Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘The Winter Men’

Ah, the curious case of the comic the publishing history of which was … well, convoluted is almost too nice a word! SPOILERS ahead, I suppose, but not too many! And you can click on the images to embiggen them, so feel free!

The Winter Men by Brett Lewis (writer), John Paul Leon (artist; co-scripter, issue #6), Dave Stewart (colorist, issues #1-5), Melissa Edwards (colorist, issue #6), John Workman (letterer, issues #1-2, 4-6), and Jared K. Fletcher (letterer, issue #3).

Published by DC/Wildstorm, 6 issues (#1-5 and The Winter Men Winter Special, which I will refer to as “issue #6” for brevity and ease), cover dated October 2005 – February 2009.

they were real. yes — we once filled the sky with heroes … but now they’ve fallen to earth …”

A man speaks to another man in a small room in a factory in the Caucasus. The speaker, a former member of the GRU – the military intelligence branch of the Russian army – smokes a cigarette, sports a receding hairline and gray at his temples, and he stands slightly slumped, sadly reliving glories of a country that no longer exists: the Soviet Union. His audience, an American CIA agent named Siegel, is handcuffed to a chair, and he is learning the “secret history” of the USSR – the speaker is telling him of men and women with super-powers, developed by Soviet science. He tells him of rocket-propelled armored suits manned by Spetsnaz – Special Forces – soldiers that were supposed to police the super-powered beings. In doing this, the GRU man – known only as “Eye-Catcher” – dooms both himself and Agent Siegel, as this is information that no one wants out in the open. This is information that, like so much in Soviet Russia, should stay buried. Digging it up only causes pain for all involved.

In the aftermath of Watchmen, many creators tried to capture the feeling of that series, giving us “superheroes in the real world” stories, some of which worked very well and some of which didn’t work well at all. None of them, however, tried to do a “superheroes in the real world” as viewed through a Russian prism, until Brett Lewis showed up with The Winter Men. (Mark Millar turned Superman into a Russian, yes, but that’s not really a “superhero in the real world” story as much as it is a “what if a superhero universe had a Russian Superman?” story.) Lewis, whose curriculum vitae is extremely sparse, begins his epic with narration about “The Hammer of the Revolution,” the Soviet superhero, and the “one-man rocket tanks” steered by highly trained soldiers. We do not learn until issue #3 the circumstances of this narration. Before then, we have to catch up with Kris Kalenov, the protagonist (definitely not the hero) of this series. But Lewis sets up the story and the “Russian-ness” of it in these first few pages. The propaganda – “Beyond the reach of the West and its springs of evil, money, power, greed, partiality!” “He cuts through the hoarding capitalist forces — shielding the dream of the workers’ paradise from warmongering western perversions of science!” – is balanced by the world-weariness of Eye-Catcher’s narration – “but now that’s all faded away, you dismiss it. just another crazy scheme from those quaint old cold war days — all that bullshit and cock-comparing — all that parading and posturing, all meant to scare you. now — you look back and laugh at all that. you’re sure they could never have been real — our super-soldiers — exaggerations. maybe — failures.” In issue #1, these words come against a backdrop of Soviet glory – the Hammer of the Revolution throwing a tank, bending thick steel bars, fighting Americans with the “rocket men” backing him up, standing in front of a glorious parade, but by the time we reach issue #3 and understand the context of the words, we see the failed glory – a dingy factory in the Caucasus used for petty crimes, an old man gazing at film reels and understanding that his life will end in a few moments. He has outlived his usefulness, and no superhero is coming to save him. The superheroes are dead or gone, and only the small-minded criminals remain.

