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.