Comics Culture: Visiting a Comic Book Store in Russia

Back in the Before Times when people could still go outside and interact with each other in close proximity, I went to Russia to visit my relatives, whom I haven’t seen in several years. From December 2018 to early January 2019, I stayed at my aunt and cousin’s apartment in the southwest end of Moscow, complaining about how cold and dark it was outside and being shown around tourist attractions I might find interesting. My cousin found a flyer for a comic book shop a few subway stops away. “Do you want to go?” I did. So, we went.

The comic book shop was called “Time to be a Hero” in English, though when I googled it now I discovered it has been renamed to “Books with Pictures” in Russian. It is located off the Arbat, a beautiful pedestrian street of old buildings and souvenir shops. By “Off the Arbat” I mean at the edge of a residential complex away from the main shopping street, behind a blue door on the side of what looked like an ordinary apartment building. So this is what people mean when they refer to a place as a “hole in the wall.”

There was a sign taped to the door reassuring us that this was, in fact, the entrance to a comic book shop and not a random laundry room or murder basement. We went down the narrow staircase into the smallest comic book shop I have ever been in. The four walls were lined with bookcases stuffed with comics and Funko pops, and low tables covered in new arrivals were carefully placed in the middle. 

Two girls about our age or a bit older were sitting behind a counter reading comics. They looked up when we entered, but did not otherwise acknowledge us. This is normal for Russia, but weird for me, since I’m used to American customer service where people smile at strangers and say things like “welcome” and “can I help you find anything today?” My cousin looked around curiously, and I desperately hoped I didn’t seem too foreign or out of place here while telling her a little about the comics I did recognize.

The first thing that caught my eye was a Russian translation of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Russia is famously homophobic, and media depicting LGBT content is censored and kept out of reach of children. But there it was, a hardcover of Fun Home, in Russian, on a table in a comics shop with all of the other books. It was marked 18+ on the back, but not shrink-wrapped or anything to prevent underage people from flipping through it. Russian cover of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

“This is a really good comic,” I told my cousin, holding up Fun Home. I haven’t directly told her I’m gay, but I let her add me on social media where I post about how gay I am. We haven’t talked about it. “I wasn’t expecting to find it here.” A closer inspection of the Indie Comic Corner revealed SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki, a comic featuring queer characters, marked 16+.

I went up to the counter and explained that I live in America, and are there any comics here I wouldn’t be able to find in the States? The girl directed me to a small shelf in the corner where the Russian “Author’s comics” (Creator-owned comics) were. “I’ll find you some recommendations,” she said.

The girl came back with an enormous stack of books and let me flip through them, making comments as I was doing so. “This is very popular, but I don’t know if it’s very good… I really like this one…” The last book in the pile was a large and heavy volume by Olga Lavrentyeva titled SHUV: A Gothic Mystery in eight chapters with a prologue and epilogue. The clerk said, “this is the best in Russian comics right now. You have to get this.”

Front cover of SHUV. It is green with a skull wearing sunglasses on it.

“Oh. Okay.” I flipped through it. Black and white, lettered in a font designed to look like handwriting, graphic imagery. A cover price of 550 rubles, which was less than 10 US Dollars. “Thank you.”

“There’s a lot of really interesting things happening in Russian comics right now,” the girl told me as I paid for my purchases. “The industry is growing every day.”

SHUV was large, but most of the books I ended up purchasing were very small and thin, the size of a standard sheet of paper folded in half. There was Kolya by Lida Larina, illustrated in an abstracted collage of colored shapes. The clerk recommended it specifically.

two pages from the center of kolya by lida larina, showing off the abstracted art style of the comic

There was The Fisherman and the Dragon by Anton Hudakov, a silent comic in a rainbow of colors that anyone can read (and is online for free!) 

Two pages from The Fisherman and the Dragon by Anton Hudyakov showing a wizard and his apprentice going out on an adventure.

There was Dora by Anya Smirnova, which is the first time I’ve felt queerbaited by an indie comic. The art is charming, but I think the protagonist and her best friend should date. This is the book the clerk said was popular but did not personally recommend.

Sample pages of Dora demonstrating the cute art style.

The last two books I picked up were a travelogue describing the five-day train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok  by Katya Gushina and a book in which a twenty five year old explains her theory on life. I don’t know why I bought that last one. I still haven’t managed to read it.

Two book covers side by side. The cover on the left is a colorful marker drawing of a sleeper train car. The cover on the right is a minimalist red line drawing of a mountain on a black background.

The shopkeeper hailed SHUV (pronounced like shoe-v, not like shove) as the best Russian comic ever made, so I tried my best to read it even though the text was a bit difficult for me as someone who didn’t grow up reading much Russian. The story follows two children who decide to investigate the death of their neighbor against the backdrop of Russia in 1998, a turbulent period in the nation’s history. 

I didn’t get it. 

The comic was dark and edgy in a way that reminded me of teenagers with black-and-white Tumblr blogs, just endlessly violent imagery for no real reason. I struggled to get through the comic at all. When I looked up other people’s reviews of the comic, I found a number of people saying that the darkness and violence was an accurate reflection of Russia at that time. Since I was born the year this story takes place, and moved to the US at a young age, I didn’t have this context when I read it. I did not want to read it again, even with this expanded perspective.

I asked my mom to read some of the reviews and explain them to me in case I was misunderstanding something with my lacking Russian skills. “Oh, I don’t want to read a book like this, it sounds awful. Russians think any book in which everything is terrible is a great work of art,” my mom explained. “That’s why all those classic Russian novels you’ve heard about are so miserable. Sometimes they’re miserable and pretty.”

I don’t know if I’d describe the art in SHUV as pretty. It reminds me a bit of Blankets by Craig Thompson, but less refined. Definitely visceral, which probably adds to the appeal for the people who like this kind of thing.Interior pages from SHUV, demonstrating the line quality and rough inking style.

I do think there is interesting work happening in Russian comics now, and more of it should gain international recognition. I don’t agree that SHUV is one of the best. From what I’ve been told, the comics community in Russia is very small and insular, and breaking in requires knowing the right people and making the right kind of work. Even though I understand the language, I don’t understand the culture enough to investigate much deeper. I don’t want to live in Russia ever again. But trying and failing to understand these comics makes me wonder about who I could have ended up being, if my family had stayed in Moscow so many years ago.