Monday, February 23, 2009

In Soviet Russia

Writers, specially in comic books, tend to have fixations with two groups that are normally used as enemies: Nazis and Communists. I don't know where this fixation comes from, if it is part of the propaganda efforts of yesteryear or just from cultural differences, but there's a big difference in how they are portrayed sometimes. Nazis are always indubitably evil (not saying they were not), while Communists are sometimes portrayed as being caught in the bigger machinations of the political powerhouse that was Soviet Russia. While it would be almost impossible to depict a Nazi character in a wholesome light (and would probably lead to some kind of public outrage), Communist characters can sometimes be portrayed as tragic heroes whose misguided love of their country, led by corrupt individuals, turned them into something they were not originally. Today I wanted to look at two specific books about the fallout of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union, coincidentally both put out by the Wildstorm imprint, The Programme and The Winter Men. Both titles are about Soviet super powered soldiers, although very different in nature.

The Winter Men was a neat little mini-series that wrapped up last year, which suffered from tremendous delays (three years for six issues), created by Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon. The protagonist of the series is Kris, a former soviet super soldier of some kind (his powers are never really clearly defined) who finds himself useless and drowning his mind with vodka and doing some odd jobs for the local government. There is a couple other remaining super soldiers that were part of the same program, all working different jobs in the new Russia, a very different country from the one that originally produced them. This is the greatest strength of the series, showcasing a post-communism Russia and how citizens must work in the new world order. Our protagonist, much like every other person that inhabits this world (with the exception of those in power) are just doing everything in their power to survive. The series also introduces the concept of how Russians setup, both in government and in mafias, their organizations: always arranging countermeasures and competing parts inside a system, a knowledge that Kris uses to his advantage later in the series. The plot centers around how a little girl is given a transplanted liver from a former super-powered individual, only to be kidnapped because of this. The protagonist attempts to recover her from her captors, a trip that takes him through the underbelly of society and leads to many discoveries about the super soldier program. Despite his many flaws, the main character of Winter Men is shown to be inherently good person, willing to put himself in the way of danger in order to protect this girl, even if he commits plenty of criminal acts along the way much like other anti-hero archetypes (such as The Punisher).

The Programme was a twelve issue mini-series released in 2007 through 2008, created by Peter Milligan and C.P. Smith. The Programme features some very different Russian super soldiers, they are insanely loyal to the government and system that created them and will do anything that is asked of them and are (apparently) completely amoral. Originally created during the Cold War, they are revived in modern times and wage a war against the "imperialistic empire" that is the United States. Of course, the United States government is not very happy about this and decides to unleash their previously-failed super powered individuals against the Communist ones. In this series, their powers are never exactly defined either, almost to describe how inexact the process of creating them was, but we see them using some kind of eye beams, super strength, force fields, and some strange method of offensive teleportation where the subject of the teleportation disappears for some time only to reappear days later. The battle that follows is one of the most brutal and realistic ones, very reminiscent of the London battle in the pages of Miracleman where civilian passersby suffer the consequences. The ironic twist that the book delivers is that, in trying to battle it's enemies, the United States goes to the same lengths that their enemies have, essentially becoming like them. The same thing happens to America's super weapon, Max, initially a person just trying to survive in the world, and quite a "spineless liberal", turns into a ruthless killing machine that does whatever his government asks of him. The end of the series is quite shocking and it definitely tries to make a political statement about the nature of empires and how events can unite them, with hints of themes familiar to readers of Watchmen.

Both series are great reads, about the nature of the beast that was Soviet Russian and how it would have been if our world had been in fact populated by super beings during the Cold War. But at the same time, I think that both series make a point of saying "we are not so different after all", we are all either trying to survive in this world to the best of our abilities and trying to help our country during hard times.


  1. The cynic in me thinks the reason why Nazis and Communists, and specifically Nazis, are used as villains is simply they are always evil, its a shortcut for writers. I think two good recent examples of this are Simone's first Wonder Woman arc and Johns post-IC JSA relaunch. They both use Nazis for no apparent reason other than they are evil, although Johns does some reason since Savage was part of the Third Reich I guess but it doesn't really seem to play a part of the story.

    At least the "Communists Are Evil" cliche seems to have died out with the USSR.

  2. Eric, that's very true. Making a villain a Nazi is an easy way to establish he is completely evil with the least amount of effort. Rokk over at Comic Book Revolution has a "Nazi Rule", which automatically discounts point from the score he is giving the title, because he feels that using Nazis when not really appropriate (outside of WW2 era or characters that are historically tied to them, like Cap) is one of the signs of lazy writing.