In Russia, comics (or rather komiks) came from God.
Russian komiksmeny put it this way: their art form, through a circuitous route, developed from the holy icons of the religious past, by way of the humble lubok or woodblock print, which enjoyed massive popularity among illiterate peasants in the 19 th century (they were in fact called “little icons”). Hung up in many a humble provincial home, the crudely colored prints combined image and text to convey historical events, religious instruction or pleasant scenery. Later the lubok would morph into the ROSTA and TASS window placards, which combined revolutionary slogans with sharp text in eye-grabbing combinations. The Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky famously devoted himself to making scores of these placards in the 20s. Then, once foreign comics were declared “bourgeois” trash in the Socialist Realist period, the medium went into the freezer: apart from short appearances in children's journals, newspapers (in the form of caricature) and the (carefully hidden) notebooks of underground artists, komiks did not exist. One major instance when they dipped their head above water: the illegal, “alternative” 1979 literary anthology Metropol', whose final piece, “Fetters,” by Genrikh Sapgir and Anatoly Brusilovsky, used a quasi-comics combination of text and graphics to tell a hallucinatory tale of “breaking free.”
Then came Perestroika and the new “Golden Age”: suddenly komiksmeny could publish their work freely, in beautiful hardcover editions, taking advantage of low state-controlled printing prices. Russian komiks leapfrogged from near non-existence to the “graphic novel” treatment virtually overnight. And just as suddenly everything collapsed. The Soviet Union, in the writer Viktor Pelevin's phrase, “improved so much that it ceased to exist.” Artists like the Tema studio's Vladimir Sakov and Aleksei Lukyanshikov were left in the lurch – just when they were starting to get some attention from Western Europe.
Since then, in the post-Soviet period, Russian komiks have gone through a period of reorganization and reconstruction. Komiksmeny have lent their skills to animation departments, the wildly popular music video industry, and advertisers (one recent example: a ubiquitous Tide TV commercial, which appeared in comics form on Moscow metro trains). Russian komiks continue to develop along three, largely divergent lines: some publishers devote themselves to flooding the market with translated American imports (X-Men, Jurassic Park, Gen 13); while others seek to stem this tide with their own mainstream product (Dymich and Tymich, Mukha, Komikser, Novy Komiks, Nesmeyana – some or all of these titles may have gone out of business by the time you read this; such is the nature of the industry in Russia). Finally, we have “artkomiks” – those practitioners who see in the form a direct link to the ironic traditions of Pop Art and its Soviet-era version, Sots-Art, with all their subversive potential. This strain made a big, controversial splash a couple of years ago with Katya Metelitsa, Valery Kachaev and Igor Sapozhkov's Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, which set that classic tale in a very modern Moscow of strip clubs, sushi bars and flowing cocaine.
At a Moscow comics “summit” in 1997, I tried to get representatives of these different movements to meet each other: Sakov and Lukyanshikov of Tema, the wonderful children's book illustrator Irina Rudakova, Zhora Litichevsky (who'd gotten published in the elite Arts Journal), Ilya Kitup (a fanzine artist). All agreed, amid the general merriment, that they needed to craft a distinctly Russian form of comics; even those interested in more mainstream “heroes” insisted not on American-style supermen but on their own culture's long-standing literary tradition of the “little man.”
This concern lives on today. In a December, 2003 article in the popular magazine Ogonyok, the artist Ilya Falkovsky notes that recent Russian heroes run the gamut from the “Beavis and Butthead”-like Dimych and Timych to mythological figures to the “taboo zones of human consciousness: scatology, drugs, porn, fights between rappers and skinheads …” Falkovsky was celebrating the opening of a Russian komiks exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery's Krimsky Val branch in Moscow, a major step up in cultural respectability for a long-ignored and maligned form.
Such exhibits, along with artists' greatly increased internet activity and a growing acceptance of the form as a “legitimate” means of artistic expression (the so-called “ninth art”), give me hope that Russian komiks are finally on their way back, in a big way, and this time to stay.
At the same time, it gratifies me to see that many komiksmeny have not forgotten their roots; their stories often display a sophisticated intertextual dialogue with the art and literature of the past. Litichevsky, in many ways the father of modern “artkomiks,” frequently taps Russian folk motifs in his stories, while his contribution to the first Stripburek anthology, “Café of the Poets” breezily assumes the reader's familiarity with the troubled life of the Soviet poet Sergei Esenin and his wife Isadora Duncan.
In a similar vein, Alim Velitov's “Fat Boy and Slim” easily recalls Yuri Olesha's 1927 novel “Envy,” whose plot also involves a repellent, corpulent “New Man,” Babichev, whom the disenfranchised hero Kavalerov cannot stand. Like Kavalerov (and like the Underground Man before him), Slim can't reconcile himself to the new, post-transition reality, be it the Soviet or the post-Soviet state: “Yeah, those were great times. Not like now. Now everything is crap!” Meanwhile, I. Savchenkov's cynically surreal “Red Phone” strongly reminds us of the classic Russian fairy tale “The Vampire,” in which an evil figure “predicts” the demise of an innocent maiden's family, one member at a time.
Russian komiks needs simple-seeming-but-in-fact-quite-culturally-sophisticated stories like this, both to combat snobbish, entrenched prejudices against the form and to develop a distinctly indigenous form of art. It should also avoid the all-too Russian penchant for the messianic. Fakolsky, in the Ogonyok article, at one point advocates for comics as a form of therapy, to help readers “work through” the trauma of the 9-11 attacks. Puh-leeze. I'll be more than happy just to see Russians come to accept and venerate their own komiksmeny and their wonderful output.
Russian komiks may have come indirectly from God, but it's flesh and blood humans who should get to enjoy this manna from heaven.