Russia's only comics publisher doubles down at Comic-Con in the shadow of Putin-Trump storm

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Jul 23, 2018, 4:54 PM EDT (Updated)

They walked shoulder to shoulder, striding across the far reaches of the convention center, all clad head to toe in screaming red Adidas tracksuits. Between their uniforms and uniformly pale and bearded faces, they looked like a group of highly trained Russian esports athletes, their ironic conformity standing out in a hallway overstuffed with one-off eccentricities. The team from Bubble Comics was on the move.

Even in the hermetically sealed alternate universe of San Diego Comic-Con, where big news stories tend to focus on marketing materials and the occasional shock firing of beloved filmmakers, some real-world issues manage to break through the bubble. In the days leading up to the biggest weekend in geek culture, the international psycho-espionage drama raging between the United States and Russia reached its most fevered and disorienting point yet, and in an increasingly politicized nerd space, Putin and Trump have been mentioned on the floor as often as most superhero duos or clever group cosplays. And instead of downplaying it against that fraught backdrop, Bubble is decisively leaning into its status as the lone Russian comics publisher with a presence at Comic-Con.

The company's booth is stocked with items that a typical American might carry around if they were going as a DIY Russian soldier on Halloween (or cast in an '80s action flick). You can take photos wearing an Ushanka hat, buy comics from a woman dressed in faux bear fur, and pretend to swill vodka while watching clips from Bubble's first short film, Major Grom, a gritty depiction of violence on the streets of St. Petersburg. Take a photo with all those items against a custom backdrop and they'll hand you an "official" Russian citizenship certificate, complete with a new Russian name.

"We want to do something unique here, with the appearances and Russian items," Roman Kotkov, the company's editor in chief, told SYFY WIRE. "We make stereotype jokes, but people dig it. And they understand that these are stereotype jokes, that they are not actual Russian habits. The stereotype thing is just to draw attention to us and our stories, you know? And if people check out our stories, they see something unique."

Bubble was started in 2011 by Artem Gabrelyanov, the son of tabloid and TV baron Aram Gabrelyanov, who oversees the nationalist, pro-Putin tabloid media organization Life News. Despite the ostentatiousness of their booth, and the politics of Life News, one of their initial investors, Gabrelyanov and Kotkov say they largely try to avoid politics in their growing stable of comic series — they're up to eight original titles — and tread somewhat carefully when the subject is broached in conversation. Gabrelyanov takes a "pox on both their houses" tack when asked about the current diplomatic warfare.

"That's the ego of politicians on both sides," he says. "It makes it hard to live for the usual people, and it's not for the first time. It's been like this for thousands of years. People suffered worse things only because of the geopolitical games. I personally don't want nothing to do with such things."

Kotkov is a bit more direct: "Putin is not the embodiment of all of Russia, you know?"

Major Grom

Credit: Bubble Comics

There's not much upside for them in engaging more directly — especially critically — with the actions of the Russian government. In the four years they've been visiting San Diego Comic-Con, it's become harder and harder for them to secure visas to visit the United States, and even harder for American artists to get clearance to visit Comic Con Russia, the growing Moscow convention that Bubble helped launch several years ago.

The U.S. has over the last year closed the Russian outposts in several cities, including San Francisco, while Russia shuttered the American consulate in St. Petersburg. For people trying to travel on business, the bureaucratic pile-up and a political clash have only made things more difficult.

The Bubble execs and writers who did make it over to San Diego stick together on the floor of the convention center, where they blend in a bit better among the many group cosplay ensembles. Their passion for American comic books and pop culture is obvious. At their Friday night panel — aptly titled "Red Menace or Not?", another overt public wink at the precarious political situation they're hoping to ultimately transcend — they ran through Russian characters in American pop culture, rating their authenticity.

Bubble Comics

The panel took place at the furthest end of the convention center, across the sky bridge and down a long hall, past other ballrooms and several Auntie Anne's pretzel stands. Nestled in the back corner, Room 28DE hosted about 30 or so fans and interested observers, and as some A.V. problems delayed the start of their presentation, Kotkov invited the audience to come closer, promising that the large bearded men in the front were not dangerous.

Gabrelyanov, Kotkov, and one of their writers, Evgeniy Fedotov, laid it on heavy with the jokes, mocking themselves to address the cultural and political elephants in the room. When the projector screen was finally fixed, the large monitor displayed the Finder Window that held Bubble's presentation. Sitting next to the presentation folder was another folder, labeled "Election hack codes." Everyone laughed.

Kotkov said they were going to try to avoid politics, but the whole thing was inherently political, as the discussion focused on characters forged during the Cold War, perestroika, and the more recent return to adversarial national relations. Still, Putin largely went unmentioned once they began; fantasy took over, as it still so often does here. The presentation lasted about 40 minutes and, despite any language barrier, was largely well received and cheerful. They toed the line between advocating for the humanity of the Russian people and poking fun at stereotypes, admitting that they exist for reason. They do, after all, really like vodka.

