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[Retrospective]The Winter Men

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
Every now and again, almost in spite of itself, DC manages to publish some really excellent comics. This is not always easy; The Winter Men began as a WildStorm signature series destined for 8 issues, then was chopped down to six, and finally was published as five issues plus a double-size special. But never mind, this is a great comic:

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You see that art? That's John Paul Leon. Writing duties by Brett Lewis. This was...how to describe it. Okay, think of a mashup between Superman: Red Son and Eastern Promises.

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This is a great story because every little bit of it is better than most comics on the shelf. Each character is fully realized, the art is perfect for the scene, fluid, and distinct; the dialogue is so realistically Russian you smile and do all the voices with accents straight out of a Lada commercial. The story is convoluted and layered, but also very simple, and the pacing is dead-on; each issue is a continuation of the overarcing storyline, but is also complete in and of itself. The closest thing that I can compare it to is Matt Fraction and Francesco Francavilla's run on Hawkeye, and to be completely honest this run completely blows that one out of the water. Yes, Hawkeye is funny and has sweet moments and Pizza Dog. This is still the superior comic. Brett Lewis does in seven issues what Faction can't do in twenty, and none of his characters are one-note jokes (as much as I like the Bros).

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Part of the problem with this series is that the background is superficially a little too much like Red Son. The Tunguska event was an alien crashlanding, and the alien that came out turned into a Communist superman. This being the Cold War, the Russians created superhumans...but this being Russia, they didn't trust any one monopoly of force; they created superhuman groups and countermeasures, all of which were ultimately intended to be countermeasures for the alien - including a group of Rocketmen piloted by elite Spetsnatz special forces. Ultimately, the alien disappears, the Cold War ends, and the Winter Men go their different way...

...the comic starts with Kris Kalenov, an ex-Spetsnatz and former rocketman, now in Moscow and acting as private police. He also thinks he's a poet.

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Kalenov is given the case of tracking down a little girl that has been kidnapped...a girl that is strangely connected to the discontinued Winter weapons. The search for her takes him from one end of Russia to another, following the trail of the Russian mob in Brooklyn and tagging along with his friend and fellow former rocketman Nikki the Gangster in Moscow where "Cola Wars" are settled with AK-47s, to the mountains of the Caucasus, to a lost Soviet science city...and yet, the story is incredibly grounded. The characters are very human, and so very, very Russian. I cannot express how much I love the dialogue in every issue, in every scene. I love the receding hairlines and the deadpan everything. I like how these guys have very strict morals but don't give a shit about the law. I love how Lewis can top himself, every issue, effortlessly, and I absolute adore the way John Paul Leon captures every single scene with that half-grittiness.

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And I love it too because this is a very simple premise which could have been so easy to fuck up. I know, because they did it.

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You see, for all that it was lauded, Red Son was a three-joke Elsewhere comic. It's the kind of thing that Grant Morrison could do well with for about an issue in Multiversity, but it doesn't have legs. Because Superman, whatever his circumstances, has an essential character in the DCU that doesn't change. Even as a Soviet, he can't really be the Bad Guy. So the stories you can tell with him are limited.

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That Bat-Hat has it's own wiki page.

The Programme was even worse - it was a story about Cold War supersoldier programs, both Soviet and American, coming into play after many decades of obsolescence. But it didn't have a character - any character - or writing worth reading. It was at once way too tacky and comic-book-y in how every super had different powers and costumes and stuff, and at the other time too banal and boring. Nazi geneticists breed supermen, Russia and America got them, yadda yadda, now the sins of the Baby Boomers are on our heads. If there isn't more of a storyline to it than that - if there isn't more character to it than some schlub that wakes up to realize he's an American superhuman sleeper agent - if there isn't a good hook to it, then the comic is shit even if the writing and art are good. And in the case of The Programme, the art and writing were both very poor.

