Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Being a spoiler-filled (except for the final issue) narrative of your Winter Men reading experience, in nine (somewhat lengthy) parts.
Part the First.
Sometime around 10 August 2005. Your trip to the local comics-purveying establishment rewards you with a new comic written by a Mr. Brett Lewis and drawn by a Mr. John Paul Leon called The Winter Men. As you have enjoyed Mr. Leon’s work in the past, you flip through it and see Russian superheroes and what looks like an intriguing spy thriller. You buy it. Little do you know you’ve taken the first step toward damnation. How could you have known?
The book begins with an narrator explaining to an audience that once, the Soviet Union had their own superheroes, created in labs to fight against the decadent West. In this time, however, those heroes have become myths, a story no one believes. The voice, with the authoritarianism that comes with age, insists “they were real.” Like all Golden Ages, though, that’s long in the past.
In Moscow, “tonight” (it’s September), ex-Spetsnaz agents – the Soviet special forces – who have turned to assassination kill a babysitter in an apartment. They seize a blonde baby who appears to be about three, yet she’s still sleeping in a crib. Who is this child? Why has she been kidnapped? Do you feel the tendrils of the comic weaving their way around your heart and mind yet? Are you in its grip?
The scene shifts. A man is found lying in the snow. His finders assume he’s dead, but he’s simply sleeping. When they threaten to call the police, he informs them that he is the police. His name, we soon learn, is Kalenov. He narrates that five super-soldiers remain (although we learn that they’re not really super-soldiers) – “The Siberian,” Drost, Nikki, and Nina. Drost is a soldier, Nikki a gangster, Nina a bodyguard. Kalenov is approached by two policemen who take him to see the mayor. They have a situation for him to solve at a department store. When he arrives, Drost is there as a representative of the Rapid Reaction Corps, mitigating a dispute between the owners of the store and the old, Communist employees. He and Kalenov head to an office to catch up. Drost mentions something about Chechnya, which is a sore spot for Kalenov. He also asks about Kalenov’s wife, and we learn they are leaving tomorrow for their anniversary trip to Vladivostok. Then they settle the dispute over the store, which involves Kalenov taking a case off Drost’s hands – “a dead-end murder kidnapping investigation.”
The scene shifts again and we meet Nina – Valentina Vasilevich. She is guarding someone (we don’t know who yet) and her escort is somehow attacked and destroyed. You learn that the victim was a government minister who had been accused of mishandling “materials used for processing weapons-grade plutonium” and that it’s the third high-profile assassination in Moscow this week. Kalenov, meanwhile, investigates the kidnapping. He tells the parents the child was probably taken by profiteers and that she may have been taken out of the country as part of a black market organ trade. The mother breaks down and says they weren’t making payments for the child’s new liver. The parents say the liver was bad luck – the father mentions that all the flowers died when they brought her home, and Kalenov finds her handprint burned into the wall next to her crib. Intriguing!
Kalenov has an unusual exchange with the mayor’s Mongolian secretary before he heads in to see him. The mayor is all bombast, but Kalenov notices that not only does he know about the kidnapping, he wants Kalenov to pursue it even though there’s no profit in it. Kalenov tries to beg off (he’s leaving with his wife, he reminds you), but the mayor wants him on it. The mayor’s intelligence man explains that he needs to brief an organized crime task force tomorrow, one that includes Americans.
Back at the assassination scene, Drost shows up and helps Nikki Zuko get through the blockade around the scene. Before you can process that, Kalenov shows up at Nina’s and tells her about the kidnapping. You learn some more things about our hero – his first name is Kris, the bad thing that happened in Chechnya really bothers him, and Nina thinks his marriage is a sham. Then Kalenov tells Nina that the little girl might have been from “Winter” and he wants her, Nina, to cover it for him. Nina tells him she’s out of that life and she won’t be pulled back in.
Kalenov muses about the case. He thinks that if he finds the source of the liver, he might be able to dump the case. He finally finds the people who arranged the entire deal – two elderly travel agents. They tell him they are under Nikki Zuko’s protection, but Kalenov knows they’re not paying him his cut, so they cave. A man who bought information on the liver booked a trip to New York. The trail seems to end there.
Kalenov heads to the briefing with the Americans, where the intelligence man tells him not to mention “Winter.” Drost is there as well. The CIA is there to deal with the assassinations – 27 politicians, businessmen, and gangsters in the past two weeks. Drost explains that there is no way to consolidate control as the CIA believes is happening, because everything is too spread out. Kalenov takes a picture of Nikki off the board. The CIA wants Kalenov to infiltrate the gangs because they believe something important is happening. He will follow his kidnapping case to New York and find a way to get recruited there. Kalenov, of course, declines. While he is buying things for his trip to the East, the CIA agent – Siegel – is kidnapped. You see that he was reading up on Kalenov and his past. When Kalenov gets home, his wife has left him for good. There’s no reason not to take the case, now. He does make a phone call to someone for sex, though. Is it important? You don’t know. Why else would Mr. Lewis show it? In a one-page epilogue, a taxi cab rolls along a neighborhood street in New York, and two kids discover that the driver is dead and there’s a stack of 100-dollar bills next to him. Hmmmm …
You are certainly intrigued by this new series. Mr. Lewis has spun a twisty yarn with a great deal of subtext, and Mr. Leon has a style that matches the rough Russian world in which these characters operate. You decide that this is a comic you might enjoy, and you look forward to the next seven issues.
