Academic journal article European Comic Art

KOMIKS: Comic Art in Russia

Academic journal article European Comic Art

KOMIKS: Comic Art in Russia

Article excerpt

José Alaniz, KOMIKS: Comic Art in Russia (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010). 269 pp. ISBN: 978-1604733662 (£38.95)

This is the book on the subject it covers. Alaniz's text will be the go to source for many years to come for anyone wishing accurate, scholarly information on comic books in Russia. The University Press of Mississippi (which specialises in research devoted to comic books worldwide) is to be congratulated on the generosity with which they have permitted Alaniz to show examples in a wealth of illustrations - seven pages of which are in colour. The book is unusually well organised, copiously footnoted, has a comprehensive bibliography and - not so common these days - a long and useful index. Alaniz's style throughout is lucid, no-nonsense English expository prose. The thoroughness of his scholarship suggests there might be such a thing as comic art philology.

The overall structure of the volume consists of two parts. The first is made up of four chapters of historical background, beginning with distinctive features of Russian icons and the later lubki, wood block chap books immensely popular in the seventeenth century, but whose satirical bent and pictorial conventions were brought into play during many later periods of crisis, such as the Napoleonic wars and the German invasion of the Second World War. Alaniz dates the appearance of comics in the modern period to roughly 1895, or about the same time as the film industry was beginning to stir in Russia. While no comic book industry as such developed during the Soviet period, the significance for later developments of ROSTA cartoons and poster art during the early days of the Revolution is carefully recorded.

In this early section Alaniz introduces a theme that will pervade the rest of the book: the peculiarly Russian resistance to comic books as a genre. During the Soviet period they were denounced as products of American decadence and low culture. Poster art flourished during the Second World War, and peculiar 'Diafilms' (consecutive panels of drawings with captions) were introduced as propaganda weapons. Caricature was popular in such journals as Krokodil and Smena. Comic books as such, however, were perceived as particularly egregious manifestations of Western decadence. During the Cold War there were numerous attacks on American 'super heroes from outer space' for being racist US patriots defending their country against blacks, Indians - and, of course, communists. During the later years of the Soviet period, a smattering of subversive, comics-like works appeared (part of the larger samizdat movement), but government opposition made sure there was no opportunity for comics to emerge as a force in popular culture.

When, then, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev liberalised restrictions on publishing, it was not unreasonable to assume that comics might take off as they burst into the brave new world of perestroika. And, indeed, in 1988, the first comics studio in the Soviet Union, KOM, opened, beginning with a potpourri of forms - short gag strips to three-page narratives - published in the newspaper Evening Moscow. By 1990, KOM artists such as Askold Akishin were producing illustrated versions of whole novels (for instance, a version of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, another of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita). But most of the comics produced during this early period were made on cheap paper, had poor printing and were usually in black and white. In addition, they had to compete with the growing number of comic books from abroad, most of which were produced by large corporations able to deliver Mickey Mouse and Spiderman. As one of the leaders of the Russian movement said in 1996, 'we got kicked out of our own market, while we couldn't break into the foreign market' (p. 91).

It turned out that it was not Soviet censors who were opposed to comics, it was ...ordinary Russians. When confronted by comic books, the average Russian reader perceived them as an index of bad taste, dangerous to the morals of young readers, crude non-art, and, from a middle-brow perspective, hopelessly low-brow - nekul'turnij in the peculiarly layered meaning of that term in Russian. …

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