Comics

The Death of Stalin – Graphic Novel Review

In 1991 when the Cold War ended as the Berlin Wall fell, American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama called the moment “the end of history”, watching Communism fall. However, Russia has continued to write itself into history under Putin thanks to its undermining of the American election to poisoning defectors in small British villages. As dramatic as the past few years have been under Putin’s rule, the palace intrigue that still surrounds Stalin’s era fascinates historians and curious minds alike.

The Death of Stalin is based on true events but naturally uses artistic licence to fill in those gaps in the historical record that unfolded in that post-Stalin vacuum. Writer Fabien Nury looks at the build up to Stalin’s fatal stroke and the fallout amongst his committee after as they look to seize power or continue his legacy. The graphic novel in only one hundred and twenty pages deep dives into so many fascinating political and cultural themes.

The main plot that drives the graphic novel follows his committee trying to position themselves to carry on Stalin’s legacy or exploit it for their own political gain. Stalin was a totalitarian leader, and the absurdity of that regime will have the read moving from shock to laughter. Nury explores the system that props up that type of regime. The characters that fill this regime echo that of Armando Iannucci’s Veep and The Thick of It are farcical but unlike Malcolm Tucker who destroys fellow civil service staff and politicians with pointed insults, these communists at times will attempt to undermine fellow committee members by using the lives of the Russian public to do it.

As the committee come together around the corpse of Stalin on the floor of his residence, there is some denial about the health of their glorious leader. The comrades immediately begin to scheme and the satire of the graphic novel kicks in. Each member stands out with their own motivation and agenda, the dialogue between their collaborators and rivals is so sharp and flows so well. The Soviet Union has been parodied by the West for generations but the work of French writer, Nury makes this stand out among the crowded field of work.

The committee here are the caricature, backstabbers, power mad and ruthless as they look to undermine those around them. Stalin’s son, Vasily is a broader character, a drunk and a fool. The introduction of this character stands out from the rest of the schemers, Vasily’s moments are more farce than satire but it never undermines the tension and only adds to the cult of Stalin madness that is running through the characters.

It is not just the fear and paranoia among the political elite but among the people of Russia, the ludicrousness of Stalin’s rule can be found in a story that opens the novel at a concert. A musical performance catches Stalin’s ear and he demands his own audio recording, but the radio team never made a backup. The radio team at the end of a late-night performance demand the musicians and crowd go through the entire process again, recreating the entire show. The fear that they may find themselves sent to the gulag if they don’t get this recording to Stalin has the characters running around like headless chickens, we see the absurdity of their situation but for the characters, they’re paranoid and panicked.

Artist Thierry Robin compliments Nury’s writing and the atmosphere he’s generated. The Russia he paints with a palette of colder colours, it adds to the uneasy atmosphere and the temperature of a communist nation that’s just lost it’s leader. Robin’s use of red clashes wonderfully with the cold colours he uses as the regime dominates the society and your eyes. The Russian people in their browns and depressingly coloured clothes against bright and vibrant reds, show us the inequality that communism that has effected the citizens.

The Death Of Stalin is a fantastic graphic novel, one of the most gripping political satires I’ve read in a long time. The betrayals and paranoia that run through this novel are shocking and hysterical in equal measures, Nury balances this so well. Nury is also able to bring to life in a unique way a period of Russian history that is so fascinating and he brings something new and fresh to the character of Stalin, but most importantly the committee.

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