Ruts and Gullies: Putin Can't Keep Me Down / by David Anderson


Know what I never understood? How anyone could bother living in a country where everything is either too hot or too cold. Places in the Middle East, for example. Too much sand, too much heat. Why bother? I guess it's just for the same reason that I am reluctant to leave this boring town--I like it. Emotional attachment is such a double edged sword.

Russia at least gets different seasons in a single year, but their winters are murderous. My time in Norwich led me to fall in hate with every single snowflake I ever saw, which I am sure will send my younger self crying into the attic when I tell him about it when time travel is feasible. I guess that's why Russians have been said to consume superhuman volumes of alcohol--it keeps you warm and reduces your chances of killing yourself from seasonal depression to about 50-50.

Fortunately I had Quebec artist Philippe Girard's Ruts and Gullies: Nine Days in St. Petersburg to help dispel some of my prejudices by promptly slapping me on the back of the head and going "Hey, cut that shit out and read me to find out why Russians aren't as bad as you think they are." And you know what? I think he makes a decently convincing case. Let's see how it does.

So, about 90 years after the semi-fictitious events of Petrograd, this guy Philippe (a French-Canadian author) decides to go to the now-named St. Petersburg for a nine day trip, meeting a few big names in European comic art while trying not to get stabbed. Well, at least he thinks he would need to worry about stab wounds what with everyone freaking out and telling him horror stories about post-Soviet Russia, but his sojourn through St. Petersburg is a tale of enlightenment as he discovers the true nature of your average Russian. The name of the novel comes from a Russian saying- "It looks smooth on paper, but there are many ruts and gullies to cross" which I took as meaning that any plan looks good at first, until it meets reality- much like how a trip may look easy when plotted on a map, but once undertaken, begins to reveal its difficulties and surprises.

This graphic novel is written like a pictoral journal, with a lot of wordless interludes and small talk for dialogue. Were this a regular journal it might not be so interesting to read, but in panels the story comes alive in a different way. Each chapter is another day in the Big P and their experiences with everything from defeating Russian stereotypes to rationalizing certain parts of Russian stereotypes, whilst occasionally being haunted by the ghost of his dead friend, whose memory has been important to Girard as a means of measuring his own maturity.

The art is an interesting contrast to what you might expect if you knew anything about contemporary Russian stereotypes. If you've ever heard any tales about life in Russia, you've probably heard about abusive cops, murdered journalists, gang fights involving hundreds of people, so on and so on. And yeah, Russia's got those problems; but according to Girard's experience, they're also pretty obsessed with how the outside world sees them. Well, they at least have a friend in Girard, because his art style is very- I guess you could say "family friendly". This is an art style very reminiscent of what you might see in children's literature or TV shows, with very basic character designs defined by thick black lines and basic shapes. Very iconic, in other words. It's a very bright and friendly style for a book about a city stereotyped as anything but. That's basically the point; Russians are more like you and me than you and I probably think. Using this art style in combination with his relatively benign tourist experience helps make St. Petersburg seem like a decent place to visit.

That basic art style doesn't forbid him from delving into mature territory or amping up the detail level, though. It's still highly expressive too, so even if the characters look like robotic stick figures they can still portray emotion pretty well.

TL;DR All in all, I think you will like this graphic journal. Its art style is unique and his experiences make for an interesting story. It's enlightening and it might just make you more interested in learning more about Russia.

Ruts & Gullies is written and illustrated by Philippe Girard, translated by Kerryanne Cochrane and published by Conundrum Press. It might be a rare find but you can order a copy from Conundrums' site here.