World War II is one of the most popular settings for any kind of fiction, be it genre or otherwise. It’s got immense amounts of conflict and tragedy, and it’s got clearly defined heroes and villains with memorable uniforms and everything. Mixing in superhumans is also nothing new – it’s been going on since Captain America first picked up the shield and went about punching Adolf Hitler. So when Avatar’s Über #0 came out from current Iron Man writer Kieron Gillen, featuring artist Caanan White’s rendering of a burly, bulletproof Superman-type in a Nazi uniform on the cover, it might be understandable if it just seemed like one more bit of stylized WW2 fiction on the shelf. Truth be told, in the afterword of the issue, Gillen seems almost embarrassed to be treading over such well-worn ground. However, he also has a mission to reclaim the horrors of war from the hands of stylized genre writers before the memory of World War II becomes something like the completely bastardized future depiction in this notable Perry Bible Fellowship strip.
Gillen states that “this is a book mainly from anger and despair,” and he sets a very determined tone for the series by saying “I didn’t want to write a book about superhumans. I wanted to write a book about humans and their relationship with power. I hope you find it fascinating and compelling. I hope you don’t enjoy it.”
That’s not something you hear very often from a writer, but it makes perfect sense with the story he’s telling. Sure, the “ubermensch” notion isn’t new – hell, Grant Morrison just mentioned there will be another exploration of that in his upcoming Multiversity – but Gillen isn’t going to turn this into a flashy superhero battle. Instead, this is a deathly serious examination of what would happen if, in the waning hours of Hitler’s regime, the Nazis finally finished the “wunderwaffen,” and that extended the conflict beyond its original end. We’re not looking at some highfalutin imaginary future where the Nazis have conquered – we are following the war as if any sort of new weapon had been developed to stave off German defeat.
The set-up to the wunderwaffen is that there are three “Battleship” style ubers, and then a great deal more “Panzermensch” soldiers – the latter are tough, enhanced superhumans, but the Battleships are crazy powerful – although none of them can fly, and they aren’t without limitations. They have refractory periods, so they’re good for brutal offensives but not so much for holding lines. In Über #0, we meet the three Battleships – Werner Frei, aka Battleship Sigmund, Markus Jung, aka Battleship Sigfried, and Klaudia Hoch, aka Battleship Sieglinde, each with a seemingly different moral makeup. Talking about powers and limits and such is what comic fans tend to gravitate towards, but that’s not what Gillen is doing here. He’s showing us the absolute brutality of war, utterly unromanticized.
We see the Russians closing in on Berlin, wreaking savage havoc on all in their path, including some with the philosophy that “it’s not rape if it’s Germans.” We see a Doctor Freya Bergen running “Projekt U” on the Swiss/Austrian border, which is mostly a death camp with the ambition of finding the rare genetics that allow for the ubermensch process to take hold, and we see her painfully killing Poles in the testing process – with a sense of suppressed remorse and planned skullduggery. We see people bleeding out in agony on the streets, the carnage and devastation wrought by the Battleships and the delight Jung takes in it. The tide has turned back a bit, and the bloody conflict isn’t over when we needed it to be over.
It’s not until Über #1 when we see Hitler on the verge of killing himself. with Eva Braun already gone, when word of the success of the wunderwaffen reaches him, and renews his resolve. We learn that Dr. Bergen is a double agent who has had to sell her soul in the name of duty, but is now planning to deliver the ‘overman’ process to the Allies – if she can get out of Nazi-controlled territory. We have Nazi generals debating the methods of tending to their Russian P.O.W.s when Hitler eliminates the headache by having Jung brutally slaughter hundreds, maybe thousands of them in one fell swoop in a mass extermination.
This is an ugly story. Heavy and challenging. This isn’t a gee-whiz Red Skull version of Nazis, but the actual monsters they were, simply with a new weapon at their disposal. Gillen and White do not shy away from the grim horrors of war. The only thing that feels a little off so far is the odd little woman “Katyusha” Maria, a quirky Russian sniper who loots watches and dresses in stolen uniforms. She’s the only part of this story that feels too ‘comic booky,’ but I imagine Gillen has a larger plan for her that will become clear in future issues. White’s artwork is dark and solid, detailed and gory, although something about his faces can seem a bit too “busy,” so to speak. Only a minor complaint, as the shadowed, unflinching brutality of his work really serves the intended tone of Gillen’s work.
Über trades on historical realities for its fiction, although Gillen freely admits that he’s certain hardened World War II experts would catch things he’s missed or messed up. He also stresses that he’s not Garth Ennis, whose knowledge of war minutiae is legendary. Gillen’s focusing more on the conflict between humanity and the atrocities they are capable of perpetrating – what that does to a person, and the struggle to keep one’s soul in the savage madness of it all. He’s right about this not being a book to “enjoy.” But it’s certainly a book worth reading.