Review: Moscow

I make no secret of it: I LOVE COMICS. Not your conventional superhero ones, but independent standalones; the work of inventive souls with a story in their heart and a Staedtler Pigment Liner in their hand.

I love learning about Russia. I don’t think I’d be a Russian major or run this blog if I didn’t like Russia to some extent.

I also have a passion for translation.

So when I discovered Moscow on the ALTA blog, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Never before had three of my interests aligned so neatly, wrapped together in a tight, alluring package.

Plus, some review somewhere said it had a shirtless Putin cameo. And you know me – I just had to see some o’ that.

The cover promises a real adventure: the artists’ cartoon heads pasted on a double-headed Imperial eagle, a big Russian tricolor ribbon with the title, onion domes, snow-capped pines, and a shadowy Putin on horseback against the backdrop of a starry night. All surrounded by a colorful border of flowers, vodka bottles, matryoshki, dill, shields, and people Slav-squatting.

Let’s dive right in!

In 2013, Norwegian comics artists Øystein Runde and Ida Neverdahl were invited to speak at the KomMissia festival in Moscow. Both agreed, and decided to document their adventures in a work of comics reportage. The result was Moscow, an entertaining but superficial little romp.

Moscow focuses on everyday life in general and the political situation in particular. While the comics festival is what brings Runde and Neverdahl to Russia, objectively speaking, more pages are dedicated to their sightseeing, train rides, innermost thoughts, and participation in a May 1st demonstration. The art is nothing revolutionary. Both artists play it relatively safe with lettering and panel shape: linear text and images contained completely within rigid, rectangular panels. Most backgrounds are solid colors with a little bit of shading. However, Runde’s and Neverdahl’s styles are visually and tonally distinct from one another. Neverdahl lets her imagination run wild and draws whatever comes to mind. Runde is more down-to-earth and his artwork is more rigid, its color pallete restricted and muted.

 

While I personally find neither art style appealing (Neverdahl’s is too cutesy and simplistic and Runde’s borders on grotesque), both are dynamic enough to hold interest. Neverdahl’s use of vibrant colors, shading, and flowing/spiral patterns blew me away more than once. I suggest you check this book out for that, if nothing else.

The ending of Moscow is pure satirical fantasy: During a stroll through Gorky Park, our heroes are whisked away by Putin himself to his secret dacha in the Uncanny Valley for one final day of fun. Putin falls in love with Runde and mourns them being kept apart, thus explaining the later “gay propaganda” law.

Oh, you thought I was joking about the “Uncanny Valley” bit?

I wasn’t.

Runde and Neverdahl draw some of the most uncanny cartoon Putins I’ve seen in a long time. Not even my protoputins (the Putins I drew when first learning how to draw Putin) looked this creepy!

 

Every time I close my eyes, I see him dancing there in the darkness of my mind…

While the artwork of Moscow holds its fair share of surprises, the real meat of the book is superficial. First and foremost is the storytelling. If you were to ask me for a summary of Moscow’s plot, I’d struggle to give you one. That’s because there is no plot, aside from the artists going to Moscow and doing some things. Nor is there a sense of flow. The story jumps between locations for no real reason. Runde and Neverdahl are discussing gopniks and then suddenly they’re at the comics convention trying to track down a girl who drew a picture of Neverdahl. Characters introduced two pages ago suddenly disappear, only to reappear pages later…or vanish from the story completely. A friendship is forged in two panels; it feels as slapdash as it sounds. Scenes exist and operate autonomously – there’s no buildup or connection between them – and I’m not sure whether it’s in spite of the artists taking turns or because of it. I suppose I should give Moscow points for unconventional structure, but then again, I’m too used to my travelogues having some direction.

