Monday, March 23, 2009

GRAPHIC NOVEL MONDAY: Siberia, by Nikolai Maslov

Siberia, by Nikolai Maslov. Published 2006 by Soft Skull Press.

Click here to buy Siberia from your favorite indie bookseller.

Siberia, by Russian artist and writer Nikolai Maslov, is a beautiful, haunting work- the story of an average man that nonetheless touches universal themes of loneliness, confusion and alienation.

The work is autobiographical and covers Maslov's life from young adulthood and induction into the Soviet army through years in art school and earning a living. After growing up in a bleak Siberian village, Maslov joins the army and is stationed in Mongolia where he guards barracks, takes political indoctrination courses and just tries to survive the hostile, brutal realities of Soviet military life. Soldiers drink away their feelings and an afternoon wandering through the woods by himself to appreciate the beauty of the countryside earns Maslov "15 days in the can". After the army, Maslov returns to city life and goes to art school but continues to struggle with the grim realities of Soviet life, including family tragedies and the tragic past of the Soviet Union itself.

Although his storytelling is very fluid and his struggles are moving, what really makes Siberia stand out is Maslov's artwork. The book is drawn entirely in pencil sketches, at times shadowy and smudgy, at others, meticulously detailed and precise. I'm so used to seeing inked comics that Maslov's pencil sketches looked almost raw and unfinished to me- incomplete. As I read this book there were times I almost thought the pencil would rub off on my fingers! But coupled with the storytelling, the artwork becomes an appropriate, fitting and elegant accompaniment to Maslov's themes of alienation and hopelessness.

Siberia is a stand-out graphic memoir that would no doubt appeal to those interested in Soviet life, but it's a very hopeful story as well, and its very publication was something of a miracle. At the end of the book there is an epilogue detailing how Maslov approached a bookseller with drafts of the book and convinced him to give Maslov an advance to finish the work and get it published. Not a lot of graphic novels come out of Russia so Maslov's unusual, lovely book would be of interest to Russophiles as well as graphic-novel afficianados. Highly, highly recommended!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.