You Couldn’t Make It Up: Reviewing The Death Of Stalin OGN

by Richard Bruton

The Death of Stalin is a title you may well know more for the recent Armando Iannucci directed movie than the graphic novel source material. Starring Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Palin, the movie is one I missed at the cinema, but am really looking forward to on DVD. Yet due to a self-imposed rule of always reading the source material first, I still haven’t seen it yet.

Well, now I have read the original. And it’s a pleasure to be able to say that The Death of Stalin, the graphic novel, published in English by Titan Comics, is a truly excellent darkly comic graphic novel, full of comedy, capturing the insanity we can only imagine went on following Stalin’s stroke and death.

Written by Fabien Nury and drawn by Thierry Robin, it tells the tale of the power vacuum left behind following Stalin’s death. It perfectly captures the surreality, the ridiculousness, all the bureaucratic fun and games, the sheer “you couldn’t make it up-ness” of it all.

It’s a wonderful tale of the It begins with a quote, so perfect in summarising the feel of the graphic novel that I had to include it:

Although inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless a work of fiction: artistic license has been used to construct a story from historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory.

Having said this, the authors would like to make clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation of this story, since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.

Yep, that sums up the contents of the satire that follows ever so well. Something made much more humorous and surreal because we can imagine it all went down exactly as Nury and Robin describe in their pages.

The tone is nailed right from the very start, with a short introduction of utter farce, made all the funnier as you can so easily imagine it happening. Truth being totally stranger than fiction after all.

It’s 1953, Radio Moscow has a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, with soloist Maria Yudina. Comrade Stalin wants a copy of the performance…

“The concerto. Was it recorded? Was the concerto recorded?!”
“Um… no. Live broadcast. As usual.”

“We’re all going to die.”

The desperation says it all. The certainty that simply not being able to fulfill a request from Stalin is a certain death sentence. And the timing is perfection itself. A coffee spluttering moment, and there are plenty of them through the comic. The ridiculousness is perfect, the solution so convoluted as to be insane.

And this is merely the prologue, the first few pages before the graphic novel really begins.

After that introduction, we really hit the farce and hit it hard. After Stalin’s stroke on March 1, 1953, the political machinations of the Central Committee of the Communist Party play out with a skillful comedic quality, everything accentuating the totally ridiculous, yet utterly believable events that follow. Watching the power struggles play out, the manoeuvring, the agendas at play, all of it builds to a fabulous comic and comedic experience.

The gathering of the Committee leads to the first of many oh so ridiculous moments, all emphasizing the fear, the paranoia, the utterly insane feelings of the times in Soviet Russia.

With Stalin incapacitated, a doctor could not be called until the Central Committee had gathered, voted, and agreed on the doctor to call to treat him. But not all of the Committee are there yet, so the decision must be delayed. And it’s made all the more complicated by the fact that Stalin himself had, days before, ordered the execution of the bulk of the country’s leading doctors.

I’ve only really covered the first thirty pages or so in this 120-page graphic novel. But just that is enough to give an idea of just how good The Death of Stalin is.

So, now that I’ve read the graphic novel, I can actually find some time to enjoy what I’m pretty convinced will be a fabulous movie adaptation. After all, something directed by the genius that is Armando Iannucci always tends to verge on the excellent. And of course, there’s the added bonus of Jason Isaacs playing Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, complete with a wonderfully thick northern accent. So while I go out and buy the DVD, enjoy The Death of Stalin trailer. And of course, hello to Jason Isaacs.

And an extra extra, Armando Iannucci talks The Death of Stalin graphic novel and movie.

The Death Of Stalin, written by Fabien Nury, art by Thierry Robin, colors by Thierry Robin & Lorien Aureyre. Published by Titan Comics. Available now, along with the prequel-ish volume, The Death of the Tsar.