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.

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28

Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).

Introduction to Vasilissa the Beautiful, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, 1931. That’s Baba Yaga flying on top.

Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.

Baba Yaga in her natural habitat, the flying pestle. Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).

Baba Yaga (this book was originally published in 1908, using the same painting, but with fewer background details; this edition is from 1915, illustrator still unknown).

Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.

In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.

Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.

~ ds