Ukrainian Comics and War in Ukraine
By Svitlana Pidoprygora
In the autumn of 2013, Euromaidan started in Ukraine as a response to the authorities’ decision to end European integration processes and focus on the Customs Union with the Russian Federation. Thousands of people went to protests on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (literally, ‘Independence Square’) in Kyiv and the central squares of other Ukrainian cities, demonstrating society’s support for the European vector of development and protesting against the arbitrariness of the authorities. At the end of 2013, the authorities used forceful methods of countering peaceful protests, which, at the beginning of 2014, led to open armed confrontation and the Revolution of Dignity. In February 2014, after security forces shot unarmed protesters with the suspected support of the Russian Federation, President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from his duties by the Supreme Council and fled Ukraine. At the same time, the occupation of Crimea by the Russian military began, which for a long time hid its direct connection to the Russian Federation. Since 2014, Russian-armed militants and Russian military personnel have been fighting in the Donbas for ‘Russian peace’, creating the puppet quasi-state entities of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). In fact, already in 2014, a war with the Russian Federation began in Ukraine. In Ukraine, this was not officially called a ‘war’, but rather an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO), meaning that the Russians and their supporters were already then perceived as ‘terrorists’. The armed conflict in the east of Ukraine became a constant topic in Ukrainian national media, especially before and after the Second Minsk Agreements , which provided a relative truce. Volodymyr Zelensky’s election triumph was connected with the promise to end this war, but he did not succeed.
Long before February 2022, the war was already an ongoing point of focus. Many fiction and documentary works have been written about the ATO, both by Ukrainian writers and combatants without writing experience. And precisely in this context, Ukrainian comics gained a so far unknown popularity. Before 2014, there were only marginal examples, mainly by émigré authors, such Leonid Perfetskyi’s Ukraine in the Struggle (1953 and 1971) and Omelyan Koval’s “Murder on the Order of the KGB” (Krylaty, no. 5, 1978) and “The Youth of Stepan Bandera” (Krylaty, No. 3, 1981). Their comics depict the fight for Ukraine’s independence at the beginning of the 20th century and during World War II from a nationalist and close to far-right perspective and were directed against Soviet propaganda. Moreover, they did not aim to create a product that would compete with superhero, adventure, and other genres of entertainment comics that were actively developing in America and Europe at the time. Rather, “from the very beginning, they were not only ‘stories in pictures for children’, but a full-fledged cultural-informational medium” with a powerful documentary component. Comic strips first appeared in Ukraine in the satirical magazine Chervonyi perets in the 1930s and in later years in magazines such as Crocodile and Perets. These journals were popular at the time but offered a perspective connected with communist ideology. Significantly, since 2014, comics in Ukraine gained popularity not as an anti-war genre or a genre that deals with the traumatic consequences of war for society, but, on the contrary, mainly as a medium that adapted American superheroes to Ukrainian contexts to mobilize their own people against the Russian aggressors.
The myth of Superman and the ATO in Ukraine
Starting in 2014, military actions in the east of Ukraine became a powerful trigger for the emergence of the superhero genre, in which the mythological narrative of the hero is actualized in the form of a superhero. As Marc DiPaolo writes, “superhero stories are at their most popular and evocative when they respond to particularly turbulent political times, especially those marred by war and social unrest”. Similar stories from American popular culture, like those of Superman or Batman, are characterized by a clear polarization of positive and negative characters. Ukrainian comics drawn after 2014 often adopted this pattern, where the defenders of Good and Light are always on the Ukrainian side, fighting against the forces of Darkness and Evil, which are generally associated with the Russian Federation and its imperial ambitions (i.e., the Russian Empire). Some villains in these comics hold a visual resemblance to real people. Names and places in the world of the comics can easily be read as an allusion to existing figures and locations too.
In drawing such a clear ideological dichotomy between the Ukrainian (national) and Russian (imperial) worlds, the comics even gained a leading role in ideologically rallying society, whereas state institutions at the same time showed a more neutral attitude towards the events in the east of Ukraine. The comics clearly demonstrated a propaganda of Ukrainian values, not only rejecting, but ridiculing and demonizing the enemy to the point of dehumanization, showing Russians as monsters, robots, and mechanized aliens. Long before the open Russian war of aggression in February 2022, these comics affected public consciousness, forming an image of an ugly, lying enemy, with whom no negotiations are possible and who must only be destroyed.
