Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun

Today’s post started out as an introduction to Moscow-born Russian cartoonist and illustrator Alexander Utkin, whose family name translates to something duck-related (‘utka’ means ‘duck’)… a few other topics may have crept in on soft paws, but sticking to one thing was never my forte.

I came across Utkin’s work in a comic book store. The volume attracted me with its stylish cover and vivid colours, standing out among its shelf companions despite the fact that they were also quite vibrant, this being the children’s corner (thankfully a reliable refuge for colour that’s often shunned in modern comics – if you haven’t noticed the absence of colour in the modern aesthetic, see this documentary about Chromophobia, or Colors: Where did they go? An investigation for a discussion).

The book that introduced me to Utkin, although what I had first seen was the French edition (Le roi des oiseaux, 2020); this edition is from 2018 and published by Nobrow.

I like cases where one doesn’t have to choose between art and storytelling, when the former is lovely and the latter, substandard (or vice versa). Utkin’s illustrations are beautiful, and he coherently and engagingly tackles a topic that’s dear to my heart – namely Russian fairy tales. Remember I mentioned Baba Yaga (see Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28) a few weeks ago? We will meet her again today (hide your children). We also encounter the legendary Gamayun, a prophet-bird (strangely, as a child I learned its name from the song Sirin, Alkonost, Gamayun* and not from reading folk tales) with no legs or wings, who propelled itself with its tail, and whose interrupted flight signalled death or misery. In a more modern interpretation, she morphed into a sort of bird of paradise with a woman’s face. Read about her and her ‘sisters’ Sirin and Alkonost here.

Published by Nobrow in 2020. Here’s a review of this collection.

Utkin’s Gamayun is a strange, vaguely female creature with huge eyes who narrates the stories (thus ‘Gamayun Tales’). There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things folky** in many parts of the world, perhaps a desire to preserve some cultural heritage when faced with globalisation – in that sense, one can say that this series is part of that pattern. These revivals don’t often reach a Western audience, however, so it’s especially cool that Utkin’s forays into Slavic myths have been well received and enthusiastically lauded by French and English speakers as well.

Here are a few pages from Roi des oiseaux or The King of Birds, which are, respectively, the French and English versions of the same story… except that the French edition also contains La dispute (The Quarrel), which in English was plunked into Gamayun Tales I. It’s a bit confusing.

In case you were wondering, Utkin’s Gamayun series is technically intended for children. I’m in the habit of regularly raiding the children’s section for interesting stuff, but I can call it mother’s interest (never-you-mind that I am the mother of cats and plants, not little humans). Here are several pages from Gamayun Tales II – this story is called The Quarrel (and, as mentioned earlier, was part of the French edition of The King of Birds):

The following page are from Vasilisa and the Doll, which in English was published in Gamayun Tales II, and in French, as part of the La princesse guerrière (‘the warrior princess’) collection:

I promised you Baba Yaga, didn’t I? The way Utkin draws her predatory teeth reminded me of Canadian artist Emily Carroll, whose creepy stories often mention teeth (one might say it’s a leitmoteeth of hers – sorry for the terrible pun). Her work deserves a post of its own, but for now I restrain myself to mentioning that Carroll, clearly also a fan of traditional folklore, illustrated a graphic novel (written by Marika McCoola) about you-know-who, Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015, Candlewick). Here is a tooth and style demonstration:

A few stylized pages tell the traditional story of Baba Yaga and the girl with the kind heart – you can read the tale (in English) here.
And here is what the slightly re-upholstered, modernized tale looks like.
Classic chicken legs!

To get back to our main topic, I’ll leave you with this glorious poster Utkin illustrated for a French bédé (comics) festival in 2020:

Visit Utkin’s IG account.

~ ds

*I highly recommend the whole album for those who like folk rock – it’s by the Russian band Akvarium.

**This includes the bevy of young woman trios and quartets (from Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Germany…) popping up seemingly all over the place, singing traditional folk songs whilst walking around. Here is a charming example from Russia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s