Joseph Stalin, out of the picture since 1953, returns in Jim Rugg's Mtsyry Octobriana 1976 one-shot for another crack at the big time, and goes down for the count at the hands of one of comics' more enduring cults of personality. Technically, the Soviet man of steel has morphed into a steel robot and a crucial punch-up involves a passing mutant brown bear rather than just the heroine with her name in the title, who strictly speaking might need help to disarm the Terabomb that will devastate Siberia. But messy details about who does what below the headline are appropriate for Octobriana, a character born from a good old-fashioned comics industry rip-off.
Long and familiar story short: In 1971 Czech writer Petr Sadecký publishes an English-language book about the comics character Octobriana, using material he said he collected while turning on and dropping out with a semi-underground 1960s Kiev crew calling itself Progressive Political Pornography. PPP used Octobriana as an icon of revolution and anti-Soviet resistance - the spirit of Mother Russia - and signed her comics exploits with a collective pseudonym of Roy Pavel Drakov. Except it was all bogus. The art was of a different Amazonian character entirely, drawn by three Czech artists who were under the impression Sadecký was seeking a Western outlet for their work. Their names were not mentioned when Sadecký altered the art and published it as "Octobriana," and they slipped his mind again the following year when he put together a second book of Octobriana strips in West Germany. By then, with creators' rights lost in obscurity back behind the Iron Curtain, the character was effectively let loose into the public domain. Bryan Talbot made her a supporting character in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, picking up on the supposed PPP vibe that she was a rapacious libertine as well as a revolutionary; and from there cult status and a spectrum of different artistic interpretations beckoned.
Jim Rugg's chosen template from the menu is Big Boobs Brawler. In a frantic action story notionally set in 1976 that taps into a vein of underground comix violence, but also feels like a B-movie up from Roger Corman's id back when all he could afford were buxom ladies on motorbikes and plasticine crab monsters, Robot Stalin declares his intention to test a doomsday device in Siberia. He flops the phallic warhead out onto the table at waist height to make the point. Octobriana then races to intercept the train on which the dreaded bomb is located, a task tackled with gusto and significant artillery, during which she mows down a chunk of the Soviet army. She also hooks up with the scientist who designed the weapon; which is just as well, since Octobriana lore contains the occasional hint that elemental mayhem is a blunt instrument of revolution, and eventually someone with a degree and a screwdriver might need to be on the team to make things happen.
A high enthusiasm on Rugg's part for the forms and affect of printed comics was clear even before he launched the Cartoonist Kayfabe series with Ed Piskor and began talking about the topic at length. Afrodisiac, a 2009 pastiche of comics' 1970s dabbles with blaxploitation, and could only have come from someone who had put in the hours peering at the coloring of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. That instinct to disassemble and reconstruct is made flesh in the way that Mtsyry Octobriana has ended up existing in three different printed forms: a Neon edition including UV-active blacklight inks which was Rugg's original vision, plus another with a muted color palette and false aged paper for a retrofitted 1970s vibe, and a black & white edition on newsprint with screentone shadings added. The blacklight version is intended to come across as an artifact and does so, slabs of brutal color slapped down hard on the page with spots of UV-active inks spread around some of the layouts - although not copiously. Speed lines and bursts of radiation are the primary storytelling tactic, similar kinetics to the style Rugg deployed in some of his Street Angel books although here the volume knob is cranked all the way round. He's also in a fannish dialogue with Sadecký's original book - Octobriana rides a pterodactyl in an image borrowed from the source, and Sadecký himself appears mingling with the PPP hedonists on page one looking appropriately sheepish - although Rugg has smoothed Octobriana's original Mongolian/Chinese physiognomy into something more rounded and cartoony. The cover has the most striking rendition of that face in the book, a dramatic, and why not call it timely, image of a non-Caucasian female screaming a howl of aggression. It's a visual with vivid personality, something that there isn't much room for in the comic by design. Rugg is even carefully ambiguous about how Octobriana gets called to action at all, implying (maybe) that she's summoned by the PPP like Marvel's old Teen Brigade used to get the Avengers on the radio, or that she might be some kind of gestalt, a manifestation of their collective revolutionary ways.
Either way, once she kicks in the doors and blazes away with the sub-machine guns it's a high-spirited rumpus and a concentrated blast of Rugg's enthusiasm for pastiche. But there are a few things missing. Sex, for starters. A louche eroticism, plus the always vital principle that state disapproval of sexuality is the thin end of the totalitarian wedge, was baked into Octobriana at birth, and Rugg avoids venturing anywhere near that dimension - apart maybe from Octobriana's perpetually foxy expression, the cat that got the cream and then demolished the dairy. Psychedelia is out of the picture also, an uneasy absence given all the life-of-the-mind associations of blacklight illustration and its place in trippy transcendence.
And finally there is, or isn't, politics. Insisting that actual politics crop up in all playful fictions is a short route into your own dull echo chamber, and what Petr Sadecký really believed about the chances of a comic embodying a spirit of revolution is unguessable. But a recent UK Octobriana comic, less visually barnstorming than Mystry Octobriana for sure, nonetheless had her feminizing an arrogant Vladimir Putin and freeing the two members of Pussy Riot from the gulag they were actually in when the comic was published, which feels like the kind of thing a public domain changeling should be getting up to in a postmodern post-truth culture. In our bizarro dimension of subterranean Russian bots and novichok poisonings, maybe comics should muster a cultural force able to kick an actual politician in the nuts rather than a robot stand-in, no matter how cool she looks in the tight snakeskin pants doing it.