Same Vodka, Different Bottles

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Comrade Czyrnyj accuses The Red Star of right deviationism.
As I mentioned back in my ramble about the Fencer trilogy, my exploration of contemporary fantasy has been tentative and idiosyncratic. Rather than working my way through any established canon, I instead have followed the time-honored strategy of wandering aimlessly through bookstores and comic book shops, flipping through whichever books had the prettiest covers.

With such an approach, it was only natural that The Red Star would come to my attention. Just take a look to the right and you'll see what I mean. After all, it's not every day that you find a comic book that just drenched in Socialist Realist kitsch, complete with a giant flying ironclad on the cover. As for the premise of the series, well, according to Wikipedia:

"The Red Star is a graphic novel by Christian Gossett set in a sci-fi/fantasy world 'Mythic [Soviet] Russia'. The 'Lands of The Red Star' were inspired by both Russian folklore and military history. The series is thus heavily reminiscent of a post-World War II Soviet Russia mixing technology and sorcery."

In other words, an instant sale for me.

The Red Star has had a rather weird publishing history. Originally the brainchild of concept artist Christian Gossett, it first appeared way back in 2000 under the Image Comics imprint, only to bounce between publishers for a few years before finding a home under the creator-owned Archangel Studios. Even then, the publishing schedule has been erratic (due mostly to the constant shifts in publishers and a prolonged financial dispute with defunct video game developer Acclaim), with only a total of twenty issues appearing over the past decade. Still, the series has picked up a fair share of praise, much of it for its impressive early adoption of CGI imagery. It's been nominated for Eisners a few times, the visual FX house WETA Workshop has done some work with the team, and it's currently been optioned by Russian expat director Timur Bekmambetov.

With that sort of pedigree, it would appear that The Red Star would be my bar-none absolute favorite comic series-slash-fantasy epic of all time, right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, in some respects The Red Star has been one of the most disappointing stories I have ever read.

To understand why this is, we need to go back to the heart of the setting. The Red Star is set in a great industrial-magical superpower known as the "United Republics of the Red Star," or URRS for short. A few decades before the series starts, the realm was under the sway of a great sorcerer known as Imbohl, a charismatic revolutionary who forged the URRS out of the wreckage of a collapsed monarchy, grew dictatorial, slaughtered masses of his people, fought off an even worse dictator to the west, only to eventually disappear under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, the URRS trundled on without him, growing ever more powerful and bloated.

The story proper starts off with a reminiscence told by warkaster (a sort of a sorceress specializing in offensive magic) Maya Antares of her experiences aboard the skyfurnace RSS Konstantinov (the aforementioned flying ironclad, a sort of kilometer-long combination aircraft carrier, troop transport, and ultra-heavy bomber) at the Battle of Kar Dathra's Gate, the final battle between the Red Fleet of the URRS and the nomadic tribesmen of the desert nation of Al'istaan. In the course of the battle, the Al'istaani pulled out an eleventh-hour superpower, obliterating the vast majority of the Red forces and killing Maya's husband, infantry captain Marcus Antares. In the wake of the defeat, uprisings and rebellions broke out all across the URRS, leading to its swift collapse into the corrupt and anarchic Commonwealth of Red States. A decade later, Maya is once again stuck in the midst of war, this time in a police action against the stubborn but proud people of Nokgorka, who are fighting to secure their independence from the hated Reds. The war is a mess, with poorly-trained Red conscripts routinely mown down by determined resistance fighters, Nokgorkan cities being carpet-bombed into rubble, with Maya slowly losing hope in life itself.

However, an encounter with a Nokgorkan resistance fighter bearing a message from Marcus changes everything. It appears that the spiritrealm, the material afterlife and magical well of the Red Star universe, has been under the iron fist of Imbohl for decades as part of his attempts to secure everlasting life, an activity most of the Red leadership has tacitly supported. The recent turmoil has given the native entities a chance to fight back, with Marcus' shade at the forefront of the fight. With this new knowledge, Maya and the crew of the Konstantinov rebel against their government and transit into the spiritrealm itself, striking out to liberate the great prison of souls known as Archangel.

Now, here's my problem. The Red Star is, at heart, an allegory of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In fact, the allegory is so thing than you don't even have to have any real background in Russian or Soviet history to connect the parallels. The war against Al'istaan in clearly meant to recall the Afghan conflict of the 1980s, while Nokgorka echoes the continuing problems in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus. Imbohl himself in clearly designed as a sort of combination Lenin-Stalin. The characters wear mock-Soviet uniforms, write in a sort of pidgin Cyrillic, and fly war machinery clearly evocative of late Soviet military hardware. Even the skyfurnaces are built with the sort of faceless industrial gargantuanism of a Brezhnev-era nuclear power plant.

While the majority of fantasy writing is always, on some level, evocative of real-world influences, the flagrant crudity of The Red Star's worldbuilding cannot help but draw comparisons between the fictional world and the real one. While this was presumably the intention of the creators, it was a choice that ultimately harms the book. At heart, The Red Star is a straight-up tale of good-versus-evil, of noble, heroic soldiers against greedy wizards, of sympathetic humanists against stone-faced servants of the state. While perfectly acceptable as a stock fantasy myth, when mapped onto a history of the Soviet Union, it simply does not work.

