Winter’s Gone

Sometimes you find something just in time for it to die and the best you can offer is a good death. Once my roommate found a pigeon with a broken neck and brought it home. It spent a night in our bathtub before we took it to wildlife rescue. They called us a couple hours later to say they had to put it down. It’s one of those unpleasant adult life lessons that I think people believe comics are supposed to distract us from. The problem is that often by the time I find something I like, it’s done.

A week or so ago, I went to the comic store to paw through the $1 clearance and see about new titles I might not usually buy. I found The Winter Men, what I assumed were 3 issues of an 8 issue arc, or maybe 3 issues from 2 arcs and a new open-ended run. A couple of days later I found #2. Turns out #5 is the end, well, except for the possibility of a Winter Men Special #1.

Comics are a weird medium—an implied, overarching story told in single increments. We all trust we’ll get at least most of that story. Me, I prefer to read comics collections now and that can make it particularly hard. Not everything is collected in a trade paperback. Take Doom Patrol. Even though I had most of the single issues, I spent years annoyed that Grant Morrison’s run was represented by only one graphic novel, Crawling from the Wreckage. Then suddenly a comic with unsuccessful sales becomes a canonical title and the whole run appears in fancy new trade paperbacks.

The Winter Men is probably one of the clearest victims of the comics business I’ve seen in a long time. From what I’ve managed to put together, the run was supposed to be 8 issues, then cut back to 6, then 8 again and finally ended with issue 5. This little bit of comic industry business is reflected on the covers: “#1 of 8,” “#2 of 8,” “#4 of 6,” and, finally, giving up figuring out what the hell is going on, “#5, November 06.” It would’ve been an amazing comic if Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon had all the time they thought they would.

The Winter Men is set in contemporary Russia. Kris Kalenov is a former special forces rocket soldier, a flying tank designed not only to defend the people against “hoarding Capitalist forces,” as they’re called in the first issue, but also to protect the state from its greatest weapons, the Winter Soldiers, “the strength of the collected people personified.” Now a soldier-police officer working for Moscow’s mayor, Kris is set on a mission to recover a girl ostensibly kidnapped for the organ trade, but who he suspects is a product of the Winter Project.

While there’s some really nice reconstruction of Socialist realist art and sloganeering representing Kris’ earlier life, the comic’s tone is weary and long past idealism. Still, Kalenov’s friends—Drost, the soldier, Nikki, the gangster, Nina, the bodyguard, all former soldiers in his unit—accuse Kalenov of the secret nostalgia that usually besets noir heros. The series is all raggedy noir thriller and political history and devastated personal lives mixed together and rendered in thick lines and thin washes. The details are nice—Kalenov passed out in the snow, Moscow’s mayor threatening to shut off the Kremlin’s electricity, a turf war set to a Pepsi franchise guide. The powder blue translation arrow boxes for all the sepia Cyrillic headlines and tattoos are just swell.

It’s sad to see the amount of time and space allowed for the story in the first couple issues in comparison to the heavy exposition of the last. Narrative boxes are all over the nice expressionist art. I’m assuming panels and pages had to be cannibalized and cut to create a new unity from the remains. They did a good job, though. With an incredibly complicated plot involving cola wars, former intelligence and special forces turned mafiya, militia and police and some serious political conspiracy going on, they managed to cut out three issues. Lewis and Leon clearly loved what they were doing. I’m only seeing The Winter Men in shards, but what I have is beautifully executed and so well researched with great art and nice writing and delicate coloring, and it’s gone.

I’m sad they won’t be able to finish their story. I would’ve really liked to see the Winter Soldiers. Maybe there will actually be the promised Winter Men Special, but I’m not holding my breath. So I’ll take what I can get—the awkward, broken comic so good it holds itself together despite being run over by the industry.

Carol Borden denies any allegations of being former Spetsnaz, let alone a Winter Soldier.

8 replies »

  1. I wonder if a story getting cancelled happens more often in comics than other things. I can think of a ton of TV shows that got cut short, for example, but not so many books or movies – maybe those two things are put out more as a unit, while TV and comics are more serialized…
    Anyways, sounds like a neat story!


  2. I actually thought it was an incredible story too, though I never got that Kris and crew were supposed to keep the world safe from the Winder Men… I thought they WERE Winter Men, but all to a lesser degree than the seemingly super-powered Captain America/Superman clone. I figured that the female agent was somewhat indestructable given the scene with the assasins…
    I also hope that the final issue comes out in some form or another, and I’d also like to know exactly what was the hold-up – was it production problems, or editorial interference that kept it from being brought out to all 8 issues. It’s only been a few months, so maybe we will eventuall see the Winter Men Special.


  3. james–
    i dunno. i expect movies and books just get cut outright. i’ve heard that sequels make more than original films. i don’t know if that’s true in publishing as well. it’s a definite incentive to keep a franchise going.
    yeah, i should’ve been clearer. my impression was that they were part of project winter. i got controlling the supermen from the recap in issue 8. but it might just be a misimpression.


  4. This has to be one of the biggest lies to the comic reading public in the business…what a comic to have destroyed!!!! Wildstorm! I am feel rage like Nikki in #4 upon seeing a rogue pop machine on my turf about this…and I’m now grabbing my AK and letting go! There is bizness and then there is art and these guys have murdered a damn fine series!!! The summer special is doomed. Guess they had to make room for some more frigging supe comics!!! And Russia is just starting to get so interesting these days!!
    What a crime!!!!!


  5. hey pablo–
    a gutter reader just wrote me that he’d heard from john paul leon that the special would be out this summer (2008). so i guess we should wait a little before grabbing our AK’s and letting go. then again, maybe writing wildstorm wouldn’t be such a bad idea.


  6. I wonder if it would’nt be better to just release the whole story as a book right from the beginning? I bought the first 2 issues and decided it was too dense a story to read in installments, and so I was definitely going to get the trade paperback. Maybe the publishers need to start looking at different ways of doing business: Vertigo released ‘Pride of Baghdad’ as a hardcover, then as a paperback and by all accounts its doing very well. The irony is that ‘Winter Men’ was originally supposed to be a Vertigo title. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’m pretty sure in the long run trades make a lot more money than frequently delayed monthly releases.


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