The Winter Men
Brett Lewis, writer
John Paul Leon, artist
Whoa ho ho, this is something special, huh?
I was only ever vaguely aware of The Winter Men during what struck me as a very long run for a six-issue miniseries, though I’m pretty sure I was confusing it with Peter Milligan and C.P. Smith’s The Programme for much of that time. I got the sense, just by seeing who was reviewing it, that it was a genuine critics’ darling, and I feel like I also heard that the production process was an unhappy one, with long delays or editorial troubles or something. I knew it was about Russian supersoldiers, drawn by JP Leon, so I mentally located it on a continuum with Sleeper and Gotham Central and Daredevil and other books that filtered superheroes through crime and espionage and drew them in a scratchy, black-heavy naturalist-noir style. That’s a subgenre people will associate with the ’00s like grunge and the ’90s, I think; I’ve still got a soft spot for its past examples even though I don’t know how much more of it I really need, so I figured hey, a limited series of it would be a pleasant way to spend a couple of train rides.
What I didn’t anticipate was Brett Lewis. Jiminy Christmas, this guy. I can’t remember the last time I read a genre comic this in love with language, this thorough and astute at developing and deploying its own. And here’s why it works: The Winter Men is about the bleed between the warriors and enforcers of the fallen Soviet Union and those of the New Russia’s criminal empires, a fluid and yet impenetrable world characterized by byzantine alliances, shades-of-gray legality, and the lack of any kind of centralized authority on either side of the law. The main spider we follow around this web is Kris Kalenov, an ex-spetznaz who was part of, essentially, the USSR’s Iron Man program, and who now works as a crooked cop for Moscow’s mayor, who runs the city like an independent state. He gets caught up in a kidnapping case with roots in an entire alphabet soup of international espionage agencies, military unites, and Russian mafiya outfits–the kidnapping’s the main throughline, finding out whodunit and all that, but it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. Kalenov and his three comrades from the war–now a soldier, a gangster, and a bodyguard–get drawn through the web to and fro, and we follow him on such diverse enterprises as working undercover for the CIA infiltrating a Russian mob in Brooklyn, grabbing a criminal for a witness ID on behalf of some judge, conducting a hit, organizing a commando raid on a remote super-science outpost, drinking with his friends, fighting back against a new organized crime outfit as it muscles in on his gangster friend’s turf, taking down a couple of major crime kingpins, stealing a table from a McDonald’s, and on and on. In other words, The Winter Men is like The Wire: Moscow. Everything’s connected, but how is almost impossible to determine, and how to get it all to work for you instead of against you is even more remote. You work the angles you can and hope you did something right.
So, as a feat of storytelling, it’s impressive. But the language in which the story is told is directly analogous to the story itself–that’s the real knockout. Lewis develops a rhythm of speech that suggests a work of translation even when all the characters are talking to one another in fluent Russian. It’s not a pidgin English, it’s not a full-fledged Nadsat-style dialect. It’s just a question of where the narration and dialogue leans into you or away from you–unfamiliar slang or jargon whose meaning is nonetheless unmistakable, unexpected formality, disarming directness, repetition, a choice of which words to use, which to emphasize, which to elide. It’s a verbal map of the territory–shifting, shady, inscrutable, yet practical, impactful, something you can use to get what you want. A world with familiar elements, but arranged in a dizzyingly distant fashion, leaving you racing to keep up. In its way it’s as elegant as David Milch’s gutter Shakespeare or David Chase’s corner koans, and as inseparable from the world being depicted, the people populating it, and the message being delivered.
Weak spots? Sure. The super-stuff is superfluous–it brings nothing to the table you haven’t seen before, has no real narrative weight, and as best I can tell the only real purpose it served was “getting this book published through WildStorm.” I wished it wasn’t there, wished this was a straight-up crime book. The way it becomes so much more prominent in the final chapter after entire segments where it wasn’t a factor at all–including a pair of mini-masterpieces in which Kalenov and his gangster pal Nikki transport a suspect and fend off a challenge, the latter utilizing Dave Stewart’s where’s-waldo spot color for the book’s visual highlight–feels rushed and lopsided. I also wanted to see more out of Nina, the bodyguard, who never had much to do other than be beautiful and quietly pissed at Kalenov.
Mostly, though? I just wished it were longer. A nice long run of Winter Men trades could have been one of contemporary comics’ consummate pleasures. But this thing feels so meaty as is, so novelistic in its ins and outs and ups and downs, that I didn’t come away feeling robbed. Thrilled, more like.