Petrograd

In the imperial Russia of 1916, the city of Petrograd is mired in class warfare and despair. Embittered soldiers languish on the eastern front of the Great War, commoners queue in bread lines, intelligence operatives engage in furtive combat with Bolshevik revolutionaries, and people from all strata of society gossip about Rasputin, the charismatic mystic whose influence with the Tsarina threatens Russia’s stability.

Enter Cleary, a British intelligence officer of Irish extraction who’s been assigned to duty in Petrograd. Cleary isn’t patriotic; in fact, he harbors secret sympathies with Irish revolutionaries back home. But he’s committed to remaining in Petrograd, far from the terrors of the war—even if it means being tasked by distant bureaucrats to solve the Russian problem in a surprising manner. Cleary’s orders are simple: he must arrange the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.

What follows is less spy thriller, more absurdist satire in the “war is hell” tradition of World War I literature. Cleary’s plot is soon co-opted by a pair of dilettante Russian noblemen, whose modus operandi as amateur assassins resembles a Looney Tunes sketch. Rasputin himself is a shadowy opportunist whose political importance is dubious and whose spooky reputation mostly exists in the minds of his fellow Russians. And Cleary is not so much an action hero as a dupe, as he quickly realizes that, when this ill-conceived assassination goes south, he’ll be left holding the bag.

I liked a lot of the storytelling and artistic choices in Petrograd, particularly those that ground the mythology of Rasputin and revolutionary-era Russia in the gritty reality of class politics and global imperialism. In crafting the story of Petrograd, author Philip Gelatt draws on an unsubstantiated theory that British intelligence was involved in Rasputin’s death; though fictionalized, the story draws on a wealth of scholarly sources. Illustrator Tyler Crook elevates the project with evocative sepia-toned art that conveys the calm-before-the-storm atmosphere of a Russia on the verge of revolution.

Yet as spy fiction, Petrograd fell flat for me. Cleary is an intriguing character, a pawn of the British Empire whose need to save his own skin puts him at war with his better self. Yet the other characters who populate this story—with the exception of the elusive Rasputin—feel one-dimensional, without any of the subtleties and hidden motivations that make spy capers so darn fun. Nor did this script really gel for me as an adventure story; scenes are weighed down with dialogue and “as you know, Bob” exposition, with action hijinks mostly confined to the book’s climactic pages.

Ultimately, not only did this flat storytelling make for an unsatisfying read, but it did a disservice to the subject matter. By positioning Cleary as the only fully realized character in the dystopian landscape of wartime Petrograd, this book falls into Orientalist cliché, casting Russia as a backward nation whose inhabitants are nefarious, hapless, and doomed. Cleary may be an antihero, but he’s nevertheless the only character who feels like he has any real agency. A scene near the end places him in a crucial role in the 1917 February Revolution; in other words, Russians aren’t even given full credit for their own political revolution.

Petrograd will appeal to historical comic readers interested in a fresh, unusual retelling of the events of 1916/17 Russia, as well as fans of Tyler Crook’s award-winning art. The comic did rekindle my interest in 20th-century Russian history, from its revolutionary politics to the figure of Felix Yusupov, the queer, crossdressing nobleman who was one of the chief co-conspirators of the Rasputin assassination. While this one was ultimately a pass for me, Gelatt and Crook do succeed in bringing this history to life and making its complexities accessible to general readers.


Petrograd
By Philip Gelatt
Art by Tyler Crook
Oni Press Lion Forge, 2022
ISBN: 9781637150153

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: British, Irish, Russian, Queer, Gender Nonconforming

Boys Run the Riot, vols. 1-2

Boys Run the Riot is unique for a slice-of-live manga. It tells the story of a transgender high schooler named Ryo Watari. When we first see him, he’s switching out of his school uniform and into his gym clothes in a train station bathroom. He hates his uniform for more than the usual reasons—his uniform is a girl’s uniform and reminds him daily that he was born female.

Ryo navigates the pitfalls of high school with the added stress and complications that come with being transgender. Besides the uniforms, the social situations are fraught. The guys tell him he’s a girl and needs to hang out with girls, and the girls call him a slut for hanging out with boys all the time. He doesn’t fit in. And in Japan, “the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.”

The only time Ryo feels like himself is in his street clothes. He’s fascinated by fashion and he can indulge himself by dressing as masculine as he likes with no judgement (besides his mother’s). Suffering from body dysphoria, lonely, and unsure of himself—how to act, whether to come out at school, at work, not to mention what changing room to use—he feels alone. 

Enter transfer student Jin. He presents himself with an air of confidence that makes Ryo jealous, with unconventional hair and piercings (a big no-no in Japanese high schools). But these two outsiders find each other in a clothing boutique seeking out the newest fashion label.

It’s an unsurprising plot that these two form an unlikely partnership and decide to make their own fashion brand in the first volume of the series. Writer and artist Keito Gaku has created charming, honest characters in a tightly paced, well plotted manga that will hook its readers. 

Rather than instant success and smooth sailing, these young entrepreneurs will face adversity. But they will not do it alone. They add to their ranks with a photographer, as well as a social media influencer. They will meet dubious adults who scoff at the idea of teens running a fashion brand, and deal with their own doubts and insecurities as well. They meet those challenges with a plan, some guts, and a little bit of luck.

Gaku is transgender himself and his heartfelt insight is all over the page. Ryo’s story is dramatic, yes, but punctuated with humor and humanity. The amazing part of the production of this manga is that the entire English translation and localization team at Kodansha Comics are transgender as well, a dream team that is creating work that will resonate with any reader.

I was blown away by the first two volumes in this series and can’t wait to see how far Ryo goes. The publisher rates this series for older teens (16+), which makes perfect sense for the age of the characters. The translation notes provide information not only on Japanese culture, but on transgender issues like binding, as well. 

This series needs to be on high school and public library shelves everywhere.

Boys Run the Riot, Vols. 1-2
By Keito Gaku
Kodansha, 2021
Vol 1 ISBN: 9781646512485
Vol 2 ISBN: 9781646511198

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)Publisher Age Rating: 16+

Creator Representation:  Japanese,  Gender Nonconforming
Character Representation: Japanese, Gender Nonconforming,

Be Gay, Do Comics

The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on thenib.com) from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.

Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.

The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats).  A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts

As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.


Be Gay, Do Comics
Edited by Matt Bors
ISBN: 9781684057771
IDW, 2020

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans
Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans