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Review of José Alaniz’ Komiks: Comic Art in Russia

By Alison Mandaville

Alaniz, José. Komiks: Comic Art in Russia. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2010. Print.

Scholarship in the field of comics is fast—and accelerating every day. So it takes an almost superhuman effort to slow down and do the kind of painstaking, comprehensive historical research that was and remains one of the most helpful and enduring areas of literary scholarship. Though a dense read, José Alaniz’ Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, with its careful survey of historical movements and figures in the comics arts and its thorough list of references, is an important contribution to global comic arts scholarship.

From the outset, Alaniz admits comics have had a hard road to hoe in Russia. Due to a number of factors (including Soviet suspicion of a form associated with decadence and the West, a literate class privileging prose, and, in the present day, the nearly complete collapse of the publishing industry coupled with a globalized media industry that has rushed into the resulting vacuum), comics in modern day Russia have failed to gain the footing found by many other popular forms of media. In an attempt to develop a clear historical context of influence for struggling modern day Russian comics, Alaniz explores earlier pictorial forms such as religious iconography; Lubki, word and image woodprints popular with the working classes in the 17—20th century; and Soviet era ROSTA windows, the government sponsored serial posters produced in the moment in response to political events. He calls these works proto-comics and argues that they offer a path to an indigenous and particular comics sensibility. He chooses to spell Russian comics as “Komiks” to indicate this cultural particularity.

The book is divided into two main sections. Chapters 1-4 explore the historical roots of combined word and image forms in the country—largely through lubki and windows—through the fall of the USSR. Chapters 5-8 offer close readings of the work of particular artists in context. In the latter section, a chapter on “ArtKomiks” explores the trend of comics-influenced visual artwork that “privileges exhibition over publication” and, while relying on a comics sensibility, also shows its “disdain” for the common book form (146). The following chapter, “New Komiks for the New Russians,” offers a glimpse into the wild and wooly, testosterone-injected world of post-Soviet economics and hyperbolic ostentatious consumption through discussion of the contemporary parodic comics reimagining of Anna Karenina and a survey of Novy Komiks, a journal that revels in a particularly violent and misogynist humor that “asserts the post-Soviet prevailing ideology of virile male power” (173).

In the next chapter, “Autobiographical Komiks,” Alaniz explores why this avenue of comic expression so popular in American and Western European alternative comics is rather rare in Russia. Here, Alaniz gives us some of the most digestible prose of the entire study. His close reading of Nikolai Maslov’s Siberia, with its slower-paced exposition and its inclusion of relatively larger and more numerous images, gives a reader time to digest the work and become a partner in Alaniz’ analysis of this text. Initially published in France, Alaniz remarks that this autobiographical comic’s “portrait of the mindless banality, brutality, and despair of ordinary Soviet life in the Stagnation-era 1970s makes the comics of Harvey Pekar look like Tintin in comparison” (182). The controversy over this bleak comic in Russia is itself a fascinating study in the power of the form to inform, or threaten, national and cultural identities.

The final “close reading” chapter dives into the robust, if still limited, comics works by women in Russia, focusing especially on Yula, a manga-like journal for girls, and the compelling—and often disturbing—variety of pieces by Lumbricus (Anna Suchkova) and Elena Uzhinova that audaciously address themes of body, sexuality and consumer culture. As a specialist in women’s literature, I am certainly biased, but this all-too-brief study in Russian women’s comics is, to me, some of the most interesting material in this book. The artists’ stories and images Alaniz illuminates here are well worth a further look. Indeed, throughout the book, Alaniz’ attention to gender and female participation in Komiks was a pleasant surprise. From the thousands of women who hand-colored the lubki prints in the 1860s, to the early twentieth century Constructivist husband-wife team Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, to the illustrated memoir of the exile Marianne Daryoff, women and gender issues are an integral part of the text. And with the exception of that last close reading chapter, this inclusion is a matter of course. Which is itself a wonderful and remarkable thing indeed.

Though Alaniz’ prose is filled with names and historical events with which one is best served by some prior knowledge, the good index and extensive reference list allows the reader to backtrack as needed. Which brings me to what was the most frustrating part of this book—the size and placement of images. Though I was thankful a section of color images is included—without page numbers—it is not clearly referenced in the prose, which results in a virtual treasure hunt to match up these images with their discussions. Moreover, the black and white images that are integrated into the text are also not clearly referenced in the prose and are often too small, making it difficult to recognize details Alaniz points out. While this is likely normal fall-out of the expense of academic publishing, it also severely limits the accessibility of what Alaniz has to say, since his writing is often dependent on these visual references. This text illustrates a now-common conundrum of academic publishing of comics scholarship—the (perhaps necessarily) miserly support for image reproduction—that has yet to be fully addressed in this new, image-based field.

