Independent comic book publishing house Grotesque has existed in Voronezh since 2014. The artists have published a book of graphic adaptations of Andrei Platonov's works named “Flowers on the Ground”, four comic zines about “Voronezh buddies” and one issue of the CHERNOZIN magazine about the earth. A journalist of RIA Voronezh spoke with the Grotesque creator Artem Lakhin about why Voronezh needs local comics, who reads them, and what a Voronezh superhero should be like.

How does Grotesque work?

Artem Lakhin graduated from the Department of Philology of the Voronezh State University with a degree in publishing. While studying at the university, in 2011, he became interested in comics.

– I had no artistic skills myself, but I took note of several friends who were great at drawing and thought that, if we joined forces, sooner or later we would make our own comics. In 2014, we decided to do this on a permanent basis. At first, we would release one-page strips, but even then we already had a large project with an urban theme in mind. Platonov caught my eye, and our first book became a comic book collection based on his stories, – Artem told.

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The list of Grotesque’s staff is volatile. The core consists of Artem Lakhin and artist Dmitry Nesterak, but they are occasionally joined by other authors for different projects. For example, the CHERNOZIN magazine brought together four artists, most of whom were working in this genre for the first time.

– At the current stage, six artists have joined us. Grotesque is not just a production workshop, but also an in-crowd, a circle of friends. Unfortunately, none of us has the ability to fully devote himself to our projects, we are forced to go work regular jobs. Comics are yet our hobby, – Artem Lakhin admitted.

Grotesque does not have its own premises – the guys keep in touch through the Internet, meet in urban institutions and visit each other. Some sort of a publishing house is yet no more than the artists’ dream. Thanks to artistic skills and specialized education, they make comics completely independently: from scriptwriting and rendering to typesetting, printing, and bookbinding.

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– Nothing is holding us back except for finances and the creative process which varies. If we had a printing machine, it would be easier. It would be ideal to have some kind of coworking, but with a work schedule and responsibility to each other. Then we would move from sheer creativity to workshop-like work. But this requires recurrent releases, constant demand. In principle, we know how to create demand, we know what people like. But often we do not have enough time or creative strength to do all this. When you create another zine, by the end of the work you become exhausted. You can easily fall into the trap of relaxation, and then it is difficult to get out of this state. If you have a creative process going on, you need to constantly nourish it, to be in constant exertion. I think that right now we are in a preparatory stage before the next round, – Artem Lakhin says.

Internet vs. paper

Grotesque has communities in social networks where they occasionally upload fragments of new comics – the strips. But the offline mode of distribution remains a priority.

– Today, there is a glut of digital information, and physical artifacts such as zines, which come out in small numbers, are becoming even more valuable. Such things can be collected. When you buy fanzine on paper, you can leaf through it, give it to a friend to read, and the author can sign it. We are inspired by the experience of independent publishing from the beginning of the 20th century, from the 1970s to the 1990s. But we also post our works in digital form, of course, since today there is no way around it, – Artem told.

Grotesque is a regular guest of the LiteraTula Festival in Tula; in 2018 and 2019, the guys also went to specialized fairs in Moscow and Tyumen and exhibited at the anime festival in Voronezh. This way of going offline helps them with both distribution and gaining popularity.

– The comic book readers I know are mostly people who are sensitive to modern mass culture. They watch TV shows, keep up with popular films and games. Comic books have finally earned the attention of the Russian mass reader. Although, most popular comics exploit people's interest in media franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel universe by telling about familiar characters. But, in addition to this, comics are a completely independent phenomenon. The demand for high-quality translated and domestic comics is gradually increasing both in Russia and in Voronezh, – Artem stated.

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"The place where we live"

What is a Voronezh superhero: a rescuer endowed with magical powers or a simple guy? Artists from Grotesque have already proposed several options and continue the search. The first local comic “stars” were “Voronezh buddies” – characters with human bodies and raven heads experiencing adventures in Voronezh. Grotesque has already released four comics about the "buddies" who visit local coffee shops, fight behind garages and attend rallies.

– Our goal is to find a topic that would be interesting to Voronezh residents, which we could discuss for a long time. Figuratively speaking, we need to come up with a Voronezh superhero. After all, a superhero is essentially a myth. Such archetypes are a part of the folklore of all peoples, of popular culture. Danila Bagrov from the movie "Brother" is an exemplary superhero. The director distinctly grasped the image that everyone liked. He was so abstract that he made people recognize themselves in him. I would like to create a character or several of them who would live in Voronezh and address the thoughts of the residents of our city. We started out with the “Voronezh buddies” as an abstract image that seemed to say: there they are, the vulgar inhabitants of Voronezh. But we are not laughing at the townspeople, we are just making sort of a caricature of the human image in general. It is as if we are returning to the language of fables, reminding that people can be animals, and if they are painted like animals, they behave accordingly. We thought that, in regards to Voronezh citizens, this animal could be a crow. This became a setup for many bird-related puns. From this perspective, many words started sounding differently. In order to avoid obscene language, we used substitutes – for example, “shut your beak,” – Artem Lakhin told.

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Russian popular culture lacks reference to locations – many stories take place in the capital or in an abstract provincial city. At the same time, today more and more modern authors refer to their place of residence in one way or another: musicians mention their districts in their songs, writers write about their cities.

