Nikolai - The story behind PersonaЖ #1

Here in Moscow, we are part of a burgeoning illustration community, with great artists emerging all the time. Sputnikat Press was established to encourage some of these artists to direct their skills towards visual storytelling – and to provide a platform for their talents outside of Russia. For our first book, it made sense to do some kind of group book, to showcase several artists at a time. However, we wanted to do something different, and more interesting than the standard comics anthology. So, after a little thinking time, we had a brainwave, which would quickly become the blueprint for an annual collaborative project. The concept was thus: seven artists, some based in Moscow, some overseas, gather together to create a single character, to establish basic tenets about who the character is, what they look like, where they live, what they do, what kind of personality he or she has, etc. Then, each artist takes a day of the week to tell an 8-page story about this character, adding up to a book telling the tale of one week in the character’s life. The editorial balancing act is to let each artist work in their own style, and explore their own interests such as they would in a regular anthology – but to maintain enough elements of continuity such that the book can also be read as the story of our protagonist. The name for the book came immediately – ‘PersonaЖ.' (The symbol at the end of the title is the Russian letter, Ж – pronounced like a soft ‘j’. The word itself, in both French and Russian, is ‘personnage’ and means ‘character’)

The birth of Nikolai - with Evgenia, Christopher, Irina, Arina and Andrey.

The birth of Nikolai - with Evgenia, Christopher, Irina, Arina and Andrey.

Firstly, we gathered together our collective of Russian artists - Andrey Petranin, Arina ShabanovaIrina Troitskaya, Evgenia Barinova and Moscow-based Brit, Christopher Rainbow. Andrey worked as the designer for the book, and Christopher as the editor. We brewed some tea, ate some fruit, and brainstormed who our character would be. Evgenia and Irina were keen for a male protagonist. We all agreed that he would be a quiet, thoughtful type. Somebody had the idea of him being a handyman - known colloquially in Russian as a moozh na chas (муж на час) - literally, a 'husband for an hour'. This was a shrewd choice, because his van would make him mobile and he could get called out to all kinds of jobs, allowing for a wide variety of possible stories.  Christopher imagined the character as a smoker, and Evgenia wanted him to go swimming. Andrey dug out reference photos for his modest apartment and his white van. Everybody drew a version of the character we were imagining, and we came up with a dark-haired, fairly handsome chap, simply dressed in a leather jacket and polo neck jumper. Arina suggested the name Nikolai, a fairly typical Russian men's name, which shortens to Kolya. Everyone felt that the name and the face fitted, and voila, Nikolai was born.

Our international guest artists for PersonaЖ #1 - Jeroen Funke, and  Lika Nüssli. 

Our international guest artists for PersonaЖ #1 - Jeroen Funke, and  Lika Nüssli. 

We needed seven artists for a week of stories - so we recruited two friends from Europe to complete the team. First up, we contacted the wonderful  Lika Nüssli from Switzerland. Lika makes beautiful illustrations in a whole range of styles and we were fascinated to see how she would interpret the character. We’d also seen and loved her comic strip for Strappazin, the Swiss comics anthology magazine. To complete the squad, we invited Dutch cartoonist, Jeroen Funke from the Lamelos collective. We knew Jeroen and his mischievous character Pinky, from the Boomfest comics festival in St Petersburg. With our team now complete, we sent everyone the format requirements – a title page plus a seven-page story to be printed in two colours (blue and orange) on a Risograph printer. Risography is a print process that produces multiples in layers of colour and is ideal for independently produced comics and zines. It also has a really lovely aesthetic, somewhere between the lo-fi mechanical production of photocopying and the hand-crafted texture and idiosyncrasies of printmaking.

The development process, from character designs, to sketches, to finished greyscale layers ready for two-colour printing. Artwork from l-r by Arina, Evgenia, Christopher and Jeroen. 

The development process, from character designs, to sketches, to finished greyscale layers ready for two-colour printing. Artwork from l-r by Arina, Evgenia, Christopher and Jeroen. 

