Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010: A Landmark Year for Russian Comics

Looking back on 2010, I think the year just past will go down as a landmark for Russian comics, comparable to 1956 (the debut of Ivan Semenov’s seminal journal Merry Pictures), 1988 (the founding of KOM, the first Russian comics studio), 1999 (the establishment of Andrei Ayoshin’s indispensable website Komiksolet, which brought the scene out of its 1990s funk) and 2002 (the first KomMissia festival).

2010 saw some major (we might say “earth-shaking”) komiks-related events, which in aggregate make it quite significant. Among these I would include the following.

At the 2010 KomMissia, Vladimir Morozov, director of Zangavar Press, presented the first volume of his large-format, lavishly-produced collection of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (a translation of Sunday Press’ 2006 So Many Splendid Sundays book), though its price keeps it out of reach for most Russian consumers. When I asked Morozov about this at the festival, he responded only that he considered the Russian market ready for his products, adding that he’s also at work on a translated Krazy Kat collection. This is good news, despite the price tag, because the Russian scene (artists, publishers, scholars, fans) have up 'til now had a dearth of translations of world classics, especially the older ones -- to say nothing of publishers willing to put out examples of their own classics. In other words, they have been working without a strong sense of comics' global history. Projects like Zangavar's are starting to change that.

As for contemporary classics, Dmitry Yakovlev’s Boomkniga Press in St. Petersburg published the collected Russian edition of Elena Voronovich and Andrei “Drew” Tkalenko’s The Bitch (Стерва), the most important graphic novel of the last ten years. This addresses a long-standing problem in the Russian comics non-market, whereby worthy longer-form works like this appear only in scattered fragments in festival catalogs or online, making it more difficult to appreciate them as coherent wholes. In The Bitch’s case, it had already appeared in Polish translation in 2009! We still await a Russian edition of Nikolai Maslov’s work, which has already appeared in English, Italian, French and Spanish translation – though at least Maslov got some deserved star treatment in 2009 from Sasha Kunin’s online journal Khroniki Chedrika (

In December, the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val unveiled “Merry Pictures: The First Russian Comics,” curated by Nina Divova; an exhibit devoted to this topic (here, on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of Semenov’s journal) on such a scale and in such a major Moscow museum, makes me liken the import of this show to that of “Bande dessinée et figuration narrative” at the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décorifs in 1967 (an event once mocked by the Soviet press as evidence of Western cultural decadence).

Another first: the respected press Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie released an anthology of critical articles, Russky komiks, edited by Yu. Alexandrov and A. Barzakh. A 1998 exhibit, “Comics in Russia” at St. Petersburg’s Borei Gallery, served as the impetus for the collection, so it took a while to get out. But this publication represents a consequential step towards academic acceptance of comics studies in Russia. Stay tuned for my review.

I humbly put forward my own book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (the first book-length study of the subject in any language, which came out in February) as another milestone.

Finally, possibly the most influential and widely-publicized event (and in any case the most mind-blowing), no less a personage than President Dmitry Medvedev noted in a mid-December speech at a conference on technology and modernization of the economy: “All too often, those seeking information encounter some rather dull websites … The idea of comics in this context appeals to me.”

Of course, the president went on to say, “I’m not sure, though, that I will turn my own site into a comics site. This would probably not be very proper.” The Russian press ridiculed the comments anyway, but you never know: in the current political climate, these sorts of pronouncements tend to make things happen. Could 2011 bring forth the long-awaited, full-fledged acceptance of komiks in the mainstream, albeit by government fiat?