We are living in an era of increased media tie-ins between comics and film, comics and merchandise, and comics with digital meta-texts. This isn’t a new pattern, but the exact routes of cultural transmission are becoming more complex and the ways in which a film may stem from a comic and eventually return to a comic format can dazzle even the careful enthusiast. Usually the movement is from comics to film. Occasionally, it’s from film back into comics. But it’s a highly unusual thing for a classic film, one that set the standard for genre and redefined the capability of film, to be adapted into a comics text. The allure of doing so becomes clearer when it’s a film that is visually stunning, highly imaginative, and as rich in narrative threads as Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein. Perhaps even more of a logical step when the original material deals with content dear to the comics medium: the rise and fall of an unlikely hero. What could be more at home in the comics medium than a heroic narrative?
Gonzo writer Ben McCool of Choker, Memoir, Pigs, and the upcoming Lookouts from Penny Arcade, and artist Mario Guevara, who has done some stunning historical pieces in Solomon Kane and Victorian Undead, throw down the gauntlet on just what comics, as a storytelling medium, are capable of. They are joined by colorists David Baron, Allen Passalaqua, Peter Pantazis, and letterer Shawn Lee. Passalaqua has established quite a reputation for luminous palettes carefully tailored to project needs, as seen in The Five Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies from Shiftylook (by Ben McCool and Dean Haspiel). This graphic novel has the total package in terms of teamwork, and this is only cemented by the presence of Scott Dunbier of IDW as editor.
It takes guts to attempt an adaptation like this, both for the writer and the artist. They are handling the material arranged by an acknowledged master of visual storytelling and creating something that attempts to stand alongside one of Eisenstein’s greatest triumphs. They also face some of the same challenges that Eisenstein faced on a basic level: how to convey the epic scale and scope of major battle scenes and point out the significant moments within the arc of a legendary career without repetition or a diminution in impact for the audience/reader. It takes real determination to tell such an astonishing story, suggesting a firm respect for the original film and its impact.
Legendary filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein, perhaps best known for his silent film Battleship Potemkin, with its Odessa steps sequence of a bouncing baby carriage, was a master of the meaningful montage, a series of images that, when combined, created an emotional impact greater than the sum of its frames. That’s a lot for a comic to take on, and especially since it must do so within the logic of the comics medium rather than simply trying to mirror the techniques of a different art form.
The film Alexader Nevsky was released in 1938 within a Stalinist state engaged with the rise of the German threat on the verge of World War II. Eisenstein created one of his greatest works diplomatically, avoiding, unlike some of his previous films, being banned, and even assuring its circulation as far afield as the United States. Its subject matter concerned one of Russia’s greatest medieval heroes, the ruling prince from 1220-1263 who was later enshrined as a patron saint of a sacred order of knights. It is the story of an underdog who becomes an inspiring leader, someone who creates a sense of national identity during a time of invasion. Eisenstein is thought of as a film director for the “common man”, and this is no exception since the themes he celebrates in Alexander Nevsky are universal.
McCool has his work cut out for him, but as Eisenstein has illustrated, the material, however problematic, is a goldmine. Some of the potential pitfalls that McCool navigates, perhaps even more deftly than the master of cinema, is the use of historical language when crafting new and relevant dialogue. McCool’s choices are particularly satisfying. Rather than going straight for the ultra-modern in terms of lingo to give a sense of total update, which readers would no doubt find passable rather than inspiring, he maintains a respectful tone toward historical context, using elements of more formal syntax without getting bogged down. In other words, the dialogue of Nevsky has a stately rhythm that elevates the heroic tone of the piece without rendering it too rigid or unfamiliar. It strikes a balance between the type of language readers appreciate from a heroic epic and the function of that language in telling a story with reasonable speed and accuracy. It would have been easy to produce a narrative more heavily burdened by narrative and dialogue out of respect for exact adaptation. McCool shows a savvy understanding of the needs of the comics medium in his choices and it makes a big difference in the accessibility of the text to readers.
Both McCool and Guevara can be credited with a strong instinct for pacing in a story driven by “action”, back-stories, and significant diplomatic conversations. Eisenstein produced a film about Russian history for a Russian audience and managed to gain international recognition for rendering his tale transparent to an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter. McCool and Guevara manage to convey the information necessary to grasp historical context and political intrigue without delving into elaborate asides or heavy exposition. Page for page, Nevsky shows a strong sense of balance, not to mention a clear visual language and movement between interlinked panels. It’s a sprawling epic, in fact, but the reader is not aware of the narrative dangers thereof, that of losing the narrative thread: another pitfall avoided masterfully.
Guevara’s strengths are at once visible in his earlier work on the moody Puritan monster-hunter Solomon Kane from Darkhorse. He brings a canny instinct for movement in close-up fight scenes to Nevsky. In a story dealing with whole armies and the fate of a city, he renders violence a more personal, and therefore more dramatic, thing through focusing on narrow angles and the role of setting. His atmospheric settings are superb, from the architecture of Novgorod, to the eerie forests and ice-plains of the “Battle on the Ice” famously rendered by Eisenstein. Perhaps Guevara’s most striking contribution, though, to telling Nevsky’s story visually, is his use of the distance “shot”, seen from above and including architectural features. It has a highly symbolic effect typical also of Eisenstein’s filmmaking of placing people within a meaningful landscape.
Neither McCool or Guevara shy away from the potential impact of “silent” panels. Though Alexander Nevsky was a “talking” film when released in 1938, the influence of silent cinema on Eisenstein’s filmmaking remained, and produced the peculiar visual style of silence during movement to create thematic weight. The scene from the film, and also present in the graphic novel of the “Battle on the Ice” is a salient example. Guevara does not litter the clash between armies with overcrowded sound effects. We see small groups of combatants poised in motion. Facial expressions and physical positions replace dialogue or suggested sound, and remind us what comics can do particularly well: tell a story through direct visual cues which invite reader participation for interpretation.
Passalaqua’s colors also create an iconic palette for this comic, quite literally. The text is seeped in the ethereal blues of the interiors of Orthodox church domes and religious annunciations. It’s set off and edged with the intense reds of illustrated saints’ lives on wooden panels, and has a particular golden-brown glow of vellum manuscript pages and wooden statuary. Blue predominates imbuing the story with a particular mood of the sacred.
The graphic novel is awash with supporting material for the historically or artistically minded; from essays and interviews to historical background materials, the “meta-text” to the story makes sure that the story itself is placed within its historically significant context. This suggests that the graphic novel Nevsky is aware of its place within the wider myth of Nevsky and his achievements. It’s a remarkable gesture that challenges the reader to presume that Nevsky is more than just a story, but rather is part of world-wide heroic mythology itself.
The creators of Nevsky set themselves quite a task in taking on a story that had already set an industry standard within its own medium. McCool and Guevara assume, and therefore set out to demonstrate, the capability of comics to handle the extremities of epic storytelling on an equal footing with film. But they do far more than prove this point in Nevsky. They tell a timeless story to a new generation of fans while conveying a respect for story-origins. This may sound like an impossible task, but Nevsky was an “impossible” hero, too; both set out and manage to surprise all expectations.
*For a digital “trailer” and preview of Nevsky, visit the graphic novel’s website here.
*For more about Ben McCool’s work, visit his blog here.
*For more about Mario Guevara’s work, you can find it here.