Comics as an art form are not nearly as respected as it should be. To the vast majority of the world, ‘comics’ only refers to cape stories from Big 2 and not much else, which is a shame, because it means stories that are as good, as thoughtful, as meaningful as 20th Century Men are not talked about enough outside comics circles, and they should be.
Written by Deniz Camp, with art by Stipan Morian and letters by Aditya Bidikar, 20th Century Men is a book about the horrors of war. A book that is not afraid to be honest about it, about the truths behind it, about the sacrifices and the casualties of war.
Truthfully, this book is not an easy read. You’re not going to pick it up during an afternoon, binge it and call it a day. It’s long, narratively and thematically dense, and harrowing. It’s the kind of book you pick up, read a chapter of, and then take a walk to think about what it’s presenting, take it all in, process it, think about it, and then come back for the next. Even so, you will be back because right from issue 1, it sinks its teeth deep into you and won’t finish the bite until you’re done reading.
Because it’s just that damn good.
The story plays out from a few different perspectives, starting with Petar Fedorovich Platonov, a soldier of the USSR, and then a few other characters whom I’d rather not spoil, that show what the Russian Occupation of Afghanistan was like from those different lenses. It invites the reader to make their own judgments of the story rather than let any of its protagonists define the truth of the war for them, because that’s the thing about war, isn’t it? It’s not purely black and white. Clearly drawn lines between good and evil don’t really exist; certainly not within the superpowers that fight over areas and people they shouldn’t be fighting over. By the end, even though it was clear who I should be rooting for, the book still maintained its primary focus — that war is cruel, that war is heartbreaking.
20th Century Men isn’t a historically accurate retelling of the war, but it also benefits from that. Instead of just being about regular people, this is a war where there are mad scientists, men in armor, men with superpowers. It’s as much a critique of war as it is a critique of the stories we are told today, where superheroes are the modern mythology. Using them as a bridge allows the reader to connect to the tale being spun here easily, and it does a fantastic job at that.
You’re going to see books with a good creative team that bounces off each other, but rarely will you see one that’s a perfectly well oiled machine – one where every piece of the creative puzzle perfectly fits with one another so well that it’s impossible to imagine any cog here being replaced with another piece. Camp, Morian and Bidikar is that perfectly well oiled machine in question.
Morian’s art is phenomenal. Every single artistic choice — whether it be the composition, the art within a panel, or the colours of that panel — is ripe with thought behind it. I love that there isn’t a strict structure to adhere to; sometimes, panels aren’t trapped in a rectangular border, instead being framed by the panels surrounding it. Sometimes a page is a splash page with smaller panels surrounding it. Sometimes a character from a panel will have a body part overlap over other panels to give more emphasis to that moment, and it just works so well. Every page has a specific colour scheme, and all the panels adhere to that, creating a sense of uniformity. These colour palettes are repeated throughout the book, creating a lexicon in the reader’s mind so they can tell what the contents of a page might be based on the primary colours, and it’s one of the most fascinating uses of comics utilising the B-Theory of time that I’ve seen.
Bidikar’s lettering…if I went without talking about their letters, I’d be doing a disservice. Right at the second page, where the spinning fans of the helicopter had profanity creating an illusion of movement, I knew I was in for some really awesome lettering, and I’m glad that stays true though the rest of the book. It’s so cool it’s downright ridiculous. The way the sound effects follow the trail of motion at any given point in the book is awe-inspiring, and the way it seamlessly blends with the art makes you truly realise how good of a creative team this is. I love the different styled narration boxes for the book’s different protagonists and how well it works in conjunction with the visual storytelling, where you can tell who’s headspace we’re in even when the book is bouncing back and forth from different perspectives. It rules.
In terms of the presentation of the trade itself – I love that each issue is broken down as ‘chapters’. A full black page with Chapter [number] is boldly presented on the left page of the book, from the top right of the page, while the page on the right has the cover of the issue it’s covering. At the end of the book is a variant cover gallery, along with early sketches, concept art, and unused covers. It ends with a powerful afterword by Deniz that is well worth reading.
Overall, I think 20th Century Men is easily one of the best comics to come out this decade, and we’re only three years in. This is what the medium is capable of, folks, and I really hope people pick this one up.