Thursday, November 23, 2017

C’est la Guerre: Thanksgiving Edition

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Original panel from The Vision and The Scarlet Witch #6, art by Richard Howell, words by an Internet Hero.

So, there are quite a few things to rage about or against in the comics world. For example, there  are entire websites devoted to things like Has DC Done Something Stupid Today? (Today? No. 8 days ago, though…), and Is Wolverine Still Dead? (No. No he is not. [Charles Xaiver, on the other hand… well, it’s complicated]). Then you get into Marvel’s Terrible, Awful, Really Bad Year or Two, all of the publisher-distributor-retailer madness so eloquently documented by Brian Hibbs, and the rapidly changing marketplace swinging from floppies to trades, specialty shops to big-box retailers and Amazonian Behemoths, and non-domestic markets. Moreover, all of that is just the thin ice covering a deep ocean of industry woes and complaints, both significant and otherwise. Just taking a cursory look, things look pretty damn awful, and gods help someone thinking about getting into comics for the first time, or getting back into them after a hiatus of more than a year or so.

And yet…. It’s Thanksgiving here in ‘Murica, and in the spirit of the season, and despite all of the above, there are some things in the comic world that I am truly thankful for:

Mark Waid and Chris Samnee on Captain America. Seriously. Thanks guys. After The Run Which Shall Not Be Named, it’s nice to have one of my favorite four-color heroes back.

Chris Samnee’s cover for Captain America #695. #CapisBack #NoMoreNazis #Thankful

Image Comics. Lazarus, Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, Copperhead, Manifest Destiny, The Walking Dead, and on, and on, and on.

Smaller Independent Publishers. The growing strength, quality, and innovation of small publishing houses in the industry is simply incredible. 451 Media Group, Aftershock Comics, Avatar Press, Lion Forge Comics, Oni Press, Red 5 Comics, Titan Comics, and Vault Comics are just a handful of the publishers out there right now that are delivering incredible stories from powerful creative teams every month. If you’re not reading at least a few of these guys’ titles, you’re missing out.

The Return of the Mini-Series. And a lot of these are coming out of the independents, but we’re also seeing some from Marvel (Punisher: Platoon, Astonishing X-Men, the forthcoming Phoenix Resurrection). I love this format, because it helps me to keep new titles flowing through my pull-list. Let’s face it, at $4/book, my monthly comic budget gets eaten up pretty fast, so it’s nice to have some slots opening up every few months for new stuff. Plus, more and more of the industry’s best creators are looking to tell self-contained, complete stories that they really care about – and then move on to the next, different story, so there are some insanely good limited series being produced.

Astro City.  Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Ross, et al. making old school new again since 1995.

Ms. Marvel, The Champions, and the whole diverse teen crowd at Marvel. Suck it haters, these kids are freaking awesome. Hope and idealistic heroism is kinda what the world needs right now. Hell, I even like kid Cyclops, and any franchise that can make me like Scott Summers has to have something going for it. These books do the best job of remembering what made Marvel great to begin with, and I can only hope some of their spirit bleeds over into more books at the House of Ideas.

Wonder Woman. Because she’s always been kick-ass, and now everyone knows it. Dark Knights and Men of Steel? Pffft! We know who run the world.

YAAS PRINCESS! Original art by Francis Manapul, words by @jermainedesign, a.k.a Winner of the Internet.

Cinebook, which is bringing some of the best European comics to American readers who have finally realized that the Old World has more to offer than wine, beer, and cheese.

Garth Ennis. The man who is sometimes single-handedly keeping war comics in the mainstream, and who also continues to write some laugh-out-loud funny, thoughtful, and occasionally cringe-worthy books. Let’s face it, though: the man hits far more often than he misses: Preacher, The Boys, War Stories, Johnny Red: The Hurricane, Punisher: Born, Punisher: Platoon – I mean, c’mon!

Tom King. See the bit about mini-series above. Also see The Vision, The Sherriff of Babylon, and Mr. Miracle. And let’s hope that DC has the sense to greenlight King’s proposed Sgt. Rock series, because THIS MUST HAPPEN, AND I WILL FLY TO BURBANK AND COME FOR DC IF IT DOES NOT. Just sayin’.

Greg Rucka. I’m not sure this guy knows how to write a bad comic. There are a lot of great writers in the industry right now, but Rucka is far and away my favorite, particularly when he’s playing in sandboxes he built, but he’s no slouch when it comes to other IPs either. Read his Wonder Woman and Punisher runs for instance, but if you aren’t reading Stumptown and Lazarus you should probably seek immediate psychiatric help.