Like Watchmen, The Winter Men takes place in a universe where superheroes exist but haven’t been seen in some time. The brutalities of the real world have swept them away, and when first we meet Kalenov, he is passed out in the snow from a long drunken bender. Kalenov is ex-Spetsnaz and an ex-rocket man, haunted by his final mission in Chechnya, sporting various mysterious wounds throughout the series (“What the fuck happened to your face — ?” someone asks him during the course of the series, and he stoically replies “Nothing — misunderstanding”), desperate to take a vacation to Vladivostok with his wife but blindsided when she leaves him, her rejection written in a Dear John letter instead of face-to-face. Kalenov has literally fallen to earth, his face buried in the September snow when we first see him, working for the Moscow mayor’s police force, enforcing the corrupt city government against the corrupt army, where he meets Drost, another “Winter Man” and old comrade. Kalenov is nobody’s hero (“I never said I was ‘the good guy'” he says late in the series), but he is the only person, it seems, who cares about the little girl who is kidnapped very early in the story, and this mystery drives the plot. Kalenov has definitely fallen to earth, but that doesn’t meen he can’t still do good in the world.

“What do you know about winter?” “It’s long and it’s cold.”

Kalenov learns about the kidnapping from Drost, who hands it off to him as part of an agreement the two men come to over which criminal organization – which “roof” – a department store will pay bribes to. Drost lets the mayor keep receiving the payments if Kalenov takes the case. What Kalenov discovers about the girl sends him on a dark path that brings back all the memories of his time as a Winter Man. When he investigates the kidnapping, the parents tell him that they stopped making the payments on the girl’s new liver, because it was bad luck. When they brought the girl home after her operation, all the flowers in the apartment died. Kalenov looks at the wall next to the girl’s crib and sees hand prints burned into the wall. Then the mayor insists he pursue the case despite Kalenov not being able to figure out where the money is in it for his boss, who is, after all, corrupt. He visits an old comrade and lover, Valentina Vasilevich (whom he calls Nina), another rocket soldier, and tells her the girl might be connected to the Winter program. He is being drawn in, and he knows it. He holds out hope that he will be able to leave the next night with his wife, but then she leaves him. There is nothing to keep him from going to Brooklyn, where the CIA wants him to take down part of the Russian crime syndicate and he will be officially chasing the girl, who appears to be there. Kalenov has no reason to decline.

Is the girl a MacGuffin? In so many stories, we’re conditioned to think that the inciting event is just that, and the real plot reveals itself later. Kalenov visits the mayor’s office, where we find the CIA and Russian intelligence working together to bust up the Russian “mafiya.” Drost tells the agent, Siegel, how dumb this is – Russian crime syndicates are not organized vertically like in the Italian mafia, they exist horizontally, all taking up some space but none rising above any other. Lewis makes this seem more important, especially when, in issue #2, we end up in Brooklyn and Kalenov ingratiates himself with the Russian gangsters there, led by a man named “Uncle Vicky.” He’s there to investigate and possibly break up a “triangle trade” – weapons for art for organs – that the Brooklyn Russian gangsters are engaging in. The fact that “organs” are part of the trade keeps the little girl in the picture, even as Kalenov gets in with the mob and becomes Uncle Vicky’s main guy. That he also sets up an assassination attempt on Uncle Vicky that he himself can thwart certainly doesn’t hurt. But he misses the girl in New York and gets kidnapped himself, by Nikki Zuko, another gangster … and another Winter Man, which means once he recognizes Kalenov, he doesn’t kill him because they are “brothers.”

The Winter Men are part of a special fraternity even within the Russian armed forces. When Kalenov arrives in Brooklyn, he meets Josef Ioseyevich Zhevezdin – “Badzuka Jo” – with whom he served. “We were soldiers together,” Kalenov narrates. “Soldier … This word means a brother.” Badzuka Jo is his introduction to Uncle Vicky, but when Jo helps fool Kalenov when they get the girl out of the country, Kalenov doesn’t think twice about shooting him in the head. However, he and Nikki – and Drost, Nina, and “the Siberian” – are linked even more closely than regular soldiers, and Nikki will not hurt Kalenov. Instead, he and Drost end up helping Kalenov invade the Caucasian factory where the girl is being held, and where Eye-Catcher is having his fateful conversation with Agent Siegel. Even if Drost does not respect Kalenov because he doesn’t follow every order, even if Nina has a daughter herself and wants to stay out of that life, their bond is too strong to break. Drost will help Kalenov with an off-the-book invasion, and Nina will eventually get the girl safely out of Moscow. When the Siberian finally appears in issue #6, he doesn’t kill Kalenov as he has been instructed to do. He, too, shares a bond with the other Winter Men, even if, as an “Eskimo,” he is the outsider even from their tightly-knit group. The bond strains, but doesn’t break.

