The Death of Stalin Graphic Novel Inspires Film, Makes Russia Nervous

The Death of Stalin is the new movie from co-writer and director Armando Iannucci, the creator of TV political satires Veep and The Thick Of It. The film looks at the events around the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the jockeying for power among Soviet leaders. The Death of Stalin stars Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and others and has already received acclaim -- and been denounced by Russian figures, who have suggested the film is a plot to destabilize the country.

The film is based on the graphic novel La mort de Staline, which was released this summer by Titan Comics as The Death of Stalin, written by Fabien Nury and drawn by Thierry Robin. Nury is likely best known to American comics readers for writing I Am Legion, which was release by Humanoids with art by John Cassady. Nury has had a long career in France working on many projects in many genres including Tyler Cross, Atar Gull and Death to the Tsar.

Nury will be in New York City this week as part of the French Comics Kiss Better Festival, which is presented by the French Association in association with the New York Comic Con. Nury will appear at NYCC and at events around New York City, including a panel with an exclusive look at the film. CBR spoke with the writer about The Death of Stalin, the film adaptation and the controversy it caused in Russia.

CBR: How did you first hear of this story, or stories, around the death of Stalin?

Fabien Nury: My grandfather was a history buff. When he passed away, I inherited from him a load of books. Ten years ago, I was a young writer, always searching for good writing material, and I looked at this shelf. He had a dozen books about Stalin, and at least three dealing with his last days and the aftermath of his death. I told myself, “Hey, there should have been major disorder when this guy died, and a deadly power struggle. Why not look into that a bit?” So I started researching, not for a comedy, but for John Le Carré-type material: KGB agents, guns with silencers, conspiracies.

There are a lot of stories of political struggles in countries around the world throughout time. What was it that made you want to write about this?

I found myself laughing out loud at what I discovered. It was a very powerful and unexpected emotion -- at the same time, I was ashamed of myself, because I laughed at horrible things, violent deaths included, tyranny and all. I just couldn’t help it. I was looking for The Kremlin Letter, but I stumbled on Dr. Strangelove: a top-level political crisis, handled by a bunch of lunatics, alcoholics and mass murderers. You know, the novel Dr. Strangelove is based on was a serious, Tom Clancy-like political thriller, not a farce. So I thought, "This emotion you felt, it’s visceral. This story is horrifying and hilarious. Why not simply try to convey that feeling?” And I started writing.

What did you have to invent for the book? Because I think most people will repeatedly go while reading it, 'Did that really happen'?

I don’t know what really happened, I wasn’t there. But I can tell you that from all accounts, from every testimony that I’ve read, I didn’t invent anything. I could never invent something that insane. The job was to simplify, to adapt the timeline a little, and to cut things out because they would not seem believable. Like the concerto at the beginning: in fact, they had to enlist not two, but three conductors, and to re-open a factory to manufacture one disc. All this happened because of one phone call, one of the many whims Stalin had.

What is the strangest thing you discovered while researching the book?

Maybe not the strangest, but the most disturbing thing that I found was that a million people came to Stalin’s funeral. They were not ordered to, they wanted to attend. And they were shot at, because the Kremlin feared such crowds. Fifteen-hundred civilians were killed, at the funeral of one man. It taught me a very important lesson: that the dictators, for all the harm they’ve done, are not only feared and hated. They’re actually loved by their people. Like abusive parents are loved by their children. It’s a very sad and twisted kind of love, but it can’t be denied. Stalin was loved. And still is, from what I’ve heard.

A lot of your work is set in different time periods. What do you like about writing historical fiction?

I think history is fun, in a horrifying way. It’s an adventure, it’s full of crimes, uncanny characters, and it’s true. As a writer, it helps me to believe in what I write. And the best part: no smartphones. No screens all over the place. People actually talking to each other face to face, not tweeting. History is cinematic. And it’s even better with a graphic novel, where you don’t have budget issues. The best possible journey: not only discovering another place, but another time.

Now the film adaptation is coming from director Armando Iannucci. How did this happen and what do you think about the film?

When I met with the producers, I knew they were powerful because they had done Les Intouchables, but still, it felt like catching the moon. I mean, Armando Iannucci? I’d take pride in the fact that he even considered my work, for a couple hours. So, making the film? And a film that good? What were the odds? And look at the cast he assembled! Buscemi, Tambor, Palin, [Jason] Isaacs. These are persons whose work I admire on screen, not people I chat with. But they made it, and for all the talent and money involved, it feels like Armando never forgot why he’d liked it in the first place. The film is completely true to the spirit of the book. All the highlights, characters and intentions went on the screen. I’m more than happy with it, I’m grateful and proud.

Multiple Russian officials have said recently that they might ban the film because they suspect it may be a western plot to destabilize Russia. As the writer of the source material, I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.

It makes our work -- the graphic novel and the film -- feel more relevant than I ever hoped it would be. These Russian officials could be our characters. I read the declaration you quoted and I wondered, "Did Armando write this line?” My grandfather would definitely have enjoyed this. But on the other side, it made me sad. Stalin has been dead for 65 years, and in Russia there are many people still trying to sanctify his name or forbid any joke about him. Tyrants are loved.

Fabien Nury and Armando Iannucci will appear 7:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5 at New York Comic Con for a panel and Q&A on The Death of Stalin.

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