So there you go. Despite all of the problems in the industry, and the challenges it faces, there’s a lot of good stuff going on as well, and it’s not a bad idea to remind ourselves of that fact from time to time. Now go and have a happy Thanksgiving – eat too much, watch the MST3K Turkey Day Marathon, and round out the day with some great comics – just, you know, wipe the gravy off of your fingers first.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

C’est la Guerre: The Other Side Special Edition

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Aaron, Stewart, and McCaig’s The Other Side delivers a strange and terrible beauty where the heat, humidity, fever, stench, and mania of the Vietnam War is palpable. If you don’t already own this one, you should.

The Other Side Special Edition. Cover art by Cameron Stewart.

The Other Side, written by Jason Aaron with drawings by Cameron Stewart and colors by Dave McCaig, recently received the deluxe edition treatment with a hardcover collected edition from Image Comics of the Eisner-nominated 2006 Vertigo mini-series. Marking 50 years since the American war in Vietnam reached its peak in terms of US troops committed, 2017 has seen the release of numerous new histories of the American phase of the Vietnam War, the release of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series The Vietnam War, and a concurrent renewed scholarly and public interest in the conflict, so Image’s reissue of this excellent series is very well-timed.

The Other Side p. 1. Script by Jason Aaron, art by Cameron Stewart.

The story follows the journeys of 19 year-old Marine PFC Bill Everette and People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) recruit Vo Binh Dai, tracing roughly a year in their lives through brilliantly executed parallel storytelling. Aaron has claimed that The Other Side represents the hardest work he has ever put into a book, and he credits the work with launching his subsequent career in comics. Cameron Stewart also put a great deal of effort into the work, including a research trip to Vietnam, and the new edition includes excerpts from his e-mails home, as well as numerous photographs from the trip. One of the latter particularly struck me: it shows Stewart, a skinny young man either emerging from or lowering himself into the opening of a tunnel system used by PAVN and Viet Cong troops during the war. The opening appears to be only an inch or less wider than Stewart’s ribcage, and the reader can easily draw a line from that particular tour to the claustrophobic scenes of Vo’s own time in the tunnels in the comic.

The Other Side. Aaron & Stewart.

Aaron and Stewart don’t shy away from the war’s brutality, horror, and – for Everette at least – pointlessness. Even more striking, however, is their choice to underline the madness of the war, both literally and figuratively, for Everette is truly mentally ill, suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations even before he leaves Boot Camp, and despite his honestly about his condition, the Marine doctors, Chaplin, and even his platoon sergeant in Vietnam are utterly unconcerned and uncaring. So long as he can keep it together enough to do his job in the field, no one really cares if he goes truly insane. Nor does Vo escape the madness as he and his comrades march down Route 559 (the Ho Chi Minh Trail), progressively falling victim to hunger, thirst, heat stroke, malaria, and other fevers, he too leaves reality behind for a world in which B-52 spilling thousands of pounds of explosives from their bellies become mythical dragons, and the American enemy monsters from legend. It is this kind of portrayal of mental and emotional stress and horror that sets The Other Side apart from most war comics with a Vietnam focus, and gives the book a visceral horror that very effectively reaches out and grabs the reader.

The Other Side.

Stewart’s artwork is perfectly suited to the story, and artist, writer, and colorist work together seamlessly to tell their tale of two kids who are ultimately little more that meat in an industrial grinder that controls their very lives and doesn’t care about either of them. This feeling of a lack of agency in the face of a seemingly inevitable and unavoidable progression towards madness and death pervades Aaron and Stewart’s book, and Stewart’s cartoony-realism combined with his use of deep blacks and a moody palette brilliantly used by McCaig bring a strange and terrible beauty to the entire book where the heat, humidity, fever, stench, and mania of the war and the land are palpable. This is one of those comics that really is important, and Image’s well-made hardback edition does it justice. The Other Side is available from your local comic shop or Amazon, and, if you don’t already own this one, you should.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review: Knights of the Skull

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Knights of the Skull: Barbarossa. Cover by Wayne Vansant.

