10th Jul2017

Graphic Novel Review: ‘The Death of Stalin’

by Dan Clark

Written by Fabien Nury | Art by Thierry Robin | Published by Titan Comics


What happens when one of the most powerful men in history passes away? Who is left to pick up the pieces? Does society fall into chaos or erupt into celebration over the news that one of history’s most vicious tyrants has succumb to this own mortality. Well we can get answers to all those questions by looking at actual history, and the graphic novel The Death of Stalin does exactly that by covering the events that occurred in the Soviet Union directly after Joseph Stalin died.

Right away it is easy to understand why this novel was recently made into a movie by Armando Iannucci – the man behind such properties Veep, In the Loop, and The Thick of It. All of those center directly on politicians and the narcissistic individuals who run the most powerful countries in the land, and how surprisingly dysfunctional they all are. There’s are worlds full of back stabbing and dirty politics where no one can be trusted.

The difference with The Death of Stalin is that backstabbing is literal, as Russia’s most powerful agents all make their play to replace their beloved leader. For those who perhaps were born after the Cold War ended and may not be as aware of who Joseph Stalin was, you get a brief glimpse of the massive power this man wielded. In the opening sequence we see how much terror he could inflict simply by asking for a recording of the concert he just attended. After realizing the concert was not recorded a massive undertaken begins to replicate the previous night’s work.

That sequence on its own could have led to a standalone story. It has a slight sense of wackiness offset by the life and death stakes permeating in the background. As the story progresses further and further that slight wackiness is all but gone as the danger becomes very real. Those musicians may be safe from the wrath of Stalin but with him gone many others lives are at risk during this dangerous power play. A power play that is not done through brute force but rather though complex and unpredictable political channels.

In no way does this subject matter seem perfectly fitting for a comic book… at first. Most of the key moments are centered on men at a table talking. This leads to a very verbose script, where at times the pacing does get bogged down with some of the heavy dialog. Thierry Robin does not add a great deal to these sequences as the viewpoint remains static, centered on the room in general. What these sequences do pull off is laying all the different pieces on the table and the people who are playing them.

Fabien Nury’s script does a solid job: fleshing out this vast cast of characters, the role they specifically play, and who can trust who. This is a story with no true hero but plenty of villains. There are no good options just the lesser of many evils. Looking at the political landscape of today there are a lot of direct comparisons that can be made – from the way the media is controlled to convey a certain message, to the disconnect between what the lower class believes and what is actually occurring.

Thierry Robin’s art may not shine in the board room discussions but when he is telling the story the book is at its best. Specifically during the actual funeral of Stalin, he conveys so much about what is going on underneath the grandstanding without a word spoken. When a major tragedy occurs, and a massive amount of civilians lose their lives, his art conveys a stunning amount of emotion.

Overall The Death of Stalin‘s subject matter and subtle execution may not appeal to wide audience. That’s not due to the quality of the book, as this is a well told story that properly conveys its importance. Ultimately, for those patient readers willing to invest in this story, they will find themselves heavily rewarded.

The Death of Stalin is out now from Titan Comics.


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