Every now and then a graphic novel comes along that completely blows me away. Ascent is one of these. Set in war-torn Korea, the freezing wastes of Siberia and the cold, dark, loneliness of space, it’s the story of a fictional Soviet era flying ace, who couldn’t be further away from his American rivals Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
After a tough start in life, as an orphan of 1946’s siege of Stalingrad, Yefgenii Yeremin battles his way into fighter pilot school. He gets his first kills operating out of a secret Russian air force base, helping the North Koreans shoot down US fighter pilots during the Korean war of 1950-53. Russia wasn’t officially participating in the war, so only the military commanders and the occupants of the base itself know of Yeremin’s air supremacy, with far more enemies shot down than the much applauded fighter aces of the other side.
He paints a hammer and sickle on his unmarked Korean fighter jet, in an attempt to at least give his American rivals an unofficial hint of his nationality. They call him Ivan the Terrible.
But when he’s forced to ditch his plane in the sea, after chasing an enemy fighter too far back to its base, the Russian government see a perfect opportunity to cover him up. They send him to Siberia, where he languishes in obscurity, patrolling a freezing wasteland.
Meanwhile the space race commences, but Russia’s premiere fighter ace has too many skeletons in his closet to become a space hero. So he’s left to rot in Siberia, bitter but acquiescent.
The story is a beautiful tragedy. Yeremin’s fate is inversely linked to his success, and the better he gets at his job, the more embarrassing he is to his leaders. The man is a hero and everyone knows it, but no-one can (or wants to) do anything about it. And the longer it goes on, the worse it gets – a great life, wasted by secrecy and bureaucracy.
Wesley Robins’s art appears crude at first glance, but his dark, brooding figures and landscapes tie in perfectly with the subject matter. The action of the dog fights is intensely paced, witnessed from the cockpits of the pilots, while life back on Earth seems slow and murky in comparison. It’s beautifully worked, and the style soon blends with the momentum of the story.
The final act of the book sees the Russians use their secret hero for a last ditch attempt at beating the Americans to the moon. There’s a wonderful quote in the book that sums up the Soviet mentality, as their rockets are exploding and desperation sets in. One Russian space engineer says to another “[The Americans] spent millions of dollars designing a pen that could work in space. What did we do, Comrade Leonov?” To which his colleague replies with a smile, “we took pencils.” Yeremin is their human pencil, an extraordinary man, skilled enough to do the job, but ultimately as disposable. Powerful, moving stuff.