Political thrillers are not types of comics I typically seek out (sorry Captain America fans) which made The Death of Stalin a refreshing read, especially given how little I really know about the subject matter. Fortunately, the graphic novel is not simply an educational history lesson. This is a tense, tightly paced window into the time surrounding the dictator’s death and the inevitable repercussions that ensued.
It’s true, I know only as much as anyone about the actual death of Stalin. Writer Fabien Nury provides a disclaimer, stating that while this is a fictional account of a real event, there were few liberties taken with the story. In other words, the story is riveting enough that you don’t need to take dramatic licenses to make it interesting. Living up to the title, this is very much about Stalin’s death, rather than Stalin himself. He dies early on and the rest of the comic is about the other politicians dealing with the loss of their dictator and what that means for the Soviet Union, their people, and who shall inherit his role.
Certain historical events lend themselves to comic form better than others and the death of Stalin certainly does. There are several pages without any type of dialogue, where artist Thierry Robin is able to command the story with visuals. The cold dark color palette juxtaposes the subject matter perfectly. The art looks like something out of an Alan Moore comic with its blend of realism and distinct style.
We get small glimpses into every character, from Stalin’s second in command to his son to the actual people on the street learning about their dictator’s death, and how everyone handles it differently. Like any good political drama, there are conspiracies such as did Stalin have a stroke or was he assassinated? Did some of the people close to him orchestrate this or was this completely be surprise? These questions give the story a strong pulse and the entire thing moves like a real page-turner.
The comic was recently adapted into a film starring Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor. While this version is a dark comedy, presenting the chaos that erupts after Stalin dies, the comic does not have a comedic tone. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity. A recurring bit involves a character telling a joke and how she’ll be arrested or killed for doing such a thing.
Robin is smart in that he’s not making any sort of strong stance as to how you’re supposed to feel about Stalin or the Soviet Union. He’s simply presenting the story and allowing the drama to emerge organically. There’s no moral lesson at the end or heavy handed monologue telling us what we’re supposed to think. He’s giving us a view into this very specific world and how everyone involved handles it and the insights of politics during events like this. You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy this.
What did you think of The Death of Stalin? Is this on your reading list? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!