LA Times: ‘Nevsky’ graphic novel was 770 years in the making

June 02, 2012

Be sure to check out this Sunday’s LA Times for an amazing story about Nevsky the graphic novel, Nevsky the man, and Sergei Eisenstein, the filmmaker. LAT’s Geoff Boucher writes:

Where to begin? This is the story of three men born in three different centuries and connected by little other than professions that made them acutely aware of the power of legend.

It’s the story of a 13th century prince of Novgorod who used a frozen lake to kill his foes and save his city, a tale so powerful that just four years ago a national poll of Russians ranked that prince, Alexander Nevsky, as the greatest Russian who ever lived.

This is also the story of the desperate Soviet filmmaker who knew the gulag awaited if his latest epic didn’t satisfy Josef Stalin. The director, Sergei Eisenstein, had delivered the crown jewel of Russian cinema in “Battleship Potemkin” in 1925, but in the 13 intervening years the Kremlin saw only his talent for trouble.

And finally, it’s also a story about a young British writer named Ben McCool who must find a way to wrap his arms around two Russian legends and the competing refractions of medieval folklore and Soviet propaganda. McCool has written “Nevsky,” a graphic novel based on Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky,” the 1938 black-and-white epic that absolutely pleased Stalin (Eisenstein got the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize, in fact) and was in turn (loosely) based on the real-life Nevsky and his victory at Lake Peipus in 1242.

Russian motion picture director and writer Sergi EisensteinRussian motion picture director and writer Sergei Eisenstein. (Mosfilm)

The graphic novel project is an international one, with an American publisher (IDW Publishing in San Diego), a Mexican artist (Mario Guevara, who had shown a flair for period-piece mayhem with Dark Horse’s “Solomon Kane”) and U.K. writer McCool (best known for “Choker,” an Image series that is both hard-wired for William Gibson’s digital concepts and hard-boiled for Raymond Chandler’s double-crossing characters, he now lives in New York).

The most intriguing partner in the “Nevsky” graphic novel, however, is Mosfilm, one of Europe’s oldest and most storied movie studios. As the film production division and facility of the Soviet government, the studio was the pipeline for more than 3,000 films — but always with a government hand on the valve and Communist doctrine in the flow.

Even “Alexander Nevsky,” with its medals, was quickly pulled from circulation just days after its opening; the Soviets had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler and feared the film was simply too incendiary.

"Alexander Nevsky." (Mosfilm)“Alexander Nevsky.” (Mosfilm)

The Eisenstein film was a “Braveheart” for Mother Russia — a rousing story of an ancient national hero (portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov) who’s defeated the superior forces of the creepy Teutonic Knights, who were depicted throwing children onto bonfires. To make sure moviegoers weren’t sitting in the dark as far as the intended metaphor, the wardrobe department delivered 13th century German costumes that were visually laced with the shapes of swastikas, Brandenburg eagles and the steel helmets worn by Hitler’s army.

Strong stuff, but a Molotov cocktail of a movie is exactly what Stalin had ordered up, according to Russian film scholar Naum Kleiman. “On the eve of World War II, Eisenstein created not just a movie about a good knight — the general who knew how to be victorious — but also a film encouraging the audience to overthrow a strong enemy by overcoming fear and establishing the people’s strong spiritual identity,” Kleiman said.

It was June 22, 1941, when Adolf Hitler gave the attack order to 3.6 million soldiers and 3,000 tanks crossed into Soviet territory. It stands as the largest military operation in history. In distant Moscow, the Kremlin was reeling and trying to shoot back with everything it could.

“Josef Stalin actually ordered every movie theater in Russia to start showing ‘Alexander Nevsky’ and to show it all day, every day,” said McCool.

Today, “Alexander Nevsky” can be framed as propaganda landmark, a Stalin-era time capsule, a 112-minute lesson in Russian national identity or, most neutrally, a milestone of epic filmmaking. All of that complicated heritage will be reconsidered with the release of “Nevsky,” the 128-page graphic novel that arrives in July and possesses screen ambitions of its own.

The adaptation process was daunting. The aspects of the film McCool and Guevara can access (such as the fairly simple story, the period-piece costumes and landscapes and the most two-dimensional supporting characters) include some of the movie’s most-cited limitations, while the aspects that can’t be hemmed into a paneled page are its signature strengths, such as Eisenstein’s pioneering montages and the score by Sergei Prokofiev.

"Alexander Nevsky"“Alexander Nevsky” was pulled from theaters during an accord with Germany but re-released when Germany invaded. (Mosfilm)

Prokofiev matched Eisenstein in his aspiration to push filmmaking in a new direction by interlocking image, emotion, melody and movement. The tandem studied the cartoons of Walt Disney for lessons in gesture matched to melody, which Eisenstein called the Hollywood master’s “most interesting, most valuable contribution.”

“We don’t have the power of that music, of course, and I knew right away the main challenge I would have was bringing an old-fashioned kind of story and presenting that to a contemporary audience,” McCool said. “When I first saw the movie I could see how it could inspire people, but the pacing, for instance, is very different than [today's storytelling].”

Eisenstein was inventing some of the modern language of film with work such as “The Battleship Potemkin.” Of “Potemkin,” critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “It is one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema … like the 23rd Psalm or Beethoven’s Fifth, it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is.”