It may be due to this disjointed narrative that Moscow’s characters also come across flat. With many characters, they don’t appear in the story long enough for the reader to get a sense of who they really are. I didn’t connect with anyone, not even our leads Neverdahl and Runde. The former comes across as incredibly self-centered. Almost all of her segments revolve around how she feels (and her very limited knowledge) about Russia, how much Russians love her and her comic, and how she is sooo young and talented. (I’m serious – if I had a dollar for every time it’s mentioned that Neverdahl is young and talented, I’d have enough to replace the money I lost buying this book!) The latter is more attuned to his surroundings and it shows, but I still didn’t learn much about him, except that he’s a little weird:

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Runde and Neverdahl actually go to Russia with four other people – Arild, May, Torbjørn, and Tina – but they have no bearing on the story, so they’re not worth discussing. Oh, and all Russians are relegated to background characters, guides, random side characters and exposition dumps.

But perhaps most unfortunate is the authors’ treatment of Russia, which never manages to rise above cliches and generalizations. Part of the amazing insight below comes from Neverdahl and Runde, and part from their Russian guide Sara:

  • “Russian trees look like half-boiled spaghetti. This is shameful of the Russian tourist board. But building train stations, that’s something the Russians are good at.” (p. 29)
  • Local cuisine = vodka (p. 30)
  • May 1st demonstrations are a great place to wear a ski mask because P**** Riot is still in prison and we should all show solidarity
  • Putin is the biggest oligarch of all (p. 50)
  • LGBT protesters are “desperately courageous” (p. 51), Old Communists are “Stalin fan club” (p. 49)
  • No one likes Putin (p. 50)
  • Oh, wait – the only Putin supporters are “idiots” – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (p. 51)
  • Compared to the LDPR, Putin seems like a good, sensible choice [technically not wrong – J.T.]
  • Victory Day tanks are just Putin demonstrating his masculinity (p. 59)
  • aforementioned “gay propaganda” law made it a criminal offense to say that homosexual love exists (p. 95)

In fairness, this isn’t something easily remedied in a 96-page book about a trip that spanned a few days. And I imagine that if one travels to such a political hotbed as Moscow, it can be hard to avoid becoming political yourself. But, if you’re going to get political in a travelogue about a comics festival (and dedicate more than twice the number of festival pages to said politics), I expect something of substance. Moscow doesn’t say anything about Russia that hasn’t been touched upon by other travelogues, fiction, or the Western media. Even its specific focus on the Russian protest scene isn’t likely to enhance your understanding of the issues at hand. So if you’re approaching this book to gain fresh perspective on Russia, you’ve been given fair warning.

You may wonder, then, why I gave Moscow three stars instead of something lower. Partly, it’s because I’m happy to see Russia treated as a subject in comics (and not automatically typecast as Mordor, too!). That’s rare, at least in my experience. And once you remove me, my standards, and the book’s distorted Russia lens from the equation, Moscow is entertaining. As I mentioned before, the colors are fantastic and the art styles unique. It’s fun to guess what strange creations will spring from the artists’ minds next (Spoilers: an OMONicorn is one such creation). And I’m just going to come out and say it: I enjoyed the satire on Putin at the end. Yes, it’s lulzy and memey and I’d usually reject such notions, but there’s just something about it here that makes me willing to overlook all that. I guess one could say Polifics has changed more than just the aura of the library. Oh please don’t jump on me with staves and pitchforks – my inner sensible Russia-watcher has already punished me for that statement

If you keep your expectations realistic, Moscow can be quite the enjoyable little comic. Just don’t anticipate anything groundbreaking, okay?

★ ★ ★

Moscow by Ida Neverdahl and Øystein Runde. Translated from the Norwegian by Agnes S.D. Langeland. Pub. 2015 by Centrala. Hardcover, 96 pages. ISBN13: 9780992908249

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6 comments

  1. “- Oh, wait – the only Putin supporters are “idiots” – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (p. 51)

    – Compared to the LDPR, Putin seems like a good, sensible choice [technically not wrong – J.T.]”

    Preposterous! Only Zhirik! Only hardcore! If you somehow missed this:

    Rare time when Zhirinovsky is both funny and not (overly) insane. For overly insane see his electoral agitation clip with donkey, a vid with him taking potshots at crows while riding a train or try to search the YouTube for “Vladimir Zhirinovsky being himself”.

