José Alaniz: the “Komiks” interview

This short interview dates back to early 2011, when I reviewed José Alaniz’ Komiks. Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi), along with Fredrik Strömberg’s Swedish Comics History (The Swedish Comics Association) and the anthology Compendium of Romanian Comic Art. The Book of George (Hard Comics), in attempt, perhaps failed, of writing a comparative review of how to be introduced to comics traditions fairly unknown and underexposed outside their own countries and communities (once again, in Portuguese only).

Without wishing to sound like I’m creating hierarchies, and anyway, a truism really, Alaniz’ book is the most academic of the three, in the sense that not only he follows a fairly balanced, chronological presentation of the origins of comics in Russia, as he also connects it to culturally specific image-text relations (the lubok, the ROSTA posters), the drastically changing political-economic circumstances of over a century and a great picture of the contemporary “scene.” Uninformed by nationalistic zeal, the author provides a balanced, integrated and broad understanding of the specific, difficult development of this art in that country, although respecting its own character, instead of subsuming it to a direct comparison with more famous counterparts. In the interview, Alaniz’ blog for this project is mentioned, which you can check here, although it has no updates since late 2011, as of this writing.

Pedro Moura: First of all, please excuse me my familiarity, but your name does not sound Russian, so I guess you come from a different background. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you become interested in the study of Russian/Slavic culture, the study of comics and then of Russian comics? (this is the only personal question I’ll ask, promise)

José Alaniz: It’s very simple: while serving in the Army Reserves back in the 1980s, I learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Studying the language and culture with my dear teacher from Leningrad, Isabella Matveyevna Nemetskaya, as well as the Perestroika reforms going on at the time, instilled in me a life-long passion for Slavistics and Russia! As for comics, I have read them since the age of about five (I started mostly with Marvel superheroes). In fact, I recently donated a large portion of my comics collection to my university library’s Special Collections Department; I blogged about the experience and received some national press coverage too [see here and here]

Russian comics emerged as a study topic much later, when I was living in Moscow in the mid-1990s. One of the best friends I made there was Georgy “Zhora” Litichevsky, profiled in my book as one of the longest-standing and most important figures in Russian comics. He has been producing comics works in unorthodox formats, and been taken seriously by a notoriously snobbish Russian art scene, since the 1970s! It was total coincidence how we met, too: his wife happened to write freelance articles for the English-language publication I worked for, the Moscow Tribune. Incidentally, while at the Tribune, thanks to the good graces of publisher Anthony Luis, I managed to publish what I believe was the first English-language daily strip in Russia, Moscow Calling. It ran for over nine months.

PM: After reading your book, and despite having read it, I still have the notion that Russia has no real comics tradition. Your explanation is very ample and solid, but would you agree to say that there are two main strands? One being a more “Russian” line (with all its specific themes, its formal qualities, its relationship with the local politics) but very interrupted, and one other, both comprised of émigré artists and more foreign-influenced authors and works, but which don’t make a group with sufficient clout. Would you agree?

JA: Roughly speaking, I’d say that is correct, though a lot has been changing in the last few years, even since my book was published last year. Dmitry Yakovlev’s Boomfest in St. Petersburg has gained a solid reputation in only five years; some great European and American artists have attended, including Joe Sacco, Lorenzo Mattotti and Thierry Groensteen. It’s also been a great showcase for Russian artists, including veterans like Nikolai Maslov and Askold Akishin. Khikhus’ KomMissia in Moscow has of course also done a lot to popularize the art form of komiks, as argued in my book, despite how riven the komiks scene has become there. But as I also try to show in the book, Russia under the Soviets really developed its own unique comics or paracomics styles and traditions; you couldn’t look for a comics industry in the American or Japanese sense and expect to find much. So comics (or the “comics language”) gravitated to areas like propaganda posters (including the ROSTA windows); children’s books and journals; avant garde books and photocollages; art (like Ilya Kabakov’s albums); the diafilmy or film strips; “paper architecture;” and the underground. Until 1988, when an industry (a tiny one) emerges with the KOM studio and its cohorts. It really is a fascinating story of an art form taking root wherever it could in what were, officially, very unwelcoming ideological conditions.

PM: I understand the need and the pertinence of looking for many great examples within other disciplines, such as the avant-garde, the propaganda work, the visual arts and so on, but is this a move from your part to search for a legitimizing maneuver of Russian comics or do you really find in those examples an extension of the Russian tradition of comics, seen in an expanded, integrating way?

JA: As mentioned, those other disciplines were the place where Russian comics art appeared, at a time when comic books or graphic novels as we know them in the West were politically forbidden. If anything, perhaps by limiting themselves to traditional formats, comics scholars may be overlooking some examples to investigate in our own national traditions. Mexican retablos and ex-votos, for instance. I once saw some Peruvian pottery that had a tiny comic strip on it. This is one of the lessons of the Russian case: expand your focus!