The superheroes of all these comics face a difficult, but common task: to save the Ukrainian world (that is, Ukraine) from destruction and the triumph of evil forces. Among the first creators of the Ukrainian superhero are Lesia Voroniuk, with two issues of Ukrainski superheroi (Ukrainian Superheroes, 2015); Vadym Nazarov, with Patriot (2014, 2016, 2018); and Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, with seven issues of the graphic novel Okhorontsi krainy (Guardians of the Country, 2018). Other works, meanwhile, only partly incorporated the superhero component: Zvytiaha: Savur-mohyla (Victory: Savur’s Grave, 2015) by Denys Fadeev and the graphic novel Volia: The WILL (2017, 2018, by the publishing house The Will Production).
If we take a closer look at these superhero comics, which focus on the political situation in Ukraine during the ATO, almost without exception they portray optimistic narratives. Even the typical ambivalence of US superhero comics, where the hidden personal identity of the protagonist is often in conflict with their superhero persona, is absent here. The Ukrainian superhero has no secrets, but rather an unwavering coherent image uniting the private and public, intending for readers to believe that they are capable of a heroic feat and that “the real heroism of superheroes is not in supernatural abilities, but in steadfastness in the face of enormous difficulties”.
The invincible cyborgs of the Donetsk airport
The superhero comics create alternative worlds based on the contemporaneous political situation in Ukraine. But there are also comics about the war that do not depart from realistic matrices; on the contrary, their authors try to depict events as accurately as possible, emphasizing the documentary veracity with different artistic devices. The publication of such works began in 2016 with the series of Kiborhy (Cyborgs) created by various authors and artists. The underlying plotlines constitute key combat operations at the Donetsk airport and its protection by the Armed Forces of Ukraine for 242 days (26 May 2014–21 January 2015). The public organization Virni tradytsiiam (True to Traditions), founded by active military personnel, volunteers, and activists in 2016, initiated the series. The organization’s main task is to oppose Russian aggression in terms of information, and its goal is “educational activity, which consists in preserving memories about ATO fighters in [the] engaging and accessible form of comics”.
The series of comics forms a historical national narrative for young people. On their website, they state that the comics illustrate “a new format of the history of Ukraine”. The comics of the series are released through groups of connected volumes (often two), which are united by a central theme. The comics focus on key moments of the airport defense, based on the memories of eyewitnesses, and some parts of the comics are completely consistent with captured footage of the event. The place and date of the episodes are emphasized in their titles, indicating the day, month, and year, which also document the course of events by referring to official information, as can be seen in the following (translated) titles: “Chronicles of the 3rd Regiment, 05.26.2014” (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, 2018), “Kiborhy: The Beginning, 05.26.2014” (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, 2017), “Kiborhy: The Legend of the Invincible, 31.05.2014” (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, 2019), “Kiborhy: Trap, 09.3.2014” (2020), “Kiborhy: Unbreakable, Mission – DAP, 25.11.14” (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, 2017), “Kiborhy: Storm, 17.01.2015” (Vol. 1, 2017), “Kiborhy: Under Siege, 17.01.2015” (Vol. 2, 2021), and “Kiborhy Separate volume: SSO of Ukraine, First selection, 23.11.2015–05.12.2015” (Vol. 1, 2021). Some of the comics were translated into English.
The young artists Oleg Ivaneyko, Dmytro Tkachenko, Levko Kvit (the pseudonym of a group of authors), Vitaly Mishchuk, Pavlo Pryymych, and Danylo Lys are involved in the creation of the different volumes of the comics. They are distinguished by their own style of drawing and storytelling. The color scheme, meanwhile, remains unchanged, employing dark colors, because the action mostly takes place at night, and a dominant use of various shades of green. The first comics of the series are more reminiscent of an illustration of real events. In the following comics, the visual and verbal narrative becomes more complicated. For example, Oksana Gudoshnyk notes that,
the poster style of the illustrations is replaced by the aesthetics of the graphic narrative, where the visual series, organically combined with the living language of the text structure ([in which] obsessively monotonous lettering disappears), documentary inserts, [and] non-linear composition present an interesting modern variant of [the] military comic.
The documentary basis of the comics is strengthened by the placement of the memories of the defenders, maps, real military reports, car number plates with the old codes of the Donetsk region, portrait likenesses of the defenders of the airport, and inserts from the biographies of the prototypes. The authors carefully rebuild time and space and factually detail events. Above all, the Kiborhy series shows the desire to record and speak the trauma of war.
Russian is the language of the enemies in the world of Kiborhy, who also speak in a rude way. This language, as a marker of aggression, loses the right to its own orthography, and is written in Ukrainian transliteration, which creates the effect of comicality and caricature, on the one hand, and on the other, a denial of its functioning on Ukrainian territory. Such texts, through this complexity, require slower reading, reinforcing the intended absurdity and grotesqueness.
