Death of Stalin cover header image

Communism Can Be Funny: “The Death of Stalin”

On Humor and Politics

There’s an old story (maybe apocraphyl, but work with me here) about Robin Williams at a show vowing he could make anything funny and challenging the crowd for a topic. Someone shot back with, “Apartheid,” which was a bit of a hot button topic of the time.

And he did it: “Mr. Botha, there are fourteen million black people and three million white people. Does the name ‘Custer’ mean anything to you?”

In the modern day of instant reactions to the hot topic news item of the day, I fear we’ve lost a bit of that sense of humor. We’re supposed to be outraged. Some topics are off limits.  We marvel at the movies that got made 20 or 30 years ago that would not be considered film-able today.

The safest way to make light of politics and government-led bloodshed is through history.  Go back far enough and the outrage dims enough to slide something in.

So writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin go to the Russia of 65 years ago for “The Death of Stalin” and turn it into an office comedy, where a power struggle and desperate efforts to make no decisions creates drama.

It’s really good, both as a comedy, and as a piece of historical semi-fiction.

 

Disclaimer and Historical Aside

My knowledge of Russian history isn’t detailed enough to fact check this entire story.  It is, after all, a partial work of fiction. A fabrication.

Sort of.

The book opens with this explanation:

Although inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless a work of fiction: artistic license has been used to construct a story from historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory.

Having said this, the authors would like to make clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation of this story, since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.

I’m not sure people today truly remember how bad communism was.  For many, it’s a punchline.  We won, as of course we would.  It was inevitable, right?  The Cold War was a silly thing and all that.

It’s easy to say that when you didn’t live through it, or haven’t heard the stories of how the state so tightly controlled its people.  I see completely inappropriate comparisons being made to governments today.

I wonder sometimes how possible something like the old Communist Russian and the USSR would survive under a world in which the internet makes the globe so small and secrets so hard to keep.  But then, we still have North Korea, and China’s government maintains a mostly iron grip.

Communist Russia was a mean and scary place.  The people in power did things that would absolutely frighten and chill you, if you’ve never read about them.

But, you know what?  You can find comedy anywhere.  It might be a bleak, dark comedy, but it can still be funny. “The Death of Stalin” achieves that level of humor, while showing the kind of behaviors that made the government of Russia at the time so detestable.

Let’s go back to 1953 now, and the end of Stalin’s rule over the old communist Russia.

 

Spoiler: Stalin Dies

Stalin dies, listening to the orchestra

Nury’s script is an interesting behind the scenes look at not just the power struggle left in the wake of Stalin’s death, but the way that the old Communist system of government worked.  It was brutal and unapologetic.

Whatever was easiest or most convenient for the state to do to keep the people in line, they’d do. They’d “disappear” people, make up charges and then make examples of them, and just generally screw with anyone’s life that they needed to in order to get the results they needed. The controlled everything, from the press and the military to everything beneath and in-between.

The story turns sharply fairly early on: Stalin collapses. As he lay dying on the floor, there’s a debate between members of the government on how best to handle the situation. Immediate medical help is not considered, because you didn’t want to be the person to make that call if it is against’s Stalin’s wishes. You don’t want him to look weak.  No, it would be better to let him flounder on the ground while you call a meeting of the Russian version of the Cabinet to take a vote.

The convenient fact that this would not help Stalin’s health was not a bad side effect for some.

It gets more absurd as the story continues, with questions of unanimity and drinking to decisions and which doctor to call and how many doctors and which ones need to be killed to keep Stalin’s health a secret.  It’s a very dark comedy, and Nury and Robin make it sing by playing it so straight-faced and dry.  The government leaders are playing this story completely straight.  This absurdity makes perfect sense to them, for reasons they often explain. They are not buffoons.  They are far more dangerous.

“The Death of Stalin” quickly becomes an episode of “The Office,” with people working an absurd system for and against a man whose absurd — but very real — power they fear. Extraordinary lengths would be necessary to avoid any appearance of conspiracy or malice.  You don’t want to tick off the man who would destroy you and your entire family on a whim.

It's hard to make decisions in Communist Russia. Who do you tell and when?

