In this weekly weekend column I’ll be reviewing a graphic novel you may want to sit back and soak up on your downtime. Whether that be the weekend, or whenever. First up: Titan Comics, The Death of Stalin which is being adapted to film by Veep’s Armando Iannucci.
This could have been sub-headed as “a series of unfortunate events”, but given that one’s already been taken, maybe The Death of Stalin could have been sold instead as “a series of unfortunate events planned and executed by dubious Communist machinations”. But, it’s just not as catchy, is it? And, maybe not as “unfortunate” either, given the players involved in this fictitious account of Stalin’s death and the power-plays that rose up in the vacuum left in the days after his demise.
Like any good sit-com, the events of even the first few pages come off the rails very quickly as Stalin insists on a recording of Mozart’s Piano concerto No. 23 he has only just heard on the state sponsored radio, only for the very worried radio producers to realise no-one had recorded a single note of the evening’s live performance. A hastily put together re-run is staged in the hope of fooling Uncle Joe himself, only for him to suffer a massive heart attack upon hearing this impromptu, albeit bootlegged, score.
And, it goes from bad to worse from there, as Central Committee of the Communist Party members vie for power and position upon realising Russia will be seeking a new despot to replace Stalin. No more so than Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, an odious Machiavellian even by Cold War Russia’s standards. The type of dictatorial bureaucrat who has files on everyone. Even his own mother, I imagine!
And a man very much in charge behind the scenes, regardless of his rank. He may not be in line to inherit Stalin’s crown, but he holds the means by which to cease it, for sure. Even his introduction into a book heaving with villainous politicos, Beria stands out as a wrong ‘un as well as this book’s Malcolm Tucker (The Thick of It), but dialled up to 11. Which is handy, given Armando Iannucci’s film based on this book will be with us soon enough (and, what a cast it sports too). You can hear Iannucci’s own thoughts on the book that inspired his film here.
But, before you can have a death, you have to pronounce a man dead and with very few doctors around–thanks to a recent purge by the state–desperate times make for strange bedfellows. But, who can say no to the strong-arm tactics of the Communist Party? Although, with time passing and no-one wanting to take responsibility, maybe it’s because of the Committee’s procrastinating that delivers the last nail in Stalin’s coffin. The fact that such a shaky stance was taken seems part of the absurd black comedy that plays out in this book, but in fact, this would have been in keeping with Stalinist policy on such things; of deferring all decision-making until a time when official orders from higher authority could be obtained. Talk about death by committee!
This is graphic novel draped in cloak and dagger politics and understandable paranoia given the era this covers. And, while this is a fictitious account of Stalin’s death, as writer Fabien Nury states in the preface, “it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin”.
The world of 1950s Communist Russia is beautifully mapped out by artist Thierry Robin who fills this book with sweeping, snow-covered vistas; whether it be the vast harsh Russian countryside or the opulent beauty of Moscow’s Baroque churches and immense stately powerhouses of the ruling elite. His composition creates a very cinematic reading experiences and one with a little touch of the Tim Sale about it stylistically. The colouring, provided by Robin and Lorien Aureyre only helps to add a suitably dark tone–literal and metaphorical–to this particular chapter in Russian history that even today we do not know the full truth about. A sharp contrast to the Communist Red cover it sports.
While this story has a predictable ending–but only if you are familiar with Russia at this time, I suppose–and shades of some of the theories surrounding Stalin’s death (was it natural, or was it poison?) mixed in, this is a riveting alternative account to the death of Stalin and the swift rise to power of…let’s just say that the best laid plans of mice and Machiavellian men often go astray.
This makes for a riveting, dark farce inclusive of many popular theories about Uncle Joe’s death and of the political power plays and the egotistic greed too. And, when an uprising amongst the ranks of the Communist Party does kick off–in the second chapter of this graphic novel – it seems to happen with speed and pace after a deliberately much slower first chapter focusing on the death of Stalin itself. A well paced, well researched book that is both gripping to read and majestic to look at. Mother Russia has never looked so beautiful, even if it’s inhabitants aren’t.
The Death of Stalin is on sale in comic shops now, and available in book shops on July 25th 2017.