Writer: Brett Lewis
Artist: John Paul Leon
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
“I’m going to tell you some things I never thought I’d tell an American.”—an apt beginning to The Winter Men, a comic that depicts a modern Russia rarely seen in American entertainment media. Outside the occasional Russian mobster or prostitute in Law and Order and its network-television ilk, the post–Cold War Moscow of economic collapse, disillusionment, and corruption has held little fascination for western audiences. Writer Brett Lewis comes off as an astute observer of the contemporary Russian cultural milieu, and, via an injection of superheroic fantasy into real Soviet history, he draws powerful portraits of his tragic protagonist, Kalenov, and the nation as a whole.
The Winter Men #1 opens with a splash page centered on a larger-than-life Soviet super-solider, his red uniform emblazoned with a golden star, holding a tank aloft. His face is stoic resolve, his eyes invisible; the soldier’s features appear more as symbols of his virtue than as details marking out his individuality. Across the page, a Soviet slogan proclaims, “BEHOLD! . . .THE HAMMER OF THE REVOLUTION, THE IDEAL CITIZEN . . .” The prelude to the story, narrated in confessional tone by former super-soldier Kalenov, continues with scenes of noble deeds performed by “the ideal citizen.” All of these fantastical events culminate in a panel filled with propaganda posters based on actual Socialist Realist works of the time, tweaked here to include images of the superhuman defenders who are the “poetry of planning! A complex mathematical puzzle that our Soviet men of science have conquered.” It is at this moment, in which Lewis and artist John Paul Leon merge the true history of Russia with the fantastical supermen of comics, that the creators’ project becomes clear. By lacing the former global superpower’s history with literal superheroes, The Winter Men gives its hero Kalenov a long way from which to fall.
And fall he does. When we first see the present-day Kalenov, his face is frozen to the ground in the park after too much vodka. As he is being pried up from the ice, he reveals himself as a Moscow police officer. Kalenov explains his career in pitch-perfect Russian: “Like many Russians, I was meant to be a poet. But one does not eat good intentions. So . . .I have become some other things.” And there is little poetry (though much irony) in today’s assignment: a showdown at a formerly state-run department store between the old Soviet staff and the Americans who have purchased it “and hired a western-style staff—you know, the kind that attend to the customer.” The old staff pays its bribes up to the Moscow mayor’s “roof” while the American investment group is under the “roof” of someone at the Interior Ministry. Thus, two armed government groups, Kalenov’s officers and the Rapid Reaction Corps led by another former super-soldier, are both called in to settle the problem. And though they settle it, it is over a bottle of vodka and the flip of a coin rather than in mighty combat.
What gives these scenes their intense mixture of black humor and pathos is Kalenov’s past as “the strength of the collected people personified,” that is, as a superhero. In Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, former superhero Mitchell Hundred’s ability to save one of the two towers on September 11th serves to heighten his pain, guilt, grief, and helplessness over having failed to save the other. In much the same way, the existence of all-powerful men in a glorious Russian history deepens the sense of aimlessness, amorality, and indignity that Kalenov feels. Brett Lewis has located this powerful metaphoric aspect of genre fiction and uses it to great effect.
On its surface, The Winter Men #1 is a political thriller with suggestions of superhero context. But more than that, the series promises to explore contemporary Russia (and the contemporary Russian psyche) to an extent seldom seen in comics. The Winter Men #2 promises to feature Kalenov in New York City, definitely one of the “springs of evil, money, power, greed, partiality” that Soviet slogans proclaimed could never reach “the hammer of the revolution.” Hopefully, Lewis and Leon will paint a picture of the Russians of Brooklyn as incisively as they have those of Moscow.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!