Where do superheroes come from? The concept didn’t just emerge fully formed into the world when, say, Superman showed up on the cover of Action Comics in 1938. Humanity has enjoyed stories of superhuman hero figures since time immemorial; you can find precedents for the superhero deep in the mythologies of a variety of cultures. When the Russian illustrator Roman Papsuev looked deep into the mythology of his own culture, he found plenty of material he could carry right over into a modern visual idiom. And what with the current Game of Thrones-driven wave of swords and sorcery in the global pop-culture zeitgeist, he picked the right time indeed to publish his elaborate drawings of Russian folklore heroes in the style of today’s high-fantasy comic books, movies, TV shows, and video games.
“The first characters were based on the author’s feelings and fantasies,” writes Daria Donina at Russia Beyond the Headlines. “He began, of course, with Ilya Muromets — the main Russian epic hero and the strongest bogatyr or warrior.” Then, “the more the author got immersed in the subject, the more accurate his pictures became.
He began to reread the tales and study the works of famous folklorists.” Donina quotes Papsuev himself: “‘What I like most is when people look at my pictures and then begin to read the tales and understand why, for instance, Vasilisa the Beautiful has a doll in her bag or why Vodyanoy rides a giant catfish. This grassroots revival of ancient folklore through my humble project gives me great pleasure.'”
You can browse all of these illustrations and more at Papsuev’s Instagram page, which includes not just finished pieces but works in progress as well, so you can get an idea of just what sort of process it takes to render a Russian hero for the 21st century. To a non-Russian, this all may seem like simply a neat art project, but any Russian will recognize these characters as central to a set of stories themselves central to the culture. “The tales are stamped in the subconscious from childhood,” Papsuev says in the Russia Beyond the Headline article, and as with any material with which people grew up, any reinterpreter takes them into his own hands at his peril.
“This project has no relation to real history or real life,” says the artist. “These are just tales, trapped in a world of games. It’s a fun project. Don’t take it too seriously.” But which enterprising Russian developer, I wonder, will take it seriously enough to go ahead and make an actual video game based on Papsuev’s too-heroic-to-waste folkloric characters?
Find more drawings at at Papsuev’s Instagram page.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.