The Russia House Of Ideas: An Interview With Russian Comics Publisher Bubble
In this series of articles, John Parker looks at the relationship between comics and information in a politically charged climate, and examines the common spaces in the strange Venn diagram where propaganda, culture war and information war intersect with comics.
You can't talk about Russian comics without discussing Bubble. Since its inception in 2011, this little-engine-that-could has grown into the largest comic book publisher in Russia. Shepherded by CEO/publisher Artem Gabrelyanov and editor-in-chief Roman Kotkov, Bubble has a growing stable of titles, and an influence that is only beginning to reach across the Atlantic.
Comixology carries several of their titles, and many of them are definitely worth reading. It's obvious that these comics were made by creators who have inculcated in their work a simultaneous sense of love for comics, pop culture, and their own culture. I would suggst starting with Igor Grom --- the first volume is called Major Grom --- and the absolutely fantastic Exlibirum.
But some outside of Russia might see Bubble as a controversial publishing house. Artem Gabrelyanov is the son of Aram Gabrelyanov, who has been unfavorably described in Western media as a "tabloid king" and pro-Putin propagandist. As the former owner of Izvestia, and owner of Life (formerly LifeNews) and other news outlets in the New Media holding company, the elder Gabrelyanov's publishing enterprises have frequently been identified as sources of propaganda, particularly when it comes to Ukraine, the lionization of Russian separatists like the infamous Arsen Pavlov (known as "Motorola") and stories regarding the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.
Normally, such information has no relevance whatsoever. Nobody really cares about the parents of our comics creators and publishers. But these aren't exactly normal times. While I have been assailing anyone who would listen to me about propaganda --- Russian, American, left-wing and right-wing --- since late Summer 2016 (in September a friend yelled "Why are you always talking about Russia!?" I think now we can see why) I've seen more join me in my concerns of late.
When I began planning this series, I wrote from the position that I had to convince people of the prevalence of modern disinformation and propaganda. Over the last month, I find myself telling others to take a step back. While social media journalists (if there truly is such a thing) have unleashed one tweetstorm after another, a too-large chunk of the American electorate has begun to spiral into paranoia. Valid news sources, art, even conversations are getting the "Russian propaganda" label slapped on them. You can literally see people having "disinfo fights" with each other now: "You're a Russian spy!" "No, you're a Russian spy!"
This is unhealthy for us in so many ways, not least of all the rampant villainizing of everyday Russians who have nothing to do with our current bilateral tensions. Perhaps we are embroiled in a new Cold War, perhaps not, but what's important is to establish truth, facts, and consensus reality, and fight against falsehoods, agendas, echo chambers, confirmation bias, and unreality.
To that end, I spoke with Artem Gabrelyanov and Roman Kotkov about censorship, propaganda, and Russia/US relations, and we even got around to talking about comics.
ComicsAlliance: Bubble has been busy lately: a new series debuted, and you re-launched two titles, correct? Could you tell us a little about Allies, and why Demonslayer and Major Grom were updated?
Roman Kotkov: In fact, this January we’ve successfully relaunched four of seven of our series. Demonslayer, a saga about demons living among us, has started its second volume and became more interesting and friendlier for new readers. Major Grom was renamed to Igor Grom, as the main character has left the police duties.
We’ve also had a series about a superspy, Red Fury, and now its characters are in a new thriller drama, Allies. It’s a complex story about a person who had everything, and suddenly she loses it all (including her legs) and tries to find herself in a world of mutants and superpowers. I would say it’s one of the most emotional and powerful comic books we’ve ever done.
And last but not least, we have a new fantasy adventure book, Realmwalkers. Its main characters existed in our universe for a long time (in a series called Friar) and now we decided to give them a spotlight, and I would say that among all the dark and gritty storylines which are popular nowadays, the Realmwalkers are actually filled with action adventures, humor, optimism, that the genre lacks these days.
And besides all that, we also publish space opera comic book Meteora, its spin-off for all ages, Ziggy The Space Hamster, and one of our most popular books Exlibrium --- a story about a young girl who meets book characters who escaped from their worlds into ours.
So yeah, you could say we’ve been busy lately developing the Bubble universe with all that, different side projects, and even our own movie.
Artem Gabrelyanov: We had a few good reasons for relaunch. First of all, four of our series went past 50 issues, and let’s be honest, it would be very tough to get new readers at this mark.
Second, we recently had a global crossover event called “Time of the Raven,” and we had to end previous storylines, starting a new one, with an aftermath of the crossover. And third, as a writer I have ended a four-year run for two ongoing series --- Major Grom and Red Fury --- and switched to movie-making, so the series needed a fresh start, new writers, and a new direction. All these problems we solved with one big relaunch. So, good timing, I would say.
CA: Bubble launched in 2011, and your English translations debuted on Comixology in 2015. How has your business grown since your exposure to the American market?
