New mythologies for comic books: Russian legends and myths.

Last week I wrote an article talking about how most of the comic book industry draws upon four mythologies for most of their divine or god-like characters.  While Greek/Roman, Norse, Japanese, and Christian mythology (I debated throwing in Egyptian mythology but I decided it would make too good of an article so for now let’s just pretend that there aren’t enough Egyptian themed characters out there) are all fun and good there are plenty of other mythic traditions that deserve a lot more attention and would make awesome comic book characters and worlds.

Here’s how this is going to work.  I am going to divide each article into three parts.  The first part will talk about any history the mythological tradition might already have within the tradition of comic books.  Second, I’ll give a brief description of a couple of established heroes, gods, or creatures that would make interesting characters.  And finally, we’ll delve into the hypothetical and explore what a character or comic book series could look like.

With that being said, let’s take a look at Russian mythology and folklore.

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Russia in comics

Now many of you are probably quick to point out that there are plenty of Russian characters in comic books and you’d be mostly right.  There are plenty of famous comic book characters that speak Russian, work/kill for Russia, and live in Russia.  Characters like the Black Widow

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Colossus (my personal favorite)

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and the Crimson Dynamo

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Here’s the thing though.  If you wanted to get technical all of these characters aren’t technically Russian, they’re Soviet.

For anyone who might not know the Soviet Union was a collection of Eastern European and Central Asian nations that shared a common system of government and were all bundled together under the “benevolent” protection of their biggest and most powerful member, Russia.

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Granted they all used the Russian language and currency and they all banded together to use Russian technology and education defend and develop but each member state did have it’s own history and culture before joining the Soviet Union.

What’s interesting is that the Soviets were only around for about 80 years.  It all started with this guy: Vladimir Lenin

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who helped kickstart the Russian Revolution of 1917 which was supposed to look like this

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However, the Revolution was taken over by this guy: Joseph Stalin

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who did a lot of this

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Millions of people died, even more millions starved to death, and pre Soviet Russian culture suffered and was almost completely erased in an attempt to make room for the new and modern Soviet system of thought.  Couple that with some old fashioned Cold War antagonism and paranoia and it’s easy to see why many people, especially in the West, don’t know much about pre Soviet Russia.

I want to talk about the gods, heroes and monsters of pre Soviet Russia: a land of forests, rivers, and the kind of vast isolated landscape that would leave a person feeling very small.

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Thankfully I am not the first person to recognize the amazing stories of pre Soviet Russia for what they are, people like Neil Gaiman have included Russian folklore into their stories since the beginning of their careers.

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If you’re a fan of Mr. Gaiman’s work than you have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to talk about but for the rest of us, let’s delve into the creepy, strange, and wonderful world of Russian folk lore.

Examples and showcases:

Here’s where I showcase certain parts of Russian mythology.  Naturally I can’t go over it all, there’s enough material for an entire book but for now let’s look at three parts: the old gods, great folk heroes, and mythical beasts and beings.

Now before the Soviets came to power Russia was Christian, really REALLY Christian.

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While the Soviets  tried to stamp out the Russian church (it’s making a come back now) there was a time when Russia was ruled by the old gods.

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Not a whole lot is known about these gods (nothing was written down and the Christians were just as happy to destroy the remnants of the old world as the Soviets were) but they do continue to live on through their names.  You have the main god, the god of thunder, Perun

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The god of light, Belobog

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and his much darker companion, Chernobog.  Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may recognize Chernobog as “that guy with the hammer” whereas fans of Disney’s Fantasia might recognize him as the guy at the end of the movie that gave you nightmares.

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As I said before though, we don’t know a whole lot about these gods.  This is because around 980 A.D Russia became a Christian nation thanks to this man.

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That’s Vladimir of Kiev, the man who would make Russia Christian and shape it into what it is today (technically he’s Ukrainian but shh!  That part of the world is already in enough trouble as it is).  Let’s make one thing clear, Vladimir was not a nice man.  He used violence and fear to build his empire and it was reported that he had five wives and over 800 concubines, but since he made Russia Christian (by forcing entire populations to baptize themselves in rivers) the Church liked him and made him a saint.

Anyway, Vladimir ruled from the city Kiev which became very wealthy through trade.  Wealth attracts rivals and rivals means war so Vladimir surrounded himself with his knights or bogatyr in Russian.

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These men were romanticized into early Russian superheroes and the epic tales (or byliny in Russian) about their deeds read almost like a Thor comic.

The three men pictured above are three of the most famous bogatyr: Illya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich. and Alyosha Popovich.  Here’s a small taste of their alleged exploits.

  • Illya travels from his hometown to Kiev in order to serve Prince Vladimir.  While Kiev is over 500 miles away he vows to accomplish the journey in six hours and nearly succeeds, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was delayed fighting a supernatural forest bandit.
  • Dobryanya fought a multi headed dragon by himself for three days and nearly drowned in its blood.
  • Alyosha fought the monster Turagin but beating him to death with a staff, cutting him into tiny pieces, and presenting his body to Prince Vladamir.

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It’s worth mentioning that we should probably take these stories with a grain of salt but there is some speculation that these great deeds were metaphors and representations of actual people who fought against some of Russia’s many, many enemies.

Lastly we’re going to talk mythical creatures and beasts.  While the south of Russia is dominated by plains and steppes the north of ancient Russia was covered in dark, deep, and cold forests.

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These were the kinds of places where demons lived and where a Russian peasant would think twice before venturing out into the woods at night.  Naturally places like these were the breeding ground for all sorts of mythical creatures like the child snatching leshii 

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and the seductive and tempting rusalka

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But it would be terrible form not to mention the queen of Russian folklore, the witch that rules them all: Baba Yaga

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She lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, flies around on a mortar and pestle, and in a couple of accounts has no qualms about eating people.  That being said Baba Yaga is an interesting case study.  In some stories she is definitely evil but in other cases she lends her help and powers to the hero of the story.  Basically she’s awesome and more people deserve to know about her.

How to use Russian mythology in comics

This is the part where I offer my own personal opinions on the folklore of the day and how they could be used in a comic book.

I mentioned that these stories would be right at home in a Thor comic and I meant it.  Gods walking among the people, legendary heroes who can kill dragons and travel hundreds of miles in hours, and mystical creatures are Thor’s bread and butter. In fact, inserting Russian folk legends into Thor comics would work really well considering that the Vikings and the Slavic Russians have a long history together.

But let’s say that Marvel doesn’t want to add Russian mythology to Thor, what happens when you try to make a Russian comic book hero stand on its own.  Personally I think that having one of these legendary bogatyr travel forward in time to modern day Russia would make an interesting story.  Something like that could be a “fish out of water” story where the hero attempts to fit into modern Russia while coming to grips with the fact that he is a relic.  The hero would have to cope with the centuries of violence and persecution that Russia has undergone and struggle to be a hero in a society that has all but forgotten him.

As for the mystical elements of Russian folklore I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be a modern story with these elements in them.  One of the most popular types of stories are the stories where a protagonist, usually a young child, travels to a mystical realm where the creatures and gods of ancient Russia exist.  Think of it like Alice in Wonderland only with woodland sprites and witches in chicken feet shacks.

Anyway, that’s a brief description of Russian folklore and how it could be made into an epic comic.  Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

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