Part the Second.
Sometime around 14 September 2005. You see that the next issue of The Winter Men has come out, and as you thought the first issue was a strong effort, you pick this one up as well. The story is titled “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” and you find the reference to the old Beastie Boys song charming. We again fixate on Kalenov, dreaming on the plane to New York. He dreams of Nina, telling him he can’t fix the past; he dreams of himself in what looks like a space suit (you learn later that it’s not) holding a rifle, telling someone they can’t stay where they are; he dreams of a person in what looks like a space suit with a helmet obscuring his/her face, apparently on fire. Then his plane lands, and he finds a taxi with a Russian driver who will take him to Brooklyn. The narration on the second page tells you that the greater scheme Kalenov is investigating – what the CIA is interested in – is a “triangle trade” – weapons for art for organs. You remember the CIA agent mentioning the triangle trade in the first issue, but when you check, no mention was made of what was being traded. You’re certainly glad Mr. Lewis deigned to mention it! Kalenov believes the bosses of Moscow (of whom the mayor is the biggest boss) want to find the kidnapped girl because she’s connected to “Winter,” the program that was creating super-soldiers, something no one wants in the open. Kalenov wants to follow the case because he wants to find the “hidden chess masters” who “fucked my squad over.” Clues!
Kalenov believes he will be able to ingratiate himself with the local Russian mafia, as he is a soldier and all wars need soldiers. A naked woman knocks on the door and attempts to seduce him, saying she’s a freebie from the house. Kalenov gets a name from her (“Club Gulag”), pays her, and sends her on her way. Then he heads out to Club Gulag, where he runs into a fellow soldier, Josef Ioseyevich Zhevezdin, or Badzuka Jo. He has put in a good word with his bosses, so Kalenov visits the strip club where the boss is hanging out, takes out his biggest enforcer, and says he’ll take the job. When next they meet, Kalenov is explaining that he knows who the boss – Uncle Vicky – is. Uncle Vicky offers him a problem to solve: He (Uncle Vicky) buys art in New York, then sends it to the Caucasus to be copied. The copies (with papers) are sold to collectors worldwide. Occasionally he sells the originals back where they got them. But his customs man in Moscow is under a new “roof” – a new gang boss – and he’s holding up the paperwork for double the agreed price. Kalenov calls Moscow, and an hour later, Drost has the customs man buried up to his neck, where he is much agreeable. Uncle Vicky is terribly impressed.
In Moscow, Nikki Zuko is not impressed. The two elderly travel agents are dead, killed by Nikki’s overenthusiastic underlings, who mistook his order to “send a message” as “kill them quietly.” He wanted the two, who had started the organ smuggling without paying him his proper cut (you recall this from issue #1, but Mr. Lewis helpfully reminds us), killed in a way so that it would “make a headline.” The killers, however, discovered that the two were doing business in Brooklyn, which makes Nikki very angry. You don’t think that’s good news.
Kalenov’s new job is running payoffs for the organ trade, which is close to where he wants to be. It’s a dicey job, as two men try to kill him and Jo one day, and while Jo believes they’re trying to move in on the triangle, Kalenov thinks they were after him specifically. Then you become confused by the issue. Perhaps it’s because you’re not too bright. You know that some people believe that about you. Kalenov finds a taxi in order to make it to the club. He’s with the woman who showed up at his room naked. He’s yelling at her for some reason. Why is he yelling at her? Why are they even together? He tells the driver to go faster, and then, on the next page, it’s even more confusing. Uncle Vicky is getting out of his car, and Kalenov saves him from an assassination attempt. That’s the way he advances in the inner circle. What happened? Who’s the woman? Is this later in the day? Why are the two scenes so disjointed?
What’s important is that Uncle Vicky now loves Kalenov. He initiates him into the inner circle, which is where Kalenov wants to be. As he gets tattooed the next day, Vicky tells him that they have a new ally, but to seal the deal, a special package needs to be smuggled to the Caucasus. Kalenov is interested because Vicky uses a feminine pronoun to describe the package. As they get taxis to transport the “package,” Kalenov sees that it’s the girl. He shoots Jo in the leg to get him to tell him where they’re taking her, then runs the cab off the road. He kills the two men inside and rescues the girl … but it’s not the same girl. He surmises that she’s a decoy, so he shoots Jo in the other leg to get him to talk. Jo tells him they took the girl out a different way, all to set up Kalenov. As thanks, Kalenov shoots Jo in the head. Later, on Halloween (the girl was abducted in September, you recall from the first issue), Kalenov is bonked on the head and taken. When he wakes up, Nikki is about to shoot him in the head. Once Kalenov identifies himself, Nikki can’t shoot him. What will happen now? That’s for next month!
