Edge of Empire

Berezina by Ivan Gil & Frédéric Richaud, adopted from the novel by Patrick Rambaud

Berezina volume 1

It snowed. The winter burst avalanche-like over the endless blanched sheet of the plain. Nor chief, nor banner in order could keep. The wolves of warfare were wildered like sheep.

I watched a documentary about the great Scottish painter Peter Howson recently. He is a serious minded man and not one given to playing to the crowd, to put it mildly. It was pleasing to see that among his earliest influences were comics – the Beezer, the Hotspur of course. But also US horror comics and Tintin. My own earliest comics memories are of trips to the local library which were stocked with complete runs of Lucky Luke, Asterix and of course Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin

These towering works of Francophone Bande Dessinée were nostalgic with their extremely cool vintage cars, planes and helicopters (even the submarines and rocket ships had moved on by my time.) But they were also exotic and futuristic with a dynamism and style that had never reached grey, Presbyterian, working class Scotland. They opened up new worlds and visions. They promised that not only was there a lot to discover out there, but it looked cool as well. Sometimes I hear people make jokes about Belgium being uncool. What the hell do they know?

Europe Comics is a venture by a number of European publishers to bring the best of comics from France, Belgium, Spain, Poland and beyond to an English speaking audience with English language translations of some of the best works available from across the continent. At a time when xenophobia and nationalist isolation is growing across not just the UK but across Europe as well, this is a much needed venture. The riches to be found in the Europe Comics catalogue are breathtaking. I have loved stories like Marzi, Eagles of Rome and Asgard but I was especially taken with the epic, sweeping and spectacularly illustrated three part series from Belgium –  Berezina.

Berezina is the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Adopted from a novel by Patrick Rambaud, the script is by Frédérick Richaud and with stunning artwork from Spanish artist Ivan Gil

The story of the disastrous Russian campaign by the French Grand Armée has fascinated readers of history ever since. It is a tale of hubris, but also of great stoicism and sacrifice. The echoes of the later invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany also ring out with both the intervention of the Russian winter and the determination and ingenuity of the Russian armed forces. Many will know the Russian perspective from Tolstoy’s War and Peace – like in Berezina we see how the relatively backward Russian aristocracy were heavily influenced by French culture and how the invasion developed a new determination to modernise the country and build a new nation leading to a century of revolution and upheaval climaxing in 1917.

Berezina follows several of the key participants. A cynical and tough cavalry officer, Captain D’Herbigny of the Dragoon Guards, who lost his hand when wounded at the battle of Borodino. A young actress Ornella whose troop was performing in Moscow when the French arrived. Sebastian Roque, the secretary to the Emperor who falls for Ornella.

We see as they go from conquerors to refugees. Moscow is deserted apart from those liberated from the prisons and asylums by the Russians as they departed and groups of saboteurs. Those saboteurs combined with drunken French soldiers spark a wave of fires that burn down Moscow. Forced to flee the city, the French army is gradually worn down by the crushing cold of winter, by disease, by starvation and by the harrying attacks of the Cossacks. Finally at the crossing of the river Berezina they face a dramatic race to avoid being cut off by approaching Russian armies.

The focus on the individual stories brings the historical tale to life. Captain D’Herbigny in particular is a character who grows and develops as the tale unfolds. His tough guy persona, interested in loot, women and good wine is whittled away as he comes to terms with his maimed and battle scarred body and as he fights to survive and fight his way back to France. 

The art from Ivan Gil is a revelation. I have read a few comics recently where characters are rendered sketchily, sometimes without facial features and almost no backgrounds. Ivan’s work could not be further removed from this approach. Each character has their own distinct and evolving personality rendered on the page. The architecture of Moscow is illustrated superbly but so too are the huts and frozen steppes that the Grand Armée retreats across. 

Above all the epic scenes of the vast army on the march and in battle are absolutely breathtaking. The reader feels like they have fallen into a painting by Jacques-Louis David. Grand in scale – we can feel the cold, experience the adrenaline in our bodies and the taste of blood in our mouths.

The colouring from Albertine Larenti and Elvire de Cock is impressive. The winter skies, palace textures and the flames of Moscow as it burns are brought to life and no doubt many a Napoleonic nerd will have checked them for their accuracy when it came to uniform colours.

The three volumes of Berezina are among the most spectacular I have read in comics. Luckily for me there is a lot more from Europe Comics for me to read. Europe Comics are digital only so to view these on the printed page in the original, beautiful hardback albums is another ambition. I’ll bring an empty case should I be lucky enough to visit Brussels or Paris again.

Berezina is published by Europe Comics and created by Ivan Gil, Patrick Rambaud, Frédéric Richaud, Albertine Larenti, Elvire de Cock

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