Now we got down to the serious business of writing our stories. Christopher reflected upon a recent trip to a friend’s dacha, and went walkabout around Moscow for ideas for the sequence travelling through the city. Evgenia went to the famous open-air swimming pool, Chaika, to draw sketches for her story. A couple of months later, we collected the draft storyboards. It was fascinating to see the range of approaches – totally different styles and stories, and yet, there was enough continuity to convince the reader that this was indeed, a consistent character. We decided upon the order that the stories should run in, and assigned each artist their day. Once everyone knew each other’s rough plot, artists were able to work with each other to iron out small continuity details. For example, Lika’s story involved the gift of a small cactus, so other artists were able to introduce this plant into the background of Nikolai’s flat. Most intriguingly, Jeroen devised a time travel story, wherein Nikolai would travel between different stories in the week!

The final book, in full 64-page, perfect bound, two-colour Risograph glory.

The final book, in full 64-page, perfect bound, two-colour Risograph glory.

Once the final versions of each story were complete, we gathered the work together for printing. We had just acquired our own Risograph printer for Sputnikat HQ in Moscow, but as this had only recently arrived (from Ukraine) and we had not yet had a chance to test it and play with it, we decided to outsource the production of this first book. We printed the book with Two Press studio in London – 400 copies of a lovely 64-page two-colour comic.

Nikolai's story on display at the Jailhotel for Fumetto Comix Festival 2016.

Nikolai's story on display at the Jailhotel for Fumetto Comix Festival 2016.

Books in hand, Christopher and Andrey headed straight to our first book fair – at the Fumetto Comix Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. If you ever have the opportunity to go to Fumetto, you shouldn’t miss it. It’s wonderful experience, with friendly, enthusiastic organisers, a wonderfully picturesque setting by the lake and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and a fantastic 2016 line up of guest artists, including Joe Sacco, Joost Swaarte, Carolina Sury, Lorenzo Mattotti, Max, Frémok collective and Tom Gauld. We launched PersonaЖ at Fumetto through an exhibition as part of the festival’s satellite programme. The exhibition took place at the Jailhotel, which as the name suggests, is a former prison building converted into a hotel. As there was no obvious exhibition area, we decided to make a virtue of the maze-like building. We dotted each story, one for each day of Nikolai’s week, around the corridors or the hotel and placed flyers near the entrance to invite the audience to explore the hotel to find each story – a comic-strip treasure hunt! In addition to our exhibition, we sold copies of the book on the Small Press Heaven book fair on the final weekend of the festival. It was a great way to introduce Sputnikat Press to the public.

After Fumetto, Christopher and (future Sputnikat artist) Katya Dorokhina travelled to London for East London Comics Art Festival (ELCAF). Along with James Rowe, (our UK sales dude) we sold PersonaЖ along with a host of other badges, zines and prints from Moscow. A trip to Soho over the weekend culminated in two seminal moments – seeing our book on the small press table at iconic London comics shop, Gosh! – and Christopher managing to (partly) pay for a hair cut with a copy of PersonaЖ. It’s not quite Picasso paying for meals with his signature, but it felt like it, and that’s what counts.

Out and about... from left to right, PersonaЖ on display, Sputnik the Cat sitting on her Risograph throne, Vkus Bumagi print fair in Moscow and Andrey taking it easy after a busy day at Fumetto. 

Out and about... from left to right, PersonaЖ on display, Sputnik the Cat sitting on her Risograph throne, Vkus Bumagi print fair in Moscow and Andrey taking it easy after a busy day at Fumetto. 

Back in Russia, Andrey, Irina and Christopher gave a presentation about the process behind Nikolai’s creation at KomMissia comics festival in Moscow. We sold our book at Vkus Bumagi (‘Taste of Paper’), a new printmaking fair in Moscow, sharing a table with our friends Nina, Sveta, Kristina and Elena, a.k.a Tipatzeha collective. In September, we made a visit to Boomfest comics festival, in St Petersburg, and in February we sold our book in a book fair organized by MORS, a children’s book fair in Moscow.

Now we’re busy working on PersonaЖ #2, with a new team of artists and a new character – Daria from St Petersburg. If you would like to buy a copy of Personaж: A Week in the Life of Nikolai you can do so at our online shop, or check our Facebook group for a list of our upcoming appearances at book fairs and festivals in Russia and abroad.

Nikolai and his trusty handyman van! Art by Arina Shabanova. Pick up a copy of PersonaЖ #1 at our online shop!

Nikolai and his trusty handyman van! Art by Arina Shabanova. Pick up a copy of PersonaЖ #1 at our online shop!