Wayne Vansant’s Knights of the Skull volumes 1 (Blitzkrieg) & 2 (Barbarossa) are young adult graphic histories tracing the development of the Wehrmacht’s armored units, with particular focus on the evolution of German tank design. Judging by the series title, the books are a kind of continuation of Vansant’s 2014 black and white collection Knights of the Skull: Tales of the Waffen SS. The first two volumes in the new series are full-color, and cover German tank development from the end of World War I to the start of the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow in December 1941. Vansant is returning to familiar territory here. In a career spanning over 30 years, he has produced several excellent graphic histories in the war comics genre, including Days of Darkness, Days of Wrath, The Battle of the Bulge, and Normandy to name a very few.

In the inter-war years, Germany was the only nation to undertake a sustained program to develop both tank technology and both tactical and strategic armored warfare doctrines. While advocates of tank warfare existed in almost every nation that had participated in World War I (George Patton in the US, B.H. Liddell Heart and J.F.C. Fuller in Britain, Mikhail Tukhachevsky in the USSR) but they were largely ignored by the existing military establishments in their own countries (Tukhachevsky had actually made significant progress in Soviet doctrine and armored theory as the Red Army’s chief of staff, but his policies were discredited and discarded after he was executed during Stalin’s military purges during the late 1930s). Heinz Guderian, on the other hand, was extraordinarily successful not only in the development of doctrine, but also in convincing the German high command to support his work. Hitler himself was immediately taken with the panzers and theories of mechanized warfare when he came to power in 1933, and threw his full support behind the creation of the panzer forces.

Vansant traces this history briefly in volume I of Knights of the Skull, using the careers and military exploits of historical figures like Guderian, Erwin Rommel, Hans von Luck, Franz Bake, Kurt Knispel, and Michael Wittmann to anchor the narrative and give the story specific human faces. However, Vansant is often more sharply focused on the technological development of the tanks themselves, which while allowing him to give full reign to his undoubted expertise with historically accurate portrayals of tanks and armored vehicles. The art throughout is detailed and accurate, but the books definitely fall more into the illustrated history category rather than true sequential art, as the illustrations are mostly there to support the text, with each panel often depicting scenes hundreds of miles and/or weeks apart. Vansant covers a great deal very accurately, while keeping the story moving and maintaining the very real tension and drama of events. The work is informative, well-paced, and gripping. There are also occasional interludes between chapters where Vansant takes a page or two to compare German and allied tanks, or to detail the brutal treatment of prisoners by both sides on the Russian front. These breaks remind me pleasantly of the similar splash pages and two-page spreads that were a regular feature of DC’s classic war comics. Moreover, the author provides detailed maps for each campaign, showing lines of advance and retreat to help locate the reader in time and space. He is also to be applauded for revealing that the campaigns in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, while victorious for the Wehrmacht and certainly vindications of Guderian’s theories, were not really the walk-overs they are generally assumed to have been. Vansant’s panzertruppen are highly trained, highly motivated, but also facing a steep learning curve as they translate training and theory to the realities of the battlefield.

Knights of the Skull: Blitzkrieg pp. 20-21, story and art by Wayne Vansant.

As for the books themselves, Schiffer Publishing has produced nice, magazine-sized paperback editions that give Vansant’s art and subject matter the room it deserves. Unfortunately, the publisher’s editorial department drops the ball here and there, letting several misspellings and subject-verb disagreements slip through the cracks. Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, but it really does seem that publishers and editors are paying less and less attention to spelling and grammar, leading to some unnecessary breaks in the flow of the narrative.

Overall however, Knights of the Skull provides an excellent, accessible overview of its historical subject, and doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the war crimes committed in the East. That having been said, this history is – so far (and unlike the original Knights of the Skull collection) – aimed at a younger, early to-mid teen audience and is therefore rather bloodless, making no attempt to depict the grim realities of the war, or to address atrocities committed by the panzer troops themselves, or the Wehrmacht’s collusion and cooperation in the Nazi’s genocidal programs in eastern Europe. In fact, Guderian and his colleagues are perhaps a bit too much the “good Germans.” This time-honored war comics formula of cool vehicles and military genius largely divorced from ideology feels old-fashioned, and not in a good way. These people were not Good Guys, and every single one of them swore loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Not the rule of law, or Germany, or even to the Nazi Party, but to Adolf Hitler personally, and then they were essential in perpetrating the most horrific conflict in human history. Leaving all of that out isn’t historical objectivism, it’s historical amnesia, and in case you haven’t noticed, that’s a really bad idea.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

C’est la Guerre: Johnny Canuck!