You are still intrigued by the comic, despite the confusion in the middle of the issue. Mr. Lewis does a nice job with the characters, giving everyone interesting shades of gray instead of simply making Nikki, say, completely evil. Kalenov himself is a study in moral relativism. He’s trying to rescue a kidnapped girl, but he’s not necessarily a good guy. Mr. Leon is called upon to draw a lot of stuff in each issue with very little action, but he’s up to the task. You’re looking forward to the third issue.
Part the Third.
Sometime around 2 November 2005. You are a tad vexed because issue #3 took six weeks to come out, but you’re not too put out – it’s not that serious. So you delve into the third of eight issues of this complex drama. What happened with Kalenov and Nikki, you wonder? Ah – but that will have to wait! The first page shows up Nina, shadowing a doctor who is doing business with low-down characters. You notice that Nina is wearing her Red Riding Hood outfit that she has worn before – doesn’t she have a different-colored cloak, or is there some significance to the red? A woman accosts Nina and says her face is familiar, then enigmatically says “It was one of the last ones they made –!” just as a man tries to assassinate her charge. She takes the man out, he mutters “Papa is great,” and as we leave the scene, the “camera” focuses on the blue flower (is that a tulip?) pinned to his lapel. The narration reads that it wants to keep Nina out of the telling of the story. Hmmm …
Kalenov is the narrator, of course. He’s not making much sense. He thinks that if he leaves Nina out, he’ll have to leave other things out too, and the story will become difficult. You wonder, exactly, how the narration makes sense. You gaze at each word:
But I must sort out what I can tell them. And it’s better for me to stick to things that won’t upset them … It had seemed everyone wanted me to find the girl — but once I broke up the Brooklyn “corner” looking for her — apparently — I’d outlived my task.
This is a reference, perhaps, to the end of issue #2, in which Kalenov broke cover to save the girl. Or is it?
–“Identified spies in Brooklyn — by process of elimination …” That’s all they need to hear. They’ll already know every Russian unit — military or criminal — has spies in other cells … (Nikki had those kids — and his brigadier …) But — Baldy set up Nikki to take me out …
This narration is set over two panels, one of which shows a man with a sideways baseball cap on cringing before a hand holding a gun on him. He shouts, “… Baldy Tom!” The second panel shows a man wearing sunglasses – presumably Baldy Tom. Here’s the problem: You have no idea who Baldy Tom is. You check issue #2, and you see him in a few panels – he appears to be a right-hand man of Uncle Vicky. But he’s never identified by name, and you don’t know when these events that Kalenov refers to occurred. It appears that this is all in flashback – the panels are sepia-colored, as if they take place “in the past,” but the last time we saw Kalenov, Nikki had just abducted him and then discovered who he was. What’s going on?
All he really set up was a chance for two old friends to see New York … But Nikki the gangster will stay my secret — so I’ll just say — “Of course … I wasted no time returning to Moscow.”
You think you understand now. Kalenov betrayed Uncle Vicky. Baldy Tom, as Vicky’s right-hand man, contacted Nikki and told him to snatch Kalenov, not knowing that Kalenov and Nikki were old friends. It makes sense, but why didn’t Vicky kill Kalenov himself? Is Kalenov the scapegoat, as Vicky told Nikki that he was the one who set up the organ trade for himself? Probably. You think it would have been nicer if we had seen the name “Baldy Tom” before now, though.
But he was right! The rule is: No coincidences. So, if the gangs are battling and bartering around this girl — then is it all by someone’s design?
This narration concludes over a panel of Kalenov and Nikki trying to figure out the classic question of any mystery: Cui bono, who benefits? Kalenov’s reverie is broken by one of the mayor’s flunkies, who interjects with “the mayor,” a piece of dialogue that may lead to the mastermind (does the mayor benefit?) or might be just a red herring.
Kalenov is called in for debriefing, and the CIA is interested in him. They ask him if Agent Siegel was dead when he, Kalenov, found him. Interesting. The last time we saw Siegel, he was being abducted in Moscow at the end of issue #1. The only dead bodies Kalenov has found are the two men transporting the decoy girl in issue #2. When did he find Siegel? He begins a briefing in which you learn a great deal. The girl, we learn, had been taken by Fyodor Tanovic. He had been the head of the Brooklyn “franchise” of a Russian gang, but they had learned that he was actually working for new criminal interests in the Caucusus, which is where the trail ended. Previously, however, Tanovic had been trading the counterfeit art for weapons, mostly low-grade radioactive material which the gangs used to burn into safes or to customize small arms ammunition. As he speaks, you see that Tanovic is actually Baldy Tom. Odd. In issue #2, he appears to be a flunkie of Uncle Vicky. Perhaps he was more, but you couldn’t have known that, as he’s not identified. Kalenov tells them that since accidental exposure often occurs when handling these materials, they traced hospital records and shipments of medical supplies, which leads back to Nina.
