This week a new batch of comics were added to the pile of minis, including a particularly handsome-looking book called Odessa: Birth of a New Nation. This is an independently-published trade collecting issues 1-5 of the Odessa series. There is a lot to like about this book, with only one or two minor complaints.
Production-wise, this is a very slick collection. It was produced via print-on-demand rather than by hand which, with the understated and elegant design of the covers and title pages, results in a very professional-looking book. At first I thought that Odessa was perhaps a miss-shelved small-press book.
The only aspect of the book’s design that I dislike is the use of dot tone. On the covers (front, back, and insides) this looks great; it makes the colors pop and gives the whole book a retro-quality (which is an especially nice touch given the book’s subject matter—more on that in a bit). However, the choice was made to use dot tone on the comic pages as well, something I find distracting. It feels like a cheat to me when one artificially “dates” comic art with tone; as though hoping to appeal to a reader’s nostalgia. I wouldn’t mind so much had the tone been restricted to the panels, but the gutter-space has also been dot-toned in an attempt to make the book “feel” older. Again, considering the subject matter, I understand why this choice was made. Regardless, I still found it distracting and superfluous.
The story of Odessa operates under a compelling-but often satirized-conceit: What if the Nazis had won? Fortunately writer Christian Rubiano (of Inkbot.net) has taken this idea much further, asking: How would a Nazi victory have shaped the Civil Rights Movement in the United States? Considering the United Sates’ incredibly troubled and troubling past, not to mention the widespread expressions of antisemitism and bigotry leading up to-and during-World War 2, the idea that a large segment of this country might welcome the Nazi party with open arms is hardly a stretch. Many influential people were sympathetic to the Nazi ideology; Henry Ford famously received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle (the highest medal a foreigner could win) for his many articles supporting the views of the now-thoroughly debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an infamous hoax that, plagiarizing and doctoring sections from two different works of fiction, purported to be documents proving a world-wide Jewish conspiracy). In the world that Rubiano has constructed, the Union is once again split in half along familiar battle-lines, with racial tension in the North and a Confederacy-Nazi alliance in the South.
Of course nothing is cut-and-dry: when the country isn’t at war with itself, the respective sides are embroiled in internal struggles over ideology and power. This is a rich setting and Rubiano doesn’t let it go to waste. His characters are well-defined and their motivations both realistic and compelling.
Much of credit for this strong characterization goes to the art of Louie Chin, whose expressive lines bring much of the character of the various players to the surface. He has a clear, surefooted style that reminds me of Paul Grist. Chin does stumble a bit when drawing complex perspective (something that tarnishes an otherwise stunning two-page prelude), but considering the complexity of the narrative, the number of players in the story, and the sheer volume of important elements in a given panel, Chin juggles his artistic duties very well.
Odessa: Birth of a New Nation is a fascinating alternative-universe history in the tradition of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and with the worm’s-eye sociological grounding of Jason Lutes’ Berlin series. This is only the first entry in what is clearly a much larger story. If subsequent books are as strong as this first one, this will be a story to keep an eye on.