Uber created by writer Kieron Gillen with art from Canaan White, Daniel Gete and Gabriel Andrade first appeared in early 2013 and since then has consistently been one of the best written, engrossing and thought provoking on-going comics around.
A million miles away from the superhero antics of Marvel and DC Uber from indie publisher Avatar is a dark tale of an alternate history which starts in April 1945 days before the fall of Berlin and collapse of the Third Reich. The Germans have been hard at work with a secret programme to develop enhanced soldiers, a breakthrough leads to certain defeat becoming an unlikely victory opening a new chapter of the war.
The story is in essence an arms race between the various different factions on the world stage, only instead of munitions, the arms in question are super powered soldiers. Gillen’s writing has a depth that makes this far more engrossing than some throwaway “what if Nazi’s had superpowers?” escapism. The tone and approach is just as serious as if this was a historically accurate retelling of the story of World War II. The story is packed with historical detail with Gillen doing plenty of research along with hashing out the underlying framework for the narrative before even beginning the story.
The story features a large cast of characters including historical figures like Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin amongst others as the scene of the action shifts from various locations in the global conflict. Some of the various other characters include Freya (real name Stephanie) a deep cover British agent who has been working on the Nazi’s top secret Projekt U, Maria a Russian sniper and the three Nazi Ubermensch or “Battleships” Klaudia, Markus and Werner who have the codenames Sieglinde, Siegfried and Siegmund.
Projekt U has resulted in various different manifestations for the Nazi’s varying in levels of power. The Ubermensch or Battleships Siegmund, Siegfried and Sieglinde are the most powerful and change the course of the war. The trio are capable of decimating whole platoons of soldiers , demonstrating invulnerability being able to shrug off gun fire and heavy artillery, massively enhanced strength being able to pick up tanks and the ability to project devastating energy blasts which shred flesh and bone with ease. The trio are walking weapons of mass destruction with the Nazi’s on a seemingly unstoppable path.
Projekt U, the Germans top secret project is derived from resources of unknown (alien) origin, a text which has only been partly translated. This is a move which leaves plenty of potential for future developments narratively and mirrors the constantly changing reality of war with trying to develop new weapons, distribution methods and tactics being part of any war effort.
Unlike most stories though this isn’t a narrative based around protagonists and antagonists and there aren’t really any main characters as such with the narrative shifting from location to location initially focussing on the Germans and the British before shifting to look at other nations in the conflict. There’s a moral ambiguity which permeates throughout about the costs of war, Stephanie for example is party to horrendous and horrific experiments working on Projekt U to gather intel for the British war effort whilst the Nazi’s after being portrayed as stock villains or harmless bogeymen in countless stories are terrifying.
As a result of not really having a main character for the narrative to hinge on the story becomes completely unpredictable and shifts, twists and turns to impressive effect. The dynamic between the three battleships and the power plays within the higher echelons of the Nazi forces drive the narrative in Germany. One of the best narrative feats that Gillen has achieved is managing to craft a story which makes the Nazi’s a genuinely terrifying threat but also renders them as people rather than just “evil”.
The 3 distinct battleships are a great example, whilst initially they are rendered somewhat distantly as the human tanks they are for the war effort later their characters emerge more, Klaudia is haunted by her past and fuelled by vengeance but takes little pleasure in the slaughter of innocents and is all too aware that they can never win the war merely ensure everyone loses, Markus by contrast is a psychopathic hardcore fanatic steadfastly loyal to the Nazi cause and revels in the slaughter and carnage he wreaks on the battlefield which puts him at odds with his fellow battleships, Werner meanwhile despite being a loyal and patriotic soldier like Klaudia doesn’t enjoy the carnage and as the first battleship deployed experiences first hand how the people actually see him and the other battleships – as the stuff of nightmares.
Combat in Uber is just as grim and brutal as you might expect with unwary allied forces being slaughtered in initial encounters with the battleships. Later cities and civilians become collateral as the German battleships fight against allied enhanced soldiers and regular forces. This sweeping carnage plays to Klaudia’s idea of nobody winning and everybody losing in a race towards mutually assured destruction. Avatar has built a reputation for “no holds barred” titles aimed at adult readers and this is fundamental to Uber’s success. Free from editorial constraints the story is as grim, brutal and horrifying as any story rooted in World War II is only more so. Uber has been accused of being morally and ethically questionable (Gillen has written addressing these concerns and how he struggles with them himself) some have even accused Gillen and co of being Nazi sympathisers which considering Canaan White has created most of the art for Uber is pretty ignorant.
The story, like any war story, is just as much about the manoeuvring and tactics of war far from the battlefields as it is about the actual battles themselves with scenes in the Cabinet War Rooms of London, Bletchley Park and various other places as things unfold.
The art throughout Uber is impressive from the claustrophobic confines of Churchill’s War Rooms to rubble and corpse strewn streets and much more besides. Uber is definitely not for the squeamish with stunningly visceral art throughout which never loses its punch and is just as endlessly surprising as the narrative itself.
The first three volumes of Uber collecting together the first 17 issues are on indie comic shop shelves now, go buy them there they’ll appreciate the business.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in a somewhat different form over at Backseatmafia.com