Stalin is a non-character in this book.  He doesn’t do much aside from dying.  Even most of his commands are seen through the eyes of those who are carrying through on them, or are affected by them. This book isn’t about him, per se. It’s about his shadow and the system he leaves behind.  It’s about his influence, and the path he created which leads to men like Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, who would scheme and cheat and rob and rape all in his way to get what he wanted.  He’s the nastiest man in a book filled with horrible types, who’d happily lie and slander and cheat and kill to get what they want, without worry.

The other characters in the book aren’t much better.  Some are stronger than others, and some are politically more gifted and able to see straight enough to play the longer game for ultimate victory. It’s a fascinating mix of characters and alliances.  This book might as well be a season of “Big Brother” or “Survivor,” for all the twists and turns that happen in the second half.

 

Keeping It All Straight

Thierry Robin has the difficult job in this book of drawing a relatively large cast of characters who mostly look alike. They’re old Russian men in suits, with dark hair.  He keeps them separate with different heights and body shapes and hair styles in a most impressive way.

If you ever get confused between two characters, it’s likely not your fault. It’s just the issue of keeping all those names straight as you read the book for the first time.

Who should call the doctor when the leader lays near-death on his own floor? Not it!

For that reason, I do recommended blocking out the time to read this entire book in one sitting.  It is over 100 pages long, collecting what was originally a two album series.  But you can read it fairly quickly.  Once you get into the flow and the feel of it, you’ll work through it quickly.  It’s the kind of book that will have you turn a page and laugh at the silliness of the system, then gasp on the next page as power is wielded in horrific and often deadly ways.

 

Artistic Tangent

Robin’s art in this book is solid.  His heavy use of shadows and strong caricature-ish styling reminds me of a more detailed Michael Avon Oeming, or a more serious Rob Guillory.  His angular lines and heavy use of solid blacks brings Eduardo Risso’s art to mind.  It’s consistent throughout the book, from beginning to end, with a few too narrow angles, perhaps, but plenty of overhead angles to keep the storytelling clear.

His bodies and faces are a little stiff at times, but their expressions hit at just the right moments to signal their intentions, which is key.

Robin’s storytelling is his strong suit, using just the right combination of detail and design to give the reader a very easy time as they flip through the pages.

He’s a versatile artist, for sure.  If you need proof of that, let me show you a sample from another book series he’s worked on.  “Li’l Santa” is a creation he did with writer Lewis Trondheim a few years back. NBM published a couple of them in North America.  The stories are completely silent and look like this:

Thierry Robin -- a small sample of his artwork from Li'l Santa

From Soviet Russia to Saint Nick. That’s an interesting combination.

Now that’s good range as an artist!

I really wish someone would put out the rest of those books out, by the way.  They’re wonderfully inventive pieces of humorous storytelling, and completely universal.  I’d have to think it would be relatively easy to put out a new digital edition of the series.  It’s not like there are word balloons to change, after all..

Robin’s Diverse “Camera”

Robin has to deploy a lot of storytelling tricks to keep this story as lively as he does.  While Nury’s script is lively and never stops moving, it’s still mostly talking heads making nasty plans.

I read through the book a second time to watch how Robin told the story. He keeps his camera dancing across the pages. He brings things to life with continuous movements, even in simple scenes with two characters in a spare room.

He uses more than just an establishing shot and follow-up medium shots to fill the page. He lowers and raises his camera beyond the eye line level that most artists stop at.  These are subtle low and high angle shots. What look like mundane panels are often great examples of a subtle storytelling style that tries very hard to make a talking heads book visually inviting.

Robin uses solid black areas, mostly from the backs of the suits of the main characters, to give each page weight, contrasting them strongly with open windows and the white jackets of the doctors surrounding Stalin.  There are a lot of two shots and over-the-shoulder shots to keep the story straight, but Robin is also able to tilt his camera all over the place to give life to the pages.

 

Coloring: Simple, Yet Effective

Robin is also credited with the colors on the book, along with Lorien Aureyre.  I don’t know what the division of labor is, but the use of tones in the rooms is spectacular to watch unfold.  Dimmer nighttime scenes run darker, of course, but still in a light enough tone that the characters in their dark suits don’t blend into the walls.

The cool outside snow zones are a light cool blue, and characters are given extra color in the forms of scarves and hats to help separate them from the backgrounds.

