Skull & Bones trade paperback, $15.95 US, published by Moonstone Books
Writer & Artist: Ed Hannigan; Art Assists: Curt Swan; Cover: Ron Leary
Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
Ed Hannigan is probably best known for co-creating the Marvel characters Cloak & Dagger, and for re-designing DC Comics villain Brainiac in a new robotic form. One of his other great works, unfortunately overlooked until now, was Skull & Bones, a miniseries published by DC in 1992 which deftly blended the genres of superheroes and spy thrillers.
Skull & Bones, set in the late 1980s during the final days of the Cold War, is the story of Andrian Linov, a former member of the Spetsnaz, the Soviet Union’s elite special forces division. Deployed to Afghanistan, the moody Linov defects to the side of the resistance movement after witnessing the atrocities his Soviet compatriots are inflicting upon the civilian population. Linov soon realizes that the brutal Mujahideen are scarcely better in their tactics than the Soviet invaders. Disgusted by this, and the blase attitude of the American military advisors to the Mujahideen, the weary Linov departs Afghanistan. He returns home to the USSR, hoping to utilize his skills in combat and sabotage to help topple his repressive government.
The homeland Linov returns to is a morass, a brutal totalitarian regime slowly crumbling from within after decades of corruption, shortsightedness, and inefficiency. Linov hopes to hasten the fall of the tottering Soviet giant by assassinating the head members of the Communist Party. But he is contacted by an old friend, the computer hacker Feliks, and informed of a dark scheme spearheaded by Linov’s former mentor Sergei Kozakhov. The ruthless, cynical Kozakhov has obtained a deadly biological weapon, one he intends to use to reshape the globe. Linov, along with Feliks and Kozakhov’s niece Nadejda, set out to thwart this doomsday scenario.
Hannigan must have conducted an immense amount of research before creating Skull & Bones. The historical, social and political atmosphere of the Soviet Union is explored in detail throughout the story. Likewise, the visual accuracy of Hannigan’s renderings of real-word settings appears meticulous. Skull & Bones is not just a riveting thriller, but an examination of a foreign culture, as well as an introspective character study.
The protagonist, Andrian Linov, is a study in contradictions. He is an individual who might very well have become an unquestioning killer like his fellow Spetsnaz recruits, were it not for the fact that, unknown to his Soviet masters, he secretly discovered that his parents had died in the Soviet labor camps. Linov deplores the violence and repression being perpetrated by the Soviets against innocent people. Yet he is ready to use equally violent measures against his enemies, even if his actions might result in civilian casualties. Linov straddles the very thin line that can often separate a freedom fighter from a terrorist.
Feliks, the computer wizard who conducts an underground campaign to disrupt the Soviet government and disseminate information to the populace, appears to see himself as some sort of cult hero. He gives himself the flashy name of “Elektrik Feliks,” a flamboyantly defiant gesture of contempt to the Communist Party. The authorities know he exists, but they do not know who he is or where he’s located. Enamored with the miraculous possibilities of modern technology, Feliks has convinced himself that he can conduct a revolution from behind a keyboard and keep his hands clean in the process.
As for Nadejda, her family connections have allowed her to live a privileged lifestyle while flirting with political dissidence. It is only when her boyfriend is murdered as part of her uncle’s machinations that Nadejda finally realizes how sheltered her life has been. And it is her association with Linov and Feliks to halt Kozakhov’s scheme that finally allows her to make a true difference.
Even the antagonist of Skull & Bones, Sergei Kozakhov, is a complicated individual. Coming from a tragic childhood, and having seen from within the Soviet infrastructure the worst that humanity has to offer, Kozakhov has adopted a fatalistic outlook that motivates his nihilistic philosophies. In the end, the reader is left unsure whether to hate him, or pity him.
In retrospect, there is also a chillingly prescient aspect to Skull & Bones. At the story’s start, while still in Afghanistan, Linov is meeting with Prindel, a cocky CIA agent sent to assist the resistance. When Linov points out that the Mujahideen are never going to be able to bring political stability to the country, Prindel expresses disinterest. His only goal is to obstruct the Soviet Union. Anything that occurs in Afghanistan after the Russian forces withdraw is none of his concern. “Wake me up when they threaten the real world,” he sarcastically tells Linov. It was exactly that sort of near-sighted, short-term thinking that would, two decades later, indirectly lead to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Keep in mind that Hannigan wrote this scene back in the early 1990s.
Hannigan’s artwork on Skull & Bones is stunning, a noir-styled depiction of a bleak, shadowy world. The centerpiece of Hannigan’s work would be the character of Linov who, in one of the series’ concessions to superhero tropes, is dressed as a skeleton. The reasoning behind this is to inflict psychological warfare. Indeed, as depicted by Hannigan, the death-garbed Linov is a sinister, macabre figure.
Hannigan puts a tremendous amount of detail into much of the artwork, giving the story simultaneously a sweeping scope and gritty detail. As I mentioned before, Hannigan’s research undoubtedly paid dividends in accurately depicting the Soviet Union of the late 1980s, with meticulous renderings of settings. At the same time, Hannigan knows when to use tight panels to convey a mood of suspense and claustrophobia. Some of it is a bit reminiscent of Spanish comic book artist Jordi Bernet.
Legendary Superman artist Curt Swan is credited with “art assist” for the final chapter of Skull & Bones. I really cannot see much of his work present. Perhaps it’s there in the double page crowd scene at the beginning of the chapter? I’m not certain. It’d be interesting to learn exactly where Swan contributed to the book.
It appears that the trade paperback was shot directly from Hannigan’s original artwork. You can see the faint hint a blue line pencil correction here and there, as well as what might be slightly darker lines in the middle from stitching together scans of the pages. I have not seen the original printing of Skull & Bones, but I imagine this method, as well as the black & white printing, allowed a lot of the detail of Hannigan’s art to be seen more clearly.
The trade paperback edition of Skull & Bones from Moonstone is topped off by a stunning painted cover by Ron Leary, which is based on a drawing by Hannigan itself. Leary’s low-lit depiction of the armed, costumed Linov making his way through a sprawl of dead bodies appropriately captures the mood of the book.
The only complaint I had concerning Skull & Bones was that Hannigan has the characters speaking in Russian dialogue in a number of places throughout the story. While this does add to the atmosphere of authenticity, unfortunately I am not fluent in the Cyrillic alphabet. Nor, I suspect, are most American readers. Perhaps it would have been better to have the entire story in English.
That minor point aside, Skull & Bones is an extremely well-written, well-drawn graphic novel. Apparently it was mostly overlooked when DC published it back in 1992. I very vaguely recall seeing it floating about back then. Even if I had read it then, I was a teenager who was pretty much into mainstream superheroes, so I doubt I would have really appreciated it. Fortunately, Moonstone has been able to collect Ed Hannigan’s miniseries together, so now a new generation of readers has a chance to discover it.