I Am an Elephant (2017)

The first Russian book-length graphic novel about disability, I Am an Elephant received unusual attention in the mainstream press for a comics work, leading the publisher Boomkniga to offer a larger-than-usual print run. Written by disabled author, filmmaker, and musician Vladimir Rudak (b. 1968, based in Petrozavodsk), with art by leading Russian comics artist Lena Uzhinova, it is largely based on Rudak’s experiences after becoming paralyzed in an accident. Veering from classic realism, the novel takes on a surrealistic, whimsical tone at times more appropriate to a children’s book or animated cartoon, with the motif of “life is a stage” a paramount theme. The central character divides his identity in two: one a flamboyant, even obnoxious talking elephant, the other a silent rag doll, representing spirit and body, respectively. In the course of its 135 pages, through monologues, enacted scenes and memories, I Am an Elephant explores contemporary Russian prejudices and beliefs regarding the disabled, the sexual yearnings of wheelchair users, and the emotional labor of dealing with paralysis as a “macho” man. Nothing like it had appeared in Russian comics before, certainly not in book-length form.
In 2014 the Moscow-based Lena Uzhinova (b. 1967), writing as Alyona Kamyshevskaya, published My Sex, a graphic memoir which strips the veil off Soviet-era sexual mores, in the author’s trademark tragicomic style. Uzhinova is a leading voice in Russian comics today; still, her publisher Boomkniga took a risk in releasing such material. Sure enough, it sparked a backlash from mostly male readers who denounced its “pornographic” depiction of late-Soviet sexual realia, such as inadequate sex education; the lack of women’s hygiene products and contraceptives; and rape culture. Nothing like it had ever appeared in Russian comics before, certainly not a longform work.     My Sex did the Russian comics industry a tremendous service, by proving that comics don’t have to be funny (though parts of Uzhinova’s work are hilarious, in a cringe-inducing way), and they don’t have to be for kids. In short, My Sex, part of a new wave of graphic memoir, offered Russian readers a new platform for discussions of previously taboo topics and of the Soviet past, at the same time breaking new ground for the expressive potential of comics in a country that long resisted the form as semi-literate trash.