In the imperial Russia of 1916, the city of Petrograd is mired in class warfare and despair. Embittered soldiers languish on the eastern front of the Great War, commoners queue in bread lines, intelligence operatives engage in furtive combat with Bolshevik revolutionaries, and people from all strata of society gossip about Rasputin, the charismatic mystic whose influence with the Tsarina threatens Russia’s stability.
Enter Cleary, a British intelligence officer of Irish extraction who’s been assigned to duty in Petrograd. Cleary isn’t patriotic; in fact, he harbors secret sympathies with Irish revolutionaries back home. But he’s committed to remaining in Petrograd, far from the terrors of the war—even if it means being tasked by distant bureaucrats to solve the Russian problem in a surprising manner. Cleary’s orders are simple: he must arrange the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.
What follows is less spy thriller, more absurdist satire in the “war is hell” tradition of World War I literature. Cleary’s plot is soon co-opted by a pair of dilettante Russian noblemen, whose modus operandi as amateur assassins resembles a Looney Tunes sketch. Rasputin himself is a shadowy opportunist whose political importance is dubious and whose spooky reputation mostly exists in the minds of his fellow Russians. And Cleary is not so much an action hero as a dupe, as he quickly realizes that, when this ill-conceived assassination goes south, he’ll be left holding the bag.
I liked a lot of the storytelling and artistic choices in Petrograd, particularly those that ground the mythology of Rasputin and revolutionary-era Russia in the gritty reality of class politics and global imperialism. In crafting the story of Petrograd, author Philip Gelatt draws on an unsubstantiated theory that British intelligence was involved in Rasputin’s death; though fictionalized, the story draws on a wealth of scholarly sources. Illustrator Tyler Crook elevates the project with evocative sepia-toned art that conveys the calm-before-the-storm atmosphere of a Russia on the verge of revolution.
Yet as spy fiction, Petrograd fell flat for me. Cleary is an intriguing character, a pawn of the British Empire whose need to save his own skin puts him at war with his better self. Yet the other characters who populate this story—with the exception of the elusive Rasputin—feel one-dimensional, without any of the subtleties and hidden motivations that make spy capers so darn fun. Nor did this script really gel for me as an adventure story; scenes are weighed down with dialogue and “as you know, Bob” exposition, with action hijinks mostly confined to the book’s climactic pages.
Ultimately, not only did this flat storytelling make for an unsatisfying read, but it did a disservice to the subject matter. By positioning Cleary as the only fully realized character in the dystopian landscape of wartime Petrograd, this book falls into Orientalist cliché, casting Russia as a backward nation whose inhabitants are nefarious, hapless, and doomed. Cleary may be an antihero, but he’s nevertheless the only character who feels like he has any real agency. A scene near the end places him in a crucial role in the 1917 February Revolution; in other words, Russians aren’t even given full credit for their own political revolution.
Petrograd will appeal to historical comic readers interested in a fresh, unusual retelling of the events of 1916/17 Russia, as well as fans of Tyler Crook’s award-winning art. The comic did rekindle my interest in 20th-century Russian history, from its revolutionary politics to the figure of Felix Yusupov, the queer, crossdressing nobleman who was one of the chief co-conspirators of the Rasputin assassination. While this one was ultimately a pass for me, Gelatt and Crook do succeed in bringing this history to life and making its complexities accessible to general readers.
Petrograd By Philip Gelatt Art by Tyler Crook Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022 ISBN: 9781637150153
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Character Representation: British, Irish, Russian, Queer, Gender Nonconforming
Those that consider graphic novels as a medium strictly for the young cite the fact that it relies greatly on pictures as well as words to tell a story, but those people might not be aware of the multiple examples of graphic novels tackling adult themes. These examples use a combination of pictures and words to convey a multitude of stories from a variety of viewpoints, including those adults who are responsible for the care and feeding of one or multiple smaller humans. One story that explores the POV of parents in the Irish paranormal mystery Scarenthood written and drawn by Nick Roche.
The story features four parents in Ireland who meet because their kids go to the same preschool, but who end up bonding because of a supernatural mystery. The cast of this book features Cormac, the main protagonist who the reader watches slowly fall apart. There’s also Jen, whose husband spends months working away from home and who is on Jen’s nerves when he is home. Rounding out the foursome is acerbic Siobhan and conspiracy theorist Flynno, who has a significant connection to the supernatural disturbances at their kids’ school. What begins as a diversion for the three parents from their lives of carting children and packing lunches becomes a threat to their lives and the lives of their children.
As a parent myself, I found myself heavily involved in Roche’s story, particularly Cormac’s, the character that gets the most attention. The supernatural entity that he’d unwittingly released has latched onto this single dad, affecting not only his sanity but his ability to raise his daughter Scooper. Cormac’s descent into self-doubt is sure to garner a lot of sympathy from parents who might feel they are not being the best caregiver. Cormac’s slippage is, however, closely followed by his new friends and it is initially through their eyes that we see Cormac struggle. When they come together to help him, it is a moment that showcases and further solidifies their bond. Roche does an excellent job of fleshing out the secondary parental characters, particularly Jen and Flynno. When at home, Jen shows signs of stress at always having her well-intentioned husband underfoot when it comes to raising their daughter. Flynno could have come across as a boisterous, unlikable know-it-all but Roche avoids this by diving into his backstory and giving him moments that let his heart shine.
