Comic books are written, translated and adapted for the big screen, where they are adored. Movies based on graphic novels always take huge receipts at the box office, fuelling interest in the source material: a case in point is the Deadpool craze of 2016. As well as superhero-themed books, there are also dark graphic novels such as Sin City, legendary European fantasy sagas, the separate field of Japanese manga, adaptations of Sumerian myths and much more. Readers need new stories, new characters and new settings.
Horrors of the Land of the Soviets
The comic book “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” was published back in 1929. This was Belgian artist Hergé's first piece of work to feature the reporter, Tintin. You'll probably know this character from Steven Spielberg's 2011 animated movie “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” The black-and-white “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” is perhaps one of the first comic strips to be set in Moscow.
It was published in Belgian newspaper The Twentieth Century as a supplement for kids.
In the story, Tintin, a young reporter for the newspaper Twentieth Century Children, along with his fox terrier Snowy (French: Milou), is sent to the USSR. The Soviet authorities, aware of Tintin's intentions to tell the truth about the country's atrocities, attempt to kill him during his trip, but the reporter comes out on top after every encounter.
Moscow is a dreadful place in the Belgian comic book. Its architecture is only recognisable on the cover, where the main character is depicted against the silhouette of a church with domes similar to those of St. Basil's Cathedral. The book's minimalist style didn't allow for more details. In Hergé's Moscow we see piles of garbage, queues for food (which is given only to those who declare themselves Communists) voting for the Party at gunpoint and other horrors that the artist had gleaned from people who had visited Russia.
"Look what the Soviets did with the beautiful city of Moscow: it's all smelly slums," says Tintin to his companion. However, the comic book was commissioned by the newspaper's owner, who was a staunch anti-communist. Hergé was not happy with his work, and took it out of circulation in the 1930s.
Red. Alien. Ours.
The comic book “Superman: Red Son” was published in 2003, and is now readily available in Russia. Mark Millar's tale tells an alternative story of the most famous superhero in the world.
In this comic book a spaceship with an alien (or rather, a Kryptonian) baby on board crashed 12 hours later than in the original story, and the location of the fall wasn't American Smallville, but a Ukrainian collective farm. In this case, according to the author, a grown-up Superman would not have to conceal his identity, but would become a close ally and follower of Stalin.
In Red Son's Moscow, the USSR acronym is emblazoned across every truck and the hammer and sickle can even be found on a belly of a teddy bear, which a little girl drops on a subway track, enabling Superman to save her. By the way, a teddy bear with a sickle and a hammer can be found in another comic book, European “Les Divisions De Fer.” It tells an alternative history of World War II, where the Nazis had huge walking robots and Moscow was destroyed by a nuclear explosion.
In this Moscow, there are grand parades in Superman's honour and a huge museum of the alien's achievements. Moscow flourishes, spreading communism throughout the world with Superman's help, while the US faces decline.
A few traditional American DC superheroes, including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Batman also appear in Moscow. In Millar's story Batman's parents are not killed by Gotham criminals, but personally by Stalin's son. They were dissidents and published anti-Supermen leaflets.
The superheroes' Russian origins are reflected in the their appearance. If Superman has a hammer and a sickle instead of the heroic S on his chest, then Batman wears a fur hat resembling the traditional Russian ushanka. And it is understandable: Superman is almost an omnipotent enemy, so you wouldn't want to face him if you had a cold.
A Flaming Engine in Place of Heart
Another comic set in Moscow is “Atomika” by Sal Abbinanti. It went into print in 2005 and was translated into Russian by fans. These comic books, as well as the previous two, deal with the phenomenon of the Soviet Union, which is so enrapturing for the Western world. But here everything is different – surreal and metaphorical to the extent that it becomes almost incomprehensible.
Atomika is a male deity, a son of Mother Russia with a nuclear core inside. He is a symbol of science, a god created by science. Atomika constantly speaks about his place in the world, progress, Russia and casually sweeps away other anthropomorphic gods, like Morozko (Frost) of the Siberian Gulag, Pripyat, Khar-kov, and Baba Yaga. The latter gave birth to their son – Chernobyl during a serious battle (whether or not it was an immaculate conception is up for discussion).
This version of Moscow is kind of spiky, mechanical, monstrous and infernal. Smoke-belching factories are everywhere; retro futuristic ships with hammer and sickle sail across the sky. Parades are held on Red Square, surrounded by either church towers or hellish temples. The Moscow subway is inhabited by the spirits of Napoleon's fallen soldiers, who are used by the KGB for their darkest tasks. The KGB has also enlisted harpies to kidnap children from gypsies.
Moscow was visited by a lot of comic book characters. Authors have looked at the ambitious country on the other side of the ocean for inspiration for decades.
Superman came here several times: which isn't surprising given that the series of Action Comix, where he made his debut in 1938, has more than 900 issues. But there are several other series and crossovers with other DC characters. Batman repeatedly visited Moscow in his traditional guise, without a fur hat. In the “Batman Confidential” series he fought against a bear-like villain in Moscow.
Batman's favourite enemies, today's sensationally popular Suicide Squad, visited Moscow in 1983. Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, The Penguin and other squad members were here to free a political prisoner. They found themselves in Moscow again in more recent issues, in 2014. The X-Men, Captain America and other Avengers were here as well. Black Widow was a frequent visitor, as the real name of her character is Natasha Romanova. To let the reader know that the comic book is about Russia, the book's cover shows the Kremlin, Orthodox church domes and hammers and sickles.
The comic book industry continues to grow in Russia, so these days it's not a surprise to see an overwhelming choice of superhero stories on bookstores' shelves. Serious works can be found near comics about X-Men, Batman, Hellboy and other warriors in the struggles against evil and boredom. One example of 'serious' graphic novels is “Maus,” the winner of 1992 Pulitzer Prize.
A section of the market that can be called "alternative" is somewhere in between. It's a comic dealing with social themes, which is often vibrantly illustrated, full of gore and obscene language. “Preacher,” which was recently turned into a TV show, is a good example. The books are very different to the series, though – but in a good way. “Transmetropolitan,” a comic about a futuristic gonzo journalist is another example.
Of course, don't forget about Japanese manga, which gave us such masterpieces as “Ghost in the Shell” and “Oldboy.” European comic books have a great history as well. There are hundreds of high-quality novels in pictures – historical, fantastic, erotic and so on.
There are also Russian comic books in print, for instance, publishing house Bubble puts out lots of titles. Even Russian cinema is taking its first tentative steps in the direction of its own superhero sagas and film adaptations of comic books. Let's hope that these steps will become more confident, that Russia will have its own world-famous stylish and exciting comic book universe and intelligent graphic novels. And that we'll see Moscow in them.