Note: This graphic novel contains fascist imagery, ideology, and derogatory language towards marginalized groups including people of color, immigrants, women, and gay/queer people. The text also includes cursing and graphic depictions of nudity, sex, and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Like most people, I grew up being told, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s an important lesson to teach children. That said, the phrase has its limits, right? Comics are surely an exception to this rule. As comics readers, we should consider the cover when considering the whole. Comics are a visual medium, and there are so many worthy comics and only so many dollars in my bank account. It’s fair to expect that the cover of a product you are purchasing will embody the tone and thematic elements (if not the exact visual style) of what lies beneath.
With that said, the cover to Jakub Topor‘s Nationalist Love is certainly worthy of judgment. This abstract, richly-colored cover depicts a soldier wearing a green hard helmet and uniform, engaged in an intense liplock with a Muslim person of color in a black chador. The figures’ arms form a stylized Honour Chevron for the Old Guard — a decoration worn by members of the Nazi Party’s SS. Based on this cover, I judged Nationalist Love to be politically incorrect, aggressive, and visually distinct. Having now read Nationalist Love, I can say the cover did this comics justice. It is all of those things and then some.
Set somewhere in Eastern Europe (possibly Poland given the publication info), Nationalist Love follows Zapsky and Byro, two skinhead fascists whose meet-cute is at a nationalist rally. After Byro prompts the police to arrest the protesters, the two escape their clutches, hiding in a department store changing room. Under the aphrodisiac voice of Harry Styles crooning “Sign of the Times,” Byro and Zapsky make out. The two go to Zapsky’s apartment (his mother is away on holiday), where they bond over such heterosexual masculine pursuits as harassing women online and watching porn.
Still, the chemistry cannot be denied, and it leads to a reaction in the bedsheets. What’s the problem? Well, they are far-right nationalists, and fascists cannot be gay (apparently). The two are scared, and rightfully so. Alongside their fellow fascists, the two men are surrounded by families, co-workers, and others who share their small-minded sexist, racist, and homophobic views, and so they to forget one another. Byro visits a gay club undercover and meets his antithesis: vegan-eating liberal collegians. Meanwhile, Zapsky’s coworkers at the factory create an online dating profile for him where he meets and falls in love with his first girlfriend. Still, fate always plays her hand, and the two are reunited. Can nationalist love survive in the world of nationalist pride?
Nationalist Love is a hilarious graphic novel. Humor is subjective (even more so when the subject of that humor is as sensitive as the one here), but that said, I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this story. It is not every day a back cover has me giggling, but Nationalist Love succeeded in its spoofing of an Instagram photo trend. Topor injects exaggerated humor into every element of the comic. The characters have a grotesqueness reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s The Twits. The ugliness of Zapsky and Byro starts inward and manifests into baldness and puss-filled red acne, respectively. Every character has a cartoonish ugliness about them that guarantees that the subject matter is beholden to the comedy and not vice versa.The character work is aided by a bright, saturated color palette of neon colors. The colors are so intense they have a stickiness to them like Jell-o.
The artwork aligns perfectly with the tone and genre of this comics: absurdity. Nationalist Love is very much a satire in the footsteps of Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Blazing Saddles. Like the film, Nationalist Love satirizes a social group and ideology (far-right nationalists and nationalist ideology) by having simple, one-note characters in specific, rigid character roles live in and react to an absurd environment. The shenanigans produced from this setting poignantly highlight how illogical bigotry is.
Topor is effective in making Zapsky and Byro’s bigotry and gay panic both look ridiculous and be hilarious. Scenes such as Zapsky putting away a portrait of the Pope because having his Holiness above the bed Zapsky and Byro are about to have sex in would “feel awkward” or Byro donning his father’s old hairpiece and stiff blue gingham shirt to visit his first gay bar are as hilarious as they are pointed. Unlike other irreverent works like South Park, Nationalist Love is not trying to offend for the sake of being offensive and sticking it to middle-class respectability politics. It’s rudeness with a point, and that’s what makes it effective. Still, it begs the question: is the point on equal footing with the humor?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Nationalist Love is a message book, or that a call-to-activism or allyship is Topor’s intent. Zapsky and Byro do not leave nationalism behind or become better people. They remain repugnant, which I found refreshing. Not every rotten apple of a character needs a redemption arc. That said, the two are portrayed as products of their environment. Their family, friends, coworkers, and communities all share and thereby reinforce their sexist, racist, homophobic views. Topor highlights a good point — that bigotry isn’t something one is born with but born into. However, Chapter Three sees Byro visit a gay club and meet his sworn enemies: educated, vegan, queer young liberals. From here, the message that fascist ideology is absurd gets slightly muddied. This muddying is best articulated by one of the liberals saying, “There’s garbage like this everywhere!” (163) This chapter argues that there exists an equivalency between the liberal students and the far-right skinhead in their midst. And, yes, both groups of characters (and social groups for that matter) are ridiculous, but we now live in a time where there is a rise in both fascist and far-right movements globally and in anti-LGBTQ+ acceptance in Eastern Europe. It can be naïve at best and dangerous at worst to put both of these groups as opposites but on equal footing. Fascists are the evil group — by far.
I am probably being overly sensitive here. Still, Nationalist Love did make me wonder if a satire mocking fascism can exist in the American comics market today. Comics and fandom are powerful vessels for educating on and fighting against fascism. I don’t think Nationalist Love’s message is explicit enough to contribute to that, and anyone expecting such will be disappointed. The ending itself is very vague and possibly a call back to Harry Styles’ Sign of the Times by creating a visual reference to the music video. It is so vague as to be jarring, especially considering the graphic violence and imagery that preceded these final pages. With such a cryptic, poetic ending to a farce, Nationalist Love remains firmly a comedic tale first and foremost. Then again, why should it not be? Is it the responsibility of an artist to also be an outspoken activist?
Regardless, I highly recommend Nationalist Love. You do not see comics like this often in the American market. It is important to see perspectives and humors that differ from American political correctness or shock humor. The visual storytelling is masterful and the humor both riotous and purposeful. Possibly muddled messages aside, I found Nationalist Love to be a rewarding read for those with an open mind and a ready laugh.
Published in English by Europe Comics, Nationalist Love is in stores now.