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Johnny Canuck: Compendium, 1942-1946. art by Leo Bachle.

Undoubtedly, one of the most famous images in comic book history is the cover for Captain America Comics #1 where Cap marks his premiere by delivering a devastating right hook to Adolf Hitler’s jaw while deflecting and dodging the hail of gunfire from der Fuhrer’s guards. The red, white, and blue-garbed Steve Rogers wasn’t the only North American comic hero to do some Hitler-punching, however, being followed in 1942 by Canada’s own Johnny Canuck. Canada’s Golden Age of comics was born out of World War II. As part of the British Commonwealth, Canada had been at war since September of 1939, and by the end of 1940, Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen had already mobilized and been sent into combat against German forces, including during the Battle of France and the ongoing Battle of Britain.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, Canada had rapidly become the storehouse and arsenal of the Commonwealth, shipping thousands of tons of food, equipment, weapons, and aircraft to Britain. As the supply of engines and equipment from England for building British-designed aircraft and equipment was suspended in May of 1940, Canada had to purchase such supplies from the US, leading to a growing trade imbalance between the two countries. This in turn led to the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) of December, 1940, which banned the importation to Canada of “non-essential” material and products from the USA. This included American comic books, and created a vacuum that Canadian publishers rushed to fill. With the war effort having first call on colored ink supplies and presses, Canadian comics publishers defaulted to books with colored covers, but black-and-white interiors, earning the books the nickname of “whites.”

As in American comics, Canadian comics characters spent a great deal of time fighting the Nazis and the Japanese both at home and abroad, and in 1942, 17-year-old Leo Bachle created the most famous, and most beloved wartime Canadian hero, Johnny Canuck. Bachle’s feature ran in Bell Publishing’s Dime Comics from 1942 – 1946 (although Bachle had left Bell for the more lucrative waters of New York comic publishing before the WECA was lifted in 1946.) Collected and Kickstarted in 2015 by Rachel Richey, and published by Chapterhouse, Johnny Canuck: Compendium, 1942-1946 brings together all 28 Johnny Canuck stories in one hardback volume that provides an incredibly fun foray into the Golden Age of comics.

Johnny Canuck script and art by Leo Bachle.

Johnny Canuck, “Canada’s Answer to Nazi Oppression,” spends a great deal of time shirtless and solving problems with his fists in adventures that roar by with the pacing of a missile. Each installment runs from 7 to 10 pages, so the action comes fast and thick. Johnny is brave, loyal, square-jawed and powerfully built, while the Nazis are drawn, manacled, scarred, and all speak in a dialect dripping with phrases like “Und I shall collect der ten thousand marks dot haf been offered by our illustrious leader!” Indeed, sentences in Johnny Canuck only end with question marks or exclamation point, with the latter far outnumbering the former as Johnny fights his way through North Africa, Soviet Russia, Yugoslavia, the Pacific, Germany, and France.

Subtlety is not what these comics are about. Good is good and bad is bad, and the tones are simple black and whites. The stories are simple, amply populated with slim, beautiful women who all (even the evil Nazi spy-girls) at have at least a little bit of a thing for our fearless (and shirtless) hero, and are written with classic cliff-hanger endings for every issue. In fact, the Johnny Canuck strips are more similar to old movie serials from the 1930s and early 1940s than anything else, with the same, breathless, breakneck pace. Artistically, Bachle takes his style from Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff, and one of the most interesting things about the Compendium is that the reader sees Bachle’s style and talent grow from merely very skilled into an artist working fully in his own style, and one who comes to use the black and white format of the Canadian Whites to his full advantage, reveling in deep blacks, chiaroscuro, and meticulous line work. Here the Johnny Canuck strips work as a kind of montage of the creator’s development, for Bachle was churning out dozens of different strips for Bell at the same time he was working on Johnny Canuck, accruing thousands of hours of experience and experimentation in just four short years.

Johnny Canuck written and drawn by Leo Bachle.

Like almost all comics of the era Johnny Canuck was produced at the writer/artist’s tops speed, and with minimal editorial oversight. Bell Publishing was far more concerned with getting the books in print and selling than with proper spelling, realism, or even necessarily more than passable art. Comic books, after all, were viewed as disposable entertainment for kids, who wouldn’t notice unconventional spelling or grammar. Nonetheless, Johnny Canuck became a Canadian sensation, beloved by not only kids, but adults, including Canadian servicemen overseas. Late in the war, Bachle was even detained on the Canadian side of the border when attempting to return to his new job in New York City because he had been deemed to be “vital to the war effort” because of Johnny.

