Review time! with Nevsky: A Hero of the People

by  in Comic News Comment

Oh, I have a lot to write about this book, just see if I don’t!

I haven’t been overly impressed with Ben McCool’s comics yet, and only a small part of that is because all his books have been horribly late since the beginning of 2010, when Choker debuted. He has some intriguing ideas, though, so I thought I’d give his work a try when it didn’t matter if he was late – it’s a complete story released all at once! And so I bought Nevsky: A Hero of the People, which is published by IDW and costs $24.99. Mario Guevara draws it, David Baron, Allen Passalaqua, and Peter Pantazis colors it, and Shawn Lee letters is. It’s a nice-looking package.

It’s crucial to understand that McCool is basing this book on Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky and not the historical person. (I will note that I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m assuming that McCool hews closely to Eisenstein’s narrative.) This means that if you choose to read this, you shouldn’t read it as even an attempt to get the actual details accurate. Now, basing the book on Eisenstein’s movie isn’t a bad idea, but there are a few problems with it. When I write that this book is an almost complete failure, I don’t mean it’s because McCool doesn’t get the facts right, although that’s part of it.

I want to consider how he got the facts wrong and why not hewing closer to Eisenstein’s vision and/or circumstances makes the book far worse than it could have been.

The historical Alexander Nevsky was an interesting fellow, but certainly nowhere near the hero that Robert Gottlieb in his introduction makes him out to be. According to Gottlieb (who’s trying to sell the book as a Russian 300, which isn’t a bad idea), “Without Nevsky, western culture, particularly that of Eastern Europe, might not have survived in its current form today,” because Nevsky single-handedly held back the Mongol hordes of Batu Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde (which was the western-most Mongol sub-kingdom in the vast empire). This is utter hogwash – the Mongols conquered Kiev, reached the banks of Danube, and besieged Vienna, far to the west of Novgorod and Nevsky’s realm, and the only reason they stopped was because they had a custom that the rulers of the smaller khanates had to travel to Mongolia to elect the Great Khan, which is what happened in 1242 (which is when this book begins after a brief prologue). The Mongol invasion was stopped by tradition and bureaucracy, not by a heroic Russian prince. Furthermore, there’s plenty of evidence that Nevsky worked very closely with the Mongols – Nevsky actually traveled to Mongolia to receive instructions from the Great Khan and was installed as a sub-prince under Batu Khan. The idea that he saved Russia from the Mongols hordes is ridiculous – the Mongols, who eventually became Turkified, lasted for several centuries after Nevsky’s death, and as late as the 1480s were still able to invade deep into Poland. McCool shows Nevsky battling the Mongols early on in the book, and after that they disappear from the book, but it’s still noteworthy to mention.

The main action in the book is about Nevsky’s battles against the Teutonic Knights, a military order made up mainly of Germans (in the beginning, but not always) who were focused more on north-eastern Europe rather than the Levant (although they were founded in Acre, the major port city of the Christian Crusader kingdoms in Palestine). The Knights were mainly concerned with Christianizing the pagans in Lithuania and Estonia, something that Nevsky and the Novgorodians would have been interested in doing, too (although under the auspices of the Orthodox and not the Catholic Church), and while the Knights did fight against the Russians and Nevsky did defeat them in largely the way portrayed in the book, to suggest that the Knights wanted to take over Novgorod is foolish, as they simply didn’t have the numbers for it.

Apparently most of their soldiers in the battle were Estonians, not Germans, and the Knights were much more concerned with taking over the coastline and becoming an economic power in the Baltic rather than striking deep into Novgorodian territory. Furthermore, apparently Nevsky was planning an invasion of Christian Finland, and the Knights had formed an alliance with the Swedes and Danes to prevent this. History, naturally, is far more complex than fiction gives it credit for.