In a scene shift that presumably goes back in time, you see Nikki and Kalenov talking to Nina about the doctor she’s protecting. He supplies the radiation gear to the gangsters. They’re trying to convince Nina to get the doctor to talk about the girl, but she’s not interested. Nikki then brings the girl out, and you wonder how it was so easy. Nikki tells Nina that he can offer the doctor “revenge,” and it apparently works, because next Kalenov and Nikki are checking a site out on a computer. The site is apparently a “Winter” factory, with radiation shielding and everything. Kalenov says they need to create a distraction in order to go in and get the girl. You pause. What? Who was the girl on the previous page? You remember that Nina had a daughter. Yes, that must be her. But where had she been? Day care?
When next we see Kalenov, he is somewhere in the South or the East: He is accosted by turban-wearing gun-toting men, who accept his cash readily. He hires them to provide the “distraction” he and Nikki need to break into the factory. You understand that this is still in flashback, as a CIA man, in the present, asks Kalenov at the briefing about raising his own army. As they are preparing to attack, Kalenov sees Drost in the army. He’s angry, because he believes Drost knew the case of the kidnapped girl was a set-up. Drost doesn’t care what Kalenov thinks – he follows orders, and he was ordered to set Kalenov up. As they stare at the factory, a narrative voiceover reads “So … you’ve been thinking about Kalenov –?” and two different caption boxes read “Well — Agent Siegel — you’ve been so very — co-operative – with us … I’m going to tell you some things I never thought to tell an American …” You realize that when the CIA agent asked Kalenov about Siegel, it was something that had happened in the character’s past, but because this is all a flashback, you hadn’t seen it yet. Clever, if a bit annoying. Siegel is apparently inside the factory into which Kalenov and his allies are about to break. A man is telling Siegel about the Russian super-soldiers. You recognize him. Luckily, your back issues are close at hand, and you go back through them to see who he is. He’s the mayor’s intelligence man, who got Kalenov involved in the case in this first place. He tells Siegel that the Russian super-soldier program had some successes – they were called “The Winter Men” (hey, you think, that sounds like a good name for the comic!). There were always more than one program in order to keep things competitive and to keep the power from being consolidated. A counter-program to the Winter Men was a series of mechanized strong-men manned by top Spetsnaz – and you realize that Mr. Lewis has somewhat deftly tied this mini-series into regular DC continuity, even if the book is published under the Wildstorm imprint. Interesting. (You later realize this probably isn’t true. But it’s neat to contemplate it.) Just then, Baldy Tom enters the room and yells that artillery is being used against them. We switch back to Kalenov for the rest.
Kalenov tells the CIA men that they “stormed the castle,” and on one corpse, they found little hand prints on his face. Kalenov finds the mayor’s intelligence man (“Eye-catcher” is his nickname) holding a gun on Siegel, but Kalenov kills him before he can pull the trigger. Siegel says that he knows everything. Down below, Baldy Tom is pleading with them not to shoot the girl, because everyone will die if that happens. She’s in a small radiation suit and is hooked up to machinery on the floor. She reaches up, breaks the face screen of the man holding her, and turns him into a dusty corpse almost instantly. Nikki realizes what they were doing – using her to “age” their forged art. Kalenov picks her up, knowing that she won’t hurt him. As Baldy Tom escapes in a helicopter, Nikki curses him because he was supposed to be his, Nikki’s, double agent. If you can’t trust double agents, who can you trust? He throws his rifle at the helicopter (which has bullet-proof glass) and manages to get it tangled in the rotors, which sends it into a mountain.
Back at the CIA briefing, Kalenov lies to the Americans. He claims that the girl is dead. You also get a bit more about his time in Chechnya – there was a “radio reconnaissance company attached to a light armored battalion,” but that’s all we get. Then you see what really happened – they leave the factory, and Nikki is disappointed it didn’t end like American action movies – with a big shootout. The last page, however, shows Nina visiting Nikki and watching old propaganda tapes starring herself. What does this portend?????
You aren’t sure. It’s still a curious series, however. You wonder where Mr. Lewis is going with the story, and you decide that he must know, as he has structured it in a way that, even if it reads strangely, it always works out. So you decide to trust him to make the next five issues compelling, even without the mystery of the girl. Her story can’t be quite over, right? You also wonder when Siegel died. Remember, the CIA thinks he’s dead. The last time we saw him, he was very much alive.
Part the Fourth: Interlude.
Winter, 2005-06. Issue #4 fails to show up in December. It fails to show up in January. It fails to show up in February. It fails to show up in March. You wonder occasionally where it is, but there are other comics for you to read, so you don’t give it much thought. You don’t go looking for it, because you’re aware that comics companies are notoriously tight-lipped about addressing tardiness among their creators. You don’t even know if it is tardiness on the part of the creators. Perhaps the sales were so horrid that DC (Wildstorm’s parent company) cancelled the series. As a rule, though, you don’t believe the Big Two go around cancelling mini-series – as far as you know, Kevin Smith’s Bullseye mini-series is still in the pipeline – as they probably plan on making money in trades, so the single issues are planned as loss leaders. It’s certainly possible that the book got cancelled, though. More likely is that one or both of the creators is behind on the comic. Again, other comics occupy your time. As the nice weather in the Basin of the Sun fades and the heat returns, The Winter Men begins, ever so slightly, to fade from your memory.