Johnny Canuck, written and drawn by Leo Bachle.



In all, the Axis-smashing adventures of Johnny Canuck are an incredibly joyous romp through the Golden Age, and a tremendously eye-opening look into the war-time psyche of a culture that we Americans tend to see as polite to a fault, and not at all the kind of folks who would go about socking anyone in the jaw. Shows what we know. So, pick up Johnny Canuck: Compendium, 1942-1946 from your local comic shop or direct from Chapterhouse, and kick back and enjoy a simpler time, when no one was questioning whether or not one should punch Nazis.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

C’est la Guerre: #ComicsHateNazis

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Our Army at War #160, cover art by Joe Kubert.

In response to the neo-Nazi/white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, comic writer/historian/activist Gail Simone asked comics fans to post pictures of comic book heroes fighting Nazis under the hashtag #ComicsHateNazis. Needless to say, the response was immediate, immense, and the tag was soon trending in a big way across multiple platforms. People posted image after image from throughout comics history showing superheroes punching Nazis or destroying swastikas and other Nazi symbols, and it was good – an affirmation that the medium we all love so much had consistently stood against such a repugnant ideology. Yet in all the panels showing the tights-and-capes crowd taking it to the fascists, I found it odd that no one had apparently posted any images from the vast field of war comics. So, I decided to post one of my own, and one issue immediately came to my mind: Our Army at War #160, from November of 1965.

Of course, fighting Nazis was the bread and butter of American war comics, but at their best, war comics often used that basic premise as a vehicle for commentary on the contemporary culture, and when done right, that commentary was devastating. Enter OAAW #160’s main story “What’s the Color of Your Blood?” written by Robert Kanigher with art by Joe Kubert. The story centers around Jackie Johnson, an ahistorical African-American GI serving in Sgt. Rock’s otherwise majority-white Easy Company (historically, during WWII, US Army units were segregated). First introduced in 1961 in OAAW #113, Jackie Johnson was one of the first non-stereotyped African-American characters to appear in mainstream comics, and the character’s total acceptance as just another incredibly capable “combat-happy Joe of Easy Co.” remains one of the most powerful anti-segregation, anti-racist statements in comics, particularly coming as it did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Our Army at War #113, cover by Joe Kubert.

Four years later, Jackie had evolved into a kind of combination of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, as a former world heavyweight boxing champion who had been defeated before the war by “Storm Trooper” Uhlan in Madison Square Garden, where Uhlan served as an exemplar of the Nazi’s Aryan racial ideal. In the comic, Rock, Jackie, and Wild Man have been captured by a German paratrooper unit led by none other than “Strom Trooper” Uhlan himself. The story centers around a rematch between Uhlan and Jackie, intended by the Nazis to underline their racial superiority. Throughout the match, Uhlan demands that Jackie admit that his blood isn’t red like a man’s but black – inferior. There are some twists and turns in the story, and the reader is treated to some more of Jackie’s backstory along with a retelling of the events in OAAW #113, but the climactic moment lands like a bomb. For my money it’s one of the greatest moments in comics, and was my contribution to #ComicsHateNazis:

Our Army at War #160, script by Robert Kanigher, art by Joe Kubert.

With this story Kanigher and Kubert unflinchingly linked Nazi and American racism directly, refusing to see any difference. To cap things off, the issue ends with Jackie unhesitating volunteering to give Uhlan a lifesaving blood transfusion. It is not only a refutation of the pseudo-science of racism, but a declaration that a person’s worth has nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with their character. Facts which are as true today as they were then.

Our Army at War #160.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

C’est la Guerre: GoFundMe for Sam Glanzman

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Sam Glanzman brought a passion and style to his art that is instantly recognizable, and which quite literally helped to define an entire genre. He will be very sorely missed.

Sam Glanzman, grand-master of the war comics genre and of the comics medium itself, died on July 12 this year, aged 92. Mr. Glanzman worked in the comics industry for almost 80 years, beginning in 1939 at the age of 15. When he turned 18 in December of 1942, however, Mr. Glanzman traded in his artist’s brushes for sailor’s denims, and enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp, Sam joined the crew of DD479, the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Stevens, on which he would serve until the war ended in late 1945. Along the way the Stevens would participate in in 16 different naval operations in the Pacific Theater, destroying 14 Japanese planes, including some engaged in kamikaze attacks against the ship, and the ship was awarded three commendations. In short, the Stevens was an American destroyer in World War II, one of the famous “Tin Cans,” small, fast, fragile, and capable of taking on a variety of missions and operations, some of which had never been envisioned by her designers.

