All of the Sparkplug Comic Books titles I’ve gotten so far have been wonderful. The Portland-based publisher has clearly established itself as a home for oddball stories and imaginative styles. One of Sparkplug’s most stunning books is The Airy Tales by Olga Volozova (published in 2008).
Make no mistake: Volozova’s collection of tales would be a nice read for children–especially if you want them to appreciate more elusive, poetic stories, not only ponderous epics on “good vs evil.” But adults with a taste for philosophical (and slightly absurd) tales will also find the book rewarding. As the author states in her interview for Sparkplug, “I always wanted to be a tale-teller who doesn’t construct tales as stories but knocks and waits until a tale would fall down, as a poem.” Her comics are populated with invisible puppet-masters, magical men (such as Mukumaka, who lives in a house made of rain), families who float in the air on leaves, and wandering Conceptual artists.
Volozova’s layouts are highly idiosyncratic, apparently inspired by Medieval illuminated manuscripts with their little images on the margins. Only in her case the center of the page is almost always given to a large image, which is surrounded by tiny drawings and blocks of text. (The placement of the latter is sometimes counterintuitive, and I had a hard time figuring out the sequence at first.) Roughly half of the book is in color and half is sepia-toned. The luminous colors of the first half, the prominent use of watercolor in the drawings, and, above all, the naive expressionistic style remind me of Chagall. Volozova keeps faith to childlike drawing throughout; sometimes she channels other artists, such as the Belgian James Ensor. The faces of some of the characters in The Airy Tales recall the singular masks on the latter’s paintings.
Olga Volozova was born in the USSR (before moving to LA, where she is now based, the artist lived in Baku and Moscow). As an immigrant from Russia myself, I couldn’t help thinking about the extent her work is informed by her Soviet experience. Her stories often take place in cities with broad streets, tower blocks, and, most importantly, lots of people who want to know everything about everyone. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that one of the major themes of the book is the interaction between individual and community. The Soviet ideology strongly discouraged individualism, praising “living for others” above all. In today’s capitalist Russia people look back at that epoch with ambivalence: many feel nostalgia for those more “communal” times, while others remind them that the proverbial Russian principle of “man is wolf to man” was perfectly alive then as now. Volozova’s stories do not have any violent content, but she keeps the ambivalence, even though she clearly loves her weird townfolk.
One curious thing about Volozova’s book is the near-total lack of main characters who are female. But that is amended in her next book, Rock That Never Sleeps (with JuliaCKS). Her story there features two strong women, a mother and a daughter. As for The Airy Tales, they have a certain gender imbalance, but, unlike a lot of comics and stories, they do not propagate any kind of stereotypes.