McCool also places three women on the battlefield, fighting valiantly on the side of Nevsky for a free Russia. Early on in the book, a noblewoman criticizes the policy of paying off the Mongols because of the burden it would place on the peasants. The idea that any noble in the 13th century cared about the peasants is laughable, yet it’s a major concern in this book. The idea that three women would be fighting at the battle of Lake Peipus is also laughable. It’s not like they sneak onto the field, either – Nevsky and other men know they’re fighting, and it’s completely anachronistic to think that men in the 13th century, no matter how enlightened, would allow women on the field.

Why does any of this matter, you might think? Should we care if a work of fiction is historically accurate? Well, perhaps not. I would say that McCool should try to get the details right, but others might disagree. And it wouldn’t matter if the comic was good, but it’s not. The reason it’s not is partly because McCool is basing this on Eisenstein’s movie, and without the context of Eisenstein’s movie, this is a ridiculous book. Eisenstein wasn’t concerned with making a historically accurate movie, he was interested in making propaganda, and from what I can tell, he succeeded admirably. In 1938, the Russians were terrified of the Nazis, and Eisenstein made a movie with a Russian hero defending the Motherland against the ravenous German hordes, and he didn’t care that the soldiers were Estonian or that the Knights were probably not terribly interested in converting the Russians (again, they may have thought about it, but it wasn’t their primary mission). The reality of Nevsky and his time didn’t come into it. Eisenstein wanted to make a movie where a Russian hero of the proletariat stood up to the mighty Germans. This is why we get a silly scene of Nevsky fishing with the common people even though this scene would never have happened. In Soviet Russia, theoretically everyone was equal, which is why women are placed on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, Eisenstein put two commoners, Gavrilo and Vasili, in the movie, presumably to strengthen the connection to the proletariat (Nevksy was, after all, a nobleman). They provide some comic relief, but they’re also there for a reason. McCool keeps them but there’s no real reason for them to be there (although the book does begin with Vasili’s family getting killed, which makes him fear the darkness and which crops up periodically during the story). All of these details are probably hard to take in the movie, but because we know the context, it makes it easier to deal with. (Apparently, the section with Nevsky defeating a small group of Mongols early on in the comic is not in the film, and I don’t know why McCool included it. Perhaps it’s to establish Nevksy’s credentials, but it’s one of the comic’s many weak parts, because it makes little sense.)

Taken out of context, as it is here, however, it just doesn’t work. McCool doesn’t provide any context for the scenes, and even a person completely uninterested in history (for shame, you people!) can realize that there’s no way Nevsky would allow women on the battlefield. For someone with a passing knowledge of history, the book is ridiculous. The lack of context, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the comic is bad. It’s just a part of it. However, McCool’s use of clichés like the hero uniting his people or the evil oppressors roasting babies, which probably work in the movie, become far more simple and banal without the knowledge that this is propaganda. Gavrilo’s and Vasili’s feud is utterly idiotic in the comic, because it’s in such stark contrast to what’s going on around them, and McCool does nothing to make them interesting characters.

There’s no real reason for two of the three women who fight to be fighting – one of them at least has a good excuse. The way Nevsky misleads the Knights is ridiculous – the Grand Master of the Knights is almost unbelievably stupid, which is the only reason Nevsky is able to defeat his force. (Of course, many books have been written about stupid military leaders, so I suppose I can’t say he wouldn’t be that stupid, but it does stretch credulity a bit.) There’s very little drama in the book, because Nevsky is portrayed as a superhero among peons – he’s thinking so far ahead of his enemies that it’s almost silly to fight him. The characters are dull and predictable, and unfortunately, Guevara’s art is sloppy and bland. I’ve liked some of Guevara’s artwork in the past, but this is not very good. I don’t have much to say about it, but I will point out that his horses are really fat. What’s up with that?

I think a far better choice would have been to tell the story of Eisenstein making the film, which would provide the context the comic desperately needs. That way McCool and Guevara could have provided the reasons why the comic is so ahistorical but they could also show “scenes” from the movie, which would allow Guevara to draw big exciting battle scenes. The story of the movie is probably as interesting as the story told in the movie, and it would have been keen to see that. As it stands, however, this is a confusing and uninteresting mess.