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?
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!
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:
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