The Octobriana Revolution

One hundred years ago this month, the Russian Revolution took place, bringing into power Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.   Inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, the Soviet Union was ostensibly founded upon the rights of the working class; in reality the country’s new communist government soon became a monstrous dictatorship whose crimes rivaled that of the Tsarist autocracy that it had replaced.

As comic book writer & artist Bryan Talbot observed in 1999:

“The thing is, communism can never work in practice. It just doesn’t take account of human nature; the fact that most people are greedy, lazy, selfish, power-hungry or just too plain stupid to work for the benefit of everybody, not just themselves. All we ever had were perversions of this arcadian ideal; The tyranny of Stalin, the repression of the Chinese state.”

Octobriana 1 cover

Over the succeeding decades various dissident groups rose up within both the Soviet Union and in the Eastern European satellite nations seized after World War II. Among these were “reform communists” who thought it possible to steer the Soviet Union into a better direction.

One of these “reform communist” groups, supposedly, was the Progressive Political Pornographic Party, which formed in the 1960s. Apparently inspired by American underground comix, the PPPP created the character of Octobriana in their self-published periodical Mtsyry.  Octobriana was a beautiful Slavic super-human warrior woman who embodied the true, uncorrupted principles of communism and the Russian Revolution.

Or so the story goes, at least according to Petr Sadecky, a Czechoslovakian-born cartoonist who stated he had become involved in 1961 with the PPPP’s resistance cell in Kiev. As comic book writer & historian John A. Short explains:

“Sadecky claims that in 1967 he escaped to the West and managed to smuggle out copies of the Octobriana strips, photographs of the PPPP and other examples of the group’s work. He packaged all of this together into the book, Octobriana and the Russian Underground, which was released in a number of countries during 1971.”

Octobriana Kamchatka Volcano

Evidence would later crop to indicate that the PPPP did not actually exist and that Sadecky had actually stolen artwork created by Czech cartoonists Zdeněk Burian, Bohuslav Konečný and Miloš Novak.  Nevertheless, despite the highly dubious nature of Sadecky’s claims, and the probable theft he engaged in, Octobriana gradually took root in the underground comix community throughout the 1970s.

By virtue of the fact that Octobriana was supposedly created by a group of dissident communists, and by Sadecky disappearing from public view following the publication of his book (reportedly passing away in 1991), the character instantly became part of the public domain.  That meant that anyone who wanted to use her in their own comic books could do just that.

The individual who really brought Octobriana into the public consciousness is British creator Bryan Talbot. He had first learned of Octobriana in the very early 1970s, and was immediately intrigued by the character.  He saw Octobriana as representing both “the pure spirit of communism” and “sexual liberation, both in the sense of sexual equality and of free love.”

Between 1978 and 1989 Talbot crafted his sprawling mulitiversal sci-fi political thriller The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.  Talbot used Octobriana as a supporting character in the early chapters of his saga.  The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was reprinted here in the States by Dark Horse in the early 1990s.  Talbot’s rich, detailed, illustrative art style resulted in a stunning, iconic depiction of Octobriana, particularly on the cover of the third Dark Horse issue.

Adventures of Luther Arkwright 3 cover

Two other comic book creators who became intrigued by Octobriana were John A. Short and Stuart Taylor. Between 1996 and 1997, through their Revolution Comics imprint, Short & Taylor released a five issue Octobriana miniseries.  Blake O’Farrell and Darrell Andrews illustrated the miniseries.  Bryan Talbot contributed artwork for the first issue’s cover.

The narrative of each issue was split in two. Taylor wrote a serial set in the late 1960s, which saw Octobriana leading an underground movement against the oppressive Soviet forces.  The Sixties narrative concludes with Octobriana captured by the authorities.  In the second half of each issue, written by Short, events jump forward three decades to the present.  The still-young Octobriana at last escapes from her Siberian prison to fight against her old Communist foes who following the collapse of the Soviet Union have become powerful figures within the Russian Mafia.

