Nikolai Maslov, writer/artist
Soft Skull Press, 2006
Originally written on November 1, 2006 for publication in The Comics Journal
Martin Scorsese’s Casino ends with narrator Sam “Ace” Rothstein declaring of the story he’s just told, “And that’s that.” There’s nothing that straightforward and simple about the movie itself, which is an absolute masterpiece of excess; but as an imaginary capstone to Nikolai Maslov’s memoir of Communist life Siberia, it works perfectly. From Maslov’s barely-there pencils-only art to his story’s episodic “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” structure, everything about this graphic novel evokes the feeling that Maslov is telling his tale not to find meaning within it, but to ascribe meaning to it – as if the simple act of recounting a life of grinding poverty, ubiquitous alcoholism, mental illness, and utter hopelessness will lend it a purpose that the Soviet structure relentlessly denied it. Maslov’s figure work and portraiture are startlingly effective; they never rise too far above the level of “very talented high-schooler,” but the pathetic ugliness of nearly all of his characters, including himself – they all look mildly retarded – is an almost perfect mechanism for chronicling a life and a society gone sour. The intimacy of the art’s soft gray makes some of the sourest moments, like the scene in which an alcoholic peasant literally laps spilled wine up off the ground, an almost unbearable intimacy. Siberia lacks the sort of narrative through-line that characterizes most memoir writing, which can be both a curse and a blessing. Like a Harvey Pekar of Stalinism, Maslov doesn’t always convince us that these anecdotes are worth relaying. But there’s an undeniable frisson to be found in the fact that he and the rest of Russian society escaped from the grip of authoritarianism – if, as is now apparent, only for a little while – to relay them at all. That seems to be Maslov’s message, to the extent that he has one beyond trying to come to terms with his own life. And that’s that.