Everything is clean in the colors.  Even the dingiest rooms with their sickly greens or their dirty browns are colored lightly enough to keep the art front and center in the book.  It’s done for clarity, not to show off anyone’s Photoshop skills.  There are no attempts to create volumetric lighting or three-dimensional reflections.

They don’t use any of those fancy special effects.  There’s some cel shading here, but no strong textures or filters.  They’re not going for a realistic look here. The final art looks like comic book art, not a more natural realistic style that you might usually expect with a piece of historical fiction.

All of this just makes the book easier on the eyes and creates an easier book to read through.  Despite its length, the number of Russian names to keep mentally separated, and the sheer number of talking heads pages, this is a book that feels like a fast read.  Things are always happening and very little space is wasted.  Thanks to Nury’s script and the work Robin (and Aureyre) do on the visuals, your eyes can glide through the book and follow the story very easily.

 

 

The Women of Stalinist Russia: The Star Pianist

While the bulk of the book is this political power struggle, there are a couple women in Nury’s story in important roles.

The Pianist of The Death of Stalin

Superstar pianist, Maria Yudina, bookends the whole story. A favorite of Stalin’s, she refuses to play for him as her family is holed up in the gulag.  She relents, but only after extracting as much money out of the situation as possible.  Even then, her performance is not her strongest, and she sends a strong message along the way.

It is a strong and subversive act to lead the book off, one that sets the stage for the opposition to Stalin, and shows us just how powerful he is. The smallest request can turn the lives of an entire orchestra around.

This opening scene runs the first dozen pages of the book, serving as a great cinematic introduction to the story.  This int he kind of thing you can picture happening at the beginning of a movie under the credits.  It sets the scene beautifully with a strong audio element.

We’ll get to more on that movie soon…

Stalin’s daughter plays a role in the second half of the book, mostly.  We see in flashback how her father controlled her through his dictatorial ways, and then how she becomes a pawn of the political  process when it comes to his funeral.

Then there is Doctor Lidya Timashuk.  She’s the one Beria asks for a list of sympathetic doctors. She also resists, as much on medical ethics grounds as political.  She’s smart and sees what’s happening.  But, unfortunately, Beria has a little too much to hold over her to allow her much power.

Finally, there is Molotov, whose wife had been ordered killed by Stalin, who then Beria uses to curry favor with Molotov.  Molotov, however, is too smart not to see the naked power play.

So, yes, three pawns and one strong character who maintains her opposition.  Given the way Communist Russia worked at the time, that feels about right.

The Follow-Up (Is Not a Sequel/Prequel)

Nury and Robin teamed up for another Russian-themed series.  “Death to the Tsar” is available on Comixology today.  It’s another two album series, but is set in 1904 on the eve of the Russian Revolution. A lone man is determined to take out the Governor.

"Death to the Tsar" by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin

I have not read that one, but I’m definitely adding it to my Wish List based on the strength of this book.

 

The Movie

Yes, this book is about to become a movie, starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambour,  and some others.  Here’s the trailer:

 

There’s a lot of the book in that trailer.  While it’s clear they’ve added more stuff in (looks like Stalin’s son gets more screen time in the movie), there’s a lot in those two and a half minutes that’s ripped from the comic.  I see scenes and lines of dialogue showing up nearly verbatim.  Comic writer Fabien Nury is credited with the “original screenplay,” though four names quickly follow his as writers of the movie.

There are even some camera angles and set decoration and looks lifted from the comic. To be fair, some of the wardrobe and sets are likely influenced by the real history, too. But Robin’s angles and negative space choices are clear in a couple of cuts.

It’s too early to tell if the movie will be any good, and it looks a little like they’re playing it up for a few more laughs than the comic, but I have hope for this one.

 

Recommended?

Yes, if you’re into historical fiction and dark comedy.  If you’re not going to let politics get in the way of a good laugh, there’s a fascinating roller coaster ride to hop onto here.

“The Death of Stalin” is available digitally for $10 at Comixology now. You can learn marginally more about the book through the  Titan Comics website.

If you’re anything like me, reading this book will send you to the real history, and that learning process can not only be educational, but also a little scary.  Soviet Russia was not a fun place to be…

The Death of Stalin cover

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #60.)

1 Comment

  • JC Lebourdais August 21, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    ‘apocraphyl’ made me chuckle 🙂

    Reply

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