While the first books from Dead Reckoning focused on Afghanistan and WWI, their spring line-up from last year concentrated on WWII. In particular, the Eastern Front would provide the backdrop for three of the five books released that season by the Naval Institute Press as part of their graphic novel imprint (one of the outliers, All Quiet on the Western Front, can be found reviewed here).
There’s something to be said for reading these books back to back. Stalingrad: Letters from the Volga hails from Antonio Gil and Daniel Ortega and is devoted to the battle of Stalingrad, which lasted over five months. While the description on the back cover says the book “…presents the battle, beginning to end, through the eyes of Russian and German troops,” it’s really more the Germans than the Russians (German, for instance, appears in English while Russian gets translated).
Immersed in black, Stalingrad’s book design asserts a heaviness that puts you in the right state of mind for this story. Gil and Ortega’s account is extremely well-researched. Each chapter begins with a page of text, providing context for the fighting ahead (better it would’ve been two pages, so the text could’ve been larger). T. Perran Mitchell’s lettering for the letters (as in the soldiers’ letters) would’ve been easier to read at a larger size, too.
Another small change that would’ve made a difference is if the acknowledgement page had been moved to the front of the book instead of the back. Gil and Ortega never try and claim that the soldiers’ letters are real, but you wouldn’t wonder about it if this page came first. What this book does well is get across how sudden death can be. Stalingrad has a notorious reputation, but it takes a graphic novel like Gil and Ortega’s to understand what the conditions were like and to let it sink in in a way that reverberates.
Having made an appearance in Gil and Ortega’s Stalingrad, The Night Witches seemed like the right book to read next. Originally published by Dynamite Comics as part of Garth Ennis’ Battlefield series, The Night Witches collects “The Night Witches,” “Motherland,” and “The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova.” Written by Garth Ennis, with art by Ross Braun, The Night Witches evokes a very different vibe from Stalingrad. Braun’s faces are open, and soul-baring, while Tony Aviña’s colors let the sunshine in, so the weather doesn’t always suffocate or mirror the bloodshed. The dialogue and the relationships between the pilots (how they worked together and depended on each other in the air) creates some fascinating dynamics, and Ennis’ dialogue, as lettered by Simon Bowland, is very natural, without ever feeling stiff or overwritten.
The Soviet Union, significantly, encouraged women to enlist, but that doesn’t mean they were immediately welcomed by their comrades, and what comes across as more of a slap in this story is how their service was buried after the war. “The Night Witches” flips back and forth between the perspective of a German soldier and Anna. In doing so, it creates this awareness of both the language barrier and the contrast between seeing the enemy and seeing individuals.
Anna is a little like James Bond, when it comes to romance. On the one hand, it’s cool to see a woman in this role and, on the other, since she’s a fictional character, too, it can feel overboard. Her relationships are creative choices, not facts, but Ennis is very upfront about his process in the afterword, and Night Witches knows how to reel readers in.
Riff Reb’s’ Men at Sea stands out for not being as obvious a choice to be published by Dead Reckoning. Adapting eight short stories from authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stephenson, if you loved The Lighthouse and The Terror: Season 1 this book will have something for you. With new lettering for this translation by Mitchell, all of the stories have horror elements, but the fallout is different each time. Some of them will hit that personal horror sweet spot. For me, it was Pierre Mac Orlan’s “The Far South” (where Reb uses white space and the snow to stick the landing). Others are like horror movies you stay up too late to watch and then wish you hadn’t because you can’t shake it off (William Hope Hodgson’s “The Sea Horse” is a rough story to open with). It would’ve been cool if Dead Reckoning had been able to include the original stories, for comparison, but these unnerving sea tales won’t easily be forgot.
Finally, there’s Wayne Vansant’s Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War. At 572 pages, it’s the biggest of the four books but this allows Vansant to be patient. When characters split up, they aren’t quickly reunited and they often don’t get to hear how the others are doing while they’re separated. Katusha is from Ukraine and what the book sporting her name does best is lay out the dilemma faced by civilians in Eastern Europe during WWII. How do you decide who to fight for when your options are Hitler or Stalin? Katusha ends up riding tanks for the Red Army but her heart is with Ukraine.
Vansant’s book is full of thoughtful details and he doesn’t draw attention to them either. A character gets a haircut and it’s up to readers to realize the significance of that cut. There’s a chance they won’t, but Vansant is willing to take that risk. Of Dead Reckoning’s books on the Eastern Front, Katusha is also the one that most addresses how Jews were persecuted and anti-Semitism.
Stalingrad: Letters from the Volga, Night Witches, Men At Sea, and Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War are available now from Dead Reckoning.