The global acclaim (the New York Times would dub him the “D. W. Griffith of the Russian screen”) only increased Eisenstein’s appetite for innovation — a dangerous pang in Stalin’s Moscow. In 1932, the filmmaker had returned to the Soviet Union after three years abroad and his time in Paris and Hollywood had made him a target of suspicion and resentment. His filmmaking was willfully personalized and too experimental, traits that flew in the face of Stalin’s “socialist realism.”

Eisenstein was at an especially low point when he took on “Alexander Nevsky.” His previous project, “Bezhin Meadow,” was two years into production when it was shut down by seething Communist Party leaders, who cited budget overruns and biblical undertones as two of the endeavor’s fatal failures.

Eisenstein seemed on the verge of arrest — instead he watched as the senior Soviet film official was denounced, jailed and then executed. The rattled filmmaker was told he would be given one last chance to save himself.

It was more than 790 years ago that Prince Alexander was born in Pereslavl-Zalessky, in northwestern Russia. It was at the Battle of Neva where the 20-year-old prince made a name for himself: Nevsky means “of Neva” in Russian, and it was tacked on after his small army snuffed out a Swedish invasion before it began.

It was only later, in April 1242, however, that Nevsky became the stuff of legend. The mighty Teutonic Knights of Germany were slashing their way across the Russian countryside in the name of the Northern Crusades (which were directed at Eastern Orthodox Christians and pagans) and city after city fell before them until only Novgorod remained.

"Alexander Nevsky." (Corinth Films, Inc.)“Alexander Nevsky.” (Corinth Films, Inc.)

The prince rallied a mostly amateur army of serfs, peasants and farmer’s sons to defeat the elite warriors from the west. How? He lured them to frozen Lake Peipus, where the surface vexed the armored Germans and left them vulnerable to a crossfire. Then, in a moment of crackling terror, the ice began to break beneath the invaders’ clanging footfalls.

The Battle of Ice drained all the resolve out of the Northern Crusades (they ceased for a hundred years and Nevsky in 1252 was named grand prince, essentially giving him rule of all of Russia.

To describe Nevsky as the George Washington of Russia may not be far off, at least as far as public esteem. Consider the 2008 poll by Rossiya, the second largest broadcaster in Russia, which took in 50 million votes with the question, “Who is the greatest Russian ever?” Over a six-month period, there was intense press coverage as the original list of 500 nominees was whittled down. For a time, Stalin was the leading name but in the end, the iron-fisted tyrant sunk like a knight’s gauntlet. It was Nevsky that the 21st century nation chose as the best of its heritage.

Protecting the prince and Eisenstein’s legacies is of major import to Mosfilm, which went semi-private after the fall of communism. In recent years, the studio has posted hundred of films online for free viewing. The hope behind the graphic novel is that it could be a sideways step that opens up the possibility of a new “Nevsky” film, according to Robert Gottlieb, the noted literary agent and the key engine behind the “Nevsky” graphic novel.

“This is an iconic picture for Russia and for the world, and [Mosfilm] would never normally grant sequel or prequel rights to this film, but they were comfortable and relaxed about graphic novels and the movies made from the graphic novels,” Gottlieb said. “They’ve trusted us to follow the picture as closely as possible — adding a few elements that are alluded to in it.”

The cover for “Nevsky,” written by Ben McCool with art by Mario Guevara. (IDW)

Gottlieb minted his career with his work with Tom Clancy. The author had published one book for the Naval Institute Press when he signed with the agent and Clancy was a global brand as they parted ways in 2000. The first book Clancy wrote after signing with Gottlieb was the 1986′s “Red Storm Rising,” which mentions “Alexander Nevsky” prominently: It’s the film the Soviet Union broadcasts just before the Red Army’s tanks roll into West Germany – a fictional flip of that Panzer parade back in June of 1941.

Clancy’s Evil Empire fantasy made Gottlieb acutely aware of the Eisenberg film and its lingering power but the more energizing influence on the “Nevsky” project was Frank Miller and his bankable Spartans

The most energizing influence on the project, Gottlieb said, was the 2007 film “300″ and the Frank Miller comics that inspired it. Director Zack Snyder scored a memorable hit with its hyper-stylized account of 480 BC’s Battle of Thermopylae.

The early artwork from the “Nevsky” graphic novel, however, is nothing like Miller’s fever-dream storytelling in “300″ but more reminiscent of the majestic but reality-based imagery of Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” comic strip.

Stepping back, comic book adaptations of films have been common for years, but usually they’re keyed to arrive near opening weekend to create some marketplace synergy for both page and screen. The “Nevsky” project is far closer to a few rarer birds, such as “M,” painter Jon J. Muth‘s 1990 graphic novelization of the dark Fritz Lang film or Jack Kirby’s eccentric Marvel Comicsadaptation of “2001: A Space Odyssey” that came out eight years after the 1968 Kubrick film.

Aside from its Hollywood quest, the real test of “Nevsky” is whether it can bottle up the Russian spirits of two men — an ancient warrior prince and a cinema titan who died in 1948. For the graphic novelist, the key to accomplishing that was staying in the place where the two Russian legends were at their most dynamic.

“The one thing we knew we had to do was to keep how epic and sprawling and important that big battle sequence at the end of the movie is,” McCool said. “It’s over half an hour of the movie, and I wanted to have the same sort of space in the book even if it limited the room I had to flesh out the rest of the movie’s story…. That’s what I think people remember and what they want, and it’s the most integral part, no matter what century you’re in.”

Larger panels from the upcoming graphic novel:

– Geoff Boucher