So right away, you see why The Winter Men slipped under a few radars; the field had already seen a couple similar takes on the subject already. But that was highly unfortunate because unlike the others, The Winter Men had a brilliant plot - it's a bit like the first few issues of Scalped but tighter. It's like True Detective. There's history there, and you can see the edges of it, but it unfolds at it's own pace - it doesn't force too much of it on you at once, and it raises the stakes and the suspension of disbelief relatively slowly. It never loses being grounded in reality, around these flawed and terrible and fantastic Russian characters.

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Throw this another way, the idea of the supersoldier program is not a new one. It gave us Captain America and Wolverine and...uh...Die Hard and John Prophet? I'm sure DC has had loads, but all I can think of right now are The Guardian, and I can't remember if he or Project Cadmus exist in the New 52. But the idea has legs. Uber proves that the idea of superhuman weapons on the field of battle can be done well; Supergod proves that the whole Nietzchean ideal of the superman can be taken to a logical (well, for Warren Ellis) extreme, and both are very entertaining. Less often - very rarely, I would say - is to see what those "weapons" look like after the Cold War is over, when they have been mothballed and struggle with PTSD and a wife filing for divorce and live in a country that seems to be mortgaging its soul to buy more Big Macs.

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I may have made this sound like this is a superhero story - and it isn't. That's the beauty of it. Imagine a "Batman" story where for six issues he doesn't don the cowl or fight any gayly colored and carefully-themed villains. Not even Batman, or Moon Knight. There's no fanaticism here, no holy war or fervor or "I am the knight." It isn't about billionaires or genius inventors or guinea pigs that got their powers out of a syringe or accident. Red Son could only go so far as a comic because it was determined to be a superhero book; The Wintermen isn't. There's an atmosphere there somewhere between a Russian Mob film and a The Spy That Came In From the Cold. People on the secret front line of a conflict no-one ever sees, and they themselves never getting a full look at the whole picture.

It ends, in the special - it wraps up. The Siberian shows up, which is awesome, and the alien superman. It's not a drag-out fight, this isn't like Doomsday where they fill umpteen pages with epic brawls - but it's not totally constrained, either. The people on either side are intelligent, they have plans. It's not Frank Miller. The ending? Satisfying, but not happy. Fitting, and fittingly very Russian. Bittersweet, I guess you could say.

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It's a great comic, and it deserves to get more praise than it does.

The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos

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    TexiKenTexiKen Dammit! That fish really got me!Registered User regular
    This was when WildStorm was doing really good original stories and trying to shed the WildCATS roots. High Roads, Arrowsmith, Global Frequency, RED, I think Big Daddy Danger was originally a WildStorm book before going to DC.

    I remember loving The Winter Men and picking up the first two issues, and the superheros lost to being common men when the country collapsed was a great angle to use.

    ....then it was delayed for years.

    Need to track it down again, so thanks for this retrospective.

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    DelduwathDelduwath Registered User regular
    The very first thread I made on GV was one where I asked "hey, so does anyone know if Winter Men will ever see another issue, or what?" (I didn't know how things were done, then. A whole thread for one question? Such a breach in etiquette.)

    I remember really liking it, partially because the people felt genuine and real, and partially because I'm a native Russian speaker, and it's always neat to see Russian culture and characters pop up in anglophone pop culture. That being said, I remember the delays being pretty devastating to the momentum of the series. Sitting here now, I don't even remember most of the story; just a moment here, a moment there.

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    Linespider5Linespider5 ALL HAIL KING KILLMONGER Registered User regular
    Aw, Man.

    The Wintermen.

    Quite literally the only issue of that comic that showed up at my local shop was the last one. I didn't even know until know that there actually was a superhero element nested in the premise.

    But everything @Bobby Derie said. John Paul Leon's draftsmanship is incredible-you get a very real sense of these environments, and the firefights and action are very tight, kinetic, like something you could imagine was in that De Niro movie Ronin.

    It is very much a comic that succeeds in all of its performances on the page.

