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One day The Winter Men will finish and my collection of Russian superhero epics from Wildstorm will be complete at last: Jog’s Hopes, 6/25

Joe McCulloch

The Programme #12 (of 12)

Hmm. Well that sort of ended.

Really, the last issue of this Wildstorm series is fairly appropriate, given the series’ premise: USSR superheroes wake up in our modern world of seemingly greater nuance of conflict, prompting the US to try and get its own Cold War superfolk back in order. The clash of the superpowers is back, and it quickly gets to scraping at tensions and contradictions — racial, martial, political — that always existed in that time, and yet endure today.

There’s plenty of endurance at the end of the story. A few characters die and a few things get smashed, but nothing much is accomplished beyond radicalizing the most powerful players a few steps more, and sending them back into the age of gray threats. History repeats itself, and very much informs the present, but it’s unknown whether anyone learns from history. “Maybe next time,” shrugs the denouement.

It’s logical enough material for writer Peter Milligan – here, his career-spanning theme of identity is blown up extra-wide to cover national identity, and it’s not a happy picture. His American superheroes find themselves either transformed into immovable ideologues or dead for their hesitation, while the Communist contingent sort of frowns and melts into one another – tough being the avatar for your nation. It’s garish and angry, more than happy to link uses of Nazi-developed technology to a perceived inclination toward fascism, and allows precious little hope for substantive personal improvement under the lumbering of government conflict narratives. No war heroes in this one, that’s for sure.

But there’s nothing all that striking or revealing about the conflict either. Milligan’s character work has tended toward the shrill for much of the series, with characters choking statements of purpose in each other’s directions and flashing back to predictable intrigues – only Milligan’s Senator Joe emerges as compellingly conflicted, among national uprisings that offer little more than additional opportunity for blunt thematic chit-chat. Also: chases and hitting.

This particular issue is heavy on the hitting, all hazy and smoldering in sickly hues. Artist C.P. Smith — with Jonny Rench on colors for issues #1-5 — has seemed determined to make this the oddest looking superhero thing DC has released in a while, as visually loud as Milligan’s script can be nasty, and there’s been some striking, weird power at work (man, was the end of issue #10 a homage to Shatter?!).

Yet it also effectively supercharges Milligan’s dialogue-heavy sequences and character moments, exacerbating their screechy tone. And all the lovingly blocky textures at hand can’t entirely cover for the problems Smith shares with a number of artists who work with heavy realist character drawings: lots of stiff poses and distractingly ‘acted’ facial expressions, which don’t help the flow of an action-heavy issue at all.

In that way, there’s been a conflict between the story and art too – they sort of match, but also bring out the worst in one another, much like Milligan seems to say America’s most enduring conflicts bring out the worst in it. If only there’d been a better way to get the message across. EH; issue and series, now and forever.

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