The Lost Art of Awesomeness, reborn in Russia

Do you remember a time when movie posters weren’t just blue and orange? Remember when movie posters and video game boxes were awesome? What do I mean by awesome? See below:

exterminator

That, dear readers, is the art of awesomeness. Where do I even begin to describe the sheer insanity of this masterpiece? Alright first of all we’ve got a guy who clearly does not give a fuck. Massive explosion behind him. Zero fucks given. The beautiful woman who is mildly concerned about the explosion clinging to his shoulder? Nope. Still reading 0.0 on the Fuck-o-meter. Why is he so nonchalant? There are some mysteries man is not yet ready to know, but I think it has something to do with that gun.

I mean look at that weapon! It is as far beyond our most modern firearms as they are beyond the first matchlock muskets. It spits in the face of all known knowledge of firearms engineering. It literally feeds from three magazines at the same time, and seems to consist of a double-barrel shotgun, an assault rifle, a grenade launcher, and two who-the-fuck-knows-whats on the bottom. I don’t care how many Magpul after-market parts you put on your AR-15; it will never achieve but a fraction of this awesomeness.

Of course in America, the other source of artistic awesomeness was to be found on the cover of home video games, such as those for the NES, Sega Genesis (Mega-Drive for you Europeans out there), and SNES. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

operationc

You picked the wrong day to break out of your glass tube, Mr. Giant Scorpion!

That there is the box art for the first release of a Contra game on the Nintendo Game Boy. Now I can tell you from personal experience that prior to this release, nearly all Game Boy games were puzzle-games, typically variations on Tetris. That ended with Operation  C, and the very box itself seems to proclaim just that.

Just look at that! Drink it in. We’ve got a massive mutant scorpion that’s just clawed its way out of a glass tube in some kind of lab, but just before it can turn and claw our hero to shreds he starts pumping round after round into its thorax with what appears to be some kind of futuristic assault shotgun.

Hell, back in my day, even silly-looking games had incredible box art. Just look at this clusterfuck:

amagon

What’s going on in that picture? Well let me rephrase that so we won’t be here all night: What’s not going on in that picture? You’ve got everything. First we’ve got the contrast: despite very Mario-style cartoony graphics, our happy ginger hero is blazing away with what is clearly meant to be an M16A2 (yeah I know it’s ejecting from the wrong side, gun nerds). Virtually everyone around him is terrified by this. That weird lizard thing by his left leg, that skull, and even the metal Wehrmacht bird behind him. The dinosaur just looks kind of pissed, but then again there’s a fuckin’ dinosaur in this picture! Then you’ve got the evil crab. The evil grab isn’t impressed. He’s about to sink one of his claws into our hero’s leg to see what happens, but something tells me he’s only going to end up getting his shell perforated by about a half dozen 5.56x45mm rounds.

This box art has everything. There’s an undead sentient skull, a weird blue lizard, a goddamned dinosaur, a UFO, an evil crab, a blazing firearm, a dude on steroids, the official seal of Nintendo… Oh and if you think this game’s a joke, go ahead and run it in an emulator. I’m betting you’ll get a game over half way through the first level.

Of course just like movie posters, game art has declined over the years. This is what the covers of our hit games look like now:

bo2.jpg

Oh wow! Look at that angsty, brooding hero. This could just as easily have been an album cover for Staind. No surprise that the games are easier too. There’s no “Press F to win the game” in Operation C or Amagon.

Luckily, however, the art of awesomeness has not been lost. It has survived in a new medium, specifically the cover art of Russian sci-fi and alternative history fiction. In the past I’ve shared a few examples of such art, but today I’ve got a much larger haul. Let us experience and evaluate some of the finest specimens of Russian fiction book covers.

american

The first example is from the book The American: Path to the North by Roman Zlotnikov and Igor Grinchevskiy. This piece resonated with me because it’s called “The American” and in fact this image captures exactly what it’s like to be an American in Russia. I mean that might as well be me on the cover there. Alright I don’t have hair like that, but the lab coat, the pocket watch, the scientific laboratory with firearms and ammunition- it’s basically as if you compressed my nearly-ten years in Russia into one image. I’m sure other American expats and former expats would feel the same way about this image.

