If I had one question to ask writer Ben McCool, I would ask him why he chose to write a graphic novel about the 13th Century Russian Hero-Prince Alexander Nevsky. But then I think I can come up with some good reasons why. One good reason is a somewhat similar venture: “300,” a successful 1998 graphic novel, also about a David versus Goliath type of battle, written and drawn by Frank Miller, inspired by the 1962 film, “The 300 Spartans.” Miller’s graphic novel went on to become, “300,” a successful movie in 2006.
In the case of “Nevsky: A Hero of the People,” McCool says his inspiration is the 1938 film, “Alexander Nevsky,” by the great Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. And that’s all well and good but it is not a film that will ring bells with anyone. If you were to mention to staff at any comics shop, Eisenstein’s most well known scene in his body of work, the “Odessa steps” sequence in “Battleship Potemkin,” it would be met with blank stares. So, in that respect, it is a curious and hard sell. However, if you mention that the 1938 “Nevsky” film influenced George Lucas in some way, namely Darth Vader’s hat, then you’ve got sort of a viable hook.
Part of this is a waiting game. There is always the possibility that the relatively unknown “Nevsky” graphic novel will indeed lead to a new “Nevsky” major motion picture. You can read all about those details at the L.A. Times’s Hero Complex site. And then it’s a whole other playing field.
Everyone loves an underdog. And an action story with a great battle. And a true story is a good thing too. Alexander Nevsky is one of the great heroes of Russian history as he was there to fend off the Mongol invaders to his territory of Mother Rus and then he went on to join a significant neighboring territory and, with a hope and a prayer, was able to lead a victory over the marauding Teutonic Knights. This is truly the stuff of legend. It was just the sort of legend that Stalin needed to associate himself with when he put Eisenstein to work. The end result, the 1938 film, “Alexander Nevsky,” satisfied Stalin’s ends but, as for artistic integrity, not so much. Like “Star Wars,” this film does well with the epic battle scenes, muddles through human interaction, and is blunt without a hint of subtlety.
The best thing about the original film is how Eisenstein was able to work with another legend, the composer Sergei Prokofiev. They achieved a magnificent synchronizing of action and musical score with the rushing into battle of the Teutonic Knights.
What McCool set out to do was work with the film company, Mosfilm, that owns the original film, and create a companion graphic novel. You can think of it as you would any other graphic novel that supplements a major motion picture. It is not at all a, frame by frame, tribute to the original film or really an interpretation of the film. It is a retelling of the basic script: Nevsky, against all odds, finds a way to defeat the German invaders in what was then a collective of states coming into their own as Russia, in the 13th century. In that regard, this graphic novel does an excellent job of providing a quick read of a significant period in Russian history. It would also serve to inspire readers to view the original film.
As a graphic novel on its own merits, the story is well paced. It is the art, and the role it plays in this story, that is really interesting. The artwork by Mario Guevara is a curious mix of mystery and understatement. I think that style worked really well in “Victorian Undead.” And it works in “Nevsky” too in an unconventional way. Whereas Frank Miller’s style is ballsy, Guevara’s is contemplative. You get a sense that all the characters, including the hero, are making it up as they go. They are not larger-than-life, none of them are. In fact, the characters rather blend into each other. So, in an odd way, it is leaning more toward realism and not evoking a hero’s tale. There are exquistely drawn scenes throughout to be sure. Overall, it’s the mood that is dialed down and that’s actually an improvement over the original film.
Given the desire to be flexible and experiment with having any and all subjects open to a graphic novel treatment, “Nevsky” is a welcome addition on the shelves. “Nevsky: A Hero of the People” is a 110-page graphic novel published by IDW. You can order your own copy through Amazon and you can check out the Nevsky site here.