A Great Lost Artist And His Unsung Masterpiece: Edvin Biukovic And ‘Devils & Deaths’
Comic artist Edvin Biukovic died fifteen years ago this month at just 30 years old. His death was obviously a terrible loss to those who knew and loved him. It was also a terrible loss to the comic industry; Biukovic never received the level of lasting acclaim or recognition that his talent deserved, and produced relatively few works. Yet he was one of the finest comic artists of his generation.
Biukovic published several works in his native Croatia that have sadly never been translated. His finished English-language works include a couple of Star Wars stories published at Dark Horse, and the first of Peter Milligan's Human Target stories for Vertigo. One work stands as his masterpiece; Devils And Deaths, written by his long-time friend and collaborator Darko Macan, and published by Dark Horse, is a science fiction story about a country torn apart by ancient grudges and tribal conflicts, and of the desperate people trying to eke out a purpose in the midst of war.
This choice of subject matter for Devils & Deaths was not an abstract meditation on the horrors of war. Buikovic and Macan were born in Croatia when it was still a Socialist Republic. The Croatian War of Independence was ongoing at the point that these stories were conceived. In her introduction to Devils And Deaths, co-editor Diana Schutz recalls Macan telling her quite casually that the war was sixty miles away when they spoke on the phone.
The collected Devils And Deaths is actually two stories -- a two-parter, 'Devils And Deaths', about a dying soldier trying to do one last honorable thing; and a four-parter, 'Devil's Choices', about his brother trying to be a good soldier in a bad war. Other stories weave around them, most notably the rise and fall of a warlord, and a young family forced to choose between their own peace and being a small part of something greater. It's smart, raw, and beautifully observed storytelling.
Biukovic excelled at finding the intimacy in the story; in drawing the reader in to discover the passion and intensity of his characters. His pages breathed because the characters lived from moment to moment and their expressions and their bodies shift to show frustration, rage, doubt, mania.
Biukovic also understood how to stage his pages. He could draw the reader in to a kiss by a tree, hold us steady in a moment of reverence by the ocean, or hurl us into the action of a battlefield, all with equal assurance. The way Biukovic angled his action scenes allowed him to be relatively sparing with motion lines; the characters and the environment sold his action, just as they sold his emotion. One character's execution by firing squad is presented as powerfully as such a scene could be; the next page offers four panels that wordlessly show how the executed party immediately becomes a martyr.
Devils And Deaths is a truly extraordinary work, and one of the great science fiction testimonies of life in the late 20th century. Schutz, again in her introduction, notes that the first story came to Dark Horse as an unsolicited submission. Very few publishers will now look at such submissions, because few great works ever emerge from the slush pile. Few, but not none. Devils And Deaths is proof of that.
Yet the book is not as celebrated as it deserves to be. Its full title is Grendel Tales: Devils And Deaths, and that title may have limited the book's reach. I don't mean that as any slight to the Grendel series or to its creator Matt Wagner, but anyone unfamiliar with Grendel may think the book isn't for them, and anyone who loves Grendel may not have given time to Grendel stories by authors other than Wagner.
Yet one does not need to know Grendel to understand Devils And Deaths; I had never read another Grendel story before I read it. The world is informed by Wagner's creation, but Devils And Deaths establishes its own story and is complete in itself. If the work were better known and better read, it would be in the pantheon of comics' great works; and Biukovic would be remembered as one of the medium's great lost talents.
One other Biukovic comic deserves mention; 'A Prayer To The Sun' is a short story also written by Macan, and published after Biukovic's death in the Vertigo anthology Weird War Tales. It serves the same themes as Devils And Deaths; it's a heartbreaking contemplation of the tragedies of war and the futility of hope, covering centuries of conflict in eight pages.
Biukovic was taken from us too soon, and his work deserves to have a lasting legacy. We will never see the comics he could have made; he still has the power to inspire the storytellers that follow him.