Part the Fifth.
Sometime around 5 April 2006. Almost exactly five months after issue #3, and presumably four months late, issue #4 shows up at your local comic book proprietory establishment. You’re pleased, but wonder if you should even bother buying it. Maybe you will simply wait for the trade. You’ve already invested in three issues, however, so waiting for the trade would mean spending buying almost 38% of the series twice. Then you look at the cover and see “#4 of 6.” Oh dear. Somewhere along the way this went from an eight-issue mini-series to a six-issue one. That can’t be good. Now you’re definitely going to buy it, because if you wait for the trade, that means you’ll have bought 50% of the series twice. None of that for you, no sir!
The story begins at a McDonald’s in Moscow. It’s winter, sometime after the events of the previous issue (sunrise is at 9 o’clock in the morning, while sunset is at 3.54), and Kalenov has slept at the restaurant. Nikki wakes him up, and they eat and play chess while waiting for Kalenov’s “baby-cop” (his driver). Nikki wonders why “Eye-catcher’s” partners haven’t moved against him, and Kalenov says they will eventually. Meanwhile, they need to act as if the girl is really dead. When the “baby-cop” pulls up, they steal his car and head out into Moscow. Kalenov is working as a “court investigator” for a prosecutor, and he has to pick up a geeky computer guy. Nikki gets a payment from one of his guys while Kalenov calls the court, and he finds out he needs to show the computer geek to a witness to make sure he’s the one they want. They stop at Nikki’s video store, and Kalenov says something interesting to the computer geek: “Don’t watch all that American shit, kid. Don’t be programmed how to enjoy.” He also sees “the girl … from the Mexican place,” whom he calls “Sugar Tooth.” He hides from her. You don’t know what that’s all about. Nikki shows Kalenov a defunct flamethrower he has, and they discuss “Eye-catcher” and whether he was really involved in a grand conspiracy. Nikki is watching to see who is trying to make a play for power in the aftermath of the killings. They head back out onto the road, and Nikki shoots up a vending machine. They discuss what they’re going to do, and Nikki thinks they should tell Drost and Nina – “get the team together one last time,” as he puts it. Kalenov and Nikki get drunk, get in a fight with an old soldier, reconcile with the man, and have a drink with him. While they’re drinking, Kalenov sees the witness, and she identifies the computer geek. As they leave, Kalenov explains that she was the victim. Mr. Lewis still doesn’t tell us what the computer geek did. Kalenov reminds Nikki that he was going to pick up a “tree for New Year’s,” and when they head out into the forest, Kalenov shoots the computer geek in the head. His crime remains unknown.
You’re a bit curious about this issue. It’s actually called an “interlude,” and you wonder if it was written before the book got truncated to six issues, because it feels a bit like padding. Despite some strong characterization, you feel that it isn’t completely necessary. But, as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound. You hunker down and await the next issue. You hope it won’t be five months before it appears.
Part the Sixth: Second Interlude.
Summer 2006. The days stretch longer and longer as you wait for issue #5. The heat rises and rises, exceeding triple digits, and you spend your afternoons hoping your children take a nap so you can langorously float in the pool and get some respite from the heat. Your younger child turns one, your older daughter turns four. Your older child goes back to pre-school. Life goes on.
Part the Seventh.
Sometime around 4 October 2006. The Winter Men #5 appears on the scene. You purchase it, almost by rote, but you really are invested in the comic and want to know how it works out. The first thing you notice is that the logo has shrunk in the few months since the last issue came out. It’s as if it’s embarrassed to be so late and wants to announce itself with as little fanfare as possible. The other thing you notice is that Warren Ellis has a quote on the cover about how excellent the book is. You wryly note that if anyone deserves to get a quote on the cover of this very late book, it’s Ellis, who knows a thing or two about late books. But you suppress that thought. It’s awfully mean.
You appreciate the recap on the first page of this issue, even though it’s not completely helpful. You never read an issue of this comic without first making sure you have the previous issues next to you, though, so if you come across something you can’t remember, you can always consult those. Kalenov is still narrating, and we begin with him in bed, being harrassed by (you check your back issues) the Mongolian secretary of the mayor, who had a cameo in the first issue, a scene in which she and Kalenov flirted and he told her he knew her secret. Hmmm. But then we turn the page and discover that Nikki shooting up a vending machine in issue #4 was far more important than it looked, as a group called “The Boy Scouts” are moving in on his lucrative soda business, among others. Nikki is desperately looking for Kalenov, but he’s visiting Nina, who has problems of her own: The doctor she was bodyguarding got fresh with her, and she snapped his neck. It’s the second client she’s lost in six months (you recall that she was protecting the politician whose car exploded back in issue #1), and she doesn’t think she can get another job. Kalenov manages to get her on board with whatever he’s planning, promising her … something. You’re not sure what, but she does have a daughter, and she wants to provide for her.
