The Russian Cartoon Industry
Text by Radif Kashapov
Comics in Russia are gradually evolving from being a peculiar hobby of the few that an ordinary person wouldn’t understand to a new form of art. Soviet and Russian children were not exposed to the delights of The Eagle, Spiderman or Superman in comic form, instead, the medium in Russia leapfrogged straight into a high-class art form which is surviving surprisingly well despite the economic downturn.
The first Japanese comic strip was called “The Funny Pictures of Animals’ Lives” and this appeared in the 12th century. In 1814 Hokusay Katsusika named such stories “manga”. Americans reinvented them in the 19th century and used them to tell stories. In medieval Russia, comics were used as so-called “narrative icons” as early as the 13th century with scenes from the lives of saints. At the end of the 17th century “lybok” (лубок); pictures with texts on them originally connected with Russian folklore, helped Old Believers to promote their faith. “Lybok” served the additional function of teaching the alphabet and mathematics.
Comics in Russia were popular when they were used as religious and political propaganda. In the 20th century, the famous “Okna ROSTA” group (Soviet artists who worked for ROSTA or the Russian Telegraph Agency), created a series of posters from 1919-1921 which became a model for many a “History in Pictures” that followed. Stories illustrating how wonderful communism was and how rotten capitalism was, were created by people not devoid of talent.
Printed in 1930, “The Adventures of Makár The Fierce” (Приключения Макара Свирепого) from the Leningrad children’s magazine Hedgehog (Еж) are still interesting today, because of their modern-day feeling. Funny Pictures (Веселые картинки) magazine, comic books about the October Revolution, an illustrated version of Friedrich Engels’s “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” were printed at the beginning of the last century, and this laid the foundation for what was to become the Soviet school of comics.
In the 1990s comics began to be produced for commercial reasons. The first commercial comic studios were founded. For example, Moscow-based “Kom” created 16 comic books and helped artists get their works printed by the big Russian publisher house, Progress. The famous “Mukha” series reinvented various Soviet youth heroes such as Cheburashka, and gave them a new spin. The “Veles” series, produced in Yekaterinburg, described the war in Afghanistan; about Misha the Russian bear who fought with teenage mutant Ninja turtles. The comics publishing industry in Russia has developed in small steps. Today, there are publishers such as: “Egmont” which focus on Disney’s heroes, “Edvant Press” (their comics are based on the Russian “Tom and Jerry” animation series called “Nu, Pogodi!”), “Comix” which translates and re-publishes Marvel comics, “Rovesnik” which cooperates with famous US studios like “Wildstorm”. “Sakura Press” and “Fabrika Komiksov” which concentrates mostly on manga-type comics. The “Amphora” studio of St. Petersburg origin has created the “Sin City”, and “V Mean Vendetta” comic series.
Learning the Trade
It is not easy learning how to be a cartoonist in Russia. The only government-backed course in Russia is in St. Petersburg at the Institute of Fine Arts, as part of the course on book design. The St. Petersburg’ Smolny Institute offers a course on comics theory as a part of its Visual Art course. Intrepid cartoonists have to learn the trade mostly on their own — by reading comics, talking with colleagues and attending privately run short courses. Drawing skills are of course no less important than the talent for creating exciting stories.
Russian art colleges teach students how to draw which is essential for any career in the art, but further training is needed to be able to draw comics. One famous comics artist said, “trying to learn comics while studying in classical Moscow Art colleges is almost the same as trying to learn how to drive a car while studying at a Navy College.” St. Petersburg, which at least offers some comics-courses, has turned into the Russian comics capital.
All is not lost in Moscow however. There is the Studio of Theory and Practice of Modern Art for Children at Winzavod as well as an internet comics-club: www.community.livejournal.com/ru_comics which holds meetings every month in Moscow.
Respected Russian cartoonist Oleg Tischenko mentioned: “I can tell you my secret – I never studied painting.” Tischenko works in Artemiy Lebedev Studio. His most famous comics describe the life of Cat the Philosopher. “I profoundly believe that someone who is eager for knowledge, can pick up the skills without anybody’s help,” continues Tischenko. Especially now, in the Internet age. But the existence of a knowledgeable teacher can make things a lot easier. You need to learn about composition, anatomy and drawing techniques.” The annual comics festivals — “Boom Komiksov” in St. Petersburg and “Kommisia” in Moscow also provide forums for people to meet with the same interest in creating comics.
In 2009 ,“Kommisia” which is one of Europe’s biggest comics festivals was organized for the fourth time. This year over artists from 12 countries came to Moscow from France and Spain, USA and Chile, Turkey and China. Guests attended master-classes, lectures, showcases, presentations. “Boom” is the brainchild of Dmitry Yakovlev who previously worked in the children’s publishing house “Scooter”. “Boom” is an association of events and a community of cartoonists. “Boom” was founded in April 2009, and at the moment it has about one hundred members in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Volgograd and other cities. The community incorporates writers, artists as well as comics’ fans. The community organizes lectures, master classes, meetings where stories suitable for being turned into comics are told, and pressing issues are discussed.
Alexander Borschevsky, the Boom’s events organizer, elucidated on activities: “At the moment there are three main fields of our activity. The first is self-education. Each member shares his or her skills of creating scenarios and drawings with others. The second introduces the phenomenon of comics to the public. People still have a stereotype that comics are picturebooks for ‘children and morons’. The third is publishing. Not everyone can afford to publish his own book, especially littleknown authors. It’s very expensive now. Self-publishing is still alive, but you cannot create an industry on this. The market for comics in our country is virtually non-existent. Therefore, we need to band together to advance our works”.
Boom’s first comics-collection “Frame, Frame, Line” has already been printed. “I was astonished by the variety of different but always breathtakingly beautiful ways that interesting stories can be drawn,” Borschevsky says. “Therefore, I want this majesty to be seen not only by a small number of specialists but also by the general public.” The theme of the second compilation is “Superhero”. The subtitle “How one person can change the world” refers not only to comics-heroes but also to authors of comics in Russia!
Many Russian cartoonists and comic-book authors look for alternative ways to promote their work. Some find a positive response in Europe. There are books like Yuri Zhigunova’s “Alpha” which has been published in Belgium (stories about secret CIA agents). “My Soviet youth” and “The sons of October” of Nikolai Maslov and “Master and Margarita” by Askold Akishin/Michael Zaslavsky were printed in France. Konstantin Komardin has found a publisher for his “Sterva” (Bitch) in Poland: “I printed various episodes of it in a Russian fanzine. Pavel Timofeychuk, my publisher came across it. He liked what he saw, and contacted me. All the copies were sold, we are planning a reprint. Readers want a sequel,” Konstantin said. “Sterva” is partly based on Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”.
As usual, Russian talent is popular everywhere except Russia. And this is actually not that bad, for at least they will find their audience. Maybe somebody would like to make a sad comics story out of this?