Here, a heroic image of the Ukrainian military, presented as the heirs of the Cossack victory, is formed. In the comics, the Ukrainian military ‘cyborgs’ are able to protect Ukraine in severe conditions and show extraordinary courage, resilience, and indomitability. And even when they were forced to leave the airport, the defeat is highlighted as a heroic act and a symbolic victory. They show superhuman strength and willpower in definite ways and for this reason they are called ‘cyborgs’, even by their enemies. ‘Cyborgs’ oppose the Russian military and the fighters of the self-proclaimed eastern republics, both named as ‘orcs’ for their rudeness and unfair insidious actions. Since 2014, both terms have been widespread in broader discourses (in Ukrainian and international mass and social media). In this way, the images from mass culture (i.e., ‘cyborgs’ and ‘orcs’) acquire a new meaning in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. This documentary comic adapts these images and gives them a more mythological context, similar to superhero comics, in which the Russo-Ukrainian War turns into a planetary-scale battle between Good and Evil.
Anticipation of war in the graphic novel Dad by Oleksandr Komyakov
The Kiborhy comics were not the only ones that represented the ongoing military conflict in the Donbas region by combining documentary veracity with a mythological component. TATO: Kuznja zbroji (TATO: Weapon Forge, 2021) by Oleksandr Komyakov is an example of a clear, even mystical anticipation of a large-scale war to come. (The author has also announced that he is working on the second and third parts of this graphic novel.)
The graphic novel reenacts the dramatic story of 14-year-old Maryna and her family during the Revolution of Dignity and the armed conflict in the Donbas (ATO). The novel covers the stormy events of the winter of 2013–14, and is set in Kyiv and the Donetsk region. Maryna’s family is falling apart due to the opposing attitudes of her parents to the events in Ukraine. After the Revolution of Dignity, her father began to help the military as a volunteer, and then joined the Armed Forces and took part in the hostilities in the Donbas. Her mother, however, does not support Euromaidan, and seeks to distance herself from it. Maryna finds herself in the middle of a family conflict, which overlaps with the conflict in the country. According to the author, the story of Maryna’s coming of age is also the story of the coming of age of Ukrainian society, in which Maryna herself becomes a “metaphor of society”.
The author saturates the graphic novel with numerous elements reproduced with documentary accuracy (e.g., the architecture of the tent city), through which he presents the history of the emergence of Euromaidan and the growth of a peaceful demonstration that faced violent methods of suppression, as well as the struggle for a democratic Ukraine and later for its integrity. Komyakov notes that in TATO, he “tried to provide as much documentary detail as possible in events, locations, images, and numerous artifacts”.
The realistic matrix of the graphic novel (i.e., Euromaidan, the beginning of the ATO) is supplemented by a mystical component that brings dark fantasy into the work. The Iron Witch comes to the girl in her dreams, and shows her terrifying episodes of the future, which will come true later. Eventually, Maryna realizes that the Iron Witch is a war, the features of which she notices in the people around her.
The character of the Iron Witch and her visual representation in the novel intertwine both Ukrainian folk ideas about witches and, at the same time, the modern social and political context. For Komyakov, the image of a witch went beyond the graphic novel after the start of war in Ukraine. He created a series of separate drawings in which the Iron Witch appears as an avenger, a female protector, a female warrior, and a Ukrainian goddess of war, and sows death among enemies while preserving the lives of Ukrainians. Here, we can see an artistic rendition of an ‘archetypal’ Ukrainian image of a ‘woman-mother’ (e.g., a mother that protects, or a mother guardian), whom the war turns into a terrible witch, capable of killing enemies and taking bloody revenge for the death of her children.
War depictions after 24 February 2022
The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army in February 2022 changed the topics and imaginaries of Ukrainian comics authors, who reacted to the war quickly, especially on digital platforms, social networks, and the websites of publishing houses, where they presented demo or full versions of comics, web-comics, and drawings made in the style of a comic.
These web-comics tried to make sense of the tragedy of war, and followed the traces of fresh traumas, both experiencing and transforming them. Instead of victories on the battlefield they depicted the real trials that civilians face when they find themselves defenseless in front of an armed enemy, thereby showing the feat of survival in difficult conditions. Comics writers processed eyewitness accounts, diaries, and journalistic observations to reproduce personal stories as truthfully as possible, creating a large canvas of the tragic pages of the war in Ukraine. They foregrounded historical truth instead of artistic fiction. Similarly, they emphasized documentary and realism with the intention of acquainting readers with the horrors of the war and showing the crimes of the Russian Federation against humanity.