“It’s the space between the bars that holds the tiger …”

Lewis tells the story obliquely, as we can tell when we realize that the man narrating at the beginning of issue #1 is speaking in the “present” of issue #3, and everything from Kalenov waking up in the snow to the first few pages of issue #3 is a flashback. We don’t figure out how obliquely he’s telling the story early on, because it seems straight-forward: a girl gets kidnapped, Kalenov gets stuck with the case, he follows it to Brooklyn and then, in issue #3, to the Caucasus. But even as he’s telling the story of the kidnapped girl, Lewis is telling another, parallel story that we don’t really see until later in the story. Nina has become a bodyguard after her service, and in issue #1, one of her clients is killed right in front of her. In issue #1, Kalenov learns a bit about the girl’s liver and why it’s special, and while her rescue is still paramount, her liver is also very important, but again, we don’t learn more about that until later. Early in issue #3, Nina thwarts another assassination attempt of another client, and the would-be assassin has a blue flower pinned to his lapel. When Kalenov and Nikki get to the Caucasus to find the girl, they use Coca-Cola trucks to move weapons, which foreshadows the “Coke” war in issue #5. Issue #4 is actually called an “interlude,” as Kalenov and Nikki, having rescued the girl in issue #3, spend a day checking on Nikki’s businesses and making sure a suspect they have in custody is the man they need. Even this, however, foreshadows issue #5 and the final plot, which is slowly coming together. By issue #5, Lewis has to wrap some things up, so he’s back to being a bit more straight-forward: a gang called the Boy Scouts is moving into others’ territory, and Nikki has to fight back. Lewis still drops hints in – one panel shows the Boy Scouts gathered around a priest for some reason, and at a party at Drost’s apartment we get some telling glances from Nikki. These hints pay off, but they’re still fairly subtle.

The point is that there’s a world happening outside the confines of the comic, and the way Lewis writes The Winter Men, while frustrating in single issue installments (especially given the publication schedule, which I’ll get to), is particularly fascinating. Each character, no matter how insignificant, is developed well, so that it feels like they have a life outside of the comic. The one exception is Drost’s wife, which is a bit unfortunate considering that she becomes more important in issue #6. But the others, even those with hardly any “screen time,” are fascinating. Nina and The Siberian aren’t in the book as much as Kalenov, Nikki, and Drost, but Lewis manages to make them complete characters. Nina is trying to take care of her daughter, and she fears dying and leaving her alone, so she tries to stay out of Kalenov’s plot. Her common decency draws her in, though, and she eventually helps move the girl out of the Caucasus and then into Siberia when Kalenov discovers where the girl’s liver came from. Lewis shows her deadliness but also her compassion, her commitment to the Communist ideal of her youth and her disillusionment with its corruption and the decay of her beloved Russia. The Siberian, who doesn’t appear until issue #6, gets even less time on the page, but Lewis still makes him a compelling character. He escapes from a prison, makes his way across the permafrost, and ends up in Moscow, where he has a key role in the finale. Lewis doesn’t just stop with the more recalcitrant members of the Winter Men. The Mongolian secretary of the mayor, whom Kalenov ends up having sex with, seems to have an entire life outside of the comic. Kalenov doesn’t treat her especially well, and that comes to a head near the end, when she catches Nikki’s eye and he claims he’s fallen in love with her. The mayor and his right-hand man are always up to something in his office, so it feels like he’s running the city while he’s not yelling at Kalenov about the kidnapped girl. The suspect Kalenov and Nikki pick up in issue #4 rides around with them all day, and they have all kinds of adventures with him, even letting him help them steal a table from McDonald’s. But he’s still a felon, and once a witness identifies him, they take him to the woods and shoot him in the head. Lewis packs the book with dialogue that seems to be there simply to fill space, and he asks Leon to pack the book with characters who say these things and never show up again, but what it does is create a world full of people doing things that have nothing to do with Kalenov and the girl. The true plot is going on behind the scenes, and Lewis’s insistence on making the comic dense helps obfuscate that plot, place it into a background tapestry of people living their lives, so that it’s harder for Kalenov to pick it out. It’s very well done, and it’s part of what makes the comic such a rewarding read.

