Dead Kings #5 Lauren Affe, Thomas Mauer, Steve Orlando, Matthew Dow Smith Aftershock Comics May 29, 2019 For its full five-issue run, Aftershock Comics’ Dead Kings has told a story that’s equally about war and about redemption, and the book's final issue completes that story with a practically pitch-perfect ending. Set in the fictional Thrice-Nine, the
Dead Kings #5
Lauren Affe, Thomas Mauer, Steve Orlando, Matthew Dow Smith
May 29, 2019
For its full five-issue run, Aftershock Comics’ Dead Kings has told a story that’s equally about war and about redemption, and the book’s final issue completes that story with a practically pitch-perfect ending. Set in the fictional Thrice-Nine, the former state of Rus that fell twenty years prior in the Great Steel War, Sasha Vasnetsov wants to liberate his twin brother, Gennady, from an labor camp for gay men run by the oppressive Oprichniki regime. To do so, he enlists the help of Maria Kamenaya, better known as Stone Mary, a veteran of the Great Steel War who had fought in a Steel Polianitsa war habit, and is still haunted by the reality of what she did in the War before she turned on her commanders for asking her to betray her morality. Together, Sasha and Mary have journeyed to the “Reconstruction Barracks” in Sochi where Gena is being held, and with issue #5, they are poised to liberate the camp and to free Gena and the other men.
In the series’ final issue, Steve Orlando delivers a conclusion that gives closure to the narratives of all three principle characters and that digs into the themes of the horrors of war and the drive for redemption. Redemption looks different for Sasha and for Mary; Sasha trying to make amends for failing to stand up for Gena in the face of homophobia in the past, Mary regretting orders she had followed in the Great Steel War and the war crimes she had committed in the name of Rus. But for each of them, they find their redemption through action and through facing the horrors war inflicts. By working to disrupt the system they had both enabled through the actions they regret, Sasha and Mary evolve as characters and gain closure.
In this issue, Mary says that she’s not a liberator and has never claimed to be, but in Dead Kings, Mary and Sasha both become liberators through necessity as they seek redemption, just as Gena becomes a liberator through the necessity of survival. There’s no glory in war in Dead Kings, just a chance to do right because it must be done. Stone Mary, in particular, is a war hero of the Great Steel War, but at no point in Dead Kings does Mary believe she is truly a hero. She’s haunted by what she did in the war and by the nerve pain she has never been able to escape, but she seems to regard herself as a weapon more than a retired war hero. In this issue, Mary stops trying to die to atone for her war crimes, and makes the choice to “start a new chapter” by continuing to fight to free her home. War never really ends for people, like Mary, who once lived through it. But by returning to the front lines, Mary regains the agency she felt she had lost as a Steel Polianitsa, and returns to war because she believes in her cause is right and worth fighting for.
This issue brought Sasha, Mary, and Gena’s arcs to satisfying closure, finding a conclusion in ongoing resistance. The paths the protagonists of Dead Kings take going forward from the end of this story are all different forms of resistance against the oppressive regime controlling Thrice-Nine, whether in Mary or Sasha’s sacrifices to oppose the Oprichniki or in Gena’s choice to remain in Thrice-Nine as an act of defiance against a homophobic regime. In giving his characters ongoing ways to stand against the Oprichniki, Orlando finishes his story in a manner that feels satisfying and optimistic, but reminds audiences that the hard work of standing up for what you believe never truly ends. Dead Kings functions perfectly as a five-issue mini-series, completing the story it set out to tell and contextualizing it as part of a larger narrative. Gena and Sasha’s story might have reached a close, but the war to liberate their home continues on, and this issue’s ending honors both that there must be an close to the individual battle, but that the wider war started long before issue #1, and will continue long beyond issue #5.
Throughout its run, Dead Kings has never shied away from pointing to the darker undersides of war, with Stone Mary’s nerve damage and enduring guilt over the orders she followed in the war shaping how Sasha came to understand war and its costs. This issue continues in that vein, in a way many superhero comics often feel unable to do. Dead Kings #5 completes its story in a manner that feels honest to the hard realities of wartime: people die in war, and while they’re never forgotten, there are no true resurrections to be found. The victory in this issue is one that happens through sacrifice, and whether or not it was necessary, it is irreversible. I opened the issue expecting to see all three protagonists skirt around fatal odds to emerge victorious, as I’ve learned to expect reading superhero comics, but was surprised by the fall-out of the battle to liberate Gena and the other prisoners, unprepared for anything but unilateral victory. In its final issue, Dead Kings does not shy away from the grief and sacrifice that are an inescapable part of war, even in Sasha and Mary’s righteous war to liberate the prison camp in Sochi.
Dow Smith’s art fits the tone and tenor of the story seamlessly, but the true standout element of this issue to me was colorist Lauren Affe’s work. Affe’s colors in this issue do a wonderful job at initially delineating the contrasting spaces of the front lines of wartime and of the home, with Sasha and Gena’s childhood home where their mother waits for them a study in cool blues, purples, and grays, and the fight to liberate the Sochi reconstruction barracks lit up orange and bright white with fire and explosions. But as the issue ends, the sun rises orange over Sasha and Gena’s home, and soldiers stand in shades of gray under a purple sky. The distinction between the front lines and the home no longer matter, as the work for the freedom of Thrice-Nine from Oprichniki rule has to happen on both fronts, as the people of Thrice-Nine go forwards to liberate their home.
Dead Kings #5 is a well-earned conclusion to the story that Orlando, Dow Smith, Affe, and Mauer have set out to tell, wrapping up an excellent five-issue series with poignancy. This is one of the strongest mini-series of the year so far, treating nuanced topics with complexity, and seeing its characters through to the end of the story with dynamic development. In each of its composite parts, Dead Kings shines, and the complete series is a fresh, interesting, and beautifully illustrated read.