I'm a sucker for a good war comic. I'm always fascinated by the incredible drama that takes place during war, by the ways that the abstract concepts of good and evil become raw and real and intense and horrible during war; by the ways that war changes and twists people into very different people than they were when they first joined the military.
The Grand Duke, published by Archaia Press, is a really terrific graphic novel that covers a side of World War II that is rarely shown: the battles between the Soviets and the Nazis as the Russians converge on Berlin towards the end of the War. This graphic novel shifts back and forth between the men who make up the German Air Force and the men and women — mostly women in this book — who fight for the Soviet Union.
I was fascinated by the way that the Russian women, nicknamed the Night Witches, fought valiantly for their motherland during World War II. I'd heard legends of the equality that the Communists gave to their men and women, but the story in this book by Yann does a terrific job of showing the battles that these women must fight in order to be treated as the equals of men. No matter how they were treated by outsiders, though, the women fight as valiantly as the men — once a pilot is in the air, gender doesn't matter at all — which leads a wonderful credence to the ideals of the Communists in placing the women at the front to start with.
As you can see from the images included with this review, the artwork in this book by Romain Hugault is absolutely stunning. Hugault is a professional aviation illustrator, and has drawn several reference books on aviation. So it's no surprise to see that Hugault's paintings in this book are extraordinarily detailed and attractive. The man draws every rivet and every bolt on the planes that he illustrates, giving this book the specific reality of a film in the way that planes and other technical details are shown.
Hugault's dogfights are thrilling, dynamic illustrations that place full skies of planes in perfect proportion to each other. Look at the depth of space that Hugault shows on these pages, with the long and detailed horizons filled with exquisite and often painful detail. One spread in the book, showing the horrific firebombing of the German city of Dresden (you may be familiar with the story of Dresden from Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five), is exquisitely painful because of the depth of field and intensity of the illustrations that Hugault delivers.
But while so much of this story has to do with planes and aviators and the devices that they fly, this book is also all about people as well. In that way The Grand Duke is both grounded and soars. And, perhaps surprisingly, Hugault is also adept at presenting realistic-seeming characters who have adventures and experience horrors that are very specific to them. Hugault is also outstanding at his depiction of faces — happy and afraid, passionate and terrified, furious and delighted, Hugault is wonderful at drawing both the characters and the specific machinery that surrounds them.
For years the gold standard for assessing quality war comics has been E.C.'s war stories edited by the great Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman was brilliant at combining exhaustive research with a passion for telling great stories in his comics. It's therefore the finest compliment I can give to The Grand Duke to say that Yann and Hugault create a work of almost Kurtzmanlike quality. This is an outstanding war comic, beautifully written by Yann and illustrated by Hugault, published as always to the highest standards by Archaia.