On the same day that I did my presentation on my Senior Thesis project, I attended my second Symposium event for this semester– this time on the topic of Russian comics and Russian superheroes, and their relationship to Russian politics. Knowing my interest in superheroes as of late, as well as political works (my Senior Thesis is about superheroes, and contains political undercurrents favoring environmentalism and anti-authoritarianism, after all), it was a no-brainer decision to come to this Symposium, and I learned far more about the esoteric field of Russian comics than I thought I would.
Overall, I found this Symposium event to be simultaneously hilarious, fascinating, and deeply cynical– simultaneously.
Listening to Stepan Shmitinsky discuss the “silliness” and frank stupidity of some early attempts at Russian comics (Lubok and “funny pictures” which made satirical caricatures out of politicians/the Orthodox Church and mocked certain events in Russian history) made me laugh. The examples Shmitinsky also showed of Russia’s borderline comical fascination with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pirates, and machine gun-touting bears also got a chuckle out of me. In addition, I was particularly impacted by Shmitinsky’s story of the imprisoned artist who satirized the horrific poverty and famine of the Soviet Union by depicting the poor eating the defecated waste of a well-fed horse, allegorically representing the rich Politburo– both by how funny the cartoon itself was, and by its use of humor to cope with an abominable situation that millions of people found themselves in following the advent of Soviet Communism. I should have taken a picture of the cartoon, thinking about this presentation in retrospect.
Moving on to the darker, more cynical aspects of Shmitinsky’s presentation, I was struck by and deeply saddened at the level of political censorship the works of many Russian artists and writers were subjected to after the fall of the czar and the rise of Bolshevism, simply because of their creative critiques towards the oppressive Soviet Regime leading up to WWII, and continuing in the postwar era. Paying attention to Shmitinsky, I’ve come to conclusion that Russia, for most of its history, and its people, has never really had a government that anyone could label remotely “democratic”. All these poor individuals have known for practically centuries is suffering and agony under what essentially have always been totalitarian dictatorial regimes. Russia started out as a monarchy descended from Eastern Slavic peoples and the Vikings, then was occupied by the Mongols, then became an Empire under the successive rule of tsars/czars that eventually just crowned themselves Emperors (aided in their tyranny by religious institutions), then transitioned into Communism after the overthrow and assassination of the last Czar, Nicholas II (alongside his entire family), then found itself in the stranglehold of Stalin and his successors (who were responsible for committing genocide on millions of people, and enslaving them in gulags– exceeding the depravity of Hitler and the Nazis), and now, it finds itself under the rule of Vladimir Putin– a shameless fascist authoritarian (and pro-oligarch) who has recently decided to dissolve the entire government so he can change the Constitution to extend his term and rule forever. There is, never was, and perhaps never will be true freedom in Russia– only bloodshed and further oppression. I am grateful to be living in the “free” West, at least, where I won’t be thrown into prison or killed merely for criticizing the American President or the actions of the government– at least not yet.
Besides the tyrannical politics in the history of Russia, I also found myself angered at how the art coming out of Russia, particularly in comics and in design, always seems to be (and, indeed, has always seemed) inextricably linked with its radical politics, coming across as very propagandistic and in-your-face with its messaging (demonstrating a lack of subtlety and an overt concern with trying to spread a particular ideology rather than entertain– even in children’s works). Furthermore, I was disgusted by the comments made by Russian critics of American comic books, and by the Russian Minister of Culture regarding comics– that it was a medium for “children who couldn’t read”, that adults who read comics should therefore be ashamed or labeled “immature” as such, and that American comics were “garbage” because they instilled in children the notion of looking to someone else for hope of salvation, rather than relying on their fellow “comrade” or themselves for assistance. I found these comments to be childish and ignorant of the potential for comics, and overall just thought of them as conservative bashing on anything that is new or even remotely “liberal” and/or indicative of a new art form. Were the Minister of Culture to read Maus or Watchmen (unless they’ve been censored or banned for bashing on Soviets), his perspective would probably change drastically. The problem with criticizing comics is that this position assumes that visual art and text must never intermingle, and must therefore remain separate– untainted. An ostensibly “purist” worldview such as this implies a dichotomy or hierarchy of art forms, one that opposes hybridization and experimentation, and favors the “status quo” or conservative “classicism”.
To conclude with my reaction, I want to add that I love the Russian superheroes to come out of Bubble Comics as I find their concepts to be unique, and greatly informed by Russian culture/Slavic mythology, as well as fairy tales. Seeing them with their powers, I myself have come up with a list of my own “Russian superheroes” that could appear in some of my future work, each of them influenced by some aspect of Russian culture or myth (but I’m not going to reveal them here– my sketchbook is where I will draw them). I am also interested in Igor Baranko’s comic Jihad and want to read the whole thing at some point (I have only be able to find a preview, but I’m already engrossed). Perhaps I can find a copy online or download a (hopefully not pirated) version off the Internet.