07th Mar2018

‘The Death of Stalin’ Graphic Novel Review

by Dean Fuller

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


If you have any interest in cinema and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t, then you may have heard of a little film called The Death of Stalin. It’s become quite the cult hit. I’ve not had a chance to check it out yet, but plan too. So, the next best thing for now is to read the actual source material the film was inspired by. This volume, cannily reprinted from the original French release with a few reminders of its connection to the film, is 120 pages of two of my favourite things. Comics and history. As well as being a huge fan of comics, I’ve always been interested in history and politics, and this promises to pretty much tick all those boxes. So let’s take a look.

First thing to say is, this is not a historical narrative. It is certainly based on true events, and features real personalities doing the things they really did, but this being the Soviet Union, a lot of things went unreported or were kept very hush hush. So a good deal of educated guesswork has linked together with known facts, and perhaps here and there a little extra dash of black humour. The black humour is there right from the start as we get a 20 page look at the sheer panic that sweeps through Radio Moscow when Stalin himself rings the station to ask for a recording of a concert. To everyone’s horror the show was live, so there is no recording, but rather than tell him they try to re-record the concert before he finds out. The hastily recorded record is taken to Stalin, who then promptly collapses from an apparent heart attack.

So what happens when a brutal dictator is incapacitated? when one person has had total power? Well, it seems, a mad scramble for personal ascendancy, rather than any urgent summoning of medical help. Fear quickly turns to hatred it seems, even among those closest to Stalin. First out the gates is Beria, Minister of Home Affairs, who makes sure he ‘safeguards’ as much of Stalin’s personal papers as he can before informing anyone else. The rest of the Committee then arrive, the leading Russian party members, including Kruschev. Interim head Malenkov is too scared to even call a doctor without a committee vote, in case the doctor causes Stalin’s death and he will be blamed. The fear is hilarious. It serves Stalin right that the best doctors were all recently purged by him, so very few are left.

The humour comes from a situation where grown men are so terrified of making even the smallest action, in case it can be perceived in any way as wrong. They all want Stalin to die, but no one will say it, or even do it, in case he recovers. They all decide that no one can be in the room with him alone, always in two’s. This doesn’t stop the political jockeying though, as committee members take sides behind Beria and Kruschev. Just in case. As the world is informed, the worst possible thing happens. Stalin looks like making something of a recovery. Cue showing of fake emotion all round. Lots of worries faces. Then he dies, mainly because the cutting edge medical equipment had the wrong voltage and didn’t work. Now, the fake friendships are really put under pressure as the power grab begins and Beria makes his move.

Obviously far too much happens for me to go into any detail here, but the story here is both hilarious and horrifying. One of the most feared men in the world had something of a ridiculous death. Was he murdered? it’s possible. We know the fight for power was all too real. better than any book this volume manages to perfectly capture the time. Who were these men? Who are these men. The sad thing is human nature never seems to change, and these events seem more relevant today than ever. Great writing from Fabien Nury. The art throughout by Thierry Robin is outstanding. Brilliantly paced and laid out, and far too many fantastic individual panels to mention. Just really, really good.

A masterpiece of its kind, I’d say. Politics and black humour make a great cocktail.

***** 5/5

The Death of Stalin is out now from Titan Comics.


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