Monday, December 28, 2009

The Winter Men

DC Comics/WildStorm, issues #1-5 and Winter Special, 2005 through 2009, between 22 and 40 pages each, $ 2.99 or $ 3.99 each

Writers: Brett Lewis, John Paul Leon
Artist: John Paul Leon
Colorists: Dave Stewart, Melissa Edwards
Letterers: John Workman, Jared K. Fletcher

Hey, this is pretty neat for a comic book.

I'm teasing, of course. But when you're faced with one of those very low-selling and yet universally praised superhero comics that are a bit like Watchmen and, in their best moments, get to be almost as good as, say, The Sopranos, then "pretty neat for a comic book" seems somehow appropriate, doesn't it?

Of course, I've just committed a mortal sin right there. What do I mean, "like Watchmen"? How can I say that? Just because the title sounds kind of similar and there's a complex plot that involves a group of semi-retired Cold War superheroes, some of whom join forces—form uneasy alliances—to investigate a crime, with all sorts of political intrigue, betrayal and violence and sex and cheating, and the crooked ethics that result from crooked idealism and frustrated but somehow still semi-idealistic supermen doesn't mean The Winter Men is a Watchmen rip-off!

Nyet! It's set in Russia, and stuff. And, anyway: It's completely different! Right?!

Indeed, in their approach to the material, Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon owe more to Howard Chaykin and Walter Simonson than to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The page layouts and panel-to-panel storytelling are flashier and less rigidly constructed than in Watchmen, the dialogue is rougher and more sensual, and the social commentary blunter.

Structurally, the book is far more chaotic, which is partially intentional, partially due to the material's rocky road to publication and completion (the final, Winter Special issue is an awfully rushed piece of storytelling) and partially just the result of the creators' reach exceeding their grasp—the plot is convoluted rather than complex much of the time and easily remains the book's least memorable aspect.

So, rather than to rip it off, it seems safe to say that The Winter Men actually counterpoints Watchmen. The first hint is the introduction of its hero, Kris Kalenov, who first appears passed out in the snow, drunk and with his face bloodied—as if Rorschach somehow reintegrated right after being zapped by Doctor Manhattan in the snow of Antarctica (or, alternatively, right after losing a bar fight).

Kalenov doesn't wear a mask, but his woolly hat and Rorschach-like gloves—neither of which he takes off, even when he's otherwise buck-naked—give him a similar, similarly distinctive appearance. Kalenov is equally driven to do what he thinks he has to, but his moral compass isn't nearly as straight as Rorschach's, and he doesn't nearly have Rorschach's zeal—whereas Rorschach is an obsessive, obsessive-compulsive fanatic when it comes to following his deeply conservative moral rudder, Kalenov is a hedonist well willing to forgive himself his frequent lapses, as long as things might broadly turn out okay in the end.

In other words, whereas Rorschach embodies the binary moral certainty of Reagan's America, Kalenov stands for a morally confused post-Communist Russia whose national identity is caught between the remnants of the old regime and an unbridled hyper-capitalism, between the unbroken desire to restore the nation to its former, imperial glory and an underlying corruption that seems to be omnipresent, and that keeps eating away at everything and everyone.

This conflict is evident in Kalenov's character, but also in the world Mr. Lewis and Mr. Leon create around him—a world where people try to turn their "bizness" into proper business.

That character and that world are the reasons why the series peaks at issue #4, titled "Interlude: Citizen Soldiers," which is also the one that made me think of The Sopranos. The story follows Kalenov and a friend for a day of their investigation. They start out at McDonald's, where they eat "Big Maks," play chess and talk trash for two hours, at a table with a badge saying, "None of us alone is greater than all of us together."

The rest of the day involves driving around, roughing up suspects, raising protection money, shooting vending machines ("Death to Coka Cola!"), beating up each other, beating up random residents before getting drunk with them, returning to McDonald's for dinner and to steal the Communist table, and, ultimately, doing what they set out to so for the day, which provides the powerful punchline to the interlude story.

And, all the while, Kalenov and his old friend keep talking and talking, of course. The dialogue—made to read as broken English, which is odd when you think about it, but which ultimately works surprisingly well—being another one of the book's great strengths.

So far, so good, then.

There's one big question that remains, though: Does it pay off as a counterpoint to Watchmen in the end?

Yes, it does. The irony being that, unlike Rorschach, Kalenov more or less survives the story, ultimately for no other reason than for all the things that make him not Rorschach.

When Rorschach takes off his mask at the end of Watchmen, he's about to become a smear in the snow for his unwillingness to compromise. When Kalenov takes off his mask—or hat, as it were—it's a sign that, either by compromising or by getting out of the way of those who won't, he's survived the winter and is ready to face the spring.

In other words: The ideologically permeable hedonist who demands his debts be paid in "Big Maks" trumps the uncompromising idealists and full-bore fanatics.

So that's your antithesis to Watchmen, then, your literary unity of plot, character and approach.

It's a soundly executed point observed from an intriguing angle, certainly, and considering the fact that it took four years and multiple format changes to make it, The Winter Men ends up being much better than it has any right to be, which is not even meant in a backhanded way.

If there's any major objection to be had, it's that the book set out to be another counterpoint to a 20-year-old superhero comic in the first place, which seems equal parts ambitious and humble.

So: pretty neat for a comic book. What else do you got?

Grade: A-

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