On the website of Ukrainian Assembly (UA) Comix publishing house, for instance, the web-comics section contains works that were created as part of the project The First 39 Days of the War, initialized by Oleksiy Valuyskyi-Sharygin (Olexiy Vinets-Tvorinnia). The aim of the project is an anthology in which the war diaries of Ukrainians are adapted into a comic format. As part of the project, three web-comics for the dates 7 March 2022 (by ladada and Oleksiy Chornyi), 8 March 2022 (by linnison and Oleksiy Chornyi), and 20 March 2022 (by Sofia Zotska and Oleksiy Chornyi) are posted on the publisher’s page. The authors, combining words and visual images, accurately and emotionally recreate the experiences of the realities of the war for people unprepared for such trials – such as the fear of one’s own death and that of one’s relatives, one’s own insignificance, helplessness in front of a war, or a sense of guilt before the deceased. Short phrases, sharp brushstrokes, or saturated colors – such as red, orange, and black – detail the environment or highlight the most important aspects, all of which aim to convey the incredible tension of the emotions, experiences, torment, and suffering of people during the war, as well as artistically demonstrate the traumas caused by the war, which cannot yet be overcome, or never will be.
Another example is the comic magazine INKER, which was produced with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy by UA Comix in cooperation with the public organization Krygolam. The first issue of the magazine (the third issue of which is currently underway) is dedicated to Mariupol, a city that has become a symbol of indomitability, faith, and, at the same time, grief, due to the death of many civilians. Although it is stated that INKER is a magazine of ‘social’ comics (i.e., a comics genre that mainly promotes ‘optimal rules’ of behavior in society, e.g., a healthy lifestyle, mutual help, and empathy), elements from other genres – documentary comics, comics journalism – are found in it. One of the authors, Volodymyr Kuznetsov, claimed at an online meeting that this is an attempt to create a “hard-core documentary”. He insists that these are not social comics, but rater documentaries, saying, “we don’t invent anything, we don’t add anything from ourselves”.
One issue of INKER is the series “Mariupol”, which includes four graphic stories, “Medyk” (“Medic”) by Volodymyr Kuznetsov and Zakhar Polishchuk, “Doroha z pekla i nazad” (“The Road from Hell and Back”) by Volodymyr Kuznetsov and Natalia Tarasenko, “Vriatovanyi morem” (“Saved by the Sea”) by Yarko Filevych, and “Dramteatr” (“Drama Theater”) by Oleksiy Chornyi and Maksym Solntsev. The stories are done in different styles because each has a separate author and artist. In each graphic story, the authors try to reproduce as accurately as possible people’s narratives and their experiences of events that break the established rhythm of life. The comic panels are accompanied by cuts to memories and first-person reflections, which intimate the story and bring a confessional element to it. Each frame of the comic is balanced and thought out. Verbal and visual narratives create a unity that can evoke experiences and emotional shifts in the reader and at the same time simulate real events. The mystified Ukrainian national identity of the pre-2022 superhero comics is not emphasized in these works at all, except at the level of language – everyone speaks Ukrainian aside from the Russian military. Rather, these stories are more about universal values and showing the war in Ukraine waged by the Russian Federation as a crime against humanity.
Although these examples of web-comics and graphic novels focus on the traumatic consequences of the Russian invasion and on humanistic values, in the face of large-scale war, superheroes have not completely vanished. The publishing house The Will Production, a team of independent comic book creators from Ukraine, already announced a fundraising campaign to create a collection of comics called Victory. The website contains announcements about the upcoming works (CyberKherson, Azov-Stal, Victory, Ghost of Kyiv, Snake Walls, and Konotop Witch) and sketches that reveal an idea of their intended appearance. It is evident that the authors of the comics will try to recreate the atmosphere of the struggle of Ukrainians for the independence of their state, transforming the key episodes of the war into new legends of Ukraine and utilizing national myths and legends in the current context of the war.