PM: As of course, we all wish that we would have free and unhindered access to every comics tradition we could, but considering how certain centres are polarized (the US, France-Belgium, Japan) and how difficult it is break into them, what do you think would be Russian’s contribution to world comics?

JA: Their great heterogeneity and unorthodox formats, as explained above. The old traditions of the rayok peep show and the lubok woodcut print blurred the line between graphic art and drama in some remarkable ways, somewhat like Japanese manga kamibashai or “paper theater.” Russia has also given us great comics artists like Slava Sysoev, Konstantin Rotov and Efrosinia Kersnovskaya (all of whom served time in Soviet concentration camps); Yurii Zhigunov (now working in Belgium); Zhora Litichevsky; Askold Akishin; Khikhus, Namida, Sasha Yegorov and Elena Uzhinova and many more world-class artists. To say nothing of the Russian émigrés who had a tremendous influence on the Belgrade school in former Yugoslavia!

PM: As an extension to that question, do you think that the access we do have through other mediating languages (English and French, mainly) to Russian authors is good enough, or are we losing much?

JA: Well, you can see a lot of Russian material online, but most of it is not translated. Of course we need many more translations. I would say the Russians remain too-little known beyond their borders. That’s why publications like Stripburger in Slovenia and Aargh! in the Czech Republic, which have published Russian material in translation, are so important. But it’s not enough, not nearly.

PM: You have discussed some of the reasons why you believe that comics have not been picked up by Russia. But, if you allow me, there is one amazing tradition of visual storytelling from Russia that you not bring often to discussion, which is animation. With so many great names and works, some of them internationally renowned, critically acclaimed and, I guess, well respected within the country, why do you think there’s not many intermedial relationships between the two media?

JA: I purposely did not emphasize animation because I did not want to give the impression that komiks are somehow derivative of or secondary to the very rich history of animation in Russia (they’re not). In fact, there are some connections: Tema, the studio founded by Vladimir Sakov in the 1980s, was primarily oriented towards animation; several artists such as Elena Uzhinova, Re-I and Khikhus have made animated works and/or work at animation studios. As for the few overt intermedial relationships, I think it has to do in part with the high cultural regard most Russians have for their tradition of animation, going back to the Soviet era – even though the animation industry in Russia has, sadly, virtually collapsed in the last 20 years – and their equally-ingrained disdain for comics, which is only slowly sloughing off. It is (or was) quite a contrast: one had the full support of the Communist party for decades, made a huge impact on the lives of generations of children and produced world-class work like Yurii Norstein’s Tale of Tales, while the other received only official vilification as bourgeois trash, was cast (with few exceptions) to the margins of culture and received only scorn from many parents for being harmful to child development, morality and reading skills.

PM: I feel your use of the word “komiks” is a little tongue-in-cheek. But how important is it to use differentiated words to underline the specificity of this tradition?

JA: Well, I didn’t think of it as tongue-in-cheek! There were a few reasons for using the term. As explained in the book, I wanted to preserve some sense of cultural specificity. Secondly, the wonderfully productive Russian language has coined its own terms with that stem, such as “komiksist,” “komiksmen” and “komiks-meiker,” all of which mean “comics artist.” The feminine version, “komiksistka,” I have actually never heard, but I did find it used online, so I included that. There is even a word for “comics scholar”: “komiksoved.” Considering all the different words for comics in the various languages, even in our madly globalizing era, why not aim for peculiarity and local flavor? Besides, I wanted to not have to say “Russian comics artist” all the time, when the Russian variants are shorter.

PM: Did you wish you could have more images or a stronger form of presenting them in your book? I must say that I was a little unhappy with that aspect, considering that that would be one way of becoming more familiar with this tradition (after all, a visual medium).

JA: My friend Tomáš Prokupek, editor of Aargh!, also complained about the paucity of images. All I can say is that my publisher, the University Press of Mississippi, was extremely generous in allowing me so many pictures (over two dozen), including several in color. The Maslov chapter, I think, is very well illustrated. But of course I was covering centuries and scores of artists, so it was never going to be enough. I have put a few more images on my blog, but unfortunately I have not made the time to upload as many as I had wanted to.

PM: Finally, how is the blog coming out? Are you planning on extensions of some of the matter broached in your book and previous articles?

JA: The blog has been online, I just haven’t posted as much as I’d like. Since the book came out, I have had another article published in the International Journal of Comic Art, “Masculinity and the Superhero in Post-Soviet Russian Comics,” and later this year should have another in the same publication, on Askold Akishin’s war komiks. I hope the Russian-language edition of my book will contain four extra chapters (on Sysoev; on Andrei Snegirov, children’s comics; and the aforementioned masculinity and Akishin essays), as well as some other material and updates. And maybe more pictures! And no, I don’t know precisely when that will come out. In the meantime, I am proceeding on two new book projects, “Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond”[which came out through Mississippi back in 2014] and a study of Czech comics.

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