“It is just — I thought this was going to be an ending — you know … the big shoot-out in the factory — like at the end of the American action movies …” “Haven’t you been listening, Nikki …? This is a Russian story.”

A lot of things in The Winter Men are broken. The people, most obviously, but so much else, as well. In the very beginning, when Eye-Catcher is speaking to Agent Siegel, he makes the point that the heroes have fallen to Earth, and we switch – after the kidnapping – to Kalenov asleep, hung over, in the snow. Eye-Catcher tries to convince Siegel that the super-men were real, and they were … but Eye-Catcher, we discover, is lying. The Hammer of the Revolution is like Kal-El – he fell to Earth literally, in the “Tunguska Event” in 1908, and the Russians were not able to recreate his powers, although they managed to create several humans that were enhanced in some way. So the Soviet Union’s biggest achievement was accidental, but Stalin knew he could use the man as a symbol even if he couldn’t create his army of super-soldiers. Kalenov and his “rocket men” are failures, as well, as we discover in issue #6, when the moment in Chechnya that haunts him is revealed. Kalenov is revealed as a coward, perhaps, but his tech also failed him, and people died. There’s a sense that this, too, is very Russian.

Lewis goes out of his way to show how broken Russia is, and by doing so, how broken the United States is and how broken the world itself is. Early on, Kalenov narrates that there are “more bodyguards than teachers” in Moscow, which might not be true but feels right, which is a sad statement. The police are irredeemably corrupt. The mayor is irredeemably corrupt. The gangs are rigidly organized. The parents of the girl with the new liver cannot save her except by draining their savings, and even then, she is taken from them. When Kalenov goes to the Caucasus, he discovers that the criminals are using the girl in a grubby enterprise. The liver that was placed in her gives her a power to decay things (as we saw in issue #1, when the flowers in her apartment died and she seared handprints into the wall), and the gangsters who took her are using that power to age art forgeries to pass them off as originals. The girl has a wondrous if deadly power, and the men who are using her want only to make a buck.

This is why issue #4 is an important one, despite the fact that it’s an “interlude.” Nikki and Kalenov meet at a McDonald’s. They steal the police vehicle that Kalenov’s driver arrives in, leaving him behind to go on their errands. Throughout the day, we see the ramshackle nature of Russian society. Their suspect works in an office that doubles, it appears, as an apartment, with teapots and haphazardly stacked books alongside his computer. Nikki checks in with street vendors, a video store, and what appears to be a shoe store run by a woman clutching an accordion. He and Kalenov take a look at beat-up old weapons and Nikki’s high-tech surveillance systems. Nikki shoots up a vending machine in the middle of the street. They eat at McDonald’s two more times during the day, and during the third visit, they steal the table because Nikki wants it for his breakfast nook. They get in a fight with an older man when they’re making a racket in the street (Kalenov breaks a bottle over a parking meter), but end up drinking with the fellow after the fight. The “justice” they dole out to their suspect – shooting him in the head out in the woods – shows how broken the system is. But Nikki and Kalenov are near the top of the food chain, so they don’t care. This sense of things being broken comes to a head in issue #6, of course, as Kalenov finally discovers what’s going on. He arrives at the place where the liver was grown, and the men think he’s there to collect ballot boxes for Russia’s grand entry into democracy … because the election officials never came back after dropping them off. When he learns about the liver and what it can do, he returns to Moscow for the final confrontation with the Hammer of the Revolution, who is finally revealed. His machinations are not what Kalenov thinks they are, and that’s because Kalenov, despite telling Nikki in issue #3 that this is a Russian story, believes that he is a “Western hero.” The Hammer asks him if Kalenov is supposed to confront the dragon, or if, as a Russian, his purpose is deeper and more fatalistic. Kalenov knows what the Hammer wants, and he gives it to him. “You were supposed to build something,” one character tells the Hammer of the Revolution. Of course, the tragedy is that he was never allowed to do so, and so we get this broken world. Kalenov, always sporting a bandage somewhere on his body, “saving” the world but doing something that drives his friends from him. Nikki, yearning for a girl he can’t have. Nina, trying to hold back the chaos and finding it’s far too difficult. Drost, the good soldier who always follows orders, finding out that doesn’t protect him. None of the people in the story are whole.

