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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St. Petersburg (Bak-style)

T. Edward Bak recently went to Russia and I casually said to him "hey, take some pictures and write something and I'll blog it." Well, Tom Spurgeon was right on top of Bak and did a great interview so I figured that was that. Until TEBs (that's what those in the know call him) wrote me and said, "hey, I wrote a thing for you. It's terrible." Of course, it isn't terrible at all. So I present to you, Bak's ramblings about Russia and hiss ongoing Georg Steller project.


I'd been warned not to smile at people in Russia. I was warned about rampant crime and gangs of orphaned pre-adolescent thugs roaming the streets at night. I was told that the Russians don't appreciate fart jokes or crass humor, but they applaud wit and clever innuendo. Flying through Europe, it occurred to me that even the clouds over France and Germany looked old. How was I en route to St. Petersburg? How did this happen? Who in the hell do I think I am? What I learned while I was in Russia is that the Russians eat tomatoes and cucumbers for breakfast. They eat a lot of pastries and smoke a lot of cigarettes. I had lunch with the American consulate at a vegetarian restaurant in St. Petersburg one afternoon, we ate vegan borscht. Someone had told me that there were bagels somewhere in the city. I don't know, I never found any. I ate vitamin salad, pierogies and gnocchi and lots of potatoes and mushrooms and, once, tried the Russian version of Mexican food. There are no burritos in St Petersburg. Mostly I managed to get by on americanos and cakes and pizza. I drank vodka, and drank beer. I found an Elvis Presley café around the corner from my hotel with a gigantic Confederate flag hanging in a corner of the room, I felt right at home. When I ordered salmon, the Russians brought me trout. When was the last time I'd eaten trout? Did it matter? As long as I knew I could order a decent Czech beer or get vodka that had been made from potatoes, everything was Perestroika.


I gathered that there must be an ordinance in St. Petersburg requiring women under the age of 30 to wear only high heels. Probably there is another that exempts taxicab drivers from obeying traffic laws and speed limits. My exchanges with cabbies in St. Petersburg actually became fairly routine:
"Pushkin, da. Mark Twain, da. Bill Clinton, da. Monica Lewinsky, da!"
Be proud, America. One afternoon, I was walking down Nevsky Prospekt and a police van pulled up to the sidewalk. A group of uniformed men and women leapt out, seized a swarthy (will I get in trouble for 'swarthy'? The Russians I met were endlessly amused by English epithets which would make most North Americans squirm) businessman carrying a briefcase, threw him in the back of the van, and drove away. Nobody on the sidewalk around me flinched and I wondered if anyone had even noticed what had just transpired. Police and military units constantly patrol the city, it seems, and wherever I went, officials were checking someone's papers on the street corner, in front of monuments, at roadblocks, etc.


It was September and I was visiting St. Petersburg for 2 weeks as a guest of the International Comics Festival, Boomfest! My first time outside of North America, my first transatlantic flight, my first exposure to any kind of comics community outside of the usual angry nerd love-ins I'm accustomed to attending in the US. The coordinator of Boomfest, publisher Dmitry Yakovlev, warmly welcomed me and had arranged a swell room on the third floor of a hotel in a beautiful neighborhood downtown; when I tried to drunkenly heave the television through the window out on to the street below late one evening after my usual drug-ingestion and debauchery, the hypodermic needles I'd stolen from…oh, fuck it, never mind; I was in my room and ready for bed by 10 PM practically every night. Of course, the time difference meant that I wouldn't be asleep until dawn, but during the day walking about in St Petersburg was for me like inhabiting a dream, anyhow. So surreal and unfamiliar.


There were dozens of wonderfully talented people at Boomfest, all fantastically original artists: Julie Doucet, Dominik Heilig, Victoria Lomasko, Varvara Pomidor, Edik Katykhin, Polina Petrouchina, Joanna Hellgren, Juhyun Choi, Misteur Morvandiau, Stefano Ricci, Nele Bronner, Jeroen Funke, Boris Peeters, Sam Peeters, Jo Rdx, Xavier Lowenthal, Anastasia Voitenko (and, unexpectedly, Pacific NW cartoonist Eroyn Franklin, who happened to be traveling through Russia and visiting family in St. Petersburg during the event); Julie Doucet showed her new film, there was a Hugo Pratt exhibition, a Tove Janssen panel, there was something happening practically everyday, for an entire month. Insane.


I delivered a presentation that gave me the opportunity to discuss my work and my friendship with Dylan Williams and his company Sparkplug Comic Books, whom I also represented at the festival’s book fair. I had a dream about my recently departed dear friend while I was in Russia; he was seated at a drawing table, busily sketching away. As usual, I felt like I was interrupting or disturbing him. But Dylan always made time for me and this was no exception. We talked briefly and he advised me to respect and to pay attention to the Russian artist. I had a vague impression that Dylan had recently gone away, or that something had happened to him. But, no, here he was, attending to his work, same as always. And I had bothered him long enough, so I let him be.


Meanwhile, I was genuinely challenged by the questions from the audience at my presentation and impressed with their patience at my rambling. "Who are these attentive young Russians?" I thought. "Will they want to buy me drinks? Will they share their drugs with me? If I am kidnapped and turned out on the street as a male prostitute, will I earn enough rubles to afford decent krokodil?"
If you’ve ever seen me in front of an audience and managed to stay awake, you may be familiar with my nuanced style of incoherent blathering; somehow, these gracious Europeans and Russians made sense of what I was saying. Well, at least they were polite enough to smile and nod as I sputtered on. When the European artists I'd met at Boomfest departed for home, I wanted to travel with each of them to their countries. To understand what they were doing, to see what they were seeing. There is still so much to do, I thought. When the festival was finished I spent time during the day wandering through historic St. Petersburg; photographing the architecture along the Neva, and materials from the Russian State Cultural Museum, the Russian State Ethnographic Museum and the Kunstkamera.


After a couple of weeks of this foolishness I flew home via Frankfurt. The plane flew over Iceland, then southern Greenland just before sunset. Watching undisturbed and pristine towers of of ice and rock pass beneath the plane in that glow was like witnessing the beginning of time, the beginning of the world. And here I was, returning to the USA, back to where everything ends. Bak to the future.


And here are a bunch more photos, check it.

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