10 May 2019

The beast from the East

Octobriana rides again, again, in Octobriana: Hammer, John A Short and Andrew Richmond’s Kickstarter project which has the eternally out-of-copyright warrior nymphomaniac wandering into something like a 1960s Hammer film with walk-ons from Ingrid Pitt and Michael Ripper and other luminaries. Nothing in black and white can really feel like Hammer, but the book pulls in different styles of comics art instead; when Caroline Munro and the other two vampire brides turn up, they’re drawn like John Armstrong characters from Misty, and that was never in colour anyway.

The character’s first best destiny is probably still charging through underground comix in a cloud of pornography, although if anyone merited a nod towards the old Michael Reeves hammer and sickle gag from The She-Beast, it’s Octobriana.

This is an edited version of the article about Octobriana written by me for one of Comic Scene magazines early issues in 2018:

In superhero circles there are outlandish exploits, and then there’s Octobriana. Born in the vicinity of Denmark several thousand years ago, granted her powers by radiation, and prone to cycles of sexual aggression and murderous violence so severe that she retires back into a live volcano for a spot of purging and rebirth, Octobriana once took part in the Battle of Stalingrad wearing only a helmet, an approach which might have dented Wonder Woman’s diplomatic credentials.

Or so the story goes. And with this character, the story is flexible. Created by an underground collective of writers and artists in 1960s Kiev, Octobriana was designed to represent the true character of the Russian people chaffing under the rule of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, a tempestuous free spirit with no time for totalitarian control or sexual restraint. Strikingly underdressed, busty, monobrowed, and with the red star of communism tattooed upon her forehead, Octobriana’s first published adventures include her fighting a giant mutant walrus, kidnapping Chairman Mao, and masturbating with a large yak horn—a pattern of unlikely encounters, political engagement and strenuous self-pleasure she has pursued enthusiastically ever since. Those stories appeared via a Czech writer named Petr Sadecký, who smuggled fragments of Octobriana strips into the West in the early 1970s and wrote a book called Octobriana And The Russian Revolution. The heroine is intended to be all passion and emotion” says the author, while hinting at the licentious lifestyle of the radical group that created her and into which Sadecký fell, among them his alluring comrade Lydia who knows 23 different ways to delicately deflower a virgin.

But that’s not it either. Sadecký’s story started to unravel as soon as it appeared, when Czechoslovakian artists recognised versions of their work in the Octobriana strips, and it emerged that Sadecký had taken their art to a Western publisher without consent, modifying the drawings and removing their names from the work. Firm facts are hard to come by, with Sadecký’s motives and intentions impossible to be sure of, the extent of his profit unclear. But by accident or design, he had pushed Octobriana out into the public domain while muddying her creators’ rights beyond recovery, her copyright as unrestrained as the character’s own urges. From then on, Octobriana was loose.

As mapped out by John Short, author of Octobriana: The Underground History, the character’s path has roamed far and wide since then, her appearance and behaviour modified to suit an author’s needs. Bryan Talbot was first out of the gate, using Octobriana as a supporting character in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in 1978, where she asks Luther for sex soon after saying hello. She made another high-profile appearance in 2000AD, inserted into a 1998 Nikolai Dante story by Robbie Morrison and Andy Clark as an erotic dancer-cum-spy, her physiognomy smoothed into something more conventionally fetching. There’s a tattoo of her on Billy Idol’s left arm, flaunted on the cover of Sweet Sixteen,” and you can’t get much more mainstream than a song hitting number 17 with a bullet.

But the mainstream is the wrong place for Octobriana, a character spliced from completely incompatible communist suppression and capitalist enterprise, an avatar of hedonist rebellion and self-reinvention. In fact, she made a beeline for the underground and the California coast as soon as Bryan Talbot was finished with her. In 1992, shortly after Luther Arkwright concluded, underground cartoonist Larry Welz introduced Octobriana to Cherry, the busty star of Welz’s own erotic comic, and sent the pair up against the corrupt owners of a nuclear power plant—this just as opposition to the real-life storage of nuclear waste in California surged. Rolling up in a rickety Trabant, Octobriana leads Cherry and her follow environmental protesters against the evil Mutant Bolsheviks From Chernobyl (“Comrade Shitski”) who have infiltrated the Golden State’s electricity infrastructure, and eventually replaces the nuclear plant with a geothermal geyser. She then joins her allies in a hardcore victory orgy so physically demanding that she’s the only one left standing. Bold, populist, anti-nuclear, omni-sexual; this is the kind of thing Octobriana was born for. Was most excellent good fun having sex with the group of you,” she says. Now I must be leaving.”

Writer John Short has played a large role in Octobriana’s recent tales, as one of the creators behind a series of stories published by Revolution Comics, and author of another couple appearing recently from Kult Creations and drawn by Gabrielle Noble. And it’s in these that Short pits Octobriana against the current incarnations of those repressive political forces she first emerged to combat in the 1970s. The Birth & Rebirth Of Octobriana, as well as playfully tying several of the wildly incompatible threads of the character’s previous adventures into a single timeline, has her face off against a killer robot with a hammer and sickle on its forehead. Remote controlled by some impotent little squirt,” she divines. Watch your mouth,” says the voice of Vladimir Putin, for it is he doing the controlling. Octobriana destroys the robot in a crushing bear hug.

Putin and Octobriana meet in hand-to-hand combat in The New Amazons, with the President of the Russian Federation having bestowed super-strength upon himself with a secret serum—realising too late that it was made from Octobriana’s own blood, as female physical characteristics manifest themselves in this most avowedly masculine of politicians. Octobriana shoos him away, emasculated, and then frees the prisoners languishing in Putin’s cells: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the two members of Pussy Riot who were in prison when the comic was published. Short and Noble’s breezy comedy and lithe bodies are a long way from the spotted blacks and scratchy figures of the original stories, but tying Octobriana explicitly to Pussy Riot returns the character to her original role—or the one history provided, after her involuntary birth. It’s been a long strange trip back and forth to that volcano, but whenever she’s punching Vladimir Putin it seems as if Octobriana has come home.


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