Written & illustrated by Alexander Utkin
Published by Nobrow ISBN: 9781910620380
Review by Rachel Morris
“Greetings, best beloved” – so begins the story, narrated by Gamayun, a magical human-faced bird from Slavic mythology. The opening page feels like the reader is drawing near to a crackling campfire. Our narrator is lit from below and placed towards the bottom of the page in an expanse of darkness, which adds a feeling of intimacy and excitement right from the start.
The story of ‘courage, love and wisdom’ is a re-telling of traditional Russian folk tales. I asked writer and illustrator, Alexander Utkin, about the origins of these epic stories.
AU: These stories were collected and written down by Alexander Afanasyev – our most respected Russian folk tale collector. He lived in the 19th century. My mother read them to me when I was a child, but pretty soon I started to read them for myself – and that I remember more clearly. I even have THAT very book now. These tales are great and epic! As a child, I loved them and now, as an artist, I see great potential in them. They remind me of the make up of computer file archives – there are so few words, but so much information. You need to let your imagination expand it.
RM: Yes, and the nod to comic book layout and style really encourage the reader to move through he story with the characters – like stills from an animated film. On some pages there is hardly any text at all and the change of pace throughout the book really gets you wrapped up in the story and allows your imagination to play around. What were the challenges you faced when you were bringing the words and images together?
AU: I had (and am still having) some challenges with this project, but not with adding my images to the stories. There is a long tradition of depicting these tales – so many illustrations and movies – I wanted to do something different. I wanted to move away from traditional, iconic images and ‘Russian Spirit’. To create my own, new version and to use this archive of stories as the basis for my own self-expression as an author is not as challenging as it is fun and rewarding!
RM: I love the colour palette you use in this book. Do you use a secret, scientific formula to arrive at your colour choices, or is it a more organic process than that?
AU: Colouring – THAT was the challenge! It is the hardest part of the work for me, but it is also the most important. I am not an organic colourist, so I had to make a special palette with limited colours to make the book look solid and unique. That also really helps to streamline the process of colouring. I started with a very limited palette – I think it was 10 colours, or so – but as new characters and locations appear, I add new colours (if none of the old ones fit). Now I have 42 colours within the Gamayun Tales palette, but each page contains only about 10-12 colours. There’s no secret formula – I must like the colour, and it must work well with the others. I want to say great thanks to the Nobrow team – they managed to print these colours perfectly. Not only that, they are just great professionals. Working with them is a dream for an artist.
RM: It feels like there are lots more stories to come. Are you planning a whole series?
AU: Yes, I want Gamayun Tales to be a long series. There is such a huge archive to expand upon and one of my goals is to link all the tales. I’d like to let the characters from different stories interact and have an effect on each other. So yes, it was a series from the start. I hope my publisher and readers would like to see more. I am willing to continue. As for The King of Birds, it is the first book in a trilogy of Gamayun Tales. Now I am finishing the second book – The Water Spirit, and a third is to be drawn this year. After that I want to draw a standalone story, another trilogy and a bunch of short stories perhaps. Ha ha! That’s just for starters! We will see if it will come to life.
I am always working on other projects, some of them are comics – a theme for another interview, I think.
The King of Birds will appeal to different people on many levels. Someone who is new to reading independently will be un-intimidated by the sparse, well chosen words. The pace of the story is exciting and the tale itself is loaded with messages and old wisdom, but manages not to be sentimental.
It’s the beautiful illustrations that really bathe you in colour and immerse you in the story of the epic battle between the kingdoms of the animals and birds.