From writer Deniz Camp (Agent of WORLDE, Maxwell’s Demons) and artist Stipan Morian comes the most complex war story and piece of cultural critique since Apocalypse Now in 20th Century Men #1. Featuring letters from Aditya Bidikar, this insightful and hyper-intelligent fever-dream of a comic is not for the faint of heart or those who want a light read. The first of 6-issues, this opening chapter launches into an artistic vision of alternate historical timelines, superhero mythology, and the horrors of warfare that evokes a blend of Coppola’s aforementioned masterpiece, Watchmen, and Barry Windsor Smith’s Monsters. With a narration-laden yet fascinating script and wildly unpredictable visuals, this chapter is easily one of the most unforgettable pieces of the comics medium in recent years.
“At the end of the 20th century, superheroes, geniuses, madmen, and activists rush towards WWIII! A Soviet “iron” hero, a superpowered American president, an insane cyborg soldier, an Afghan woman hellbent on building a better life for her people—these strange yet familiar beings collide in a story that mixes history, politics, and comic book mythology into something totally new.”
Writing & Plot
Deniz Camp’s script is a difficult one to critically asses, because of the sort of narrative that 20th Century Men #1 sets up. Instead of a linear narrative, Camp gives readers snapshots of different important points in the life of our mechanical Soviet super soldier, as well as the world at large, to set up context for how the story got to where it is. Camp spends considerable time describing an alternate timeline version of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, this time with it spiraling into a true World War III. Camp swings from a haunting opening scene of a village in Vietnam turned human slaughterhouse to the war room arguments between Russian and Afghan politicians, and then to the origin story of a young Russian boy being chosen to become a weapon. These sorts of sequences and more are guided along by Camp’s almost fever dream-esque narrative structure combined with his fierce narration and brilliant, naturalistic dialogue. The narrative voice is of course from the perspective of Comrade Platonov, our central war machine. He’s a remarkable character in that, despite his fearsome appearance, he’s also devastatingly intelligent and complex. He understands what he is and what he does, but he is still allowed to be a man.
Camp’s alternate timeline version of WWIII and its players is the most compelling take on this specific genre of war story we’ve gotten in years. No one has gotten the notion of an international arms race with superhumans – and all of the political ramifications and poignant observations based on actual reality therein – since Moore did it in Watchmen. Granted, this script is much heavier and doesn’t *quite* have the grace of Moore’s careful pacing, but this is also structurally a very different monster. Watching America’s great superhuman – a smart mix of Captain America, Uncle Sam, and a little bit of Homelander – forcibly exert his wants and impulses in his new position (spoilers) hits maybe a bit too close to home. The mark of a great war story and political commentary piece is when the story acknowledges that the subject matter is a moral no man’s land. There is no right person here, there are only the button-pushers, the killers, and the ones trying to survive. Camp’s script is deeply complex and throws a lot at the reader, to the point where it may require multiple readings to grasp everything he’s trying to say. For those who put in the effort though, this is a powerful comic with multiple equally impressive elements all forming to tell one outstanding narrative.
While the writing is highly effective itself, the reason why 20th Century Men #1 will stay in your mind and when you close your eyes is the visual work of artist Stipan Morian. His unpredictable style switches from disturbing and macabre to oddly breathtaking and intimate from moment to moment. He does so by often completely changing his art style multiple times. His opening sequence is intentionally hazy, with characters and scenery look almost like illusions baking under the orange heat of the Vietnam jungle. This wavering nightmare vision then cuts over to the bleak cold of a child in Russia being collected to become a soldier, here with a wildly different art style. Morian shifts into a more “proper” and detailed style with a direct focus on character art. His character animations and ability to render human emotion in this comic is staggering. Morian crafts sequences that are touching and humanly intimate in one moment, aggressively intense in another, then absolutely horrifying in yet another. This book looks as though it’s drawn and colored by multiple artists, but it’s all Morian’s handiwork. He utilizes heavy crosshatching is a lot of his details that gives off hints of BWS, but again, he doesn’t stick with this. He sometimes shifts to a painted, almost digital-looking style that gives off light Frank Quietly elements. However, despite all these comparisons, Morian is a completely unique artist on his own. His blocking and page composition is just as impressive and dynamic as his art. He uses small panels over much larger spreads focusing on key details that keep scenes flowing and give them more context. His larger panels and spreads appear almost as dioramas, with scenes so striking they could be covers themselves.
Acclaimed letterer Aditya Bidikar some career-best work for 20th Century Men. His fonts are stellar, with a soft, hand-drawn dynamic style that remains easy to read but carries character tone perfectly. The real charm here is his SFX lettering. Some of it blends into the art so well it’s hard to tell if it’s Bidikar or part of Morian’s visuals. The letters punctuate scenes, adding that sense of audio that palpably increases the feel of the atmosphere and tension throughout the comic. Visually, this is a marvel of a work, with some of the most innovative and standout art in a comic this year.
20th Century Men #1 is an intelligent, incisive, and disturbingly memorable take on war and superhero storytelling. Deniz Camp’s script may be a bit dense, but its striking sense of humanity and powerful thematic force make that complexity worthwhile. The visuals from Stepan Morian are unpredictable and immensely striking, with panels that will stay in readers’ minds long after they close the book. Be sure to grab this issue when it hits shelves on August 17th!