Adding to the frustration of image size and placement, Alaniz’ writing could, at times, have benefitted from another edit for clarity. In several places, the reader was not clearly introduced to texts being discussed. At these points, I found myself flipping back and forth to figure out if I had missed something—as when Maslov’s Siberia is only introduced by its French titles, and then the title “Siberia” is casually dropped into the discussion with no context. In another example, the discussion of “Alissa in Consumerland” is confusing, because, while it eventually becomes clear he is referencing critic Helena Goscilo’s use of an “Alice in Wonderland” allusion to explore contemporary Russian women’s literature, to the reader unfamiliar with this critic (or with Russian women’s literature), this kind of jump leaves one initially in the dark as to the point of the reference.

If analysis is sometimes a bit rushed and thin, it is perhaps understandable, given the historical and documentary scope of what Alaniz is attempting here. Russia is a huge geographical region and its study as nation is complicated by the twentieth century agglomeration and then break-up of the Soviet states. This is, perhaps, the most challenging pressure on this study, which Alaniz handles by primarily limiting his field to the cosmopolitan old Russia of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Though he acknowledges influences of Europe and the West and spends some time discussing comics of the Russian diaspora, he pays little attention to the fluid and profound historical cultural interchange of visual and literary culture between old Russia and the surrounding empires, regions, and, later, states. By choosing to leave the already more well-traveled field of caricature largely to others, Alaniz limits potential discussion of important “proto-comics” work going on in the nether reaches of the Russian empire and Soviet Union. For example, he makes no mention of the internationally read satirical journal from the Russian and Soviet Caucasus Molla Nasreddin (1906-1931), a periodical best known for its caricature and sequential captioned imagery that incorporated Islamic and Asian iconic imagery and themes. It is likely there are many more such examples of which I am unaware.

In this vein, a brief note on Alaniz’ choice of scope and methods would have been helpful, especially for others hoping to work in the same field: How did he locate the contemporary comics communities he studied? How many interviews did he do? To which archives did he have access for his historical research?

Thick with names, dates and literary movements, this is not a text likely to long hold the interest of a casual reader in either comics criticism or Russian arts and literature. Yet, despite these few quibbles, this text lays out, if sometimes exhaustingly(!), useful documentation of what Alaniz calls historical “proto-comics” in Russia, which, he argues, belong to “an ancient world tradition of sequential narrative often combining word and image” (4). Where Alaniz illuminates our understanding of this region’s part in that greater tradition and its foundation for modern regional comics, his work is quite useful to comics and area studies scholars. Where he explores Soviet and post- Soviet pressures on the comic arts, the study is helpful not only to work on the greater Soviet region but also for thinking about of the ways the pressures of the cold war and its aftermath affected narrative worldwide. He even suggests wider connections into the global literary world by exposing some interesting connections between the writer and exile Vladimir Nabokov and comics (59-61). And throughout, Alaniz makes clear that politics are everywhere explicit in the Russian comic arts, which have “borne the brunt of ideological change” in ways that are not always so visible in Western comics—the 1954 deliberations on comics by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency aside (4).

Comics scholarship is a field so new it is still inventing itself, and luckily, through the efforts of people like John Lent of The International Journal Of Comic Arts and the ubiquity of the internet, it is inventing itself as a global field. Alaniz’ Komiks offers an important contribution to that large field. Historically and culturally, Russia stands as a singular bridge between Europe, Asia, and even the Islamic world. Though Alaniz’ work here remains centered in metropolitan Russia, it paves the way for more focused study of historical and contemporary comic arts and individual artists in Russia, the ex-Soviet states, and Eastern Europe.

Alaniz begins and ends his study with the acknowledgement that Russian comic arts, despite a recent and small resurgence, are far from robust. As such, he risks making arduous study of something that doesn’t really exist. Certainly the book often struggles between trying to document the historical and local roots of the comics form and showing how comics was long seen in Russia as “pseudo literature for eroded capitalist minds that needed pictures to follow the story” (69). But as comics are more or less finding broad acceptance in the West, it is this very struggle for recognition that offers a fascinating example of what can be so powerful, or powerfully problematic, about the comics form in another geographic and cultural milieu.

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