Sam Glanzman at his desk in 2010.

Against regulations, Mr. Glanzman kept a journal of his time aboard the Stevens, complete with sketches and finished artwork illustrating the ship, her crew, and the events and sights he saw during his tour of duty. After the war, he became a professional illustrator, eventually taking a job drawing comics for Charlton Comics in 1958. There he became known for his work on Carleton’s historical war comics, producing detailed, accurate illustrations and stories. By the mid-1960s, Mr. Glanzman was regularly freelancing for Charlton and Dell working largely on war comics like Dell’s Combat, but also branching out to do fantasy work on titles like Tarzan, and co-created (with Joe Gill), Adventures of the Man-God Hercules, in which, freed from the need for historical accuracy, he was able to stretch his artistic muscles, creating a comic that was highly stylized and experimental for the time. In war comics, working with Will Franz, Mr. Glanzman co-created the legendary “The Lonely War of Willie Shultz” for Charlton’s Fightin’ Army.

All this time, his wartime journals and experiences on the Stevens lay largely untouched save as reference material when drawing other stories (fictional and non) set in the war. Until, that is, late 1969 when Mr. Glanzman joined DC’s stable of regular freelancers under the editorial auspices of Joe Kubert. The first USS Stevens story, “Frightened Boys… Or Fighting Men” appeared in Our Army at War 218, cover dated April 1970. A four-page tale, “Frightened Boys…” was still something different, something special. A simple story of a group of newly assigned sailors undergoing their baptism of fire aboard the Stevens during a kamikaze attack, in four pages, Mr. Glanzman caught the terror, the courage, and the desperation of these terribly young men at war, with the story flowing from panel to panel with a grace and easy fluidity that would become a hallmark of his work. Despite becoming the primary illustrator for DC’s G.I. Combat’s “Haunted Tank” stories, it would be these small back-page stories that would cement Mr. Glanzman’s place as one of comics’ greats. He would go on to write Stevens stories for DC through 1977, and would return to the ship and her crew again and again in the 1980s for Marvel’s Savage Tales. In 2013, Mr. Kubert would ask Mr. Glanzman to revive the Stevens for what would be Mr. Kubert’s last work, Joe Kubert Presents, insisting that Mr. Glanzman was one of the finest artists he had ever known.

Opening page of the first USS Stevens story for DC comics, in Our Army at War 218 (1970). Story and art by Sam Glanzman.

In recent years, Eisner-nominated editor Drew Ford has brought Mr. Glanzman’s work back into publication, beginning with A Sailor’s Story  and The USS Stevens: The Collected Stories from Dover Press, and following up with Red Range and the forthcoming Voyage to the Deep from Mr. Ford’s own It’s Alive Press. In the wake of Mr. Glanzman’s final illness, Mr. Ford has created a Go Fund Me campaign to help Mr. Glanzman’s widow, and to celebrate his long career by publishing Sam Glanzman Forever, a tribute to the artist which will include unpublished letters, art, photographs, and tributes from Mr. Glanzman’s fellow professionals and fans alike. At the time of writing the campaign has raised a little over $16,000 of its $20,000 goal, but donations are still being accepted, and gifts of $175 and up receive original artwork by Mr. Glanzman or pieces donated by other artists, including work by Jok and Al Milgrom. Previous volumes from It’s Alive have been incredibly high quality, and there is no reason to believe that Sam Glanzman Forever will be any different. If you can, donate. You’ll not only be helping out the family of one of comics’ greats, but you’ll also have the opportunity to own a collector’s item that is guaranteed to be something special.

In a medium where art and story all too often feel like interchangeable, pre-packaged, industrial productions, Sam Glanzman brought a passion and style to his art that is instantly recognizable, and which quite literally helped to define an entire genre. He will be very sorely missed.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review: The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin p.19, art by Thierry Robin.

