[12 March 2009]
PopMatters Comics Editor
What’s cyberpunk about? “Hi-tech, low-life.” It’s a favorite saying of Bruce Sterling, one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk. In the ‘80s cyberpunk was just the dystopian shot in the arm that science fiction needed to make it culturally relevant again. But Brett Lewis and J. P. Leon’s The Winter Men exposes a deep, utopian yearning in even the battered heart of cyberpunk as we now arrive at “post-tech, low-life”. In the blighted landscape of Lewis’ post-Soviet Russia, it’s not a question of old versus new technology. It’s that technology no longer matters.
The Winter Men tracks the lives of four super-soldiers living out wounded destinies in the wake of Soviet-era military experiments. The series is at once a high-budget action movie, a terse psychodrama, a gritty, international crime thriller, an urban superhero blockbuster and a meditation on nationalist loyalties in the post-national condition. Underlining all of these story-modes however, The Winter Men is the Icarus myth writ large. With ideological certainties decimated, the book’s characters, Kalenov, Drost, Nikki and Nina are left to wonder at their predicament. Which was worse, before or after the Fall of Communism?
Plumbing the same depths as Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, the protagonists seek out happy oblivion by erasing their sense of self. Policeman, solider, gangster, bodyguard, each actor hopes for their adopted personas to become the reality. Lewis demonstrates incredible skill in connecting the absence of ideology through personal nihilism with the irrelevance of technology.
Despite its intellectual range, The Winter Men faces a unique challenge. Originally planned for release in 2003, the series only saw publication in October of 2005. Billed as an eight-issue limited series, the title was first reduced to six, then five issues. The series was fraught with publication delays. The fourth issue appeared six months after the opening three monthlies, and the fifth issue, five months after that. The series finally concluded in the February 2009 “Winter Special”, more than three years after originally commencing. The true test of The Winter Men then is the gambit of its publication schedule.
One of the elements of The Winter Men that definitely works in its favor is the consummate skill of its crafting. Letterer John Workman offers something that is simply impossible; pages of 1,500-plus word count that are a joy to read. Captions point to the tattoos and post-its they translate, while others swirl like the tears that follow a goodbye letter. Workman’s sensibility evokes memories of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. A staunch constructivist, Vertov firmly held that a medium’s artifice should be seen by its audience. Workman seems to concur, believing that Comic book readers should be aware that they are reading a comic book. His work serves to elevate Leon’s magnificently frustrated art. Frustrated by time, by fate, by the capital of necessary compromise, Leon’s artwork offers a clinical quietus for Lewis’ existentialist wrestlings.
As writer, Lewis’ own art is no less finely-crafted. His story is developed in clear stages. The first three issues, which arrived monthly, develop the plot like a sleek, international thriller. Moscow beat cop and former Soviet-era super-soldier Kris Kalenov is ordered to investigate the seemingly innocuous kidnapping of a little girl. On a whirlwind world-tour that includes Brooklyn social clubs and Siberian factories, Kalenov gathers up remaining members of his former team: Drost the solider, Nikki the gangster and Nina the celebrity bodyguard. Wrapped into the tale are rogue Spetsnaz elements, CIA agents with corporate agendas and a host of unsavory political motivations. And of course, there is a shocking denouement. The kidnapped girl has had her liver weaponized by Winter scientists. The third issue closes with a hasty assault on a Chechen factory.
With the first three issues, Lewis proves himself a skilled writer, plotting a solid three act structure. It’s a romp of an actioner, well worth the cover price. But Lewis’ masterstroke comes with his subtle shift in his narrator’s position. With the first three issues, Kalenov recounts events for an unidentified CIA agent. But it is a story told for an American, by a Russian. It’s filled with slips, evasions and heroics. In the closing issues, Kalenov mentally rearranges his earlier omissions and lapses, while living through their ramifications. “Citizen Soldiers” and “Boy Scouts” show the shocking ease with which Soviet-era intelligence networks have become capitalist mafia. Issues four and five are filled with reversals, betrayals and morally complex rescues and murders. All of which build to an almost anonymous confrontation with a superhuman who refuses state control.
But given its publication schedule, does The Winter Men deliver? This question cuts to the heart of the story itself. The Winter Men is not a thrill-ride of pulp-style adventure. It is slow. And lingering. It is not unlike falling asleep in the cold and risking hypothermia. But it is rewarding. And like the ideological and technological collapsar it paints, it is ultimately an experience worth having. The vast publication breaks correspond well with Lewis’ phased storytelling. Counter-intuitively then, The Winter Men probably won’t benefit from a one-sitting read as a collected trade paperback. The publishing breaks were the moving parts of the series. These breaks gave readers that sense of the collapse of both hope and fear, and the rise of nihilist self-reliance.