The Boy Scouts continue their reign of terror. They’re killing people whose deaths don’t benefit them directly, but which creates vacuums. They sever alliances, and a gang war erupts. Kalenov points out that they’re ex-KGB, so they know what they’re doing, but he still can’t figure out how their plans involve the little girl and the rest of the Winter Men. He seems awfully confident that the Boy Scouts are tied into that, you think. (You realize that they’re behind the assassination of Nina’s first client, back in issue #1, and the assassination attempt on her second client in issue #3 – the man wore a blue flower on his lapel, and blue is the Scouts’ color.) At one point, Drost arrests one of them, and the Scout gives him a pass from someone high up in government. Later, Drost tells Kalenov that the passes came from the mayor’s office, so Kalenov’s boss is somehow involved. Kalenov goes to visit the mayor (who is under “house arrest” for some reason) and tries to get some answers out of him. The mayor simply says that it’s “business as usual” – if everyone wants things back to normal in Moscow, they need to go along.
Nikki gives a motivational speech about building civilization in Moscow, a precursor to taking a truck out into Boy Scout territory. He drives the truck through a market of competitors, escalating the war, and you see a weird scene: the Boy Scouts kneeling around a priest, receiving a blessing. Nikki allows one of his trucks to be stolen by the Scouts, but it’s rigged with explosives. In the aftermath, they take a Boy Scout prisoner. Kalenov turns him over to the judge he was working for in issue #4, and the man talks (after, of course, Kalenov drugs him). Kalenov learns that a man named “Brainy Caesar” is the street general – and he was the one who wanted the girl, to use as leverage against his partners and their benefactor – “Big Papa.” He and Drost work their way up the food chain, and they find out that the bad guys know Kalenov is moving the little girl between safe houses. Kalenov is unconcerned.
You find out why on the next page. Several Boy Scouts run along the roof of a train. Said train contains Nina and the little girl. The Boy Scouts attempt to take them, but Nina kills them all. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Kalenov and Drost lead their group into a meeting room. They arrest a bunch of Boy Scouts, and Drost makes a deal with the mayor, who just happens to be in the room. The mayor gets credit for all the arrests, and Drost lets him go. By now it’s Christmas in Moscow (you aren’t taken aback by the fact that it’s 7 January, as the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on that date), and Kalenov takes his Mongolian secretary girlfriend to a party at Drost’s house. There is much revelry. Drost explains the plot of his science fiction novel, and you wonder if it’s relevant. Then the issue ends, with nothing resolved. On the last page you see something that worries you – “To conclude in The Winter Men Special #1″. That can’t be good. Why not “issue #6″? Something is fishy.
Part the Eighth: Third Interlude.
Winter 2006-07. The Winter Men does not show up at your favorite comics-vending establishment. Late in the year you travel to Africa, and when you return, concluding the story no longer seems all that important. If Mr. Lewis and Mr. Leon wish to, you will buy it, but as the first five issues took fourteen months to print, you’re not overly put out by it. The new year comes and goes, and life goes on. There is a seemingly endless war in a part of the world nobody would care about if it weren’t floating on an ocean of oil. There is a madman living in a cave who everyone seems to have forgotten about. You wonder if anyone cares about anything.
Summer/Fall 2007. The summer comes once again, and you huddle indoors in your air-conditioned retreat, fearing to step outside in the off chance that you burst into flames. By August 2007, the second anniversary of the first issue of The Winter Men, you almost can’t remember anything about it. It took place in Russia, you’re sure of that. It starred Russian superheroes who are now retired. There was a kidnapping. That guy who Alex Ross hired because he couldn’t be bothered to draw all those Universe X comics for Marvel drew it. It was kind of cool. You sort of want to read the resolution, but it’s not as if your life will be empty without it.
2008. As the year turns and it’s fourteen months since the most recent issue of The Winter Men was released, your thoughts about it turn elsewhere, away from how the story ends to where it could possibly be. You’ve been perusing the Internet over the past year, but no one seems concerned. They’ve been much more hung up on where the latest awesomest comic in the universe by Mr. Mark Millar and Mr. Bryan Hitch is. They’ve been much more concerned with the ending to all the latest Big Events That Will Change Everything Forever Or Until They Don’t Make Money For Us that Marvel and DC are publishing. They’ve been much more concerned about the fact that a hero would make a deal with Satan and forget his wife rather than let his elderly aunt die a dignified death. You, however, are concerned. What, exactly, has happened to The Winter Men?
Your mind turns darker. You wonder about the health of the principals. Are Mr. Lewis and Mr. Leon all right? Has Mr. Lewis succumbed to, say, a zombiefication and no longer cares to finish the saga of Kris Kalenov and his old friends? Did Mr. Leon have a horrific accident that caused his drawing hand to be replaced with, say, a chain saw? That would certainly be a shame. You haven’t seen any news stories about it, however, so unless the media and government have conspired to suppress it, you think the two men are probably not zombies, vampires, werewolves, or somehow impaired by chain saws-as-hands. But this leads to a darker thought.
