Talking Comics with Tim | Steve Orlando
When writer Steve Orlando contacted Robot 6 about his 88-page graphic novel, Octobriana: Samizdat Edition (Poseur Ink), I was intrigued for a number for a reasons. First off, Orlando tapped artist Chaz Truog (Grant Morrison’s collaborator on his definitive Animal Man run) for the project. Also, of interest to me, was the Russian history aspect; SAMIZDAT, the underground Soviet movement for spreading censored art and literature and best of all, a character born partially from a pop culture hoax. Once interested, of course, I arranged an email interview and we discussed all of these topics and more.
Tim O’Shea: At the outset, for uninformed readers like myself, can you discuss SAMIZDAT- the underground Soviet movement for spreading censored art and literature?
Steve Orlando: Samizdat (which means “self-making” or “self-made” in Russian) was an underground publishing movement during the harshest times of Soviet repression. It’s best summed up by Vladimir Bukovsky, a doctor and writer that exposed psychological torture against Soviet prisoners- “(…) I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and …get imprisoned for it. (…)” With Samizdat, banned documents were printed in secret and passed hand to hand between readers, under the radar. Because the documents were censored by the government, Samizdat was a dangerous movement, its printers were social and political zealots. But it was also extremely important- works such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” were among the circulated texts…making the movement responsible for the continued growth and expression of Russian literature. These were dedicated people- sometimes even recreating the texts word for word by hand or by typewriter.
Samizdat symbolizes a time when literature was dangerous and being a publisher was deadly. Its the passion of publishing, renegade creation and circulation, similar to the Zine movement, but with higher life costs. For these people, spreading the work was more important than their safety…and I think that’s a great thing to pay tribute to.
O’Shea: When did you first get interested in Octobriana–and prompted you wanted to write a story using her?
Orlando: Octobriana has fascinated me ever since I returned from my time living in Russia. After being among its culture and people, I discovered Octobriana’s backstory as a 1970s pop culture hoax. Her entire backstory as a protest creation of the made-up group the PPP (people’s progressive pornography), was a moneymaking scheme by Petr Sadecky. He claimed she was the ultimate communist character, created without copyright, so that anyone could use her. Ultimately he was a thief, stealing other people’s art and using it to concoct a story. But what was truly interesting, and what I ended up writing a thesis on, is that Sadecky could not stop or control his creation. Octobriana was out of the box, and functioning exactly as he said she did, despite his hoax. She had become modern pop culture folklore, popping up in art and print in different all over the planet, including a possible David Bowie film project int he 1970s, and a tattoo on Billy Idol’s arm.
Folklorist Vladimir Propp identified that Russian folklore has a standard set of tropes and parts, a morphology similar to a living organism. Writers and storytellers keep the basics, and then alter the dressings and semantics to fit their story and the ideas they want to speak about. No matter what her small minded creator planned, Octobriana ended up becoming just the folklore, with creators saving the basics and using her as a medium for their stories.
After researching her for a year, I had to tell my own story.
O’Shea: How challenging was it to find a publisher who would print the story on newsprint?
Orlando: Finding a publisher in general was challenging, due to the story’s content, especially with its frank depictions of LGBTQ sex. I’d worked with Poseur Ink before, and as a publisher of zines, underground comics, and also underground vinyl music printings, I thought that they would be a perfect thematic match to the story. Because of their minicomic background, selling them on using newsprint was not hard, especially once I told them more about Samizdat. However, finding a newsprint printer was actually surprisingly challenging. Many printers no longer even offer newsprint for book printing, and many others actually tried to convince me to convert to a thicker paper stock. Finally though, I was able to convince a printer in Brooklyn that newsprint was actually important to me as a statement for the book to make, and not a financial compromise. I wanted this to feel like an old-school book that someone could have pressed in their basement.
O’Shea: How important was it to you that the story be in black and white (as opposed to color)?
Orlando: Similar to the newsprint issue, having the book be in black and white was extremely important. There is of course a narrative to the book, but I wanted the entire book, even the media it is presented on, to be a statement about Samizdat and underground publishing. Even distributing the book through smaller sales reps, publishers, and directly, was done to mimic the hand to hand transactions of the Soviet era.
O’Shea: At what stage in developing Octobriana did you realize you wanted Chaz Truog to collaborate with you on it?
Orlando: When Chaz came on the book, the story was already set, but the characters had not been given form. I have loved his work since Animal Man, and know from his interest in Da Vinci that he has a genuine love of art and art history. I wanted the right artist, someone whose work was expressive. Octobriana had to be voluptuous, but also soft and curvy, to stay in line with her early depictions. When I first saw Chaz tackle Octobriana, I couldn’t imagine another artist taking on the story. The small details that he brought to the pages and settings truly grounded the story in the world I’d created. As soon as I saw the cover to the first chapter, with the iconic action pose inverted by gender, I knew that Chaz just got it.
O’Shea: The story is a mixture of intense sexuality and equally intense violence. How hard was it to script such scenes without going overboard on either count?
Orlando: While the PPP were not real, I think that the message of sexual freedom they were supposed to embody is still important today. And so when I decided to write about Octobriana, sexuality was always important to me as a part of the story. As such I decided to connect it to the narrative, and continue to invert expectations. In some scenes, Octobriana’s nudity is hopefully a mediating agent to desensitize the reader to less mainstream sexual images. In addition the sexuality pushes boundaries in a market where ratings systems say it is more damaging for a teenager to see a nude male or female than it is for him or her to see someone decapitated or have their head blown in.
Sex and Death has always laid along a thin line of separation- just look at the fascination with vampire literature, where the two begin to blend together. Because Octobriana is a story about passion, I felt that the sex and death needed to be bold. Yes, Liuba’s story is heartbreaking, but I wanted her to be more than a heartless villain- it gives her pathos, point of view. And she was in fact a real person during the Soviet period. I think the hardest part was imagining what her life was like, locked up, forced to perform these experiments on film. Her rage and restriction is the reason her sexual world so quickly and easily became a world of death. Her plague on Russia makes that literal.
But in general I work to make sure that if there is sexuality or violence, it is pushing the narrative forward, and that there is emotion behind it. The goriest killing, that of Liuba’s lover, is also that carrying the most emotional weight. The most sexually explicit scene, in the beginning of the story, is also the most passionate and pure, before it is spoiled by Liuba.
O’Shea: Which did you have research more for this story: Soviet political history or Soviet folklore?
Orlando: Though I was well versed in both, I did more research on Soviet politics. Sexual legislation was so tight during Octobriana’s time that a breast could not be depicted in the media unless it was to suckle a child. I had known about Liuba thanks to some reading I had done on her for an older story idea, but I did not know the extent to which the government had censored its literature and art. The more I read about Octobriana, Samizdat, and Mikhail Bulgakov, the more I looked for additional information.
O’Shea: Anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Orlando: I think Octobriana is important as a tribute to a publishing movement, but beyond it’s intents, it’s a story about one woman looking for who she is, and another wanting everyone to know who she is. Even simpler, its about two women avenging their lovers…two women championing their passion. It’s about action, magic, and sexuality…and I think the reader responses I’ve received have stood by that. Not everyone has said it’s their Octobriana, nor should it be, but it’s been an Octobriana they’ve wanted to meet again. I wanted to create an exciting action work, but didn’t expect to get emails from readers saying that they’ve been waiting for a book to tackle bisexuality like I have, or that’s spoken to their experience like it has.
To create a book that combines old-school comics action, and lets readers know they’re not alone…it’s been a great experience.