In the Soviet-controlled world of the Stalinverse, there is a place where liberty is sentenced to die…and it’s Gulag 396. A maximum-security prison where the only escape is through death, the gulag is the final stop for all enemies and detractors of the world’s oppressive authority. But when public enemy Obadiah Archer is admitted as the latest inmate, could his gospel of goodwill and optimism be the spark that ignites a new faith in the prison’s population…including the immortal undesirable known as Aram Addi-Padda?
I’m going to spoil this review right from the get-go: Escape from Gulag 396 is not a very good comic. Archer and Armstrong aren’t the most interesting Valiant characters to begin with. The art is clunky and chunky; the writing is ho-hum; and pretty much every aspect of this comic is awkward. Escape handles its subject matter like a palooka learning how to cook, throwing ingredients into a pan and then staring in puzzlement at the results. In theory, it’s an apple crumble, but in practice it’s a half-baked, puffy mess.
But the very fact that Escape tackles its chosen subject – the power of faith in the face of the most terrifying prison system in history – makes it worth a second look.
Religious persecution was a defining aspect of the historical “Gulag Archipelago”. The Soviet Union’s desire to grind spirituality out of the Russian heart resulted in many thousands of clergy, monastics, and ordinary faithful being pulled into the Siberian meat-grinder, never to return. But the power of faith, and unyielding courage in the face of unimaginable odds, was just as much a part of this terrible history. Though larger political and economic forces were what ultimately broke the iron fist of Sovietism in Eastern Europe, the religious faithful were on the forefront, forcing open the cracks with their courage and love.
In its own clunky way, Escape from Gulag 396 makes a point worthy of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn: power doesn’t come from superheroic strength, but from sacrifice. Escape’s protagonist doesn’t hulk out and destroy the prison and kill all the guards, like he would have in an ordinary power/revenge-fantasy. Instead he gives up his own comfort and freedom for the sake of his fellow prisoners. I think it’s a message we need to see more of in comics, especially in our new, militaristic, narcissistic political environment: it’s not how much power you have, but how much you give up for the sake of your fellow humans.
If Escape had been put out by a religious organization, it could be dismissed as some sort of religious propaganda, however well-meaning it was. Instead, it was Valiant, a secular company, that dared to step out on a limb and risk making a fool of itself for the sake of a powerful and delicate subject. It’s fumbling, it’s awkward, and ultimately I don’t think they’ll pursue the subject too much further. But for simply having the courage to try this story in a comic, I think Escape from the Gulag deserves an extra star.
Final Verdict: 2 out of 5.
Divinity III – Escape from Gulag 396 #1 is available at Valiant Entertainment.
Geek-o-Rama received a copy of this book for the purpose of this review. All thoughts, comments and opinions are those of the individual reviewer.