Totalitarian regimes have, oddly enough, provided the best fodder for political comedy and satire. There’s something about the absurdity of living under brutality couched and protected by beauracracy that requires only the slightest nudge to tip into full on comedy. And through the years, we’ve seen satire used as a powerful weapon against the power of the state. From political cartoons, to films that took aim at fascism like Ernst Lubitch’s “To Be or Not To Be” or the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”, to the novels of Kafka, Orwell, Swift or Twain, to contemporary television such as Last Week Tonight or the Daily Show, satire remains a potent tool. And the upcoming graphic novel The Death of Stalin puts the political machinations and absurdities of life in the USSR in the spotlight and reveals how petty and ridiculous all its rules were to bleakly, black hilarious comic effect.
Written by Fabien Nury with art by Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin tells the story of the infamous dictator’s death and the jockeying for power that occurred in its aftermath. And though there’s a disclaimer that historical facts have been fudged ever so slightly for comic effect, the level of insane scheming and absurd accounts of life under Soviet rule feels very authentic. Indeed, even cursory research reveals that probably very little was invented for Nury and Robin’s story, and that makes the novel all the more funny and illuminating.
As Stalin’s fate starts to become clear, the battle to succeed him as Russia’s absolute ruler begins, with Lavrentiy Beria the man most effectively and ruthlessly angling for the job. He’s a repellant figure, totally corrupt and utterly immoral, but skillful at using the Communist rapping and rules to hilarious and absurd effect. His rivals include Malenkov, Molotov and Khrushchev, with army hero Marshal Zhukov on the sidelines with his own objective. A look at the history books will tell you exactly how this all resolves itself, but the fun of The Death of Stalin is in how this kind of society deals with power struggles, who suffers as a result, and how the rules of such a cruel and corrupt place trap the powerful into set roles as much as the lowly peasant.
Nury and Robin skillfully alternate between the petty and insular machinations of the powerful and the effects their games affect the common folk. The result is an effective structure that juxtaposes the strange comedy of bureaucracy and etiquette of the Ministers that wouldn’t be out of place in the darkly absurd comedies of the Marx Brothers or the Coen Brothers even as the wider view of the tragedies that befall others as a result of this gamesmanship reminds the reader of the human cost of living under the whims of these kinds of people.
Robin’s art is wonderful, and he succeeds in making each of the characters extremely distance and filled with an overstated personality that is never cartoonish. In fact, there’s a distinct bland vibe to all the people in the story, which of course reinforces one of the main points of tyrannical regimes, that monsters rarely look fearsome but rather often resemble accountants and dentists. That being said, there’s a wonderful feeling of just playing into the absurdity of the story enough to get the comedy across without tipping into face.
The Death of Stalin never feels like it loses sight of the very real harm and horrors these men inflicted on an entire country, but rather points out how ultimately ridiculous and meaningless all of their games truly were. The novel is about to be adapted into a star-studded film directed by master satirist Armando Iannucci (“I’m Alan Partridge,” “The Thick of It,” “Veep”), and it’s a perfect fit for him. If you like scathing black comedy with a lot on its mind, you can’t do better than The Death of Stalin. 9/10
The Death of Stalin TPB will be released July 5, 2017.