What if the media and government have conspired to suppress, not news of Mr. Lewis’s zombiefication or Mr. Leon’s new appendage, but The Winter Men itself? That would be just like the media and government, wouldn’t it? Your recall other instances of government censorship – your memoirs, in which you proved that you were the love child of our current president and Jane Fonda, back when the former wasn’t so discriminating in his tastes. They came to your house in the middle of the night and stole it away, sealing your mouth with duct tape and threatening you with castration while your wife slept soundly next to you, presumably under the influence of some soporific. Those bastards! So you are well acquainted with the government’s desire to keep truths suppressed. You recall all the subtle hints dropped in The Winter Men that our government is involved in something sinister in Russia. Perhaps Mr. Lewis and Mr. Leon were not telling a fictional story, but actually revealing things the government wouldn’t want anyone to know. What better place than in a comic book that, as far as you know, nobody read? Even so, it’s in print, and the government would have to move to make sure the final piece of the puzzle was not revealed. You wonder what it could be. But no! you mustn’t even think of that. The true power behind the throne is rumored to have telepathic powers, and his man-sized safe that sits in his office is supposed to lead directly into Hell. You don’t want to learn the truth about that rumor!
And so the world turns. You try to forget your concerns. You assume the worst but hope for the best. You wonder why DC or Wildstorm doesn’t explain the situation. Perhaps they’re in on it?!? How were they bought off? Promises of Devil Dogs? A chance for wild sex with Julie Newmar or Diana Rigg, circa 1965 (for years they’ve suppressed the fact that they have a time machine)? How?????
And so the world turns. Your younger daughter, who was fourteen months old when the first issue came out, turns three. Your older daughter, who was about to turn three when the first issue came out, turns six. A Mr. Bendis chronicles the sinister infiltration of our world by shape-shifting aliens. Your favorite baseball team wins the championship after a wait of 28 years, and you rejoice. All seems well in a Winter Men-less universe. Like a wound that heals, leaves a scar, and occasionally bothers you in the night, the lack of a conclusion troubles you occasionally. You daydream about a day, years hence, when you will sit on your porch and regale the youngsters about tales of the lost masterpiece, which becomes better and better each year, until the youngsters beg you to change the subject and complain about how the younger generation is a bunch of punks or something, just please stop talking about the incomplete Winter Men, old man!
And then: Hope! And Change! A Messiah is come! The brush-clearing buffoon and his diabolical master must trundle off the stage, and the Messiah will lead us all to the Promised Land! What could this mean for The Winter Men? The Messiah promises to tackle the tough issues, like how several one-loss teams and an undefeated team could get screwed out of the National Championship Game. That’s the kind of leader we need! Perhaps he can reverse Mr. Lewis’s unfortunate condition and give Mr. Leon a workable prosthetic hand instead of the chain saw. If he can walk on water, as is rumored, he can certainly get an issue of The Winter Men published!
You suddenly realize that perhaps you don’t want an issue of The Winter Men published. Perhaps it is the great unread text that, once read, will unravel the universe. As you’re sure it contains all the secrets of creation, once it sees the light of day, creation will no longer have any purpose. You suddenly realize that a Higher Power than the United States Government has been suppressing the publication of the final issue of The Winter Men. Yes, a Heavenly Power, even, has been brought to bear on the creators and publishers, promising them riches in the Great Beyond if only they would keep the final, elusive, revelatory issue of The Winter Men from ever coming out. It will burn out the eyes of those who gaze upon it, it will lead to madness, it will cause men to turn against their families, vote Republican, and generally act weird. It will cause women to demand equal pay for equal work! Oh, the horror!!!!!
But it’s too late. You see an advertisement for the final issue of The Winter Men. Chillingly, the release date is 31 December. So DC and Wildstorm have decided to bring about the Apocalypse deliberately. What happened, you wonder. Did the government or Heaven not live up to their end of the bargain? Did Mr. Levitz make some kind of deal with a Ruler of Hell that was sweeter than what the other side offered? You aren’t sure, but there’s nothing you can do now. You can only hope that the end of the world is somehow short-circuited.
“Mr. Levitz, if you publish the final issue of The Winter Men, I will give you a suddenly available Mary Jane Watson as a prize! You think Ms. Newmar and Ms. Rigg are irresistible? Ms. Watson never grows old!!!!”
Then, a reprieve! You remember that due to shipping quirks, the final issue of The Winter Men, which is supposed to be out on Wednesday, 31 December, and therefore bring about the end of the world neatly on the final day of the year, will in fact be delayed until Friday, 2 January, and the symmetry of the massive destruction will be lost. Who knew Christmas was ever good for anything? Now, it might just save the world. Yay, Christmas! You wonder if the world, which appreciates good symmetry, will dare end the world on a banal date like 2 January. Surely not, you think. Surely not.
