The greatest strength of any creative endeavour is its ability to transport us, to take us to places- real or imagined- we might never be able to visit otherwise. While they risk shifting into simplistic assessments of a place or time, comics manage this very well, offering windows on complex, difficult… or just esoteric subject matter. They will never be the last word on a topic, but for some people they could be the first, and there’s certainly value in that as well.
Rudek and the Bear is not, on the surface, a complex comic: in fact, it goes out of its way to eliminate a lot of complexity. But that’s okay, because the end result is a charming and accessible look at a little known corner of 20th century history.
The latest in a long line of Kickstarter acquisitions, Rudek and the Bear: Volume 1 collects the first 52 strips of the comic by Peter Donahue , a kind of prelude to a longer work of fiction he’s currently working on. Set in 1929, it tells the story of a group of Polish soldiers stationed on the border between Poland and Belarus, which at the time was under the control of the Soviet Union. The story is told with a diverse cast of anthropomorphic animals: the soldiers guarding the border, but also the people trying to cross it.
This basic premise feels like it could go in almost any direction, but Donahue handles it with a lightness of touch that’s incredibly approachable. Broadly it’s a slice-of-life comic, with each strip working as a self-contained story whilst contributing to a larger narrative. Conflicts within the collection are often gentle and low-key, but more serious topics like the Wall Street Crash- and the effect they have on the characters- do occasionally crop up from time to time. At least initially, this isn’t a comic in which anything truly terrible happens or is alluded to: it’s history, but history with a healthy dose of fantasy and sanitisation interwoven into it.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. As my earlier research showed, anthropomorphism in comics often works as a mask, a way of concealing something from us (in service of a greater goal) or acting as a shorthand for a person’s characteristics.
Donahue’s work seems to play host to both of these ideas. Characters like Rudek- a fox- display a certain craftiness, cunning and self-interest, whereas others like Malutki- the eponymous bear- are dimwitted but ultimately considerate of his fellows. More importantly, by Donahue’s own admission the comic has really resonated with a diverse cast of people- Germans, Poles, ex-soldiers- I’m assuming due to its subject matter. It’s a window on history that’s incredibly pleasing to look through, without completely concealing the very real trauma and conflict that lies beneath the surface…something that does begin to emerge as the comic progresses online.
The art style has come across in leaps and bounds over a relatively short space of time: with a fox and a bear in the starring roles (and a bunch of other animals) it’s reminiscent of Disney’s Robin Hood… if Robin Hood had been made with an older audience in mind. Indeed, despite its use of talking animals and bright, cheery art direction (explicitly influenced by animators) Rudek never feels like something particularly aimed at children. If anything, it has a broad appeal: it’s history simplified without abandoning its core elements. Smuggler Masha, for instance, has fled her home (at least partially) due to contempt of the Soviet Union’s five-year plan. Similarly, the fact that more than one character gets… amorous… and topics like PTSD are touched upon elevates the comic above mere Disney fare. You don’t expect to see a character shot or bayonetted, but that doesn’t mean it’s immature as a result.
Rudek plays host to a highly memorable cast of characters, although it can be a little hard to keep track of said cast to begin with. Every character is expressive and vibrant: even if their animal natures don’t instantly clue us in to who they are as people, they’re beautifully realised regardless. What’s also nice is how, within the collected edition and on the website, Donahue discusses the context of individual strips, his drawing process, and the areas of his art he’d like to improve. At least to my eyes, the artwork is never horrendous. But it’s heartening to see the creator of this acknowledge his early shortcomings and work to fix them: something in my view he’s certainly succeeded at, as the collection shows a steady ramping up in quality and a willingness to experiment with different looks and techniques from strip to strip.
It’s not all perfect. Perhaps by necessity, there are some sections that get lost in translation: one joke, for instance, requires you to pronounce a word with a Polish accent to really understand it. It makes sense when you work it out, but it was definitely something that caused me to stumble upon my first reading of the comic. Moreover, whilst the vast majority of the comic is in English the odd remaining Polish word is a double-edged sword. It lends authenticity to the world, but at first glance it’s not easy to decipher it based purely on context. This isn’t enough to spoil your reading of the book, of course: sometimes it even works in the comic’s favour. But at the same time, someone with at least a passing familiarity with the historical context and language will probably get a little more from it than someone like me coming to it blind.
So perhaps Rudek‘s not the first word on the subject, then. But it’s certainly an early one, and one that works on multiple levels to attract a truly diverse audience. On one level, we can enjoy the story of a band of animals trying to do their jobs and live their lives: to, in Rudek’s own words, fight ‘boredom, bureaucracy and BS.’ On another, it’s an appealing examination of another time, another people, that we might have forgotten, even if many of its nuances might need a little self-education to fully appreciate.
But that’s not really a fault of the comic, and Rudek and the Bear is something I was glad to support having read it. Reading a little around the historical context that the comic explores, it’s easy to see why Donahue would want to tell a story about this time through comics…even if doing so throws up some unforeseen problems. But beneath its cutesy exterior is some welcome depth, characterisation and a story with a lot of possibilities: I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future. You can read it in its entirety (and read Donahue’s blog) here.