Major Grom 2

Credit: Bubble Comics

The characters they liked best were distinctly Russian, but not nefariously so. Colossus, the mighty X-Men brute with the body of steel and heart of gold, was their favorite. "He's warm, he's kind, he protects his family and friends," Fedotov said. "That's actually what many Russian men are like. There are no stereotypes in him. No vodka, no dancing."

Kotkov was a fan of the minor Spider-Man villain Kraven, raving about the 1987 storyline "Kraven's Last Hunt." The story, written by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck, sees Kraven, draped in fur and sporting a mustache and goatee straight out of the Lenin lookbook, first hunt down and disable Spider-Man, then impersonate him to prove his own mettle. After he proves his point, Kraven puts down his weapons and, after a series of battles, ultimately saves Spider-Man. Inner peace attained, Kraven returns home and ends his own life. The arc and character, Kotkov said, "had Russian soul."

That was an exception to the rule, because as they noted several times, Russian characters are never written or played on screen by Russian actors. The same important point is made by women and people of all ethnicities and nationalities when discussing representation in media — you just don't often hear it coming from the people that western art has uniformly cast as villains for the last 70 years.

Demon Slayer

Credit: Bubble Comics

American comic books regularly depicted the Soviet Union as the evil during the Cold War, with Marvel books, in particular, using the long conflict as a backdrop for its early stories. But comic books were not popular or regularly printed in the Soviet Union for a variety of reasons, and so expertise displayed on stage by the Bubble crew is still relatively rare in Russia. The explosion of comic book movies has helped popularize them over the last decade, Gabrelyanov says, and Avengers: Infinity War is the highest-grossing film in Russia this year. Iron Man and Batman are popular, they say, no surprise given their prominent cinematic profiles.

Not every American hero connects with Russian audiences, who have lived through decades of oppression and corruption. Characters like Superman don't do much for readers not steeped in Truth, Justice, and the American way.

"He's the symbol of justice and hope, and that's not what Russians dig, because they don't believe in justice and hope," Kotkov says, laughing. "That's a joke, of course, but I had a theory that there are no such things as superheroes in Russia. Just a usual man who does his job. The person who does his job well, he doesn't cry about it, doesn't make noise, so just goes out there and does his job."

It's the antihero that sells, they say, which conjures thoughts of the brooding, vengeance-seeking badasses who flourished in the American '80s and '90s. "Russians very, very much like a vigilante type of hero," Gabrelyanov explains, noting that the Punisher is particularly popular. "A man that had enough and he starts to make things right by his own hands."

Comics published in Russia are even less well known. There is a small domestic publishing scene, aided in part by Comic Con Russia, but most comics are still independent and more DIY. Bubble, with initial financial help from LifeNews, has established itself as the only regular publisher of domestic Russian comics, with a line of books that reflects the taste for loners, vigilantes, and men pushing back against a corrupt world. Bubble also produces fantasy books, including Exlibrium, a twisted Alice in Wonderland-esque story about a girl who is besieged by book characters who have invaded the real world. But street and supernatural warfare are where the company thrives, though even that is a bit relative, as they sell 3,000 to 5,000 copies of most issues (they're available on Comixology in the United States).

Their two most popular books are Demonslayer, a familiar yarn following a team of outcasts who fight demons on earth while quipping their way through it, and Major Grom, the flagship book that they hope to make into the centerpiece of a cinematic universe. Though it's at points lighthearted, filled with American pop culture references and a basic understanding of rap music, the book's focus is more immediate and urgent, engaging with the realities of a country struggling with cronyism and economic difficulties.

Protagonist Igor Grom is a straight cop in an increasingly broken, corrupt system, a Russian Serpico who finds himself on the other side of the law during a bureaucratic purge. He fights to overthrow the new, even more corrupt government in a story arc that came out in 2014, and though Kotkov says he plans to avoid explicit politics in the future, a spinoff comic, titled Igor Grom, traces an even darker path.

Bubble produced a 25-minute adaptation of a Major Grom story last year, and the polished-looking action film has over 5 million views on YouTube at the moment. It's more Statham than Superman, with street-level, slow-motion action that recalls Batman without the cape, gadgets, or growl. The bank robbers Grom faces down wear those red Adidas tracksuits, making the Bubble crews' uniform a deep cut for the few familiar with their film (or patient enough to watch it all at the booth).

The plan is to eventually turn Major Grom into a full feature and expand from there. Gabrelyanov has grand ambitions — he jokes that he wants to build a multimedia behemoth and sell it to Disney for $10 billion — but he does have his father's empire as an example. He speaks broadly when asked about what he's learned from watching his dad construct the pro-state company, saying he mostly learned to work hard, an impossible point to debate, given the prolific growth of his own publishing house.

"The one thing we lack is a huge public relations staff," Gabrelyanov said. "We don't love to talk about how great we are. We just love to work hard. For me, content is the king."

And that's one important cultural divide now transcended: Gabrelyanov is already speaking like a seasoned American media executive.