Arts graphic novel review

Brace yourselves, The Coldest Winter is coming

Antony Johnston presents an espionage thriller in his latest graphic novel

The Coldest Winter

Written by Antony Johnston

Illustrated by Steven Perkins

Published by Oni Press on Dec. 7, 2016

Like its 2012 prequel The Coldest City, The Coldest Winter opens like a film — the first pages introduce the story with intermittent black panels and text that act as film credits. Johnston paints the landscape of the Cold War era without getting in too deep into politics, choosing to focus on how different character motivations interact.

The graphic novel centers around David Perceval’s mission against KGB spies to protect Dr. Lubimov, a defected Soviet scientist. Readers looking for a central Bond-esque, dramatic hero should look elsewhere since Johnston presents Perceval as a small part of a greater battle shown through different perspectives among members of the Eastern and Western blocs.

As expected of an espionage thriller, action scenes include the passing of classified information amongst spies, cryptography, and disguises. In the midst of all of this secrecy, Johnston paces the reveals remarkably, leaving enough information for the reader to piece together this narrative without too much exposition.

This exciting tension is perhaps the greatest strength and flaw of The Coldest Winter.  The resulting distance from the characters works well to keep the reader in the dark, guessing at which character is fooling which, but the lack of internal monologues from characters and a central character leaves little room for attachment to these spies. Dramatic character development does not occur, but the spies’ witty dialogue leaves enough to chew on.

As for Steven Perkins’s art, his black and white noir art style coupled with his varied yet minimal paneling creates quite a stunning treat for the eyes, a definite shift from the four-block panel pages from The Coldest City. The less rigid paneling accompanies action scenes well, while the shadowed silhouettes of faces build up a mysterious atmosphere.

Character designs are limited to black shadows and silhouettes, which may leave readers reliant on dialogue for character names (which are not always introduced with the character). However, sufficient detail is evident in each panel for astute readers to differentiate characters.

As a consequence, the multi-strand plotlines and the large cast of characters can be confusing on first read. Several times in the middle of the narrative, it became difficult to keep track of which character was which and who was on which side. Fortunately, the plotlines converge marvelously at the climactic end, and I found myself rereading for details to piece together what happened, appreciating how Johnston’s writing kept the work taut.

As a whole, no individual character is the star: instead, the plucky narrative of spies deceiving one another (and the audience) is most important. Despite the mishaps, the sheer excitement of a page turner, the snappy dialogue, and the cat-and-mouse game drive this story.