The conflation of real history with national myths can be observed today in social networks, where comics-style pictures are created and distributed as motifs on T-shirts and eco-bags. It allows every Ukrainian to join the heroic ranks and feel pride for their country and its heroes, often equated with superheroes. A peculiar creation of a pantheon of new heroes and the formation of a new mythology is taking place, with Mother Ukraine and the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces occupying a central place in these graphic media productions (e.g., in those by Dartsia Zironka). Another popular image for such drawings is the depiction of ‘hero cities’, which use the city’s symbolism during wartime (e.g., in a series of drawings by Sashko Komyakov). Employing personification, artists depict these cities through the images of women (e.g., by Victoria Naumova) and portray the Ukrainian identity of female warriors (e.g., by Natasha Li). Admiration for the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens, who also help to resist, is conveyed through their depiction as cats in a series of comic drawings made by a Facebook user named Alisa Uzhasnaya. The series of drawings “Superheroes Among Us” was also started by the cartoonist Sashko Danylenko. Real people become the heroes in the drawings: Nastya Tykha, a girl from Irpin who took disabled dogs out of a shelter on fire; a former employee of Ukrposhta, Cherhiy Chizhikov, who, not having much military experience, shot down a plane; and a woman from Henichensk, who in the first days of the war advised the occupiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets before they die, so that at least some benefit would come from them. Behind each figure in the pictures, the sun forms a kind of nimbus, equating ordinary people to the pantheon of saints or modern heroes, suggesting that every Ukrainian has the potential to become a superhero.
Thus, Ukrainian comics and graphic novels in the face of war form a multifold picture. On the one hand, they construct – especially in superhero comics – the entire history of Ukraine through the lens of today as a ‘national’, ‘liberating fight’ against foreign, meaning Russian, oppressors. Here, depicting events through the prism of the struggle between Good and Evil, and dividing characters into clearly positive and negative, hides the complexity and contradictions of historical events and figures, forming a one-dimensional picture of the world where complex relationships are dichotomously simplified. On the other hand, other works, especially comic images and graphic novels drawn after February 2022, emphasize, more realistically, the life stories of ordinary people who show incredible human qualities in coping with the war’s brutality and traumatic consequences. Their function is to give their readers the hope and self-confidence necessary to survive the daily reality of the war, and to show the war in Ukraine as a crime against humanity.
 I am grateful to Mathias Schwartz from the Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZFL) in Berlin for his careful review of the essay.
 The Second Minsk Agreements were concluded at a summit in Minsk on 11–12 February 2015 by the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. A stated by UNIAN Information Agency, “This agreement consisted of a package of measures, including a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, release of prisoners of war, constitutional reform in Ukraine granting self-government to certain areas of Donbas and restoring control of the state border to the Ukrainian government. While fighting subsided following the agreement’s signing, it never ended completely, and the agreement’s provisions were never fully implemented”. UNIAN, “Almost entire ‘gray’ zone in Donbas liberated by Ukraine without Minsk deal breach – adviser”, 27 December 2018, accessed 5 July 2022, https://www.unian.info/war/10391709-almost-entire-grey-zone-in-donbas-liberated-by-ukraine-without-minsk-deal-breach-adviser.html.
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 Lesia Voroniuk, Ukrainski superheroi, no. 1, “Vriatuvaty zhaivoronka” (Chernivtsi: Bukrek, 2015); and Lesia Voroniuk, Ukrainski superheroi, no. 2, “Nevydymyi ostriv” (Chernivtsi: Bukrek, 2015).
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 Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 1, “Pochatok” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018); Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 2, “Yednannia” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018); Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 3, “Misiia” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018); Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 4, “Pivostriv Kerem” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018), 23 pp.; Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 5 “Khranyteli” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018); Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 6, “Vorozha baza” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018); Leonid Krasnopolskyi and Igor Rohovyi, Okhorontsi krainy, no. 7, “Protystoiannia” (Dnipro: hunta.in.ua, 2018).
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Svitlana Pidoprygora is a professor at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University (Mykolaiv, Ukraine). From 2015 to 2018, she did postdoctoral research at Тaras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and received a Doctor of Philological Sciences in Ukrainian Literature and Theory of Literature in 2018. Based on this research, she published the monograph Ukrainian Experimental Prose of the 20th and early 21st Century: An “Impossible” Literature. The monograph studies the problem of the ‘artistic experiment’ and ‘experimental prose’ in the genesis of Ukrainian and foreign literary discourse. It emphasizes the development of Ukrainian comics and graphic novels. Ukrainian comic books – such as Buywiter by K. Sulyma or Patriot by V. Nazarov – and graphic novels – for example, The Deer by S. Zakharov – form a new paradigm of Ukrainian art and literature. Svitlana Pidoprygora’s research interests include the theory of experimental literature, the theory of visual arts, visual studies, comics studies, and mass culture studies. Svitlana Pidoprygora is a remote Prisma Ukraïna Fellow (April to July 2022) near Burgas, Bulgaria.
Citation: Svitlana Pidoprygora, Ukrainian Comics and War in Ukraine, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.09.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/41265
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