Latvia’s Kuš comics turns ten
Kuš, a Riga-based comic publishing house, singlehandedly created the comic arts scene in Latvia, and has since fostered the talents of new generations of young illustrators and artists making surreal, sweet, deeply foreboding, or sometimes just plain confusing collections of images using a wide range of mediums.
In the front yard of one of Riga’s many unused Soviet buildings, a boy in his early twenties is hammering a sign reading “swamp” into the muddy ground. The wetter patches have been fenced off by low-lying black and yellow tape, and a makeshift swing of plank and climbing rope is dangling haphazardly from a nearby tree. A boy in a bright shirt sets up a sound system and a girl in an apron organises a screen printing table. The venue, D27, has been repurposed by a movement called Free Riga, seeking to breathe life back into the city’s empty buildings. D27 houses a “free market” as well as artists’ studios, accommodation and Riga-based comic publishing house Kuš (pronounced “Koosh”) which tonight is celebrating its tenth birthday.
Kuš singlehandedly created the comic arts scene in Latvia, and has since fostered the talents of new generations of young illustrators and artists making surreal, sweet, deeply foreboding, or sometimes just plain confusing collections of images using a wide range of mediums. Swiss-born David Schilter edits the publications alongside the girl in the apron – Latvia’s Sanita Muižniece, who got involved nine years ago. Over the time it has been active, it has established itself as enough of a national leader to be granted government support. “We cannot now call ourselves fully independent,” says the soft spoken Schilter.
“I moved here in 2006 – there were no comics,” he says. Schilter made the decision after completing his Esrasmus studies in Lithuania in 2005, during which he fell in love with the Baltics. When he first arrived there were “a couple of translations from Tintin and Asterix but there were no comic shops here, no publishers. The only comics you could find here besides Kuš was this Mickey Mouse magazine,” he says.
The scene has grown along with Kuš, which has extended its network to work as a platform for book illustrators, staff and students from the Art Academy, as well as more random recruits. In their first year they distributed for free, backed by Schilter’s savings, so aspiring artists quickly learned of its existence. Oddly, neither of its leaders make comics themselves. “David [Schilter] and me are the only ones who don’t draw,” says Muizneice.
The initial absence of a “comic culture” meant that at the beginning Kuš had problems sourcing Latvian artists to fill the book’s pages. “The first issue, only the cover was a Latvian artist,” he says. Nowadays it showcases vastly more. The majority of artists in anthology #29, ‘Celebration’, released in honour of its tenth birthday, are Latvian. It also includes illustrators from Canada and Switzerland, but nowadays they are outnumbered. Kuš has also started travelling abroad to comics conventions in both Russia and London and is set to have a presence at the London Book Fair in 2018, which will have a market focus on Baltic countries.
The artists come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. While some are students, academics or artistic professionals, others work in completely unrelated fields.
Reinis Pētersons illustrates children books for one of Latvia’s only independent publishing houses, Liels un Mazs (“Big and small”). He says that the publishing house is unusual in itself, as most places tend to rely on new editions of old children’s classics. “Not many houses do original children’s books,” he says.
His comic in the anniversary “Celebration” collection is a striking and richly coloured affair, showing tribesmen capturing a giant hog. It is one of only a few text-free comics, relying solely on its imagery to tell the story, suggesting that its unclothed hunters would also be able to understand the simple narrative. “It’s very primal,” he laughs.
Pētersons draws his inspiration from a variety of sources – both Western and Soviet. But this can change with the arrival of new generations onto the scene. “The generation quite active in comic book art now, they don’t have direct memories from Soviet times.” He was born in 1981, so retains memories from the era – and they influenced his work deeply.
“It was a big shock when we got this whole Western culture coming in this big way with the Disney animation, with Western comics … you see there is this different kind of approach.” He notices that things seemed somehow more advanced, but he still honours the good aspects of his past. “Lots of animation films in the Soviet era were not only for children. They were … very philosophical sometimes,” he elaborates. “The best I thought for me was the Sci-Fi animations, films in the ‘80s there had already started to appear some Sci-Fi – they were very intriguing, about visiting different planets. “
And nowadays, what role does Kuš play in Latvia’s comic arts scene? “We have these guys to thank,” he says.
Twenty-nine-year-old Martins Zutis initially aspired to be a computer scientist. He created the purple and pink-hued cover for the tenth anniversary issue. The main artwork shows two wizards having a barbecue amid giant leafy plants. A marbled image and woeful orange cylinders are billowing from the barbecue into the sky. “Thee are the ghosts of the sausages,” he says.
Inside, the collection contains a simple but sweet eight-page set of strips illustrating concepts such as “a bee having fun with a barcode reader” and “volcano’s first day at work”.
“I realised it’s quite a nice way to forget about whatever and just paint,” he says. He also recognises the difficulties of innovating in Latvia and a tendency to stick with the familiar – although his comparatively young age allowed his childhood to also be filled with influences from “the West”.
“I was also reading Harry Potter,” he says. “I guess the books which are being read are still the same – that’s the thing.” “My nephew is still reading books that my sister was reading then. There are a bunch of Soviet cheap tales – popular picture books. I don’t really think that literature has changed that much.”
While the increased attention to comics in the country is great, it also comes with its challenges. “There are way more artists being published,” he says, noting the increased competition.
Daria Tessler is Finnish but grew up in California. She is the creator of Animal Sleep Stories, which makes silkscreened art, illustrations, children books, and mini comics. For mini kuš! #45 “Music of Changes” she put together a bizarre but beautiful series of images from the John Cage Art Farm, where “genetically modified plants grow into randomised sculptures”.
The idea came to her after reading a book on chaos theory. “Mathematicians can all build the same mental sculptures and come to a consensus that logically, these thought sculptures must be valid and must exist,” she said in a “Behind the Comics” interview published by Kuš in October last year. She also finds the creative process meditative and a way of turning “anxious looping chatter” down into silence.
“It’s funny to think that the process of filling a page with the visual chaos of almost endless detail is actually a somewhat meditative process and calms my otherwise racing mind,” she said.
While several illustrators comment on the Soviet legacy as a source of their inspiration, especially items aimed at children, some of them are too young to remember the actuality of Soviet times and some were not even alive under the occupation. Nonetheless the visual culture remained.
“I remember we had old Russian books from Soviet times,” said one young illustrator, Liana, born in 1994. “They would have these crazy illustrations and I remember, it wasn’t so much the story as the pictures.”
The divergent paths that Russia and Latvia took after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the international nature of Kuš both afford it a wide range of originality. However, Schilter believes the comic scenes in the countries are still working at a near-parallel level. “In Russia– it’s similar to here. There’s no big comic scene – it’s only starting now,” he says.
At the forefront of the comic scene in Russia is Boomfest, headed up by Dmitry Yakovlev who has experienced one or two difficulties in the past. The mutual interest is a strong point of connection despite the border separating Latvia and Russia. “Yakolev – he’s publishing great stuff. He has good taste and is pushing the comic scene there,” Schilter says. “We go almost every year.”
Aliide Naylor is a British journalist, editor and researcher. She has published freelance with POLITICO Europe, the Guardian, New Statesman, among others, and is currently writing a book on the Baltic states with I.B. Tauris. She holds a BA in History from the University of London and an MA in Russian Studies from the European University at St. Petersburg.