Compared to the actual USSR, the URRS is a caricature, a land of soldiers and prison camps, rather than a nation of soldiers, prison camps, bureaucrats, reformers, nationalists, spies, black-market dealers, writers, greedy bastards, honest idiots, and all the other colors of the rainbow that is modern society. I don't pretend to understand how or why the Soviet Union worked (though I have found these three books to be helpful in figuring things out), but I understand that it was a great, complicated, and deeply human creation. In The Red Star, all those crenelations and contradictions that make the USSR (and the Russian Federation, for that matter) so fascinating are shaved off in the interests of serving the heroic epic. When talking of Imbohl, you can only ever worship him or hate him, as opposed to Stalin, who is loved, hated, ambivalently praised, ignored in favor or some other explanation for the ills of the world, even all four at once. In Al'istaan, the Afghanistan conflict is transformed from a knotty postcolonial war of occupation, familiar to everyone in West since the 1950s, into standard-issue all-out battle royale between the foreign occupier and the nationalist warriors. Likewise, the Nokgorka conflict is a standard "small band of free people against the oppressive state," rather than the Chechen conflict of our world, which could perhaps be described as "small band of vicious semi-tribal nationalists sort of-allied with some overbearing extra-national religious fighters against a decaying klepocratic state distracted by a hundred crises that kind of wants an accommodation whereby the aforementioned stop killing one another and their neighbors and tone down their activities in exchange for presents, which will be enforced by a military that's too depleted, corrupt, and weakened to do much besides burn stuff to the ground." Or something like that.

Additionally, despite being a story about revolution, there is remarkably little discussion of socialism as a political system, let alone of communism, Marxism, Leninism, or Stalinism. The closest The Red Star comes to creating a political world is a general sense of solidarity with the downtrodden on the URRS and a few cryptic references to something called "Internationalism" that is never elaborated. To make matters worse, the whole revolution arc is based on a revolt against a form of secret history, against a cabal of powerful elites that had previously been able to manipulate the world with impunity. While I despise secret history as much as the next man (and, with a BA in History gathering dust in the closest, considerably more than the next man), it seems singularly ill-advised to me for a writer wanting to seriously depict a revolution to imagine it as a single evil conspiracy that can be crushed, rather than a group of linked injustices that can be changed by a great deal of long, hard work. Even China Miéville had more sense than that.

Indeed, the The Red Star's tendency to borrow from real history and simplify it does lead to some perplexing questions. It's mentioned early on that during the Al'istanni war the Reds were engaged in a prolonged subtle struggle for supremacy with the Western Transnational Alliance, a large capitalist economic and military hyperpower form another continent whose real-world counterpart need not be named. However, given how there appears to be nothing like nuclear deterrence in this world, it's not clear why the URRS and the WTA haven't tried to beat each other to death yet. Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union's main sphere of influence and source of any number of consumer goods and diplomatic headaches, seems to have vanished into the aether. Despite all the epic battles in which hundreds of thousands die in an instant, and filled with war engines the size of cities, it appears that the actual world of The Red Star is no bigger than our own, with most of the political borders matching up almost exactly. Finally, in perhaps the oddest case of all, no Red character ever wonders, with a history marked by bloody revolution after bloody revolution, if the Red tendency to glamorize military power might have some negative impact on the way their society works.

That being said, there are some praiseworthy elements of The Red Star. The artwork is always beautiful, despite some rather blatant CG elements in the early stories, and the coloring is some of the best I've ever seen in any comic. Within the narrow framework of cliché all their characters carry their loads admirably, with the female characters coming off a proper mixture of tough and sentimental while avoiding the usual traps of masculine characterization. The trade paperback collections are simply wonderful, complete with plenty of interviews, discussions of the creative process, and even a decent bibliography. Some of the worldbuilding is even laudable, particularly for its attempts to work out how magic could be integrated into a late 20th-century military, though that runs into a few problems of its own (seriously, telekinetically-thrown spears instead of assault rifles? What the hell?). On the other hand, there's skyfurnaces and, in a flashback arc set in the ersatz-WWI period, armored trains the size of skyscrapers, so I suppose it all balances out.

All in all, The Red Star is a beautiful and, at times, moving fantasy comic. Just don't demand too much from it.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 00:26 on 2010-03-11
I am a sucker for a well-done industrial aesthetic, so I may need to pick this up -- is it available in mainstream bookstores?
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 14:23 on 2010-03-11
Not in bookstores, no. I managed to get the first two paperbacks in a comic book store back in 2006, and had to order the last two from their website. It's sorta the downside of the "whenever I feel like it" publishing schedule: if you need to consult the auguries to know when the next book is coming out, there isn't much incentive to keep stocking it.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:48 on 2011-07-21
(blows dust off article)

Man, it's been a while. Anyway, just wanted to mention that Christian Gossett has some sort of deal with this new online comics distributor called Beyond Reality, and they've started posting the complete run of The Red Star on their site for anyone to look at. (Right now they're almost through issue 1, so feel free to wait a bit.)

Oh, and apparently Warner Brothers is trying to get ahold of the movie rights, though of course I know better than to speculate if this will end up with an actual movie being made.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in March 2010