    And to think that the West in the 90s was brifly obsessed with him, thinking him as nearly inevitable “nationalistc alternative” who upon grabbing the reins of power will institute a cult of personality and nuke half of the world.

    As for Zhirinovsky’s cult of personality – why no one is noticing it in the West anymore?!

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  2. And now, seriously on-topic.

    I *read* about ComMissiya fests as early as… 2002-03, IIRC in the “XAKEP” computer magazine. Never went on one. Couldn’t possibly attend the one in 2013, ‘cause I was still in the Army anyway. Browsing the net found this news-clip from the (obligatory – Kremlin controlled) TV-Channel “Kultura”:

    Here both authors of this comic book speak about their work and Øystein Runde was shown hosting a seminar.

    And here’s my objection to this book as a “native”. AFAIK, all foreign guests were taken care of by organizers of the festival, they had no serious problems whatsoever, no harassment. The ComMissiya itself had been taken place in (obligatory – state owned) “Russia Young Adults Library” without any troubles or, again, harassment from the Bloody Regime, which, as any idiot in the Net gonna tell you, is obsessed with stomping out dissent and promoting conformity and “traditional Art”.

    So if the result of their several weeks long trip to Russia (ComMissiya 2013 began May 4th, but they also claim to participate in 1 May demonstrations and were spectators of the 9 Victory day parade) amounts to this comic book. From what you tell, J.T., it smacks me of colonial arrogance of the some racially superior White (Wo)Men (burden attached), who travel to “exotic East” where they have adventures at “aborigines” expense and are allowed to “shine” and demonstrated their Superiority.

    I’m an artist and that’s my vision!” is not an argument here. No, judging by other products advertised at that site you provided a link at the beginning of the post, Russophobia in graphic form sells well, so, I assume, this freaky klyukvified portrayal of Russia is exactly what the target auditory demands and what the authors deliver. Money does not smell, after all – it’s perfectly okay to take them from Russians for attending their Comics Festival, and then from your publisher for portraying the country of your recent hosts in the most stereotypical way possible. Granted, this demonstrates most aptly that while in Russia they hardly considered the people that surrounded them as “real” (the same goes to the country they were living in).

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  3. As for me, I have very typical Russian attitude and “history” with comics, i.e. absolutely atypical for American. Comics in the USSR existed in two forms – as the caricatures in the newspaper or as “pictures for kids”. As for the “pictures for kids” there were 2 chief magazines for children and young adults, in which they featured prominently. “Мурзилка” (“Murzilka”):

    Featuring advetures of the eponymous hero… since 1924! In 2011 it entered the Guinness Record book as the “Eldest Running Magazine for kids”

    More recent (1956)“Весёлые Картинки” (“Jolly Pictures”):

    Which featured adventures of the first crossover super-team: Весёлые Человечки (Jolly Little Guys)! Imagine – characters from popular and well know Soviet books for kids (Znayka and Neznayka, Samodelkin and Karadash from their respected “Verses”) plus “national” characters, with the likes of Buratino (Russian re-make of Pinocchio), Thumbelina (from the same story by H.C. Andersen), Cipplino (from the books of Italian communist writer Gianni Rodari), Hurvínek (from Czech puppet thatre) and Petrushka (Russian analog of the Punch in the puppet theatre). Besides featureing in comics in „Vesyoliye Kartinki“ they had their own cartoons in cinema and on TV, plus lots and lots of books!

    At the same time, as there were “animated cartoons for adults” (no XXX stuff – they were deemed “for adults” just because their themes were not whimsical and “childish”) there were also publications of the (foreign!) authors. So, I grew up in typical family of intelligentsia, and had stacks of old “Vesyoliye Kartinki” and “Murzilka” magazines from 80s, but, also, 4 volumes of collected works by Danish artist Herluf Bidstrup. For my looooooong article about the state of Russian culture published by yalensis on his amazing blog Awful Avalanche I seriously considered adding somewhere this very appropriate strip by Bidstrup… but couldn’t decide where. My introduction to Christianity happened via 2 books by Jean Effel

    plus another book of “ordinary” strips by the same author.

