Igort | How War Begins: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Invasion (Fantagraphics)

168 pgs. colors | $29.99 hardcover | Writer & Artist: Igort; Translator: Jamie Richards

Igort’s How War Begins: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Invasion opens and closes with the following words:

Every war is a dirty war.

Nothing epic, no glory: only misery.

That sums up his opinion of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a story told largely through the testimony of people living through the first 98 days of it (received via phone calls, and originally presented serially on Facebook) supplemented with historical background and illustrated with art that ranges from simple ink or pencil sketches to detailed, realistic views of scenes. Much of the art is sepia-toned, an appropriate choice given the grim nature of the stories being told. When more colors appear on the page, your eye is immediately drawn to them, while other departures, including frames that are nearly all-black, are also more striking for their departure from the color scheme you’ve grown used to. The variety of artistic styles Igort uses in this volume—which also include frames drawn in pastels and others using large blocks of colors—underline the shifting tones and variety of experiences represented.

War may well be misery, particularly for civilians caught up in the middle of it, but that doesn’t mean that strangeness takes a holiday. Mysterious things happen—two young men lining up for groceries are wearing identical boots—but are later revealed to be no mystery at all. The young men were Russian soldiers who discarded their uniforms and stole the clothing they were wearing in the food line but kept their military boots. They also stole food from a nearby farm and even milked the cow before moving on.

In another village, an inexperienced corps of Ukrainian soldiers is sent to guard a pipeline, then abandoned by their leaders after they run out of fuel. Days go by and the young men adapt to living in the field, creating tents from tarps and building makeshift cabins. They also perform chores for the villagers, who reward them with food and water (both of which are in short supply), and soon the village grandmothers begin to think of them as adoptive grandchildren. By the time someone in authority recalls their existence, the soldiers are on a first-name basis with nearly everyone in the village—but war being war, they’re sent on to their next assignment and that is that.

How War Begins is full of well-chosen details that bring the human element of the invasion to the forefront. In one frame, a Ukrainian woman tells a Russian soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pocket so that “when you die, at least something will grow.” In another, Igort reveals that differences in pronunciation between Ukrainian and Russian, once the subject of schoolyard sport, now allow the home language (and presumably the loyalty) of strangers to be determined by the way they pronounce “palianytsia,” a type of bread. The linking prose sections, written by Igort, combine factual information with a distinctive voice that is sometimes sardonic (“Time and time again, the proud Russian military machine reveals itself for what it truly is: a tin army.”) and sometimes waxes poetic (“The collapsing bodies look like marionettes. Drones capture clouds of dust, which have a surreal beauty. The crumbling buildings look like houses of cards.”).

Igort (Igor Tuveri), an Italian cartoonist and founder of the publishing house Coconino Press, is a great admirer of Russian culture, having grown up with a composer father who loved Russian music and a grandmother who told him Russian stories before he could read them himself. But he’s no fan of Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as “a sad-faced man, adopted at a young age by the KGB” and as someone who “has become incapable of empathy toward his fellow man.” How War Begins includes sections depicting the Russian invasion of Chechnya and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, as well as the 1932-33 USSR-inflicted famine in Ukraine, which if nothing else demonstrates that Putin was hardly the first Russian leader to have it in for Ukraine. How War Begins clearly has a point of view regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but in a case so one-sided as this one, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. | Sarah Boslaugh

You can read more about Igort and see some samples of his work here. See below for a 5=-page preview of How War Begins, courtesy of Fantagraphics!

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