A year later Taylor, paired with penciler Dave Roberts & inker Mark Woolley, continued the present-day storyline in the two issue miniseries Octobriana: Filling in the Blanks, published by Artful Salamander. In addition to Cold War mad scientists and Russian mobsters, this time Octobriana also found herself at odds with alien invaders who had arrived on Earth in the meteor that devastated Tunguska nine decades earlier.

Octobriana Filling in the Blanks 2 pg 18

In 1999, Short published Octobriana: Underground Tales, which via several text pieces chronicled the character’s history, both in the real word and in her fictional adventures.

The special also included three new short comic book stories. In the first of these, Short mixed fact & fiction to craft “The Legend of Octobriana,” which linked the past and present day segments of the Revolution Comics miniseries.  Short also wrote “Made in America,” which had art by Craig John, which saw Octobriana encountering characters from Short’s creator-owned series Armageddon Patrol about a group of cynical, jingoistic American superheroes fighting in the Vietnam War.  Taylor, Roberts & Woolley returned to provide a piece that bridged the gap between the first miniseries and Filling in the Blanks.  Also included was a reprint of one of the bizarre stories from Octobriana and the Russian Underground.

Short again returned to the Russian she-devil in 2001 via his new company Alchemy Texts with the Octobriana 30th Anniversary Special. Topped off by a striking cover by Shaun Bryan, the Special contained two new, wacky stories written by Short, with artwork by Bryan, Andy Nixon and Rehaan Akhtar.

Octobriana 30th Anniversary Special cover

Although the most notable of Octobriana’s appearances, the comic books listed above are far from comprehensive. Due to her public domain nature, Octobriana has popped up in numerous other places, in various incarnations & permutations, as different creators have adapted & interpreted her.

Short himself continues to chronicle the adventures of his version of Octobriana, teaming her up with other female heroes to oppose Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and assembling a comprehensive look at the character’s history into the book Octobriana: The Underground History, published by Kult Creations.

I first discovered Octobriana via Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Short’s Underground Tales, and immediately found her intriguing. The amazing visual of a sensual & strong revolutionary, the bizarre circumstances of her creation, and the utilization of her by numerous comic book creators across the globe made her a compelling figure.

Octobriana sketch Bryan Talbot

In 2008 Talbot was a guest at a comic book convention in New York City. I asked him if he could do a drawing of Octobriana for me.  He was kind enough to draw a very nice piece for me in one of my convention sketchbooks.  I was thrilled to obtain an illustration of Octobriana from the artist who did one of the definitive interpretations of the character.

In a world where both the injustices of unregulated capitalism and toxic misogyny are rampant here in the West, and the ghost of Soviet authoritarianism has arisen anew in Russia to subvert & destabilize the world’s democratic institutions, Octobriana is a more timely character than ever. I am certain that we have not seen the last of her.

Come in, Cuba: some thoughts on Obama’s recent initiative

I’ve been thinking over the recent announcement by President Barack Obama that he is moving to normalize the United States’ relations with Cuba after more than a half century of isolating Fidel Castro’s Communist regime.  Looking at this action from a wider global and historical perspective, it is a policy shift that makes a great deal of sense.

It should be readily apparent that the United States’ previous efforts to topple Castro have failed.  The fumbled Bay of Pigs invasion, multiple assassination attempts, support for various radical anti-Communist groups, an economic embargo that has been in place since 1963… none of it has worked.  Even a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the major political & economic supporter of Cuba, nothing has changed.  Castro is like the Marxist version of John Gotti; he is the Teflon Communist.

There is an argument to be made that isolating Cuba diplomatically and economically has actually enabled Castro to remain in power, to keep his oppressive regime in place.  It has prevented the influx of outside investment and culture that would over time have chipped away at his iron grip, that giving the Cuban people a taste of economic freedom and access to information about the outside world would result in a clamor for greater liberty.  This is a pattern that has repeated throughout the globe in a number of other countries.  In addition, by continuing to isolate Cuba long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the United States has enabled Castro to paint himself as the victim, to lay all of his nation’s economic woes at the feet of imperialist, fanatical American capitalists.