– This is a tribute to the roots, commitment to the audience from these places. We are bluntly stating that Voronezh is cool, but simply inserting recognizable locations, mentioning streets or venues. We make it clear that we are creating these stories in Voronezh, therefore their place of action is Voronezh. Not a hypothetical fantasy universe, not America, Europe, Moscow or St. Petersburg, but a place where we roam and are inspired by. All our stories are what happened to us in Voronezh, just a little recomposed, encrypted. We praise our city. And people from outside of Voronezh who read our comics will learn about it. We associate ourselves with this city, otherwise we would create completely different stories, – Artem stressed.

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Not just for the fans

The creators of Grotesque see one of their goals as sparking the interest of people who are far from the comic in-crowd. They want comics to be perceived as yet another type of media on a par with cinema or literature.

– We dream of creating a precedent in Voronezh to help us spark the interest of a lot of people in comics. Something like that has happened with Flowers on Earth. We’ve asserted that, firstly, Voronezh comics do exist, secondly, they can be serious and, thirdly, they can be an intermediary between a great writer and an audience that wants to get familiar with him in a simplified form. Although I myself do not think that comics are a simplification, many do see them this way. For me, this is just a good form of communication with a modern person who is not interested in reading just texts. We are working to make comics a window to unpopular topics, and also creating bizarre visual imagery. Our most important goal is to make people outside of the comics’ in-crowd read them. It’s frustrating when our publications are bought by those whom I already know, who I just as well can give them to as a friend. It is flattering that friends want to support us, but I would like people to buy my comics because they actually want to read them. However, it still remains a question for me how to make a comic book popular, – Artem admitted.

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Addressing the local agenda should also help in this promotion to a wider audience, the artists say. But it is equally important to address topics common to all people that can be gleaned from the news.

– Any event in a city or country can be made the basis of a comic book. The comic form is perfectly suited for this, because it allows you to ironicize and display caricature morality. There is, for example, an artist named Duran who draws comics in the simplest possible manner. But because his stories are sharp, they resonate with a huge number of people. Comics can be made about everything, – Artem thinks.

"Comics are not as simple as they seem"

Not all comics are created for children, not all of them are about saving the world by a single character. The creators of Grotesque are confident that a comic is a form that can be filled with any content.

– In literature, authors use linguistic techniques to keep the reader's attention. In films, they use editing, so that the viewer does not get bored by the story. In comics, there is a combination of literary, cinematic and visual techniques. Like movies and books, comics can tell historical dramas, comedies, and detective stories — anything. Of course, comics have existed for only a century, and they have not had the time to acquire a great tradition. But they allow for encrypting many meanings in them, – Artyom Lakhin is convinced.<

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While studying at the Department of Philology, Artem compared the comics from the beginning and the middle of the 20th century in the USA and Europe with the mass production that was being published at the same time in the USSR.

– In our country, comics have not originated or were not adapted in the 20th century. In my opinion, this is due to Soviet policy. In the 1930s, there was a unification of culture and art, everything was put “on the rails” of socialism. At some point, the USSR eliminated all the new forms, and comics were not built into our culture. Now, both children and adults are accustomed to their format. So this is not some kind of mentality of Russian people. But our popular culture was different before the 1990s. By the way, magazines such as Murzilka, Vesyolye Kartinki (Funny Pictures) and Crocodile used the comic form, but they tried to disown it, to make it clear that this was not a comic, but simply an illustrated story. They separated the text from pictures. Perhaps, it was an ideological directive. The ability to experiment, to combine the verbal layout with the visual one in a new way was suppressed. There were a picture and the text below it, and the text often duplicated the content of the picture, – Artem told.

In Europe and the USA, comics responded to a specific agenda, which made this genre so popular in the West.

– The comic culture famously took root in America – this type of pulp fiction quickly gained popularity among illiterate migrants, workers, soldiers, – Artem says. – During the Second World War, many of their artists worked in the comic form instead of posters or caricatures, as ours did. Captain America hit Hitler in the face – such stories inspired soldiers. Comics were already sensitive to social issues. Wonder Woman, with its feminist agenda, was not created in a vacuum. Neither was Superman. This is the image of a migrant who is trying to integrate into an alien society. Spiderman is a discussion about growing up and teenage issues. While Soviet children read the adventures of Alisa Seleznyova, the works of Belyaev, and watched The Adventures of Electronic, in other places there were comics – about Tintin, Batman and others, and this has become an important part of many cultures.

It’s wrong to say that comics are just for children or infantile adults, Artem says. Any superhero is simply a well-created character whose adventures can resonate with every person.

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– For modern Russian people, the superhero agenda is replaced with TV-shows about cops. Even my mother become engrossed in reading detective stories and watched Kamenskaya (a TV-show). In Russia, investigators, spies, and military men have become superheroes. In fact, a superhero is just a name. Its features can be found in Danila Bagrov, in Stierlitz, and in Alice Seleznyova. It’s just a protagonist, and there are always antagonists – the forces trying to stop him. This is a folkloric model that fits well with any works of modern culture. The existence of such images in our country is possible, and there have been many attempts to create them. At one point, it was said that our superheroes were the bogatyrs. In my opinion, it did not work out very well with them. But such figures can still be found. It is impossible to create a superhero based on Batman - it will look false, derivative. In search of a Russian superhero, one needs to turn to mass culture in general, it can be deduced from the Soviet past. There are heroes in the Russian space, there are many interesting characters, – Artem Lakhin assures.

The works of Grotesque can be found in Voronezh comic book stores. The artists publish some editions or excerpts from them on their webpage in social networks.