8a_TLZJboFg

There’s plenty of modern Russian art depicting WWII scenes, but how many of them have a Red Army soldier wielding dual TT33’s John Woo style, shooting an Estonian Waffen SS man? The answer is I have no idea, but this book cover sure does. Had to take points off for the cuffs on SS-man’s tunic, however.

book2

Look, I’m the first person to say that the whole zombie genre isn’t just getting old- it’s been old for at least five years by now. But if Hollywood is going to give us Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, we might as well have a zombie apocalypse set in the early Soviet Union. And if we have Stalin armed with a hammer and decapitating zombie Trotsky with a sickle well, so much the better.

bookcover

Tsar Nicholas II and his father Alexander III blazing away with machine guns designed in the state which overthrew their regime (and killed the former). What else can I say about this? I can’t help but notice this book has three authors. The only thing that could make this novel more awesome is if neither of them ever spoke to one another until after the work was published.

cellphonestalin

Okay this book, entitled A Conversation With the Leader, posits one of the most simplistic alternative-history premises I’ve ever seen. What if, at the battle of Brest fortress in 1941, one of the defenders had a cell phone and could call Stalin with it? How would this change the course of history? One hopes that in addition to giving our hero a cell phone, the author also remembered to give the USSR a functioning cellular network as well. Otherwise this phone would be reduced to a mere distraction device to confound the German besiegers.

grandpa.jpg

Young Andrei Ivanov was always getting trouble at school. The bigger kids picked on him. His teachers said he’d never achieve anything. His parents yelled at him. He thought he was a loser…until one day. Now Andrei has been transported back to the battle of Prokhorovka in 1943! But does he have what it takes to go from zero to hero and liberate his Motherland from the fascist invaders? There’s only way to find out! Master the Russian language so you can read this novel.

IAQxV1C9zHI

Trotsky becomes a Ukrainian nationalist and attacks Stalin, who defends himself with a portrait of Lenin. I really don’t know what to say here. My thought process has ground to a halt.

kip4FN4OZ3M

Alright let’s start with the obvious- that’s a Nazi SS man wielding the M41A pulse rifle from Aliens. No, it doesn’t just look like it, it is the pulse rifle, full stop. Beyond that this cover turns it up to 88 with Hitler, flying saucers, and what I can only assume are snow panzers. The only question is- can allied agents manage to survive long enough to organize a resistance movement among the Antarctic penguins and end the Nazi occupation once and for all? I think we all know the answer is: You’re goddamned right they can!

l0YJBWJ7Hu8

Okay so we’ve got a WWII era Red Army soldier equipped with late 30’s era German sub-machine gun killing a 1920’s Civil War era Bolshevik commissar of some sort, ostensibly to save the Russian emperor. How is this not going to cause a time paradox?  Imagine that- renegade Red Army soldiers team up with the Nazis to travel back in time and save the Russian empire from the Bolsheviks. Then, as soon as they rescue the Tsar’s family and kill their captors, each member of the time-traveling assassination squad suddenly realizes that he is illiterate, and dressed in traditional Russian peasant clothes. Oh yeah- their kids all died before they reached the age of five.

putinshirt

If only there had been Putin’s Russia instead of the Soviet Union during the Second World War! Driven on by love for their glorious leader, the ethnically homogeneous Muscovite Russian army would have easily defeated the entire Wehrmacht with knives instead of wasting precious bullets. Who needs that Red Army anyway? It was so full of Ukrainians it might as well have been the UPA!

qA_aVLcnU1A.jpg

All I have to say about this cover is that my wife is very lucky this young woman doesn’t actually exist.

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So this cheerful novel is called Death to Britannia, and the cover is a depiction of what Anne Applebaum believes will immediately happen to the UK should it exit the European Union. Of course the comparison isn’t 100% accurate, because like many of those other books, this novel is alternative history. In this case we’ve got contemporary Russian paratroopers descending on what appears to be late Victorian Britain (the rifle appears to be inspired by the Martini-Henry). Of course just to make it “fair,” our Russian heroes are using PPS machine pistols from the WWII-era. There’s no sport in it if there’s no challenge, right?

6mIEaXy2udk

Saving the best for last, we have a Russian police officer magically transported to a fantasy world. Noting that the brave mounted knight may in fact Central Asian in appearance, our hero detains him with his sword.