RK: Yeah, we’re on Comixology for a long time already, and I think that the audience starts to get used to our comics. The thing is that our product is very unique and fresh for [the] American market, so that could probably seem interesting for new audience. And some of our artists have some kind of a cult following among the fans all around the world, so that helps a lot.
So it’s going good, but unfortunately not fast enough, as Comixology takes quite a lot of time to approve our new issues. So we’re sorry for the delay, but we have nothing to do with it --- we upload a new issue every five days, but the approval procedure is just too long. [We] hope it will change in the future, and fans all around the world would be able to read Bubble comics the same day as Russian fans do.
CA: You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish Exlibrium. Has the print version become available in America yet?
AG: No, but we are working on it. Soon you will be able to buy Exlibrium Book One and our artbook from the website, bubblecomics.com. In fact, we are planning to add more printed titles in English --- right after San Diego Comic-Con 2017, where we are going to present a lot of the exclusives, including dubbed version of our first movie, Major Grom. So you definitely want to stay tuned and follow our Facebook page if you want to be informed about all those things!
CA: Do you believe that you will be able to regularly publish printed comics in America at some point?
RK: Yeah, sure. The thing is that we’re looking for a partner right now who would be interested in printing and distributing our product. We have hundreds of issues ready and translated, so our part of the deal is ready. We’ve been talking to Dark Horse and Image people, and right now we’re still waiting for an answer from them. I think the world is ready to embrace Russian comics, and it’s only a matter of time when that finally happens.
CA: Your Major Grom film debuted recently. How was the finished product received? Do you have more films in the works?
AG: We released our first movie on YouTube in February, and it got very popular in Russia, with more than six million views overall and a 7.1 rating on the biggest movie portal in Russia (for example, John Wick 2 has the same rating).
Major Grom showed everyone in Russia that we are capable of making a good movie with high standards, and right now there are a lot of really big Russian companies who want to make a full feature movie with us. However, we are aiming at a much bigger target. You see, we want to make Major Grom an international story. And for that reason we are travelling to the US to negotiate with some major movie production companies.
CA: It seems nearly half of the creators working for Bubble are women, which is rare in American comics. What is it about Bubble that makes it so open and appealing to female creators?
RK: Our audience is very diverse, and there are a lot of women who read our comics. There’s just something about our characters that they dig. They don’t exist for decades, they are new, they are interesting, and people read stories about them, not because it’s a story about Captain America or Spider-Man, but because it’s something entirely new and cool.
And because of this there are creators who want to work with our characters and bring even more to them. And our politics in that matter is to give them this chance, and as far as I see it, the female creators in our case perfectly understand what the audience wants, because they are also a part of this audience. And it works just fine.
For example, our series Allies is created by an all-female creative team, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s really worth checking out. So it’s the content that appeals to female creators, and we’re open to work with them, it’s actually that simple.
But we don’t really look for female artists specifically; it’s just the way the Russian comic scene evolved: there are much more aspiring female comic creators than male ones. Overall, we simply try and find the best ones regardless of gender or any other classifications, and help them to get even better and find the success they deserve.
CA: You had a hand in the creation of Comic-Con Russia. Do you still have a role in that event? When is the next one coming up, and how has it grown since 2014?
RK: Comic Con Russia is one of the biggest conventions in Europe. For example, last year it gathered about 164 thousands of fans. And we’re planning to help developing it further by bringing our new comics and projects to it. We premiered the Major Grom movie trailer there, brought the actors --- and received a huge praise from the audience.
In Russia, Comic Con is not only about comics, but also about movies, video games, and lots of other stuff, so it attracts more people. I’d say we’re working really hard to make the word “Comic” in “Comic Con Russia” really matter. We’re also bringing famous comic book creators there like Goran Parlov, the artist of Punisher and Starlight.
This year the convention is going to be held from 28 of September to the 1 of October, and we really hope that people would enjoy it once again.
CA: You've said before that comics fans in America --- at conventions --- seem unwilling to trust you sometimes because you're Russian. With the current tensions between our two countries, do you believe that people will be even less trusting?
AG: Yes, definitely. I visited the US in 2008 --- and Americans acted more friendly than now. I remember that one guy who approached me in San Diego Comic-Con 2016, when I handed off brochures about our comics… he told me that he was in [the] Marine Corps, and he wishes to visit Russia, but not as a vacation --- more as a “work trip”. And judging by his eyes, I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. That look gave me chills.
But hey, I know that some people in Russia think the same way. Common people always get caught in the meat grinder made up by politicians… And the worst part is that we can do nothing about it --- just slowly wait till the atmosphere of hatred between two nations eventually cools down. It’s a shame that people can be manipulated in such a way…
CA: Over the last few years, a few American comic books have been censored in Russia. Maus and Overwatch were censored, and an Avengers comic was nearly given an official warning by Roszkomandzor. Has Bubble ever encountered problems with censors or media watchers?
