Red Winter by Anneli Furmark, published by Drawn & Quarterly, shows the complexities of human relationships as fluidly as they happen in our own lives. The backdrop is an industrial town in northern Sweden during the 1970s, a time when the waves of communism and capitalism crashed against one another. The struggle of class warfare and questions in the role of workers is the landscape, but the real story comes from its characters.
The art in Red Winter comes heavy with crosshatching to create shadow among the watercolor paint strokes. With an overall palate in dark colors, especially blues, there are stark golds and reds that give a few hints of warmth. This gives the reader the sensation of winter, spiked with what feels like reading by firelight.
Red Winter rolls through its narrative in sections, each from the viewpoint of a different character. The initial “chapter” is told from the perspective of Siv, wife of a millworker and mother of three. She has fallen in love with Ulrik, a communist little more than half her age who has been dispatched to the town to serve in the spreading of the Svergies Kommunistiska Party, which is not to be confused with the Arbetarpartiet Kommunisterna, Unga Ornar youth labor, or any of the other myriad of political parties. Her story is riveting enough that one might expect the whole graphic novel to be about her, yet it changes abruptly to Ulrik and a whole new set of issues.
The change is stark in theme, moving from worrying about tradition to that of success, as Ulrik struggles to sell as many newspapers as his comrades and is looked down upon by snootier communists because of his bourgeois upbringing. Siv’s children Peter and Marita have their own chapters, on the fringe of the storyline of their mother’s infidelity with it striking them as they deal with finding their own places. Even Siv’s husband Borje, practically nonexistent for much of the early work as little more than a reference to the emotional quandary Siv is in, suddenly gains his own perspective, showing yet another life with its own priorities.
Furmark’s weaving of the different perspectives is flawless in the events and fallout of the characters’ lives. Each person faces such different realities with different goals and fears, yet they are all muddled together in the complex tapestry of society.
The great summary of Red Winter comes as Marita is playing with her friend in the flooded schoolyard. They find that they can make the water bubble out around the tops of their boots, but going too far makes the water tumble over the lining and soak their feet. We all do dumb things because they are neat, whether in childlike innocence of play or the supposed seriousness of adulthood with its social mores and political struggle. These choices come together to make up our human life.