Finally, the day arrives. You enter the comic book shoppe and see it: The FINAL ISSUE. The logo has shrunk even more, as if it fears even more than you the consequences of being published. It cowers in the corner, hoping that you might not notice it, because perhaps it knows that your eyeballs will explode if you gaze on the truths contained therein. Mr. Leon has utilized negative space wonderfully, with a glowering half-portrait of the Hammer of the Revolution, the old Soviet super-soldier. His eyes, significantly, are hooded with shadows, and his downturned mouth seems to recognize that this is the end. The end of the mini-series, or the end of the world? He remains enigmatic.
Part the Ninth.
Sometime around 2 January 2009. Mr. Lewis, perhaps a tad embarrassed by the two-year-three-month delay between issues, helpfully provides a dramatis personae on the first page. You get to see The Siberian for the first time. You see a man called “Simonov,” who you’re sure you’ve seen before but who has never been identified prior to this. Finally, your old friend Kalenov appears and says to the audience, “My little friends, I thought I would have more time to tell you how things ended up. But perhaps for now … I will just tell you the good parts.” Does this mean that Mr. Lewis was not happy with the decision to truncate the series from eight to six parts? Did he leave this unfinished in protest? You wonder if the entire text will be a denunciation of the DC empire and/or the Jim Lee fiefdom within it. And so you dig in.
Hours later. You breathe a sigh of relief. You’re done! The burden is lifted! You can fret no more about the state of the creators and whether the government or God Himself is after you for daring to read the entire series. Oh, the tears of relief that run down your cheeks! But … does this final issue make it all clear?
Well, to a certain extent. Things are explained, conflicts are resolved, questions are answered. You still, unfortunately, have questions. You’re still not clear on what Kalenov learned at Snow City. The scientists there speak of the “Tunguska event” – whenever a book is set in Russia, the writer must tie it in somehow with the Tunguska event, it seems – but then they speak vaguely, and you’re not exactly sure if they explain why a character earlier in the book spoke of a “redundancy.” You finally understand what is so important about the girl’s liver, and you guess that’s all that really matters. Meanwhile, you also learn what happened to Kalenov in Chechnya, which is nice. The comic turns out, interestingly enough, to be somewhat a ideological mirror of Watchmen (not only because of the blue superhero, although that’s the way Mr. Lewis introduces it), and Mr. Lewis does a fine job showing us how being a “Russian” book makes The Winter Men a different kind of comic. It’s a tragedy, but not the kind you might expect. The tragedy is that Kalenov does what he must to protect his friends, but they simply do not understand that. That makes him a true Russian protagonist, it seems.
You reflect on your reading experience. Was it worth the wait? Well, of course not. This would have to be the greatest literary achievement in history to make it worth the wait. You wonder, again, about the delay. You know why some comics are delayed. The great bearded god in the north of England gets grumpy with a collaborator. The hot artist must draw every single shard of glass and drop of sweat in a gatefold fight scene. The cheeky Scotsman must change one word in a completed script because “the” makes such a bigger impact than “an”. But this seems to make no sense. You despair, because this had a lot of potential to be a great mini-series, but its momentum has completely dissipated over the years. There’s absolutely no buzz about it. You also wonder what Mr. Lewis cut from the original eight-issue pitch. Perhaps that was why the government allowed the comic, ultimately, to be published. Did Mr. Lewis cave in and excise anything that would be embarrassing to the powers-that-be? It’s certainly a possibility.
The Winter Men is quite a good comic book. You are certainly happy that you bought it, and you wonder if now that it’s finished, it might live on in trade paperback format, where people can enjoy the twisty mystery of Russia’s super-soldiers. You suspect that it’s the kind of book that will be more rewarding with each re-reading, which is a nice treat. You are surprised, several days later, that the world has not ended yet. Perhaps when everyone in the world reads The Winter Men, then its mission will be complete and the world will, indeed, wrap up. You wonder if you should recommend the book with that fear hanging over your head. But you are unafraid – there’s no way every person in the world will read this. So you write: “The Winter Men is a fascinating mystery that shines a light on a culture we know little about. It leads us down dark, morally ambiguous alleys, gives us a hero who fights through the wreckage of his life to help the country he loves recover from wounds the Soviets inflicted upon it, and shows us a power struggle that is far more complex than your typical superhero epic. John Paul Leon’s gorgeous artwork brings Moscow and the rest of the country to life, and he gives every character, no matter how insignificant, a true personality. There are problems with the script, due perhaps to the fact that Brett Lewis had to trim some of it (which is just speculation on my part), but it’s very entertaining. I can’t say it was worth the wait, but it is worth a read.” You think that’s a good place to leave it. Although you’re still not sure what happened to Agent Siegel.
But maybe, just maybe, you still have a nagging doubt in your head. Perhaps the world actually did end. Perhaps everything is now an illusion. Perhaps the completion of The Winter Men changed reality as we know it. How would you know?!?!?!? Perhaps it’s best not to think about that right now. Perhaps you should just put the book down, thank whatever deity you wish that you still have a functioning twig and berries. That’s all that really matters anyway, right?
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