“I bid thee halt, good citizen,” officer Kuznetsov said, saluting with his new found blade.

“Wherefore did thou stoppest me, officer?” asked the rider in a clearly foreign accent.

“I must see thy documents if thou wishest to pass!”

Hanging his head in exasperation, the rider reached into a saddle bag and produced the desired item- a scroll of vellum wrapped in hemp twine. He handed it to Kuznetsov with a sigh.

Kuznetsov looked over the strange writing and frowned.

“Thou hast not the proper seal on thy document, good rider, I fear that this carries a penalty of four hundred gold coins!”

The rider rolled his eyes.

“Perhaps, dear officer of the law, there is some way I could pay this penalty…here and now?”

Kuznetsov nodded. The rider reached into his saddle-bag again and tossed a small but heavy sack into Kuznetsov’s waiting hand.

“Methinks thou will find all the proper seals on those documents, sirrah!”

Kuznetsov felt the weight of the bag in his hands and peered into the opening at the top. Gold sovereigns, fifteen or twenty at least.

“Indeed, good rider, these documents have the proper seal. I dare say everything is in order. Thou art allowed to pass.”

And thus the rider saluted and went on his way. Kuznetsov pocketed the gold and began walking along the road toward a small town. Hopefully it would have an inn that could offer him both victuals and lodging for the night, for the next day he would set off on his true quest- the Dark Fortress Morthian at the foot off Dragonskull Mountain. There he would either wrest the Amulet of Wisdom from the corrupted elf-mage Q’alla’dain or he would perish like so many others who came before, their bones piled high about that cursed land!

***

Thus concludes our brief survey of the art of awesomeness in Russia. I look forward to feedback from the reader, as well as other examples of awesome art from around the world.

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20 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Awesomeness, reborn in Russia

  1. AnonymousExpat

    I don’t remember where I saw it, but a while back I recall reading an article on how a lot of people involved in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict (including Ukrainian Interior Minister Avakov) were connected via being basically low-grade[1] sci-fi/alt history authors that write this sort of… entertainment material.

    P.S. The first Russian cover you mentioned has a lot of Odessa landmarks on it. My imperialism alarms are going off!

    [1] shirpotreb is such a nice word…

    Reply
  2. Callum C.

    Officer Kuznetsov should be scolded for his poor etiquette and sword knowledge. That migration era sword he’s holding would probably have made the horseman wonder if he’d robbed a museum. Given that the horseman seems to be wearing a suit of 16th century armour (that was drawn based on a description by a teenager who had just read Game of Thrones, and a blurry postcard from a LARP event), that sword would be about as old to him as 16th century armour is to us.

    But before the mongoloid horseman could draw his abomination of a sword (it looks like a 16th century greatsword drawn based on a description by a drunken museum janitor) and finish off our hero, he realized that, as he had neither a scabbard, baldric or sword belt, he had actually dropped the weapon on the side of the road several miles behind, leaving him defenseless against the strangely dressed museum robber.

    Reply
  3. Aleks

    Comission me to draw the most ridiculous of Russian Fantasy Novel covers. We can make this even campier.
    Also: the reason for shitty movie covers is that not everyone can paint as Drew Struzan, and the golden age of Illustration was loooong as fuck ago: modern artists can’t work to a decent pace using those old methods, hence the photoshop hackjobs of the 2000s.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Well part of the reason for movie posters being that way is that they found that orange and blue contrast really well, so it gets your attention better.

      Reply
  4. gbd_crwx

    The last one looks like that “global strike” mobile phone game.

    btw, maybe not realted, but a sim-city type of game I play, megapolis (originally russian), recently introduced military operations into the game, where you execute military operations and gain “military prestige”.I wonder if recent events in Syria inspired this, what do you Think Jim?

    Reply
  5. gbd_crwx

    Considering that this awsomeness was big in the west in the 80-ies and 90-ies, and now lives on in Russia. Does this explain why Mikhail Gutseriev’s son’s wedding had stars from that decade perform?

    Reply
  6. Asehpe

    “All I have to say about this cover is that my wife is very lucky this young woman doesn’t actually exist.”

    🙂

    Студентка? I’d like to see her grades…
    Κомсомолка? But it was just a way to get more advantages in life…
    Спортсменка? Maybe taking steroids… (besides, if you go English, why not спортсуман?)

