Page 45 Review by Stephen
Possibly the most beautiful bookplate I have ever beheld, signed by both Antony and Steven, for which we are enormously grateful.
Not only that but once you've absorbed this graphic novel of such smile-inducing, head-shaking craftiness, you'll understand why Page 45 is so honoured to be associated with it.
It's a prequel to Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's THE COLDEST CITY but, unlike most prequels, you're encouraged to dive straight in here first for a winter and a war that could not be colder.
"The snow makes leaving Berlin impossible. Planes are not flying, roads are impassable, and almost no trains are operating. Besides, Lubimov is badly injured. He is still in West Berlin, and they cannot hide him forever."
West Berlin, 1982, and the entire continent of Europe is frozen in the icy grip of the coldest winter for over three decades. Everything has been brought to a standstill, except for the clandestine manoeuvres of the Soviet KGB and Britain's own Secret Service.
For a single night in January Dr Lubimov has been released by Russia to address a science conference in West Berlin for the first time in ten years and possibly the last, because Kremlin doctors have given him but two years to live. His condition is believed to be a side-effect of very nasty nerve toxins the doctor has developed for Mother Russia and which Britannia would like to get her dirty hands on too under the disingenuous excuse of developing antidotes. Of course he's not going to be allowed out unaccompanied by armed agents notoriously difficult to deceive even under the easiest of circumstances and these are far from ideal.
For a start there are the crippling weather conditions about which David Perceval, the West Berlin attaché assigned to the case, has protested in the clearest and strongest possible terms. Unfortunately for him he's in no condition to complain for he's already about to be sent home by his immediate commanding officer, William Woodford, after a succession of bodged operations. Then there's West Berlin's unique geo-political bind in being a fortress back then, but one designed to hem the West in rather than the keep East out. Not only was it cut off by the Berlin Wall from the east side of the city occupied and administered by Soviet Russia, but it was completely surrounded on all its extremities by both the wall and by the communist German Democratic Republic itself.
Difficult, much...? In terms of extraction, we're talking the worst wisdom teeth ever.
This graphic novel begins in West Berlin on January 20th 1982, nine days after the conference, with a phone call between Dr Lubimov - sequestered but also trapped in a British safe house - and his aged, already defected wife Olga, desperate to see him again. By the end of that prologue Dr Lubimov has a gun to his head. We then retreat to East Berlin on November 25th 1981.
How did it all go so spectacularly wrong?
From the writer of THE COLDEST CITY (obviously, and we had 50 signed bookplates for that too but they sold out almost immediately so, you know...) and the much-adored UMBRAL, THE FUSE, WASTELAND, two of our three DEAD SPACE graphic novels and adaptor-to-comics of Alan Moore's FASHION BEAST plus Anthony Horowitz's Young Adults' Alex Rider graphic novels like SCORPIA drawn by Emma Vieceli and coloured by Kate Brown... *draws breath*... I believe this is his most brilliant book to date.
The class deference, old school ties, the grudges and period tensions are all captured perfectly, with no one trusting anyone - even on the same sides - as are the semi-derogatory dismissals. It's been a while since I've seen Russians referred to as "Ivan", the French as "Fritz", Americans as "Yanks" or "Yankees" and the British as "Limeys".
It is also so wickedly, so deviously clever that although I emphatically will not punch the man in the face the next time I see him (Johnston would see any such angle coming and have pre-prepped for it in multiple ways, decking me 36-hours before I'd even made my first flailing move) I felt when I finished it as if he had just playfully slapped mine - and I enjoyed it.
Unfortunately I cannot possibly tell you why, for I have signed our own Page 45 Official Secrets Act which means spoiler-free reviews.
What I can extol are the extraordinary virtues of Steven Perkins' art.
You're on a hiding to nothing if you attempt to illustrate a book called THE COLDEST WINTER - set during a continent-wide blizzard during which political relations are glacial - without being able to convey sub-zero temperatures. I have never seen a starker graphic novel. On turning each page I felt as if I'd accidentally and inadvisably stuck my fingers into a deep freezer and touched its metallic insides. Have you ever done that? You skin sticks, and it is impossible to free it without tearing some tissue away. It's essentially dangerous, and knife-edge danger is what Perkins delivers.
So much of this is spot-lit from above, casting impenetrable, black brow shadows which make seeing eyes - and so reading minds - impossible. Spectacles are rendered as blank glass screens. Think Sean Phillips' half-lit art in CRIMINAL which gives you ambivalence and ambiguity, but with the additional effect in this book of poker-faced unguessability. It's a trick which here renders straight-laced and straight-faced individuals certainly inscrutable and quite possibly implacable.
That is precisely what is required in a graphic novel wherein the dogmatically, diametrically opposed, prideful protagonists are playing dare-you games with each other: games on which real lives so depend.
Then there's the central car chase prior to Dr Lubimov being stranded hopelessly in the safe house and this is amongst the very best that I have ever clapped my eyes on in comics. With barely any purchase on the compacted snow, you can feel the car tyres skidding in the opposite direction to the steering wheel, and you can experience for yourself the insane adrenaline rush when attempting to lose your murderous pursuit.
Still, doomed David Perceval isn't without his key moves or parting shots. Here he addresses his opposite, Comrade Aleksander Grigori Bremovych of the KGB, as he leaves a room in which they have both been debriefed by their superiors:
"Posli vas, tovarishch."
"Your German accent was better."
"So was my driving."