    In the end it created such perception of the comic art in the USSR – either something for kids, or satire for “adults” (note – most “adult” stuff done by Jean Effel wasn’t translated and published back then!).

    And then… “Freedom” broke out as well as the Soviet Union and much derided state censorship. The Invisible Hand [and other body parts] of the Market ™ which gripped New Russia in the Rough 90s did nothing to really ameliorate that (gee, I wonder why!). There were attempts to publish regular comic book magazines, to create our own “verses”, but all such attempts resulted in nothing and their publishers very quickly went bankrupt. Caricatures in the papers remained, magazines for kids lost much of the state funding (“Veyoliye Kartinki” went from 9.5. MILLION copies in late 80s to couple of dozens of thousands in 90s), and both the commercial “industry” and “indie” comic failed to “take off the ground”.

    My first “graphic novel” was ”Peter the Great” (1992). Still have the book. Absolutely stunning realistic style, gory (“Since when did the portrayal of headless bodies after execution became unsuitable for kids?! What you mean by ‘Ratings’ anyway?”) breathtaking beautiful stuff. True Art, partially based on Alexei Tolstoy’s book “Peter the Great”. A commercial failure, which “killed” the publisher. A height in the “industry” undreamed before and still unreached.

    I know that these days “geek culture” is kinda-sorta evolves in Russia (as demonstrated by the ComMissia still alive and kicking), with people really getting into both the “industry” comics (i.e. mainly the commercially successful long-running series, “verses” by American publishers) plus there are still “non-conformists” who express it by going after the French BDs or indie projects.

    Me? I’m not a fan. I won’t buy comic books, be they serious graphic novels or the stories about superheroes. Hell, I won’t even buy “Dilbert” or “Nichtlustig” albums. Because I prefer my comics free :). See nothing in the way that could possibly change that. I’m regularly visiting several web-comics sites and that’s it. This doesn’t mean that I *never* read graphic novels at all.

    AFAIK, in the States there is quite different attitudes to the comics. They are part and parcel of the Culture, an integral part of the national identity (“mentalitet”, if you like). Growing up in the States person unavoidable becomes engrossed in comics related stuff – be that super-heroes, or just Charlie Brown &Co. Well, here it is different and doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon. Hell, even baseball failed to “take roots” in Russia. Not baseball bats. They were deemed useful 😉

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    • “AFAIK, in the States there is quite different attitudes to the comics. They are part and parcel of the Culture, an integral part of the national identity (“mentalitet”, if you like). Growing up in the States person unavoidable becomes engrossed in comics related stuff – be that super-heroes, or just Charlie Brown &Co.”

      Somewhat. Comics were commonly regarded as crude, cheap, disposable kiddie fare until the 1990s, when complex graphic novels such as Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (tl;dr, depressing) appeared. The belief that comics are “for geeks” persists, though a lot more people read them now. Yes, comics are part and parcel of our culture, but not everyone becomes engrossed growing up. You must go to them – or as I did, start producing them before you are aware of their power.*

      *Young me was extremely creative. In elementary school, I would draw comic strips on bits of printer/loose-leaf paper and paste them into construction paper books. I’d then sneak over to the nearest photocopier and make copies to distribute to other fifth-graders. I still have the original first two volumes (20 pages each) of my “Shocking Shark” comic. It was about a young airbreathing cartoon shark who attended school with the other children (I’m not sure which of those features I deemed most “shocking”). At the time, my contact with both mainstream and indie comics was minimal: I couldn’t stand superheroes, read few comic books, and wasn’t aware of the impact comics was having on the culture beyond the walls of G. Elementary and my home. I simply wanted to share an idea and saw sequential art as the best means to do it.

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