This month, Titan Comics releases the first English translation of The Death of Stalin, written by Fabien Nury with art by Thierry Robin. Originally written in French, the graphic novel has attracted international attention as the inspiration for the forthcoming eponymous, star-studded Armando Giovanni film. The book chronicles the period from March to September 1953, from the night Stalin suffered an ultimately (but not immediately) fatal stroke to Khrushchev’s seizure of power later that year. Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from April of 1922 to March of 1953 more absolutely than any Czar, and with a ruthlessness that has become legendary. He was feared, but he was also widely beloved by the Soviet people (and remains so among many Russians even today). Nury and Thierry open their work with a caution that while the book is based on historical events, it is a work of fiction, although they note that their fiction is less strange than the actual events surrounding Stalin’s demise.

The Soviet Council of Ministers. clockwise from top: Molotov, Beria, Kaganovitch, Malenkov, Bulganin, Mikoyan. and Khrushchev. Art by Thierry Robin.

Like many successful dictators, Stalin was a genius at disassociating himself in the eyes of the public from the abuses of his regime while firmly establishing himself as the fount of its successes. Beyond his carefully designed and maintained public image, however, Stalin was a man who ruled through fear, and who held absolute power of life and death over tens of millions of people. After 53 years of rule, in many ways, Stalin was the government of the Soviet Union, and was certainly the only leader many citizens had ever known. At the time of Stalin’s stroke, the seven members of the Soviet Council of Ministers were ill prepared for a transition of power, as Stalin had deliberately kept the chairmen busy trying to maneuver against each other rather than him. The following few days, as Stalin lingered, slipping in and out of consciousness, were witness to repeated rounds of plotting and rejoicing at his impending demise, followed by overwrought scenes of joyous relief and performances of loyalty when it seemed that the “Man of Steel” might just recover.

The Death of Stalin. Script by Fabien Nury, art by Thierry Robin.

Central to these schemes and scenes was Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s long-time executioner, and head of the NKVD, state security, and the secret police. Beria was the first to be informed of Stalin’s stroke, and later claimed to have “done him in,” although whether he was referring to his decision to delay treatment or to something more direct is unknown. Bury and Robin make Beria the center of their story as he attempts to manipulate events and people in order to seize control. Stalin himself plays little direct part in the story, but his presence looms over everything that occurs throughout the book. Nury and Robin perfectly reveal the very real terror that was life under Stalin from the opening panels, when Stalin calls the studio of Radio Moscow to congratulate them on a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, and to tell them that he will be sending someone around to pick up a recording of the performance the next day. Unfortunately, the performance was a live event, and had not been recorded. No matter, however, as the orchestra simply stayed and recreated their performance that same night to record it for Stalin. Because failure to provide him with what he wanted meant the gulag at best and death at worse – for everyone involved. The fear is palpable, and the reader can almost smell it coming off of Robin’s figures.

What follows is a tour of a world gone mad, but one which operates by its own set of blood-soaked rules, and Nury and Robin take the reader through it effortlessly, evoking disgust, horror, laughter, and wonder in turn, and sometimes all at once. The creators also to an incredible job of separating average citizens and soldiers from the seven ministers at the heart of the system: the widow who wants to take her son to see and honor Stalin’s body as it lays in state, because his father died at Stalingrad. The Red Army officer who finds himself at the center of a tragedy that he neither caused nor could really have avoided. Moreover, the utter indifference of the men in power to those they rule is brilliantly conveyed by Nury and Robin’s decision not to emphasize it. Instead they present it like it was, a fact of life. My favorite touches are two quintessentially Russian “jokes” (which I’ll let you discover yourself) that I suspect are historically accurate, but which in any case reflect the fatalistic, often bitter humor that has been a hallmark of that people since before the Mongols invaded. Robin’s art is breathtaking, using a variety of panel-layouts, framing, and viewpoints that keeps the reader glued to the page and moving effortlessly through the story, while from page one, panel one, Nury lives in a brilliant balance of words and wordlessness that is the thing that comic writers dream of.

Script by Fabien Nury, art by Thierry Robin.

In all, The Death of Stalin is a brilliant, darkly funny portrait of the machinations of the powerful, and a deeply moving study of the people who are both the victims of, and victors over their rulers. The heart of this incredible story is ultimately in the background, in the characters who have been forgotten by history, or who spring from the pens of Nury and Robin. This is an astonishing feat of storytelling in any medium, and a vanishingly rare one in comics. The Death of Stalin is a work of beauty in the Russian mold, where “the awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” In short, this book has soul.

The Death of Stalin is currently available at comic shops, and will be released on Amazon and other booksellers on July 25.

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