The “Russian-ness” of the story contrasts with the “American-ness” creeping in on the edges. In issue #1, Kalenov meets with the Americans, and he narrates: “Meet the CIA … the toughest among them couldn’t steal a watch from a babushka,” and this contempt for America is present throughout the story. When he gets to Brooklyn, he sees Russian kids acting and talking like Americans, and he thinks, “The longer we are here — are we really stealing America, or is it stealing us? In another generation, we’ll need a flashing light to tell us it’s time to cross the street, too.” Obviously, the way issue #3 ends, ambiguously, is more like a Russian ending than an American one, which is why Kalenov needs to console Nikki. The time spent in McDonald’s in issue #4 is the most fascinating part of this American influence. Obviously, it’s a McDonald’s, so while Kalenov can get grumpy with the American influence on Russian kids in Brooklyn, he still eats three times in one day at McDonald’s. The restaurant is packed. There’s a mob outside waiting to get in, and we see old men and women, young men and women, soldiers and civilians, all queued up to get their food. On the table that Nikki and Kalenov later steal, a placard in riveted with a quote by Ray Croc [sic]: “None of us alone is is [sic] greater than all of us together.” I want the misspelling of Kroc’s name and the double “is” to be deliberate to show how poorly the Russians do things, but I doubt it. Even so, the sentiment is very Communistic, and it aligns with the Russian spirit even as it comes from an American capitalist and is in one of the most American things in the world. Kalenov and Nikki can eat cabbage pies and beets and drink Budweiser in the Moscow McDonald’s, and they can leer at women dressed in the most Western fashions (“I’d like to privatize that shit!” says Nikki about one particularly distinctive young lady), so the scene hums with irony. Throughout the issue, we see the darkest parts of rampant capitalism, including, it appears, justice for sale. Kalenov might rail against the Americanization of Russia, but he’s certainly complicit in it. Lewis contrasts this with a small moment at the end of issue #3, when Nina asks Nikki for her old propaganda tapes. She watches herself used as a symbol for Russian-ness – we see a much younger Nina, holding a flag and standing in front of a parade as the narrator intones “She knows the West is out there! It creeps up on any weakness — offering only gilded solitude! Moral squalor! But she is never alone! In her heart she keeps a patriotic barricade …!” Nina is saddened by this, but she also feels a twinge of nostalgia, as “Russian-ness,” in the propaganda, means working together to create a better society without the West’s “gilded solitude” and “moral squalor” infecting good Russians. Nina has been on the fence about helping Kalenov, but the next time we see her (in issue #5), she’s getting the girl to a safe house and killing the soldiers sent to snatch the girl back. She might recognize the propaganda for what it is, but it still has an effect on her. As the series ends, Kalenov tells a representative from the mayor’s office, “You surprise me, patriot — confusing government with country. Russia has always been great.” Kalenov understands a deeper truth about the nature of the story he’s in, something most of the other participants have missed. It’s not about who’s in charge. It’s about the people they’re in charge of.

But, of course … It would be the last time we were ever all together like that …

The Winter Men is a triumph, not only of writing, but of every aspect of comic book creation. John Paul Leon had been a major artist for some years, working on Earth X for Marvel a few years before this after steadily increasing his profile throughout the 1990s, and The Winter Men is a continuation of that rising profile. He is brilliant on this book, in what must have been a difficult assignment, given both the density of Lewis’s plot and what must have been a revamping of the original plot (again, I’ll get to that). He uses thick lines and chunks of black to show the roughness of the world Kalenov inhabits, giving Russia and Brooklyn a beat-up, weathered, ancient feel, as if far too much violence has occurred there and has permanently scored the landscape. He also drops holding lines quite a bit, making the shapes become more abstract and blurring the line between the people and the buildings around them. Russia becomes more faceless, more a wintry mass of the proletariat, and everyone is cogs in the great machine. When an individual comes forth, it’s almost shocking, and of course we lead up to the revelation of the Hammer of the Revolution, who, while still drawn with rough lines, seems chiseled out of marble so that he completely stands out from the shabby surroundings.

