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go. Through the late eighties and nineties there were other plots, reboots, and spinoffs, but most of them didn’t last that long. (I will say, though, that the video game adaptation is decent if slightly awkward to play, and it does a good job of compressing the main arc of the comic while hitting most of the high points.)
To avoid the pitfalls of the other spinoffs, Jaegir takes leave of the war and sets its focus squarely on the Norts themselves. Our emissary to their world is Kapiten-Inspector Atalia Jaegir, a field agent working for the Office of Public Truth, and the daughter of Marshal-Minister Josef Jaegir, the man behind the bioengineering efforts that rendered Nu-Earth uninhabitable. However, in her introduction Atalia and her team are tapped by the Office of Genetic Purity, a sister organization tasked with hunting down dangerous mutants. Beasts Within collects the first four of Atalia’s adventures, and all three of them are some mixture of three storylines: Atalia’s work for the Office of Genetic Purity, her work with the Office of Public Truth, which mostly consists of her and her team investigating the Nordland military for wrongdoing and executing those the courts can’t touch, and finally own inner monologue reflecting on the course of her life and her troubled conscience.
In the few interviews he did for Jaegir, writer Gordon Rennie mentioned that the genesis for the comic came from his days working on the original run of Rogue Trooper, particularly with his dissatisfaction with the portrayal of the Norts. Certainly if the video game is anything to go by, in their original depiction the Norts were little more that stock war comic Nazis, a collection of ridiculous accents and sneering. In Jaegir, the Nazi analogies have been pushed aside in favor of something more reminiscent of the Brezhnev years of the Soviet Union. Atalia bounces around a fair part of the Nordland Republic, and the overall impression is of a civilization that has “lost the dream.” Cynicism and self-advancement are endemic at all levels of society, even among the upper tiers of the military and police apparati. Society has evolved into a series of patron-client relationships; everyone is carving out little fiefdoms to rule with an iron fist, from spymasters-turned-gangsters who gather broken and damaged veterans into a personal army, to elite military units who hoard prisoners-of-war to abuse as they see fit. Once again, it’s the small details that make the Norts a believable society; seeing characters trade cynical jokes that date back to the Brezhnev years, or seeing Atalia catch a bunch of cadets buying drugs, only to instruct them on what to take to dull the horrors of combat adds something relatable to her world. It’s a place filled with ridiculous names and ridiculous war machines, but the emotions and the behaviors of the characters ring true.
The one reference to Nazism that still remains is the Norts’ hatred of mutants and genetic impurity, but even that is handled uniquely. Many years ago, the Norts, fearing the numerical superiority of the Southers, turned to genetic engineering to enhance the abilities of their warrior castes. Unfortunately, the project was a terrible failure; rather than creating a new master race, a horrific taint was introduced in the bloodlines, with those afflicted devolving over years into hulking, cannibalistic berserkers dubbed “strigoi.” It’s an interesting change-up. Rather than having a particular minority be excluded as the biological “other,” the best and brightest of Nort society are literally ticking time bombs. As a result, the strigori issue is one seldom discussed in public; the Office of Genetic Purity researches and clamps down in its typically brutal fashion, but most even they can do is hunt and eliminate those who have turned. It is also worth noting that the genetic modifications that led to the taint are another of Daddy Jaegir’s gifts to the Norts, and that the taint also flows through the veins both him and his daughter.
And what of Atalia Jaegir herself? On the surface she presents the appearance of a good soldier of Nordland; cool, unemotional, little in the way of personal attachments, and comfortable with both the sight of violence and the use of it as a tool. Through her inner monologue, however, a competing picture emerges of Atalia as a hidden outcast. From the start, Atalia was marked apart; the only daughter in a family of sons, the daughter of a second marriage, and the product of a union between a Nort man and a Souther woman. On top of it all, her mother was arrested early in Atalia’s childhood for treason and sentenced to destructive biological testing. After enduring life with her brothers and father, she enlisted in the military, only to be promptly fed into the meat grinder of Nu-Earth. (Incidentally, Rogue himself makes his only appearance in Jaegir in flashback, remembered by Atalia as a horror who murdered every other member of her platoon with his bare hands.) Even in her current position, both her organizational affiliation and her gender are the target of insult by other Norts. As a result of all this, she lacks the sadism and entitlement endemic to the Nort military and political elite, and much of her inner monologue is given over to mulling over the contradictions of her life and her contempt for the “virtues” of Nort life exemplified by men like her father.
And yet, there is also room to question how much of an outsider Atalia truly is. There are certain aspects of Nort life with which she is quite comfortable. She may not enjoy the suffering of others, but she has little compunction against thrashing people around to further her investigations. Indeed, with the summary executions of people protected from the Nort judicial system, Atalia seems at times to be running a death squad, albeit one that does its homework. Even her relationship with her father has its ambivalencies. Her reminiscences posit him as the Nordland ideal she could never hope to reach, tying into the comic’s depiction of him as a personification of all the evil of the Norts. Certainly he treats her shabbily all through her childhood, even going so far as to tell her, after the death of his eldest son, that he would have preferred she had died instead. And yet there are odd little moments of sympathy, little bits of praise and compassion. It’s far too early to tell if these moments were done out of empathy or ego, but it seems that the relationship between the two is far more complicated that even Atalia would care to admit.
Now, I’m not saying that Jaegir: Beasts Within is some comic book answer to Darkness at Noon or The Confession. It is, at the end of the day, a sci-fi war-detective comic with a few modest ambitions. That said, I enjoyed it for what it does, and I hope Rennie revisits Atalia sometime in the future.