Hamartography, now with more pics

Everyone’s favorite attention-hogging autocrat is getting not one, but two graphic biographies next year.

The first book, by Darryl Cunningham for Drawn and Quarterly, is simply titled Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator. It’s slated to come out on January 2nd, 2022 and its cover art has already been released:

Second is Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin by Andrew Weiss and illustrated by Brian “Box” Brown. While it’s yet to receive a cover design and a page on its publisher First Second’s website, its Goodreads listing anticipates a release date of June 7th, 2022.

I’ll be frank: while this looks like the perfect storm, a rare alignment of three personal passions – cartooning, the art of biography, and the Putin phenomenon – I’m not excited for either book. It’s their synopses. They don’t inspire confidence that they’ll be anything except polemical retreads of narratives established by a long line of prose biographies. For example, the blurb for Accidental Czar reads:

This riveting graphic novel biography chronicles Vladimir Putin’s rise from a mid-level KGB officer to the autocratic leader of Russia and reveals the American missteps that paved his way there.

American politicians and pundits have portrayed Vladimir Putin as an evil mastermind, hatching meticulously organized plots to destroy America from the shadows. That image of Putin is a lie, and Americans believe it at their own peril. In Accidental Czar, Andrew Weiss, the former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council, and Eisner-winning cartoonist Brian “Box” Brown present a new picture of Russia’s leader and dispel the myth of Putin as a puppet master who carefully controls every string. The truth? Putin is a man whose life has been dominated by chaos, which has made him competent at playing the hand he’s been dealt. The only thing Putin is truly a master of is his public image. But now, that illusion will be shattered.

This seems less an exploration of Putin’s story than an indictment of the man and his system. Which would be fine if it hadn’t been done before, and many times over. See accounts by Gessen, Belkovsky, Judah, Sedelmayer, Lourie, Kasparov, Glenny, Galeotti, Bennetts, etc., etc.

The market for biographical writing about Putin is saturated, and it’s unclear what will set these two works apart from the rest. Aside from format, of course. The fact that they’re illustrated is really cool, and how their authors handle storytelling challenges unique to comics will be interesting to see. However, their bent is old news. So, I suspect, are the sources (quite literally).

On the other hand, this is First Second and Drawn and Quarterly we’re talking about – respected publishers who know that they’re doing when it comes to comics. Perhaps there’s some sophisticated writing that the marketability-maximizing synopses passed over. Maybe the art will stage a few surprises (but judging by the D&Q sample, that’s a hard maybe).

I’ll try to keep an open mind. But no promises.

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