When it comes to awareness of Russian artistic media in America, I'd hazard a guess it sits somewhere near nil. There's a vague understanding that they wrote some very heavy and very depressing books that people who spend too much time in coffee shops read to feel superior to other people, but outside of college campuses you won't get the idea that much has come out of Russia in the last 100 years other than gymnasts and women James Bond has slept with. This is, to me, rather inexcusable, so fortunately we have Bubble Comics, a reletively new publisher that advertises itself as the largest in Russia, that also translates their work for the English speaking world. It's exciting to see a country I would describe as being virtually unknown in the world comic market make this kind of push for a global audience, even if European comics haven't had overwhelming pop success in America since the manga boom. Exlibrium is my first brush with their body of work, and I'd say my experience was for the most part pretty positive.
The thing an American reader might notice right off the bat is that if you weren't told the provenance of this comic you probably wouldn't figure out it was a foreign title. Besides one casual reference to being set in Moscow, the fantasy setting and relatable characters are utterly accessable to Western readers, even more so, generically, than manga at first glance. The art style is bright and has a Western manga hybrid style identical to the kind so popular in American indie fantasy right now. Whether by coincidence or by design, Bubble seems to publish books with a pretty universal appeal, easily marketable to current comic audiences. It's a slick professional package that I would hope comic shops would see the value in addressing. A book like this will sell.
Now, there is a reason I didn't, as I usually might, make my second paragraph a synopsis. That is because I want to emphasize that there are a lot of positive elements to this comic, ones that will bring me back for a second issue, that relate almost entirely to the presentation. I'm looking forward to learning more about the Bubble publishing line, but the sticking point found in 'Exlibrium', as it often is in American indie fantasy of the same kind, is the story.
The book begins with two supernaturally powered individuals fighting a cerberus and chasing a moped riding woman completely masked in red motorcycle gear. After an elongated struggle, they fail to capture her and she flees into the night. Here, the comic completely shifts gears and we are introduced to our protagonist, Lilia, a socially crippled but quirkily adorable geek who speaks to the audience in narration nearly incomprehensibly loaded with pop culture references. See what I meant by it being indistinguishable from American comics? This isn't an exaggeration, in the first three pages of her introduction we get explicit references to *deep breath * Mass Effect, Saints Row: The Third, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Arrow, and Fantastic Four, plus some sci-fi property that I didn't recognize. Maybe some of it can be credited to localization and the original Russian isn't quite as obnoxious with it (is Arrow a thing in Russia?) but it's pretty shameless and grating to read. I have no doubt that the author is an actual geek, but it does impress me how time and time again people who actually go to conventions and hang out with other geeks consistantly write characters like this, ones like how we imagine our parents think we look when they ask us what we thought of "that new Captain America movie." Lilia runs into the red clad biker and accidentally gains possession of a mysterious object that the woman drops. Brace for impending magical adventure in Issue Two.
Now here comes the most damning problem. On the opening credits page, we get a box of text explaining the title of the book as well as a rundown of the book's actual premise. Apparently, the two magic users at the beginning of the book are sorcerers given the job of keeping the boundary between the worlds of fiction and reality secure, as creatures and individuals from written worlds of fantasy sometimes bleed over into ours and have to be stopped. This is a pretty decent idea for a book, but unfortunately it never is properly communicated by the actual story so far. Without this box of text, which doesn't act as a proper opening crawl but more like what some comics use to catch new readers up on previous events, nothing in the book would have any apparent context. The story itself doesn't do a good job at communicating its hook and without this opening, it ultimately would just feel like very pretty but contextless action. The text is there so the book doesn't leave us with nothing to work with, but it comes off to me like poor storytelling. Remove the opening crawl of Star Wars and you can still understand everything you need to know about the story in the first five minutes. Here, you'd be lost and wouldn't have that crucial bit of worldbuilding that gives the book its only real weapon, storywise.
Still, the book's best quality is its art by Ozich. As mentioned before, the art is a Western/manga hybrid, one of the better kinds that doesn't mimic as much as take influence. It is very appropriately its own style, reminding me a bit of Irene Strychalski's art on Shaman Child. The backgrounds can be a bit sparse, but the character animation is charasmatic while the action has strong energy and staging. On top of this, the color job by Margarita Kablukova and Tatyana Yakubets is vibrant and gives the book its life, very well balanced with a strong poppy pallet. After weeks of reviewing books with mediocre to downright terrible color jobs, it was such a relief to read something where the best part was how it was colored.
I may have spent most of the review being negative, but overall Exlibrium was far easier to read than a lot of comperable American attempts at the same thing. The art wasn't full of shortcuts. While pandering the book actually seemed to want to be relateable, not your buddy. I want to read the second issue, that should say more than enough of how this succeeded despite its flaws. And while I'm not over the moon for it, there are a lot of people I can see really digging this book and its protagonist. It's one thing to be happy to see more international comics being made availible to American readers, it's another to see books that I feel are easy to recommend and have this kind of slick production. Comic shop owners take note: Russia might not be the source of the next big international comics boom but they might have some titles your customers didn't know they needed.
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Exlibrium #1 Writer: Natalia Devova Artist: Ozrich Publisher: Bubble Comics Price: $0.99 Format: Ongoing; Digital