Obviously the major stumbling block to normalizing relations with Cuba has been the small but politically influential Cuban-American population in Florida, many of whom fled from the island in the wake of Castro’s take-over.  A swing state in nearly every presidential election, no candidates in either party have been willing to risk losing Florida’s 29 electoral votes by appearing soft on Cuba in the eyes of a population of politically active exiles and their descendants who more than half a century later still regard Castro as the devil incarnate.

I readily admit that I have no conception of what these people have had to endure.  They were forced to flee their homeland when Castro came to power, to settle in a foreign country and start their lives from scratch.  It is understandable that all these decades later they still despise Castro, and dream of the day when he finally drops dead so that they can return home.

Certainly I have no sympathy for Castro himself.  He promised to free Cuba from the grip of the corrupt, oppressive Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a military coup.  However, once Batista was overthrown, Castro threw in with the Soviet Union.  He became as much of a tyrant as Batista, seizing control of private industry and suppressing civil liberties in the name of “the workers’ revolution.”  Castro allowed the Soviets to station nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, an act that nearly led to World War III.  Despite the subsequent thawing of the Cold War and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro has never backed down, never offered any concessions or reforms, maintaining his hard line approach to the obvious detriment of his people.

I am not saying that the United States was a saint in those days, as the government and private industry colluded to influence foreign policy in numerous foreign spheres in order to prevent any possible encroachment by Communism.  But certainly the United States was the lesser of two evils, as the Soviet Union and Red China were undoubtedly brutal totalitarian regimes.

Barack Obama

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change in Cuba as long as the United States maintains its own inflexible approach.  More and more people seem to be recognizing this.  Over time there has been a shift in public opinion, both throughout the general population, and in the Cuban-American community in Florida.  The children & grandchildren of the original refugees, as well as more recent exiles from the island, are much more open to the idea of negotiating with Castro’s government, perceiving that where force and rhetoric have failed, diplomacy and economic investment may very well weaken their adversary, open the way to reforms, and enable them to finally re-connect to their familial homeland.

Some critics of Obama’s actions have stated that he is reckless and irresponsible in negotiating with a dictatorship, that it is immoral to do business with a totalitarian regime which oppresses its citizens.  To that, I have one thing to ask: Am I to assume that none of you have ever purchased any products with the words “Made in China” stamped on them?

The United States and American-held private corporations do billions and billions of dollars in business with the People’s Republic of China each year.  Yet China is an extremely tyrannical nation.  Political dissidents are regularly imprisoned, and free speech & religious expression are brutally suppressed.  It has been alleged that in 2013 China executed 2,400 prisoners, an appalling figure.  Yes, China has one of the worst records on human rights in the globe, yet we have absolutely no compunctions about doing business with them.

So why not re-establish relations with Cuba?  Why not open our doors, and wallets, to our neighbor 90 miles to the south?  Especially since in this case there is much more of a chance that positive reforms might occur.

I will admit that I have been unimpressed with many aspects of Obama’s foreign policy.  While a more nuanced, intellectual approach is a relief compared to George W. Bush & Dick Cheney’s reckless cowboy diplomacy and saber-ratting, Obama’s policies have often been unfocused, tentative, or overly optimistic.  However, this appears to be one of his more sensible initiatives.  With so much chaos and conflict throughout the rest of the globe demanding our attention, it makes sense to tone down the rhetoric and attempt a more peaceful approach to dealing with an adversary who no longer represents any real threat to us.

Having said all of this, I am pretty damn disgusted at the declaration by Daily Kos that “Only crusty, bitter, old, out-of-touch Cuban-Americans still support embargo.”  In addition to being an incredibly crass &  insensitive remark, this is exactly the sort or arrogant, smug posturing that gives Liberals a bad name.  So just cut the crap.  How about attempting to offer a reasonable, thought-out rebuttal to people you disagree with instead of insulting them?