Germany, April 1945. The war is nearly over: Germany is overrun by the Russian army. However, General Guderian is approached by General Sankt with a different sort of army, the results of Projekt U in a classified location on the Swiss/Austria border, where Doctor Freya Bergen is assisting human experiments … Guderian brings Sankt’s ‘reinforcements’ to the Twelfth Army at Beelitz, south west of Berlin, where he convinces Sankt of the necessity to save the pinned-down Ninth Army; this leads to the deployment of Werner Frei – Battleship Siegmund, First Ubermensch Army. The Battle of Beelitz, 29–30 April 1945, is the first ubermensch engagement and Siegmund annihilates the First Ukrainian Front, saves the Ninth Army and changes the course of the war (in our world, Hitler killed himself on 30 April).
The other super-powered members of the First Ubermensch Army are Markus Jung (Battleship Siegfried), who is at the Reichstag, and Klaudia Hoch (Battleship Sieglinde), who is at the Zoo Flak Tower, west of Tiergarten, Berlin, where thousands of civilians are living. Both use their powers to rout the Soviet troops, with the aid of the Panzermensch, the ‘rank and file’ superpowered army, in the Battle of Berlin that results in one million soldiers surrendering.
Hitler, after being close to suicide, is now back to his manic best: he orders Battleship Siegfried to exterminate the prisoners of war. A Rubicon has been crossed, and the war is now a very different situation. The Battleship Class Ubermensch protect Berlin from daylight bombing, although it does put a strain on Sieglinde – the ubermensch cannot keep going forever and need time to recharge, dependent on how overactive they have been.
Meanwhile, Doctor Bergen has been revealed to be a spy for the Allies – she kills the first Panzermensch in action and blows up Projekt U. When she returns to London, she explains the process by which the ubermensch have been created to Churchill (and us): ‘Woden’s Blood’ is a crystalline compound that takes time to mature before it can be used (she blew up their vats and has stolen most of the German reserves) to transform humans, but only one in five thousand (it kills everyone else). However, it is not new technology; it’s something the Germans found written in an ‘alien’ language, and Stephanie aka Bergen has stolen copies for the code breakers to work out the full process. Bletchley Park is also the site of the testing to discover Allied soldiers who will be able to withstand the process and become ‘Overmen’ (allowing for a cameo for Alan Turing).
The need to develop Allied Overmen is apparent now that Hitler has become even more power crazy: he uses Siegfried to kill General Sankt, the man who brought him the ubermensch (although Sankt expected this because he passed on his notes to his adjutant, Scheele, with orders to taken the notes and herself to General Guderian after Sankt was sent to report to the Fuhrer) and then ignores Guderian’s sensible strategies in favour of ‘opera’. Siegmund is sent to East Prussia; Siegfried is sent to Romania to reclaim German oil supplies; and Sieglinde is sent to Paris to send a message to the world. The Allies are aware of this and the Battle of Paris sees the first enhanced human battlefield with the deployment of His Majesty’s Man Colossus against Sieglinde …
As Gillen mentioned in interviews, this is not the first comic book to have Nazis creating supermen during the Second World War (my first thought was Grant Morrison’s Zenith, for example), but it is perhaps the first to go for the ‘authentic’ approach instead of the traditional comic book approach to superhero stories set during that time. This story has historical figures in it – Hitler, Speer, Churchill, Montgomery – in addition to the other characters, and it is obvious that there has been a lot of research into the timeline and background of the Second World War.
(Interestingly, the idea for the book came from Editor In Chief of Avatar, William Petersen, who brought it to Gillen, who developed the story beyond the scope of the original plot. Also, this is not a creator-owned book, which is unusual for well-known writers working at the company; however, it is obvious that it is an Avatar book because of the level of gore – the artwork does not stint on eviscerations and bodies being destroyed and intestines flying everywhere, which is appropriate to the nature of the reality of war. Caanan White is not an artist I’m familiar with, but he is a solid storyteller with a good grasp of period and action – there are many battles and fight scenes, obviously, and White keeps it clear and straightforward.)
The level of detail and the reportage style mean that the book avoids accusations of exploitation of history (this is not Inglourious Basterds). Gillen has created a surprisingly respectful book that happens to involve German superbeings; he is fascinated by the bad things that people do and the monsters that they become and the terrible things done in the process. The scope of the story that he can tell is huge and he is treating it very seriously, as should be expected – there isn’t much fun in the book, although occasional funny lines squeeze through: when Sankt is asked if what is happening is disastrous, he replies, ‘Not as much as electing an Austrian peasant’. However, this is a very good book that makes you think beyond the simple conceit of ‘Nazi supermen’.
Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.