Colored by David Baron w/ Allen Passalaqua & Peter Pantazis
Review by Joey Braccino
Graphic novels are so hot right now. I’ve read graphic novels about the history of journalism, robot dreams, both World Wars, anorexia, a league of evil exes, Iran, New Orleans, Iraq, Egypt, and the last days of a southside shorty. I’ve read countless graphic novel memoirs and autobiographies. I’ve read graphic novel adaptations of Native American trickster tales, The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Fahrenheit 451, and the United States Constitution. Just today, Slate.com ran an interview with the creators of a new graphic novel that tells the true story of Alvin Greene, the unlikely, semi-serious candidate who won a Democratic primary in South Carolina without a website, yard signs, or any money.
So when a new graphic novel popped up based on an obscure 1938 Russian propaganda film about 13th Century Russian warrior, Alexander Nevsky, I was all like, “okay!” I’m all for it. More stories told in the comics format that don’t involve capes and/or exaggerated physical features the better. Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction are growing fields in the comics medium: the aforementioned books on the Constitution, adaptations of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, Zahra’s Paradise, War is Boring, Sons of Liberty, Nat Turner, etc. etc. etc. Granted, while a propaganda film from 1938 Soviet Russia about the battlefield feats of Alexander Nevsky inspires Ben McCool’s Nevsky: A Hero of the People, it still contains a fascinating example of historical storytelling.
Pretty much exactly what the graphic novel looks like, except with color and more pencilly.
The foreword by comics legend Howard Chaykin and a brief historical introduction justify the adaptation of the obscure story of Alexander Nevsky, a patriotic warrior who turned back two consecutive invasions from the Mongol Golden Hordes and the German Teutonic Knights back during the 1200s. Apparently, the 1938 film, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, was a filmmaking feat of special effects, grandiose scope, and national pride (re: jingoism). It also came out at a time when Hitler and the Nazis were gaining a larger foothold in Eastern Europe. Get it? German Knights circa 1200 became a corollary for Hitler’s jack-booted Nazis, and Nevsky’s steadfast patriotism and courage in the face of two separate invasions became a historical foundation for the Soviet Union’s stalwart and lengthy defense of the motherland. There is, of course, a more complicated history on both sides of the story, but let’s leave it at that for our discussion for Nevsky: A Hero of the People. The graphic novel also contains enough supplementary material–interviews, articles, history lessons–to fill in any of the gaps in the reader’s extensive knowledge of Russian 13th century history.
Writer Ben McCool focuses most of the action of Nevsky around our eponymous hero’s battle with the Teutonic Knights. There is patriotism and sword fighting and Eastern European goatees galore over the course of this 100+ page graphic novel. Nevsky is a straightforward “Defend the Motherland” bit of good versus evil fun, and it does its best to translate the scope of Eisenstein’s black and white epic film into the compressed panels of the comics format. Mario Guevara’s pencils capture the heroic lines of Nevsky and his fellow Russian defenders (male and female); his figures and strong faces are reminiscent of more mainstream work by artists like Billy Tan and Khoi Pham. Generally, the artwork is kinetic and effective, but there are moments—particularly during the crowded battle sequences—when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the characters. It doesn’t help that they all have the same aforementioned Eastern European goatee or that they’re all wearing similar uniforms. Also, for a comic based on a film distinguished for its scope and grandeur, I was surprised that Guevara and Company didn’t employ more full-page or double-page spreads. The battle sequences become a bit cramped toward the latter half of the book.
On the fence. Graphic Novel enthusiasts and/or fans of obscurity might want to pick this up. I fall into both those camps, so I have a copy. IDW took a risk publishing McCool’s Nevsky: A Hero of the People. I don’t really know how well Nevsky will sell to more mainstream comics readers, but I will say that the graphic novel is a well-written, well-illustrated bit of historical (non-)fiction. McCool infuses the story with enough metaphor about heroism and patriotism to justify the retelling of this obscure moment in Russian medieval history. Furthermore, there are two strong woman-warrior characters in this book. Which is fantastic considering the cast of characters in most medieval sword-and-shield epics. Further furthermore, I’m interested in watching Eisenstein’s film now.
Pic of Sergei Eisenstein. I’d watch anything this guy directs!
There’s also a trailer for this book. How nuts is that!?