It’s graphic novels such as Ascent that truly make the medium come alive as a form of storytelling. Many people still shrug off graphic novels as nothing more than housing for yet more spandex clad super heroes or brightly coloured pop drivel to melt the minds of a younger generation. It is this short-sighted opinion that allows books like this fall through the cracks of the literary world.
Ascent is the graphic novel version of Jed Mercurio’s novel of the same name. The book concentrates on a young man named Yefgenii Yeremin, an orphan of the Second World War who soon excels in school and aims his sights on becoming a jet pilot. After planting his rival and school bully face down in a sewer, Yefgenii enters flight school and soon becomes one of the ace pilots so glorified by the Americans.
Yefgenii fights in the Korean War in unadorned jets, he has no name as his missions are under vast secrecy. After killing many opposing pilots, Yefgenii becomes the number one ace pilot in the world but this is wholly unknown, he is a secret, nobody knows his name or his achievements. This is the beginning of a lonely and unseen life.
Yefgenii’s story is bleak and tragic. He spends his time watching the world idolise men who are beneath him in talent and skill, he can never revel in the success of his life. He is soon abandoned in the Arctic circle and wiped further from history by the Russian government, only after a daring manoeuvre in the skies do they remember him and he is asked to pilot a shuttle to land on the moon before the Americans.
Much of the book is a “what could have happened” or “alternate reality” spin on what we already know. As Yefgenii journeys through his life he is constantly on the outskirts and can only watch Aldrin, Armstrong, Gagarin, etc move onwards and upwards to space and the Moon. This leads to the final and suspenseful part where Yefgenii leaves his family and ventures into space on an almost suicide mission.
Ascent is utterly gripping. After a slow first 30 pages the story of this lonely young man completely absorbs you into a World of unfairness and celebrity. While we may not agree with war, we all agree that heroes should be recognised and carried on our collective shoulders. Mercurio’s story puts us in Yefgenii’s shoes brilliantly. His writing is dreamlike and beautiful, even when describing the horrors of war or the movement through the air of a jet.
“Some days the trails floated in the sky for hours after the battle. The loser’s ended in the knot of an impossible manoeuvre. But his always pointed home.”
Of course being a graphic novel the story and writing are only half of the work. Wesley Robins’ illustration is beguiling and sucks the reader in, fully enrapturing you in a bland palette of colours. It’s in the characters faces where much of the story is told and communicates. The sadness in the eyes of Yefgenii hits home often and heightens the bond between the audience and the emotion.
But it’s not just the subtle details that shine. The air combat is sleek and sharp showing not only the speed and excitement but also the horror of such deaths. Robins’ work truly elevates the material to another level. I am now yearning to read Mercurio’s original novel.
Ascent is a marvellous piece of fiction that truly shows the human condition and conveys the loneliness that can be found in life.