This is part 2 of a three-part series on Russian comics by Maria Evdokimova. See here for part 1, “The History of Russian Comics: An Interview with Misha Zaslavskiy”. Part 3, “Introducing Russian Comic Artists”, will follow soon.
Five participants in the contemporary Russian comics scene,
Ivan Chernyavskiy, the co-owner of the comic book store “Chuk I Geek”,
Vitaliy Terletskiy, the creative director of Komilfo Publishing House;
Vladimir Morozov, the art-director of Zangavar Publishing House;
Anatoly Dunaev, the director of Alt Graph Publishing House;
Ilya Obukhov, the co-owner of the creative association “Live Bubbles”,
have told us about how matters stand today.
“Russian reader is stuck in 2008”
There are several dozen comics publishing houses in Russia. Comic shops’ bestsellers are the comics by American publishing companies Marvel, DC, Image, and others. The top 10 of bestselling comic books of 2014 in one of Russia’s largest comic books store, “Chuk I Geek”, mostly includes works from three American publishers: DC, Image, and Dark Horse. Ivan Chernyavskiy, the co-owner of Chuk I Geek, comments on these ratings: “The Russian audience is a model of the world’s audience and superheroes are very popular all over the world. However, the truth is that here in Russia the circulation of comic books is 100-200 times lower, and “the freshest” issues come out two or three years behind schedule – but on the whole the situation corresponds to the one in the world. My partner, Vasily Shevchenko, has suggested a theory that the Russian reader is stuck in 2008. It’s seldom that our readers ask us to order anything that appeared later. I have an explanation for this; at roughly the same time the popular website SpiderMedia.ru worked out the rating of “the 100 Most Recommended Comics”. There’s a joke that Russian publishers still use this list when buying the rights to foreign comics. Of course, many publishers release both alternative and underground comics, but to afford this, they also publish some blockbuster comics, which serve as “a commercial locomotive”.
Vitaliy Terletskiy, the creative director of Komilfo Publishing House – which was awarded with the title for best publisher of 2014 by the readers and experts of comicsboom.net – considers that the popularity of American comics is caused by their “format and the success of the screen adaptations”. Komilfo owns the rights to Russia’s best-selling series of comics of 2014, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As to the monthly ranking for comic books sales of 2015, the Russian publisher Bubble is the largest Russian publisher of original comics. Ivan Chernyavskiy notes that Bubble practically has no competitors in this format, and one of the most important advantages of their comics is the affordable price: “Their target audience consists of people who have never read comics before and for many of them those comic books have become an epiphany”.
Since 2012, Bubble has published four monthly comic books about Russian superheroes: Besoboy, Major Grom, Inok, and Red Furia; other series were published after this. The superhero Besoboy (‘Demonslayer’ is his English nickname) is a Russian soldier named Danila. His entire family perished at the hand of demons during the South Ossetia military conflict and in the comic, the Magicians’ Union endows him with superhuman strength to enable him to fight these demons. Major Grom doesn’t have any superpowers, but he’s a master of various fighting techniques, a man of great knowledge and intelligence: Sherlock Holmes and James Bond all rolled into one. He’s a dutiful policeman who applies himself to the job. Inok (‘Friar’ is his English nickname) travels through time and takes part in the largest battles in Russian history, protecting his motherland in the way that his forefathers did (‘Inok’ means orthodox monk). Red Fury is the nickname of professional thief Nika Chaikina. In the story, she is recruited by a Secret Service organization and incorporated into an international group of intelligence agents. Her mission is to find the Holy Grail, which had been hidden by Hitler. Chaikina’s enemies, a Neo-Nazi group, are trying to get the Holy Grail first.
The head editor of Bubble Publishing House Artyom Gabrelyanov explains: “In our comics there are no superheroes in the purest sense of the word: there’s no one who can fly through the air and shoot lasers from their eyes”. With regard to the fact that their comics are often compared to American series, Artyom comments that they have adopted a few techniques from American colleagues: the principle of a more “intensive” and dynamic form of comic panelling, which Artyom connects to work published by Image Comics. Extraordinary drawing styles and originality of plots are what Artyom refers to as the publishing house’s sufficient achievements. Artyom thinks that the reason behind their characters’ popularity is that “they’re congenial to our readers’ way of thinking, they’re interesting from the standpoint of a plot, and finally, they’re just beautifully drawn!” In October 2015, Bubble was the first Russian publisher that published their works in English at the digital comic platform “Comixology”.
“Treasures of the world’s cultures”
Zangavar Publishing House, which republishes the classics of the 20th century comics like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, helped Russian readers to fill up the existing cultural gap. In 2009, when the publishing house was founded, the comic book market in Russia was, according to the art-director Vladimir Morozov, “in its nascent stage”. Morozov explains: “It was important for us to lead Russian readers to an understanding of the fact that the medium of comics is very interesting, that there are a great many comics which are treasures of the world’s cultures. It was important to translate those editions into Russian to enable a greater number of people to become familiar with the medium. For the most part, our successful publication of the many-volumed Moomin by Tove Jansson, meant that many people discovered a huge potential of comics as an interesting, serious medium”. The first book published by Zangavar was the Russian edition of Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay.