AG: I would like to say that the most censorship in the Russian comic book industry comes not from the government, but from publishers and shop owners --- two out of three examples that you said about were based on self-censorship. Maus was taken off the shelves in some book stores on May 9, but it was because some of the sellers thought that it won’t be a good idea flashing a swastika on the cover on Victory Day. And Overwatch was not censored, but rather gained an appropriate rating from Blizzard itself, not the Russian government. I don’t quite remember about the Avengers incident, but the phrasing itself (“was nearly given a warning”) is a bit of a stretch.
I’m not defending Russian censorship, I’m just saying that everyone chooses their own way in doing business. Some people prefer not to mess with the Russian analogue of Westboro Baptist Church, and hide the unwanted books in their stores. Some people think that if they can get rid of all the adult themes in a foreign comics they publish, they can lower the rating of the book and get bigger sales. I’m not judging them, but that’s not the Bubble way. We put everything in our comics that we think they need to be great --- but after that, we properly mark them with the appropriate rating. And if anything happens, we are ready to defend our comics at all costs.
RK: There are some laws in Russia that may contradict with what is shown in comics. For example the use of swastika can be seen as “propaganda of Nazi regime,” even if the story is not about that. But as far as I know, nobody really had the official problems with Roskomnadzor. And we’ve never encountered problems, as we always work within the frames of the content rating system. We always mark our books with a 16+ sign, which means that it’s not suitable for people under sixteen. There are a lot of discussions about what’s suitable and what’s not, but that’s another part of the story.
CA: Those American comics that faced censorship were all labeled propaganda, and Americans have become very aware of the influence of Russian propaganda in the internet. Are you concerned that people might see your comics as propaganda?
AG: I hope they won’t, because I personally don’t judge things by the nationality or country of origin of their makers and I definitely don’t consider comics from America being propaganda. Because art --- in France comics are considered as the 9th art form, and I agree with that --- is above nationality, gender or sexual preferences. And I really hope that most Americans think the same way as I do.
CA: Is Bubble a part of the News Media holding company? I thought I saw pictures that indicated your offices were in the same building.
RK: News Media holding and its investors greatly helped our company when we just started and needed all the support when no one believed we could make actual original comics in Russia. It’s true that we’ve been neighbors for a long time, but since then we’ve grown stronger, and now we’re on our own journey and in a completely different office. Sometimes we make partnership projects, but we’re not part of them anymore.
CA: In Russia, your family is quite well-known. Your father Aram Gabrelyanov is quite a legendary figure in the media, and your brother is known for LifeNews. Both have been called tabloid publishers and propagandists in Western media. How do you respond to criticism that is leveled at your family?
AG: Well, first of all, I don’t consider being a tabloid publisher a bad thing. It’s just a profession, and a difficult one, I should say. I’ve seen with my own eyes how my father worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to build his media empire. He knew what he wanted to achieve in this life, and he made it --- in Russia’s 90s, which is twice as hard. So why should he be ashamed of that? He is a hard worker, and a great father. And I’m proud of him. Just as I am proud of my brother, who chose to leave media business and started working on his own startups. And he’s doing pretty well! For example, his new app “Magic” can detect your emotions in real time and add some cool special effects to your face.
As for the second part of the question… Whether you are in Russia, America, or any other country, people who don’t share your political views will always treat your opinion as wrong and blame that you were brainwashed by propaganda. It’s just how it works, and I know that a lot of people in the US learned it the hard way this year, arguing with their relatives and friends. And I’m no exception. Unlike my father, I tend to have liberal views on most things. So we argue a lot about the political system, and he always tells me this old saying; "If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain." Well, I have five more years, so we’ll see.
CA: Your father is also quite known for his pro-Putin views --- an opinion that is very controversial in the West currently, as many countries feel more threatened by Russia recently. Are you met with preconceived notions about your political views? How do you separate your comics and films from the prevailing opinions of Putin's Russia?
AG: As I’ve said before, my political views are way more different than my father’s, but that’s not the point. I wrote a story arc in Major Grom about the current political system in Russia, without taking one side or another, but instead I got bombarded from both sides --- pro-government and opposition. After that I decided not to get into politics, no matter what. I want to do as much as I can in terms of the comics book industry. I want to talk with people from all over the world with the language of art and stories.
CA: What do you think the future holds in store for Bubble Comics?
RK: World domination, of course! For now we just want to continue making good stories, creating memorable characters and growing in all ways possible. Our goal is to bring a unique Russian approach to people all over the world through our comics and movies.
We want the world to associate Russia not with trouble for them, but with all the depths of its rich history and modern art and culture. And we feel that we’re capable to do that. So the question is --- is the world ready to try to accept us, and embrace the new Russian comics? Only time will tell.
AG: I think that Bubble Comics is worthy enough to take a place [among the] top five publishing houses in the US. We have all that it takes --- lovable characters, amazing storytelling, beautiful art, unexpected cliffhangers… And soon we are going to build a full-sized cinematic universe based on our comics, starting with Major Grom. So what are you waiting for? Start reading our comics right now!