I am a big graphic novel fan, although usually my tastes have been for fantasy with a hint of realism, like Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
This is in some ways a fantasy, but it is strongly rooted in the real events of the second half of the 20th Century and the Cold War. What strikes you about this book, is that it is beautifully presented in hardback, but it portrays a bleak and stark world.
Ascent shows you what can be done with the graphic novel format, in terms of conveying an atmosphere that doesn't come from the words, which are quite clipped and functional - but rather with the scenes portrayed and the action presented, sometimes without commentary.
What we have is a grey world, only relieved by the minimal markings of a Mig Fighter plane in washed-out red. This is of course entirely fitting, as we know that the Soviet Union suffered the greatest losses at the end of WWII and the main character here is a complete orphan who has lost every family member and then suffers bullying at school.
No comment is made on these bare facts, but the illustrations elegantly portray a cruel world that is only made sense of, in the dog-eat-dog situation of the fighter pilot. The greys and drab browns show us the emotions that pervade Yefgennii's life and he is throughout, a ghost or phantom - who cannot be acknowledged or rewarded. All he gets are harder and harder missions.
If this all sounds bleak - then it is, in the way that many depictions of Russia or the Soviet Union tend to be, Ascent draws on the culture of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, but through pictures rather than words. The deep melancholy of a state which starved and tortured its people under Stalin, pervades every page here.
Of course what this book is about, is the lamentable waste of the arms race and the race to the moon. So while her people starved, the Soviet Union spent more and more on weapons and spacecraft. Who knows how many Yefgenniis died, unknown in the effort to maintain the facade of world players, who could hold their own against the might of the US Armed Forces?
So this is a profound and poignant story of the individual suffering at the hands of the monolithic state. Yefgennii is the "Unknown Soldier" of the cold war and the space race, with this book forming his epitaph.
If you are looking for laughs then this is not for you - but if you want to see how a graphic novel can aspire to be classed as a work of art, then check out this disturbing and bleak vision.