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      A long time reader with knowledge of the Russian althist genre tells me this is an example of a “male finds himself in a female body” sub-genre. In fact he said this book involves lesbian sex, because of course if the boy who somehow ends up in a female body has heterosexual sex with a male, that would be TOTALLY GAY!

      Unfortunately he didn’t clarify the details of this sub-genre, i.e. is it really a male character who wakes up one day as a female, or is it basically a male-mentality narrator but a female protagonist, as in it draws the male reader into a female’s life.

      Whatever the case, I think we can say that there’s some SERIOUS issues someone is not dealing with.

      Reply
      1. Asehpe

        I actually think the female-protagonist-with-a-male-mind (or ‘dude-with-boobs’ as I once heard it called) style/genre can be well done, and it is a way to draw certain males into the female mindset (well… at least to think of females as agents). ‘Laura Croft’ is supposedly an example. Of course, when it is played badly, you get the problems you mentioned: the protagonist ends up being lesbian because too much testosterone, and it would be gay otherwise, etc. When it is well played, it actually presents a member of one gender that does share certain proclivities with the other gender, and it may be interesting to see how they would interact in the protagonist’s personality..(E.g., are the male features a defense mechanism that the female protagonist developed in order to be accepted in a male-oriented environment, or are they genuine, legitimte features of her as a person?)

        A more sincere subgenre actually has a male transplanted into a female body, or at least a male pretending to be a female (a la Tootsie with Dustin Hoffmann). In these cases at least the author is being sincere about the gender shock.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        My source informs me that in this genre, a male does literally somehow wake up in the body of a female.

        Man I wish I was a psychology grad student now. I could get so many Phd thesis ideas in this country.

      3. Asehpe

        That idea did occur to me too! ….
        I wonder if it would be worthwhile to write someday a post on the things most likely to shock Westerners when they deal with Russia. Personally (it was in Ukraine, in Kyiv, so perhaps I should call it “Ukrainian” rather than “Russian” in this case, but well, everything was in Russian), it was to see anti-semitic literature being sold by old men in public — on Maidan Square (before ‘the’ Maidan happened), of all places. It felt so 1930s…

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Those guys were still there last time I was around. Also the sale of Bandera and nationalist-themed stuff really expanded. It used to be they were the only souvenir-selling people who had crap like that.

        There used to be Russians selling books like that on the streets of Moscow, but I think they were dispersed because of the city laws that banned nearly all such selling.

  7. zephyrean

    I was born and have lived all my life in Moscow. My father, an assembly line worker turned insurance broker turned typographer turned diplomat/economist, collected Soviet books — “rare” books would’ve been an unnecessary qualifier, because all books were prestige items in the USSR. I was brought up with a deep reverence for books, printed matter, design, fonts, layout, languages. It thus naturally follows that during the last 10 years I’ve set my foot inside a non-antique Russian bookstore exactly once, and that only to buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century so I’d have a physical item for Piketty to sign. So I *was* aware of this alt-history nonsense (it pops up on twitter from time to time), but not of the extent of the phenomenon and the public perception.

    Holy crap.

    Words fail me.

    The zombie book is actual satire and a parody of alt-history: it has Leo Kaganov’s name on it. The last book is meant to be “haha funny” — think Sandy Petersen except terrible. Everything else is meant to be taken — and *is* taken, as evidenced by review sites — 100% seriously. That “man wakes up in woman’s body” book? He’s a survivor of the nuclear war whose son dies fighting NATO peacekeepers in the ruins of Moscow and whose granddaughter was rapemurdered by gopniks. That’s presumably his face in the upper-left corner. The scene on the cover is him shooting up the Politburo. It’s a print book meant for the people who own smartphones and tablets and won’t buy a dead-tree version just to satisfy morbid curiosity. srs bsns doesn’t get more srs than that.

    Also, seeing the beautiful Academy with its adorable rounded ‘P’s profaned by cheap CG 3d gradients on the covers of Zlotnikov’s books breaks my heart.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      If more of the alt-hist stuff were parody it would actually be even more awesome. Also your comment gives me an idea for an upcoming post.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Book Cover Bonanza Part I | Russia Without BS

  9. Pingback: An Awesome New Year | Russia Without BS

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