Review: “Winter War” (Caliber Comics – Monochrome May Special)

Welcome back to The Splintering’s Monochrome May event! Today we’re featuring Winter War, a 99-page, historically-based graphic novel published by Caliber Comics in 2014 that collects issues 1-4 of the original miniseries.*

Spoilers ahead!

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Winter War covers the conflict between Soviet Russia and Finland during the winter of 1939-1940. Scripted and penciled by Kurt Belcher, Winter War ventures into rare World War II territory, as the conflict is rarely discussed outside the most hardcore history enthusiasts. As such, it adds nuance to the issues enveloping Europe during the early years of the war.

War comics generally provide the perspective of “boots on the ground” infantry while ignoring the geopolitical maneuvering of larger issues. Belcher decides to do both in a unique way. The main protagonist, a Finnish infantry sniper named Tero Toivanent, serves as the book’s narrator and explains the big picture while facing day-to-day combat. Tero directly addresses the readers as well as indirectly communicates through conversations with other characters.

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The most unexpected storytelling device is an unusually well-informed woman who offers crucial, big picture details during some pillow talk. Belcher deserves credit for coming up with unique ways of painting the big picture while still connecting us to the humanity of an individual soldier living through combat.

As a graphic novel, it’s an ambitious approach. We get the angst of the fighting man alongside macro battlefield results and political maneuvering. The result feels a little forced as the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally. The weakness probably stems from the nature of the comic book format more than any lack of writing ability. There’s quite a lot to address with limited space to do so, after all. Kudos to the team for their unique approach, but the execution doesn’t quite stick the landing.

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The real disappointment is that the art fails to carry the weight of the story. The limited palette is very dark and gritty with thick inks and heavy gray tones. The style is a bit primitive and is frequently zoomed in very close to the characters. The effect is that open-country combat feels small. In some panels, the lines are so heavy that it’s difficult to discern what is occurring. Was that a head shot to a Russian soldier, or is this the anguish on the face of the sniper? Exploring the horror of a white out turn into an ambush of gunfire and Molotov cocktails on a two page splash of action seems like an opportunity missed. Add in a map or two to graphically reinforce the uselessness of the battles, and the effect would be more pronounced, in my opinion.

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Winter War deserves praise for bringing a lesser-known bit of history to light. In fairness, the art may work well for some, but it simply did not connect with me. The Soviet observation of winning just enough territory to bury their dead is a fitting end. The book succeeds in portraying the struggle of a small, isolated nation defending its sovereignty against the war machine of a burgeoning superpower. In the final analysis, that’s victory.

You can pick up a digital copy of Winter War at the Caliber Comics online store here. The book is discounted at the time of this writing, so if you act fast, you can get it for $6.99 (regularly $14.99).

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Thanks for reading! To check out more of The Splintering’s Monochrome May content, go here.

*Disclosure: a digital copy of Winter War was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.


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