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    XaquinXaquin Right behind you!Registered User regular
    edited March 2015
    Thanks for this

    I had never heard of it, but now I want to track it down

    was it ever made into a TPB?

    edit: yes. yes it was.

    Xaquin on
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    DouglasDangerDouglasDanger PennsylvaniaRegistered User regular
    This comic is on my Amazon wishlist. It looks neat.

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    Dizzy DDizzy D NetherlandsRegistered User regular
    TexiKen wrote: »
    This was when WildStorm was doing really good original stories and trying to shed the WildCATS roots. High Roads, Arrowsmith, Global Frequency, RED, I think Big Daddy Danger was originally a WildStorm book before going to DC.

    I remember loving The Winter Men and picking up the first two issues, and the superheros lost to being common men when the country collapsed was a great angle to use.

    ....then it was delayed for years.

    Need to track it down again, so thanks for this retrospective.


    There was so much good Wildstorm stuff coming out at that time. You had in the main universe stuff like Sleeper, Planetary, Ellis' Stormwatch and Authority, Casey's Wildcats, Adam Warren's Gen13. Even a straight up superhero story like DnA's Mr. Majestic was just a damn good comic and on the edges, but still within the WS universe you had stuff like Automatic Kafka. And for such a small studio, you had several sub imprints, like the signature series with Ex Machine and Desolation Jones (I had to check if Fell was Wildstorm, but it was Image) and ABC comics with Promethea, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Tom Strong and Homage Comics with Astro City.

    And basically none of it sold any decent numbers.

    Steam/Origin: davydizzy
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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    At least, not until it hit trades. But yeah, there were some great stuff coming out - but as usual, quality alone doesn't sell anything, not in the American market. It's sad, but it is where the innovation is.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    Dizzy DDizzy D NetherlandsRegistered User regular
    For each time period, there seems that there was at least one publisher/imprint where just having their logo on the comic was enough for me to at least give it a look. Not everything clicked with me, but you could see that they were at least trying to do something special.

    Early 80s: A bit before my time (at least my time with American comics), but from back issues it seems like it was First Comics.
    Late 80s/early 90s, you had DC Vertigo.
    Late 90s/early 2000s, it was Wildstorm.
    Right now, it seems to be that Image has been taking that place.

    Steam/Origin: davydizzy
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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    Image made the rather shrewd move to open up its properties to better creative talents - which is why Prophet is awesome, and Supreme Blue Rose is interesting - and they've also been opening up to more creator-owned indie projects. Dark Horse still does a fair bit of similar action, but with fewer superhero properties.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular
    And I should add, Marvel tends to do a lot of experimentation as well - sometimes really highly acclaimed or interesting stuff, like when Warren Ellis or Adam Warren get involved with anything, or Matt Faction's Hawkeye, or Silver Surfer: Requiem, things like that. I've already gone on in my Timespirits retrospective about how Marvel's Epic imprint was very impressive for the time - but it was never their main business. Spandex and Kirby dots sells, then as now.

    The Unpublishable - Original fiction blog, updates Fridays
    Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos
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    chiasaur11chiasaur11 Never doubt a raccoon. Do you think it's trademarked?Registered User regular
    I'm pretty sure I've mentioned how much I love this book SOMEWHERE around here, but yeah. It's brilliant.

    Got the trade from the library before Hawkguy came out, so I didn't have anything to compare it with. Just had a brilliant book about tired, bitter people in world that never lived up to its potential. I'm not sure if I'd just put it as flat out better than Hawkeye, but there's no metric where I'd say it's worse.

    Gorgeous book, excellent writing, good cast. And the finale pays off what it set up, which is a neat trick, considering how it has to be about the superhumans that the book spent so long downplaying.

    Wish it had got the full eight issues. But I'm pretty happy with what we have.

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    ArmorocArmoroc Registered User regular
    All this praise for Winter Men is great seeing that I can get it for cheap on eBay. I'm really interested now.

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