Monday, February 3, 2014

Opening Contract - Snow

With Opening Contract having such a narrow remit I often find myself using the first panel under discussion as a launching off point. This week will be no different in that regard, featuring a story I almost have no context for, but love wholeheartedly.

This week the column touches on the first panel of Snow written and drawn by Askold Akishin.
This story, originally published in 1989, is a strange six page short that has, as far as I know, only been republished in English as part of the The Mammoth Book Of Best War Comics (edited by David Kendall). Information on the strip outside of this anthology is incredibly difficult to come across.

A Google search of “Askold Akishin” and Snow turns up only 175 results 140 of which Google deems to be broadly similar to the 35 results it shows by default. At least 4 of those results are related to me posting snippets of it online. So, essentially what we have are around 30 or so results, a ridiculously small number in this hyper-connected, information rich world we now live in. As an aside, the vast majority of the remaining results all pertain to the strips appearance in the anthology (reviews, etc) turning up little extra information about the strip itself.

The short narrative takes place in 1939 (was the strip commissioned as part of the conflict’s 50th anniversary?) during the Russian-Finnish War and depicts a Russian pilot being shot down over enemy territory. He frees himself of the wreckage and, pistol in hand, begins to walk into the nearby woods. As he journeys into the woods a Finnish Elk is seen on the edge of a forest. The man, perhaps dying from exposure, crawls through the snow before coming face to face with the elk. He looks up, gun in hand, only to see that the elk seemingly decompose before his very eyes as it utters the only real dialogue of the entire strip:
“Are you still alive? Hurry up! They await us.”
The final shot is of the pilots corpse enveloped by the falling snow.

The opening panel itself depicts the pilot in the cockpit of his plan, the viewpoint looking up at him as if from the dashboard itself. Akishin utilizes the limited black and white palette to the full here. He chooses to cloak the panel mostly in black, using white as negative space to suggest detail.
For instance, in the top left of the panel we have the title itself in bold, no-nonsense type. The other major use of white in the panel is used to show the elements outside the plane, hinting at the sky and snow that rage outside the cockpit.

The pilot wears a heavy duty jacket and his face is covered completely by goggles, a flying cap and a piece of cloth or scarf pulled up over the bottom half of his face. The black and white tones then seem to act as corrolaries of the forces at work in this strip.

The heavy use of black in the opening panel suggests a dark and enclosed space, a reprieve and shelter (no matter how fragile) from the elements that rage outside. The white in the panel almost seems to ‘bleed through’ the gloom, suggesting an unrelenting omnipotence. It’s always there, waiting just beneath the surface of the things we construct around ourselves, waiting to tear them all down.

The subject of that last sentence can be interpreted multiple ways – the strip supports both readings. There’s an undercurrent of Man Vs Nature going on during the strip’s short narrative. This can be seen in the man traversing the landscape around him after fleeing the wreckage of his plane. It is this journey that seems to kill him, not the crash itself. His assured, steady journey through the woods soon turns into a plodding crawl in the snow towards the hand fate has dealt him. The elk as the messenger or herald of death also ties in with the idea of mother nature being indifferent (or actively hostile) to our survival.

So, that first panel could be seen as a microcosm of that conflict. A man cocooned by his technology, the white in the frame the only hint of the forces conspiring to rip it all from beneath him. As much as men conspire to kill each other over strips of land, ideologies or resources nature itself remains indifferent never placing import on who is on what side. They’re all the same to her.

The strip, as short as it is, still manages to formulate a kind of conflict, the opening panel giving us our first conflict in man vs man, whilst at the same time being suggestive of the conflict that takes up the middle part of the strip, man vs nature.

The strip ends with the constantly raging battle of man vs self as the pilot clings to life before finally relenting and letting go. The final panel in the strip is a nice mirror to the way the story opened. The majority of the panel is taken up by white, with black being used to suggest detail, in this instance the pilot’s body beneath the snow and his gun, lying close by.

It fits in with the earlier idea of the white space in the opening panel being representative of the omnipotent power of mother nature. No matter the protection, shelter or weapons we create this planet still has the power to end us.

Coming at it from that angle, and thinking specifically about the end of the strip, nature, the snow and the black that slowly gets shifted out of each successive panel could be seen as a signifier for the death that awaits us all.

War and man is fleeting. Nature and decay will outlast us all.


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