One of my favorite archetypes in all of fiction is when kids or teens are thrust into extreme or exaggerated situations. The idea has launched entertaining and resonant series (Rick and Morty, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) by contrasting the perils of saving the world with acne and geometry tests. At the same time, those works who serve only as fodder for saccharine, teeny-bopper fantasies (Twilight, Divergent, etc.) miss the point entirely.
Milan K.: The Teenage Years is a book very much struggling to find its footing within these extra rocky terrains.
(The three books debuted in 2014 and are now being released as a paperback October 25th.)
Written by Sam Timel, and with art by Corentin, Milan K. is like Johnny Quest meets Jack Ryan. We’re introduced to Mikhail “Misha” Khodorov, son of a wealthy Russian oligarch. When his father is assassinated in prison, and his family is executed via exploding airliner, Mikhail must travel to the US with his trusted bodyguard/de facto dad, Igor, to hide out.
What follows his accidental reemergence is an international tale of political intrigue, corporate takeovers, and, of course, ample action, with the newly renamed Milan K. trying to get back at the Russian government and recapture his family’s wealth to build his own empire while keeping his head. The tome checks all the major boxes: shootouts, motorcycle chases, funny sidekicks, pretty girls, a story-saving con job, and the sweetest hairdo this side of 1984 Duran Duran.
It’s clear from page one that Timel is building an entire world around Milan. To do so, Timel’s repurposed our very own planet circa 2006, tinkering with key events and players to amp up the drama. So, for instance, by utilizing the November 2006 poisoning of former Russian FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko as a plot point, the story not only feels more grounded in reality, but picks up on those same veins of hysteria and paranoia. As whimsical as a teen counter-terrorist seems, steps are taken to keep him close enough to real life, like some news story that slipped our collective conscious.
At the same time, Timel is overly committed with maintaining realism. Even for an origins story, far too much time is spent in the minutiae of constructing Milan’s little universe. So much of the first couple books is spent not racing through city streets, but in the boardroom dealing with stock options and certificates of ownership. Sure, it’s the sort of thing Milan would actually face, but generally people want a greater ratio of shoot-outs to meetings with a CFO. When we do reach a high point of action or drama, it can feel engaging and powerful. There should be more time allotted to explore the human elements of the story and less time for bureaucracy that can be delivered in smaller, efficient doses.
That desire for the book to get out into the world more is aided in part by Corentin’s art work. The whole 150-plus pages is reminiscent of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s work on Casanova: Characters always seem to be both gorgeous and exploding with a constant sense of movement. That can do a lot to push the story along in subtle ways, even as Timel’s narrative may be hunkered down momentarily in so many meetings. The artwork also manages to hit a sweet spot between European comics, with plenty of intense lines, and the nostalgia of ’60s cartoons (think a glossier version of The Marvel Super Heroes). It’s all of these factors that create a world where grit and fantasy walk together hand-in-hand.
Beyond stellar art, what ultimately makes the book effective – or not, in some instances – is the characters. On the side of evil, we have Russian President Vladimir Palin, a satire of Vladimir Putin so obvious he just should’ve been called Bladimir Rutin. But that one-sided-ness works, as Palin is meant to be this ruthless tyrant who wants nothing more than to steal a poor orphan’s money and leave him in a ditch – no matter how many many crimes against humanity that entails. There’s a purity to that (and more comic book nostalgia), and even though it’s not an accurate depiction of any world leader, it certainly plays on fears of what someone like Putin is capable of. A villain to haunt your psyche, operating in a world blending stark reality and whatever dark visions we might muster. Palin feels like a proper supervillain, and the perfect foil of someone so young and optimistic as Milan.
At the same time, our precocious hero doesn’t exactly deliver the emotional impact and depth we’d want for someone with his own series. Sure, it’s easy to identify with Milan’s whole arc, and beyond saving himself, Igor, and his family’s wealth/status, there are plenty of connective opportunities. Yet as clear as those motivations may appear, Milan moves about like a mostly apathetic teen, showing only the bare minimum of interest in these goals and little zeal for being a globe-trotting paladin of justice. Is Milan’s pragmatism just a sign of maturity for his age? Maybe. Is that disconnect and uncertainty a hallmark of youth? Ugh, yes, dad. However, for a book about a teenage mish-mash of Che Guevara and Bill Gates, Milan feels like a passenger in his journey, half asleep in a very real world. It’s the wrong time for the creators to go subtle, and Milan needs to be a bigger presence for the story as a whole to work.
Milan K. is a great addition to the “super teen” canon in that it doesn’t shy away from placing teens in a world that is terrifying and unjust. That may not always be the most compelling or well-executed narrative, but it’s still an engaging and entertaining series that can (hopefully) rely more heavily on key strengths down the road.
If nothing else, it sure beats books about teenage fallen angels.