Review by C.J. Bunce
Depending on your background Alexander Nevsky may mean something different to you. To the people of Russia he is the greatest Russian of all time, according to a poll conducted there of 50 million votes counted in 2008. For classic film fans, Alexander Nevsky is Sergei Eisenstein’s grand propaganda film from 1938, created to inspire Russians in the event of war with Germany. To connoisseurs of classical music, Alexander Nevsky, as both film score and modified for full orchestral piece, is one of Sergei Prokofiev’s greatest works. Now, British writer Ben McCool and Mexican artist Mario Guevara bring all of the above to graphic novel form in Nevsky: A Hero of the People, courtesy of IDW Publishing and the current owners of the rights to the epic film.
Nevsky was a prince of northwestern Russia who in 1240, at 20-years-old, defeated a Swedish force at the Battle of Neva, earning the moniker “Nevsky” or “of Russia,” and then two years later in April 1242 went on to lead an impossible battle against the invading Teutonic Knights of Germany who had conquered town after town across Russia except for the last Novgorod holdouts. At the Battle of Ice at Lake Peipus, Nevsky’s army defeated the Holy Roman Imperialists for good, pressing the army to the ice-covered lake where the opposing force broke through the ice and were annihilated.
From the end papers of the graphic novel we immediately see the adaptation of the film beginning, mirroring the crumpled background of the film’s opening credits. McCool and Guevara’s Nevsky is not a strict adaptation, instead amplifying the spirit of the man and the film and adding in new elements to inspire a more modern audience and a modern Russia. This is seen the most in the expansion of the roles of three women, Aleksandra Danilovna, outspoken daughter of the respected Boyars and maiden willing to call out the male leadership of nearby villages for their quick willingness to give up their lands to conquerors (a new character named for the actress playing Vasilisa in the film), Vasilisa, noble warrior from Pskov, and Olga, a maiden being courted by two soldiers, Gavrilo and Vasili.
Aleksandra is brought to request Nevsky to be the prince of all and lead the defense against the foreign invaders, the “Golden Horde” and is successful in convincing him to review her people. Maiden Olga decides that the bravest in battle of either Gavrilo or Vasili shall have her hand in marriage. In nice Lord of the Rings fashion, Vasilisa, female warrior from Pskov takes on the role of Eowyn and participates in the battle herself, along with Aleksandra, swords in hand. When Olga must choose who shall have her hand she is a tad stumped, as the bravest soldier is determined to be Vasilisa.
Where Eisenstein’s film is epic with landscapes and grandeur, McCool and Guevara expand Nevsky’s story into an almost Shakespearean tale, delving into the concepts highlighted in the film and fleshing out backstory and dialogue. Vasili is a bit like Hamlet, illogical as soldier in his fears of darkness. Nevsky becomes master strategist, a bit Henry V, a bit William Wallace, a bit Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, and is shown by Guevara reflecting more of the Mongol influences as opposed to the almost Hollywood looking handsome actor of the film. A double-crossing agent of the opposing forces serves as the Iago of this story, and the tool of Nevsky and key to Nevsky’s strategy at the battle on the icy lake.
Nevsky: A Hero of the People has been likened to Frank Miller’s 300, presumably to entice fans of that work. Make no mistake–this is much better in story and art, less stylized and more historic in its chronicling another real and important battle in history. And the passion and compassion as well as good ol’ realistic action missing from 300 can also be found here. Extensive drama pours off the pages and the updates, historically accurate or not, allow this work to inspire future generations of Russians (and anyone else willing to check out his book). Expanding the male-heavy original film to give roles to the women was a brilliant expansion to the story. No doubt many 13th century women served to inspire later generations of Russians, and they were just plain absent from the 1930s work.
Howard Chaykin provides a forward to the book, and interestingly Guevara’s artwork reflects the style of Chaykin from the 1970s. Two pages of Guevara’s original pencil work is included in thumbnail sized images, and much content before and after the story puts the work in context.
Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky is in print and available here, and a recommended version of Prokofiev’s musical work conducted by André Previn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra can be found here. Listen to the music while reading the book with the film on the TV for the ultimate Nevsky immersive experience. McCool and Guevara’s graphic novel Nevsky: A Hero of the People is on sale this month and available at comic book stores and discount copies are available at Amazon.com.