The Grand Duke
Written by Yann
Illustrations by Romain Hugault
Edited by Paul Morrissey
Translation by Edward Gauvin
Letters by Thomas Mauer
Release Date: November 14, 2012
Cover Price $24.99
The solicit for Archaias’ new European import The Grand Duke describes the book as “A Romeo-and-Juliet story set against WWII aerial dogfights.”
If that does not immediately grab your attention, then we’re looking for entirely different stories in our comics, you and I. Well, it got my attention and while that’s maybe not a 100 percent honest way of pitching the story, it got it’s foot in the door for what turned out to be an astonishingly great read.
Set along the Eastern front beginning in 1943, Luftwaffe Oberleutnant (Read: German [Read: NAZI!]) Adolph Wulf and Comrade Lilya (Read: Commie!) of the dreaded 588th known as the “Night Witches” – an all women battalion that, apparently, was a thing – have grown rather disillusioned with their situations in the war. Wulf, rather palatably, despises the Third Reich and fights solely for love of his homeland and motherless daughter. Lilya is realizing that even in Stalin’s socialist paradise there are still glass ceilings for women even after they’ve held bloody and terrible front lines down.
Both protagonists are dedicated warriors who won’t suffer fools in their high risk positions; early on, Wulf gives a well-rehearsed speech to motivate new recruits: “Before the fifth mission, no one’ll talk to you. After the tenth, we’ll consider you. But before the fiftieth we’ll mourn you.”
By the time the story ends, yes, a romance of sorts blooms, but beat for beat it’s way more Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates then Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
That said, here’s another interesting twist (which you may not get from the books’ cover), this book is gorgeous! It captures a near photo-realistic quality that then amps up the beautiful and lush to about this side of Frank Cho. The book feels tailor made, in fact, for French artist Roman Hugault, the son of a French Air Force colonel and a licensed pilot since the age of 17 with a few aviation reference book illustrations under his belt. The sleek FW 190 and clunky 88 Mistel are as much characters in the story as Lilya and Wulf and they soar through dizzying action sequences with a heart-pumping pace reserved, usually, only for manga.
And, again, like Cho, war and destruction aren’t the only things the artist is fetishizing here. A quick glance at his blog shows he has a predilection towards cheesecake imagery, though Hugault does have the good taste to keep it from distracting the War Is Hell story being told. A few scenes are thrown in that, shall we say, used to remind us why we so enjoyed watching Showtime late at night when we were 14, if you know what I mean, (re: soft core sex scenes) and that’s about it.
So, basically, if you’re a Rocketeer fan you should read this book. If you dig period action/dramas you should read this book. If you like your art Heavy Metal style good you should read this book. And if you like comics that are an all around package of high quality you should read this book. Look, it’s not without some flaws here or there, but it felt refreshing for me to discover such a broadly interesting comic performed by top notch talent that I don’t even feel like going into any of that. All I want to stress is that this, to reiterate, is not the story of starry-eyed lovesick teens. Its protagonists, and antagonists, are stone eyed, hate-filled adults… who fall in love.
It’s a weird story with a long set up (expect a slow burn) and brace yourself for a finale that’s equal parts unexpected, terrifying, and authentically lovely.