Here’s an unusual idea for a graphic novel: an adaptation of a classic 1938 Soviet Sergei Eisenstein film about a 13th century Russian warrior who leads a valiant battle against a group of marauding German Teutonic Knights as the Germans attempt to dominate the Russian Steppes.
Because of its background as a classic film, I was actually a bit concerned that this book would be a bit dry and off-putting; I worried that it might be a bit obscure, intellectual and confusing. But just the opposite was the case: the story portrayed on the comics page is thrilling and exciting, and this book is very well worth reading on its own terms.
Nevsky is a war story, the tale of two armies in battle against each other in a medieval landscape. The book is resonant of its dramatic time and place; it’s filled with chain-mail clad knights emerging from classical castles in order to fight terrific battles on frozen lakes, dark forests and icy steppes. This is a dynamic tale, full of intense, bloody fights, double crosses and enormous, widescreen vistas.
Mario Guevara deserves much of the credit for the success of this graphic novel. He does a wonderful job of portraying the action in this book, smartly using the full vista of the comic page to create complex vistas that allow large armies to fight vicious battles without the reader getting confused. His presentation adds drama and excitement to be fight scenes, using a wide range of storytelling techniques to emphasize the drama of the battles.
Many pages have dozens of characters in pitched conflict with each other, but I never was lost in trying to figure out what was going on during the fights. Guevara frames his scenes well, always making sure that the reader knows what is going on — no small task in a story where so much is happening — but also always focuses on the specific individuals. Alexander Nevsky, the man who saved the Russian people, is always at the center of this story — Guevara makes sure that’s literally true as the reader works his way through the book.
Of course, Guevara’s art wouldn’t be successful without smart writing by Ben McCool. McCool does a great job of avoiding the temptation to over-scripting this story, providing just the right amount of context and dialogue to add depth to the story without over-scripting. The writer knows when to let Guevara’s art carry the story, when it’s the writer’s most important responsibility to allow the art to carry the tale.
Perhaps McCool gets some of that inspiration from the original movie, but this comic never really feels like an adaptation in the conventional sense. It’s not hackneyed or constrained by the need to adapt a specific scene or moment from the film. That approach often prevents a comic adaptation from finding its own depth. Instead, the comic finds its own pace and energy, seeming to use the film as a great starting point for its own drama.
Nevsky stands on its own as an exciting and stirring graphic novel full of energy, thrills and just a bit of real-life history.