Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Lions of Leningrad’

“A child of sacrifice, a child of war”

Dead Reckoning has brought us some nice war comics, and The Lions of Leningrad is another of those! This was written by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and drawn by Thomas du Caju. It’s been translated by Joseph Laredo.

War stories set in World War Two Russia seem to be catnip to (non-Russian) writers, and I wonder why. I think it has to be because it’s so dramatic and bleak – the Soviet Union lost more people in the war than every other country combined (or close to it), and the bleakness of the landscape and the circumstances make it an easy place to set a good war story. It was also an enemy of the Nazis, which helps. Only France suffered in any way close to what Russia did (on the Allied side; Germany got it pretty badly), but they were knocked out of the war so early that it’s easier to use Russia. Anyway, that’s my theory, and here we have a Belgian writer setting a war story in Russia. I’m never wrong!!!!

The comic actually begins in 1962, when a mysterious man sneaks backstage at the symphony in Leningrad and seemingly attempts to shoot one of the violinists. He’s arrested, and when he’s interrogated, he begins to tell a story about four teenagers in the city in 1941. Maxim, Pyotr, Grigory, and Anka are friends who are still trying to enjoy life even though the war hangs over them, and when they’re evacuated to the country, they barely escape a German bombing and they make their way back to Leningrad, fighting with some valor along the way. Once back in the city, they refuse to leave, joining the civilian corps helping the army. Maxim and Anka start a romance, Grigory’s mother begins an affair with Maxim’s father, an important Communist party member (Grigory’s father is dead, but Maxim’s mother is very much alive and still married to his father), and Pyotr has to go on the run after his parents are accused of espionage. Things start going very badly, and they have to flee the city. We find out early on that the violinist in the beginning is Anka, but the man’s identity remains a mystery until late in the book, when it becomes clear that one of the friends has betrayed another, adding to the drama.

Van Rijckeghem does a good job showing the horrors of war, especially during the bleak Russian winter, when starvation creeps in and people will do almost anything to survive. He focuses on the four friends, naturally, but there are plenty of other characters, too, and he does well to show the straits they’re in, as well. He also shows the horror of the Soviet government, as well. When Pyotr is accused of spying along with his parents, his valor on the field coming back to Leningrad can’t be a mark in his favor, because officially, nothing happened there. The government is too embarrassed that the Germans destroyed the train carrying children, so they refuse to admit it happened, so Pyotr’s bravery getting back to the city doesn’t exist. It’s twisted, of course, but such is life under a dictatorship. Even in the direst of circumstances (or perhaps because the circumstances are so dire), everyone lives in fear, not only of starvation and death from Nazis, but of their own government. It’s a harrowing experience, and it scars all the kids who live through it. In 1962, we see the stranglehold the government still has on its people, despite Stalin’s death, and why the mysterious man takes the chance that he does.

Du Caju’s art is very “European,” for lack of a better word. He has a fine line, and he uses nice hatching to “rough” things up a bit. As with a lot of European comics, there are a lot of panels per page, and Du Caju lays pages out very well, giving the book a nice flow. The denseness of the pages makes Leningrad feel claustrophobic (probably inadvertently, but it’s still a neat effect), as the winter closes in a makes everyone a little less human. It’s interesting contrasting the beautiful imperial architecture with the dire circumstances of the people, as Du Caju makes the city decadent and a little pathetic, in contrast to the terrifying resolve of the people living in it. Maxim’s father, the party member, is subtly drawn as more powerful and therefore wealthier than the others; Grigory’s mother, who begins the book as a very stylish woman, slowly becomes frayed and wan as the war progresses, and Du Caju does a nice job showing that. Du Caju doesn’t have to do anything too fancy, but he tells the story very well.

The Lions of Leningrad is a good war story, because it gives us a perspective we don’t usually see – that of kids, who are as affected by war as anyone. It gives us an interesting look into a society that might be fighting a great evil – Nazism – but wasn’t exactly free itself, and we can see parallels with our own country, unfortunately. It’s exciting in parts, tragic in others, and Van Rijckeghem does a nice job focusing on the human spirit throughout. There’s a bit more going on than in a more regular war story, and that adds a nice layer of intrigue to the plot. It’s a cool comic.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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