This year the publishing house has issued, amongst other things, legendary comics such as Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson and Sharaz-de by Sergio Toppi. Sharaz-de was published by Zangavar Cobalt, an imprint of the publisher that was created this year and that publishes “graphic stories for sophisticated readers”. The next book of the imprint will be Le Garage hermétique (The Airtight Garage) by Moebius, whose works have never been published in Russia before.
“The manga boom has ended”
The interest towards manga in Russia arose after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The R.An.Ma (Russian Anime and Manga Association) appeared in Moscow in 1996. Later, otaku  groups emerged in practically every Russian city. The popularity of manga in Russia is indicated by the fact that in 2012 Russia ranked second after Japan in quantity of works sent to the Manga Kingdom Tottori International Comic Art Contest.
Anatoly Dunaev, the director of Alt Graph Publishing House – which publishes Japanese manga and Korean manhwa – thinks that the manga boom has ended. He suspects that over the next few years manga will not be able to match American comics in popularity. He cites statistics that “in 2011 in Russia up to 20 volumes of manga were published in an average monthly print run of 10 000 copies, but in 2015 this was reduced to only 3-5 volumes in a print run taking less than 4 000 copies a month”. The anti-war manga Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, published by Alt Graph, received the award for best manga 2014 by the website comicsboom.net. Alt Graph concerns itself mostly with publishing Russian auteur comics – comics that are initiated by artists, rather than being commissioned – “which attract quite a steady public interest.” “The commercial locomotive” for Alt Graph is the manhwa The Breaker, but all in all the circulations of manga and Russian auteur comics have become practically equal.
“We’re at the start of the journey”
Vladimir Morozov (Zangavar Publishing House) singles out two key stages of Russian comic artists’ development. The first one falls to the late 80s and early 90s, when enthusiasts from Moscow and Leningrad – “the old guard of comic artists” – started to create comic strips. The second development stage is the period of the last three years. During this period Bubble has been recruiting young comic artists who draw high-quality comics, successfully pursuing the western scheme by publishing inexpensive singles on a regular basis. Bubble thus plays a significant role in the industry. Besides, over the last two years, quite a number of specialized comic books stores have opened all over the country. These stores help all Russian comic books publishing houses reach their audience.
In 2011 the St. Petersburg artists Vladimir “Piterskiy punk” Lopatin and Ilya Obukhov founded a creative association “Live Bubbles”, which publishes the work of comic artists. Here is what Ilya Obukhov says about the issues with Russian comics: “The main problem for many people in many countries is lack of faith in the domestic product. Russia is not an exception. It is not a secret that, for instance, in our country people know how to make movies better than film directors do. To say nothing of how to play football, pave the road with asphalt, and, to top it all, how to run the country. And of course, many Russian comic fans know how to make a better, cooler comic. This “knowledge” sometimes causes their impartial attitude towards a Russian work. It might seem funny and cause lots of arguments, but I can see no other reason why foreign auteur comics published in Russia attract more readers because of their foreign status”. Ilya also adds that “Live Bubbles” was not intended to be a business project, it is their hobby. The creative association is self-supporting – published projects provide funds for the next ones.
Vitaliy Terletskiy (Komilfo) states that because of the small demand of publish Russian comics it is not as profitable as publishing foreign issues. Anatoly Dunaev (Alt Graph) adds that small print runs of Russian auteur comics make it unaffordable for the publishers to pay a decent honorarium to the authors, and the authors, in turn, don’t have enough time for drawing comics. Vladimir Morozov (Zangavar) suggests that “we arm ourselves with patience and observe the developing situation. Over the last five years it has changed a great deal. Who knows what print runs Russian comics will have in five years? The Russian comic book market has not been around for that long. We’re at the start of the journey”.
Ivan Chernyavskiy (Chuk I Geek) also looks optimistically to the future of comics in Russia: “Superheroes remain the favorite genre mainly because there are still gaps in Russian readers’ cultural education to fill. At the moment, readers are in the process of filling in those gaps. But nowadays readers have a wide choice and in a couple of years we’ll be able to see positive consequences of this fact”.
Maria Evdokimova is from Omsk, Russia and works in public relations. From 2006-2008 she worked at the publishing house Green Cat, which published series by Sergio Bonelli Editore. In 2007 she prepared the exhibition “Comics in Russia: yesterday, today, tomorrow” in her hometown. At the moment she is working with the Russian comic author Ivan Eshukov. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Otaku: an anime and manga fan
 The head editor of Alt Graph states: “Barefoot Gen was published in more than 20 languages, which became possible due to “Project Gen”: a group of volunteers who came together to familiarize as many people as possible with Keiji Nakazawa’s works, translating his books into different languages. In the mid-1990s the members of “Project Gen” started translating Barefoot Gen into Russian. In 1995, Japan Today Publishing House, with the assistance of “Project Gen”, published the first volume of Barefoot Gen. However, after the third volume had appeared the publication of manga in Russia stopped because of financial difficulties. What our edition and the edition of 1995 have in common is Keiji Nakazawa’s original art work; the rest, from paper quality and publication format to translation and design, is substantially different. The thing is that now our technical capacity and experience of manga-making is much more improved comparing to what “Project Gen” had at their disposal in the mid-1990s.” The first volume of the manga was published by Alt Graph in 2013, the second and the third in 2014, the year that the readers and the jury of the website comicsboom.net acknowledged Barefoot Gen as the best manga and awarded it the KomiksBoom’s first prize. The fourth volume of the manga appeared in 2015.