The Lions of Leningrad is European without being Russian, albeit then translated (from French) into English. But it’s a Russian tragedy, complete with a love quadrangle, flashbacks, gulags, and revenge.
The comic opens in Leningrad, 1962. The police arrest an indigent who’s broken into a concert hall. Only the arresting officer is a nitwit who just wants to torture an indigent; good thing a female officer is doing the questioning back at the station. The female officer, whose name is entirely unimportant, is writer Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem’s first entirely wanting female character. Lions doesn’t do a Madonna or whore thing; it does a Madonna, whore, or witch thing. Whores and witches are different. It’s incredibly annoying because the Madonna is kind of the protagonist. Even though she’s not the indigent recalling the flashback to the female officer, the Madonna’s the only character artist Thomas du Caju can reliably render. He gets the boys mixed up, which isn’t great in a comic with a dozen or so male characters throughout.
The flashback takes the comic back to 1941, when the indigent is a teen, playing Revolution with his friends. There’s the one girl, the Madonna, Anka, and the three boys, Maxim, Pyotr, and Grigory. All three boys are in love with Anka, who’s not interested. As the war comes to Leningrad and their lives go into disarray, the boys don’t stop pursuing her, making things more difficult at home. Her father didn’t raise no sluts, so he beats her whenever one of her male friends is nice to her. Then tells her to play some Mozart because music knows no nationality; who cares if the Germans just killed your friends. What about Stalin, after all.
Anka spends the entire comic suffering for the boys—which will also be a thing in the 1962 bookends—and gets nothing for it. Despite her character showing the most agency as far as Homefront derring-do, it’s only to set up her next interaction with one of the boys.
Maxim is the party secretary’s son, Pyotr’s the son of intellectuals (you know the kind), and Grigory’s the one with a single parent, his mom. The party killed Dad for complaining about his deathtrap airplane, and, as the story starts, Mom’s gotten lonely, and Maxim’s dad, philanderer or not, is a fetching distraction.
After the initial attack, where the teens get their Lions name—they survive a German attack and manage to escape back to Leningrad in a stolen jeep—the comic’s going to be about the long winter of 1941, with lots of starvation, desperation, murder, and betrayal. If the boys aren’t trying to screw each other over, their parents are trying to screw them over by proxy.
For the most part, Anka and Grigory remain the most sympathetic, though Grigory’s arc is mostly just thinking his mom’s a slut and mooning over dead dad. And even though he’s always trying to pressure Anka into sex, Maxim’s not as craven as his party member father.
Writer van Rijckeghem will occasionally try to texture the story—there’s a footnote explaining the historical accuracy of a Santa Claus analog—but he’s mostly contemptuous of his characters. There’s whataboutism with the Nazi’s attack (Stalin’s bad too, you know), and the boys aren’t so much friends as all hounding Anka and being collaborators in that effort. Everyone thinks Grigory’s dad’s a traitor, everyone thinks Pyotr’s parents are traitors, everyone thinks Maxim’s dad’s a party stooge—the only one no one comments on is Anka’s controlling, abusive dad.
There’s a running “Stalin banned x” gag, which is the closest the book ever comes to having successful comic relief. Unfortunately, Van Rijckeghem ruins it by making it into a pressuring Anka moment, but for a while, it’s all right. And it leans into the hustling nature of the characters’ lives in Soviet Russia in wartime. Everyone’s trying to survive, one way or another. Some folks just spend most of their time soapboxing about others… Anka does not.
She’s the female savior, just like the female officer in the bookends; she’ll make everything all right for the boys. Nothing else matters. The comic even ends on that note, which is a particular flex given the third act. Van Rijckeghem blunders a doppelgänger arc something fierce.
Speaking of blunders, de Caju’s got some awful moments. He’s got dead characters coming back to life—after not clearly dying—and then his action sequences can be nonsensical. More frustratingly, he’s got some good panels, where he’s clearly worked on the characters and their expressions, but they’re few and far between. Everything else is rushed, with faces sometimes looking copied and pasted.
Then all the shading is in the digital coloring, and there’s no real inking.
The cityscapes are all pretty solid, though.
Lions of Leningrad has its compelling, devastating moments—there are cannibal gangs during the long winter, for instance—but it’s never edifying as historical fiction. Van Rijckeghem’s just not a good enough writer to trust the historicity. He’s also got a substantial unaddressed plot hole, and everyone just has to go with it for the story to work. Then the trite bookends don’t pay off, except to reinforce the female savior stuff.
Someone’s got to save the boys, after all. They sure can’t be expected to do it themselves.