Kalenov in particular is a fascinating character study. Leon actually remembers that people shave, so while for most of the book he’s scruffy, occasionally he’s actually clean-shaven. His scruffy look, though, is his go-to look, and we see him usually in a parka with a fur collar, clutching a cigarette and wearing a knit hat, which he takes off only once in the entire series (and it’s not, hilariously enough, when he’s having sex). Leon doesn’t make him a super-soldier, despite his clear competence at violence, so we see a Kalemov who looks beaten by life, until a rescue mission perks him up and gives him a purpose. He’s still always guarded, unlike Nikki and Drost, who wear their emotions on their sleeves, and we see this in the way Leon draws him, always slightly hunched, willing to help but trying to keep himself at a distance. This changes only rarely, most notably in issue #6, when he reunites with his wife. Their reunion is only two pages long, but Leon shows an entirely different side to Kalenov. He wears a fancy sweater (but, again hilariously, keeps the hat on), he parties (he’s drunk, but still), he has a quiet breakfast with his wife, and he breaks down in her arms and tells her, “You are the only real thing in my life. Everything else is just layers.” It’s a completely different Kalenov, and while Lewis writes some nice stuff for the characters, Leon does a wonderful job showing how he can loosen up and be someone different. Even in issue #5, which ends with a party at Drost’s home and where Kalenov enjoys himself, Leon still draws him as the tough, world-weary guy. Only with his wife is he able to let his guard down. Everything else is just layers, indeed.

Leon does nice work with the other characters, too. The bureaucrats in the Russian government, from Eye-Catcher to his boss, the mayor of Moscow, all look tired all the time, even when the mayor acts manic. The people of Moscow look beaten even as they rage against the forces that keep them down. Leon has to use a lot of unspoken language in the book because of both its density and its obliqueness – Lewis puts a lot of the heavy lifting on the artist, even though there are a lot of words. The party at Drost’s house in issue #5 is a tour de force of wordless storytelling. While Kalenov argues with and then makes up with the Mongolian secretary, Leon shows Nikki watching them, his yearning for the woman etched on his face. It’s something you might miss reading it for the first time, but when you go back and look at things with the knowledge that he eventually makes his move on her, it becomes clear how much jealousy he feels for Kalenov. Like most of the scenes in the book, the party doesn’t take up too much space (four pages), but Leon gives us dozens of characters enjoying Christmas, arguing, fighting, kissing, laughing, drinking, and having a good time. You could almost have no words in the entire sequence and still get the gist of what everyone is saying, because Leon makes them move and interact with each other and react to words in such a precise manner.

Leon isn’t called upon to draw too much action – there’s some, obviously, but not as much as a regular superhero book – but he does well with that, too. He can draw with thinner lines, which makes the work look “faster” – as in, precision in the line work tends to give the pictures the illusion of dynamism, which assists in creating the sense of motion. In issue #6, we get a superb half-splash of a car smashing through a stained glass window:

Leon still uses spot blacks effectively and thick lines in the more static areas of the drawing, but look at how precise the line work is on the glass. Each tiny shard is delineated, giving us the sense of each tiny bit glass spraying inward from the force of the car hitting it. The glass is lightness in contrast to the darkness inside the room, and the car opens up the space, and Leon’s ability to draw in a slightly different style means the glass doesn’t feel as substantial as the car, therefore creating a sense of movement as the window shatters. He does this again when a man wearing a jetpack attacks the train on which Kalenov and Nina are traveling with the girl. He draws every shard of glass as the train’s window is broken, and he uses clean, thinner lines to show the struggle between Kalenov and the assassin more clearly:

Leon isn’t the only one doing top-notch work on this book. When you get Dave Stewart and John Workman on a book, you’re going to get high-level coloring and lettering, and The Winter Men is no exception (Edwards does good work on issue #6, and Fletcher’s letters on issue #3 differ slightly from Workman’s, but I’ll get to them). Stewart uses a lot of blues, but not terribly bright ones, to set a somber and cool mood, which isn’t bad for Moscow in winter. Before we get to that, however, we begin with Eye-Catcher and his movie about the Hammer of the Revolution, who is, not surprisingly, dressed in bright, Communist red. This sets up a nice contrast, as not only does the shift from hot red to cool blue signal a change from the passionate days of the Soviet era to the banal drabness of the kleptocratic New Russia, but because the red is brighter than the blue, it signals a shift from fantasy to reality. The Hammer of the Revolution was always a propaganda tool, and his painfully bright red outfit is a symbol of that. When Kalenov wakes up in the snow, the world turns “real” and the brightness drains out of it. When Edwards takes over in issue #6 (for reasons which I assume had to do with Stewart’s availability, as the book was so long delayed he had moved on to other things), she makes the Hammer, in all his glory, blue. This might be to link him to Dr. Manhattan, and that certainly might be part of the reason, but it seems like a shift in the Hammer’s own outlook has occurred, and he has sunk from a glorious Communist icon to just another tawdry gangster, sliding from his bright red uniform in the propaganda films to a blue etched heavily with shadows. He knows what he has become, and he accepts it.

Blue and red are signifiers of other things in the book, as well. The blue flower Nina finds pinned to the lapel of the would-be assassin in issue #3 is unexplained until issue #5, when we discover that the “Boy Scouts” are dressed in blue suits. Lewis’s oblique script means that re-reads of this book are fun, because we see Stewart use the blue color scheme to link the assassination in issue #1 and the assassination attempt in issue #3 to the Boy Scouts, and we understand, simply based on the color scheme, that they’ve been operating a lot longer than Kalenov and Nikki realize. This is one way colorists can really do nice things in a comic – foreshadowing in the artwork is one of the most unique things about comics. Meanwhile, one thing readers will notice in issue #1 is Nina’s red cloak – she looks like Little Red Riding Hood. The red sets her apart from the male “Winter Men” – Kalenov’s coat is blue-ish, while Nikki and Drost are usually in olives and browns – and what’s fascinating is that she wears different coats in the series, and they’re always red. In issue #3 she’s wearing a longer version of the cloak she wore in issue #1. In issue #5 she’s wearing possibly the same cloak as in issue #1, but this has a fur collar, so it might be a different one (she’s also wearing a kicky red beret in these scenes). At Drost’s party in issue #5, she’s wearing a slightly muted red vest. When she and Kalenov take the little girl out of Moscow in issue #6, she’s back to the fur-lined coat (maybe it’s her train coat?). There’s another reason why she wears red beside the contrast with the other principals. As we saw in issue #3, she was used as propaganda when she was a young girl, and the implication is that she’s more “Soviet” than the men. Despite the fact that she has a job in the new capitalist Russia, she seems to be above the morass into which Kalenov and Nikki have sunk. The red that is associated with Nina keeps her more elevated, not only in contrast to her friends, but in contrast to the Hammer, who has also sunk down from the heights of Communist glory. “Nothing can touch her,” as the narration on the old propaganda film says at the end of issue #3. Nina does not look pleased by this assertion.

Workman, of course, is one of the great letterers in comic book history, and you can see it in this book. His spacing is impeccable, making his letters flow smoothly on the page but he still manages to cram a lot onto the page without it appearing cluttered or mechanical. He does a clever thing with the lettering in English, which appears a few times throughout the book. He writes the English in all lower case letters, which helps set it apart, naturally. Most letterers use brackets (the “less-than” sign and the “greater-than” sign) to indicate different languages, but not Workman. Obviously, everything in the book is in English, but using a different style on the letters rather than brackets makes us stop and readjust slightly, which doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative but does make us think about how these people are speaking. Other letterers have done similar things to represent different languages, and it works very well. The book actually begins in “English,” so it’s in lower case, as Eye-Catcher is talking to Agent Siegel. Even more interesting, Workman puts some letters slightly above or below the imaginary line on which they’re all placed, so the writing looks a bit decrepit. It makes the “speech” of Eye-Catcher feel a bit hesitant and old, as he’s speaking of times long gone and he seems to know he’s about to die. It’s a very clever conceit, and what’s interesting about it is that when Eye-Catcher repeats the speech in issue #3, Fletcher doesn’t do the same thing, and it makes Eye-Catcher seem a bit stronger and in control. Fletcher is a fine letterer in his own right, but that little change shifts the tone of Eye-Catcher’s speech in a way I don’t think was intended. I’m not sure why Workman couldn’t letter issue #3, but the subtle shift in the lettering does change the book a bit, and it highlights how lettering, while often invisible, adds to the tone of the comic. In the case of The Winter Men, this is even more highlighted because Workman is such a great letterer.