The artwork hits the perfect balance for this kind of story. The characters do not look hyper-realistic; in some instances, they look like they could be part of a daily or monthly comic strip. In a story that is equal parts supernatural horror and comedy focusing on the mundane and mind-numbing aspects of parenting, the art style is a perfect fit. Indeed, the art and story, much like other great graphic novels, both work in harmony to tell a story with sympathetic characters facing down a mystical threat from Irish folklore that is worse than forgetting to pick up your child’s favorite cereal.
Scarenthood would be a great choice for libraries looking to fill their collection of horror graphic novels with something different, but this would also be a great choice for a library that has parents who wear t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Frankenstein or The Lost Boys as they drop their little one off for storytime. Much like how parents are asked to maintain a delicate balance of being there for their small children while trying to carve out a life for themselves, Scarenthood maintains a balance of fun supernatural mystery and comedic look at the real-life funny-yet-frightening aspects of parenting.
Scarenthood By Nick Roche IDW, 2021 ISBN: 9781684058310
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Irish Character Representation: Irish
Be wary on Imbolc Day, when the witch, Cailleach, roams the woods, looking for children to feast upon. At least, that is the legend told in Saoirse’s village, warning anyone who dares to venture to the witch’s tower. Eager to prove herself, Saoirse, along with her brother, Brahm, goes to see if there is any truth to the old stories, only to fall right into the Cailleach’s clutches. From that point on, everything Saoirse knows and loves will change forever, as she discovers the meaning behind a mysterious mark on her shoulder, a dire threat to the world of apocalyptic proportions, and her own latent magic that may be more than she is ready to master. In this first installment of a new, action-packed fantasy series, The Last Witch: Fear & Fire begins a tale steeped in Irish lore and history, one that examines the responsibility of having power and the dangers of its corrupting influence.
When taking in the comic’s immaculate and engaging artwork, it would be difficult to imagine this story told through any other style. V.V. Glass’ illustrations perfectly match each tone and setting, such as the dark and foreboding witch’s tower in the wintery woods, the dynamic expressions of the characters as they endure both great hardships and welcoming moments of mirth, or the truly epic displays of Saoirse’s magic. The full-page panels that capture the might of these powers are consistently stunning and excel in showcasing both the great beauty and dangers of the magic in this world. Glass’ character designs also assist in highlighting the more gruesome aspects of the comic, particularly in the designs of Saoirse’s witchy adversaries. Black Annis, the witch Saoirse and Brahm mistake for the Cailleach, wears an intimidating smile of needlelike teeth, along with a forked tongue and slitted eyes, a figure that feels as if she had stepped right out of a cautionary fairy tale. There is also the Badb, who wields air magic through her constantly shifting faces, some more frightful than the others. Though eerie at times, the style of the comic adapts easily to whatever mood the text conveys, whether it be light-hearted, mysterious, or simply magical, resulting in a satisfying narrative harmony.
For this first volume, the fast pace of the story manages to include a great deal of plot progression and worldbuilding without doubling down on staggering exposition or giving away too many answers at once. Though the reader learns a great deal by the volume’s conclusion, there are still more unknown elements at play, enticing readers to continue with Saoirse’s journey. Saoirse is a character that is easy to fall in love with: headstrong and determined with a touch of recklessness, but also holds an admirable responsibility to her loved ones. Her external conflict with confronting malevolent witches is paired nicely with the internal battle of controlling her ever-growing magic, ultimately coming to a point where she fears what she is truly capable of. With this comic being only the beginning of the story, it sets up an intrigue in how these feelings will develop and affect Saoirse down the road.
Truthfully, it is the darker, more complex aspects of the comic that give it a sense of identity. Imagine a cross of Avatar the Last Airbender, a Cartoon Saloon production (the studio behind The Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers), with a healthy dash of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. As a result, you will get an enchanting yet perilous tale sure to appeal to those who flock to stories of grand, culturally-inspired adventures with an edge.
While the story does not contain explicit moments of gore, there are several gruesome moments that may unnerve younger readers, such as one instance of child-eating and a good amount of off panel deaths. Taking this into account, The Last Witch: Fear & Fire is most suitable for readers 13 and up and will fit in nicely in young adult or teen graphic novel collections that have a good circulation of epic fantasy stories or strive to diversify their collections with materials featuring strong, predominantly female casts.
The Last Witch: Fear & Fire By Conor McCreery Art by V.V. Glass BOOM! Box, 2021 ISBN: 9781684156214 Publisher Age Rating: 14-17
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: British, Canadian, Nonbinary Character Representation: Irish