“I thought I would have more time to tell you how things ended up, but perhaps for now … I will just tell you the good parts.”

The Winter Men should have been a bigger deal. When it began, the first issue announced that it was “#1 of 8,” and the first two issues are a very tantalizing brew. Then the trouble began. Issue #3 was a bit late, but not too bad. Issue #4 came out about five months after issue #3, which is not ideal. It was also changed to a six-issue series, which, given the amount of stuff Lewis had introduced and presumably knew how to resolve, was probably a fairly big hindrance. I assume sales were to blame, but DC had to know how complex the series was before they green-lit it, so why cut Lewis off at the knees? The reshuffling of the story that had to take place must have led to the six-month delay between issues #4 and 5. At that point it had been 11 months and 5 issues had come out, which still isn’t too bad, if not great. It then took 27 (!) months for the Winter Special to come out, which again was presumably so Lewis could reshape the narrative a bit (although the Special is fairly long, it still doesn’t seem to make up the slicing of two issues off the series). I wrote about the impressive gaps between issues somewhat humorously here, and I can’t help but think that DC simply wasn’t that committed to it. There was some turnover at DC in 2004 – perhaps the book was approved before that and the new regime didn’t love it as much? I don’t know, but the cutting of issues and then the long delays in releases couldn’t have been good for sales or for its legacy. The Winter Men is not as well known as it should be, and that’s a shame. DC also hasn’t done it any favors with regard to a collection. I linked to one below, but it’s far more than you should have to pay for something like this. John Paul Leon is still doing fine work for DC, and why they wouldn’t want to have some of his earlier work in print is beyond me. But this is very much worth hunting down, in some form or another. It rewards multiple readings and rewards keen eyes and minds.

When DC acquired Wildstorm in 1998, the imprint entered a Golden Age. This lasted a few years, but by 2005 it was largely in the past, and projects like The Winter Men, it seems, were supposed to continue or revive that Golden Age. It never happened, though – the reading public had moved on, maybe, and Image had become much more of the place for comics like this, while DC pivoted back toward massive superhero stories (Identity Crisis ended in December 2004 and Countdown to Infinite Crisis came out in March 2005, so DC was well on its way). Had this book come out five years earlier, it might have found an audience that was buying up a lot of the Wildstorm titles of the time and didn’t really have much to get in this style from Image. The delays certainly didn’t hurt, but a collected edition wipes the delays away and gives you the complete reading experience. So why doesn’t DC keep it in print? Is it because Lewis isn’t really a presence in comics? Do they not think it will sell because of lack of name recognition? That’s possible, and it’s quite sad. The Winter Men is a brilliant comic that does something new and interesting with the superhero genre and offers insight into a culture quite alien from ours. It’s an extremely worthwhile book to seek out.

Take a look at the archives, everyone! They’re so much fun!


  1. tomfitz1

    I remember this series back in the day.

    I also remember thinking how much similar Tommy Edwards and John Paul Leon are in artistry.

    I definitely remember how late some of the issues were,

    Oddly, I haven’t seen much of Brett Lewis – before or after The WinterMen.

  2. I think I read the first issue at some point and thought it was interesting, and then I know I lost track of the number of issues because I knew the Winter Special was the conclusion, and that the originally promised 8 issues were not what happened. I may have gathered all of them at this point, but they’re spread around the comics boxes that I own.

    Lewis sounds interesting but mysterious. His Wikipedia page says he’s only given one interview, but he was behind some interesting comics, like the Motown Machineworks stuff at Image in the mid-90s.

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