Igort Tuveri, who publishes under the name of Igort, was born in 1958 in Cagliari, Sardinia, yet grew up surrounded by Russian culture. His father was a classical composer inspired by Russian music and his grandmother would tell him the stories of the great Russian novels before he could read. “Chekov, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy were like imaginary uncles to me. I used to speak with them at home as if they were real.” These formative tastes would colour the rest of his life and his multi-faceted creativity. Aged twenty, he moved to the cultural epicentre of Bologna, where in 1982 Igort was a founder of Valvoline, a short-lived but influential movement of post-punk artists intent on expanding comics. It led Igort to forming the Slava Trudu Orchestra, named after the Russian newspaper whose name means ‘Glory to Labour’. Their first album of Darkwave electronic pop was suitably titled Mélodico Moscovita with a Cossack-inspired cover by Igort.
Out of the energy of Valvoline Igort co-founded the magazine Dolce Vita in 1987, which ran two fully-painted stories compiled in 1990 into his first major work translated into English, Dulled Feelings. One tale set in Russia paid homage to Batman by imagining a muscle-bound teenager being adopted and trained by the American ‘Night Creature’ to take over as a Soviet Dark Knight. The other story explored Igort’s deepening fascination with Japan - a country he would later visit to work in the manga tradition - incorporating references to ‘shunga’ or Japanese erotic prints, into a Cold War intrigue about a Japanese man torn between two lovers, a male secret agent and a female spy.
His first trip to Japan in 1991 brought Igort the rare opportunity to stay and work within the massive, demanding manga industry and be published in Kodansha’s then-million-selling adult weekly Morning. “For me it was like a rebirth. In manga there is a lot of attention to how you can reach the heart of your reader. It was a very healthy and tough experience.” In 2015, he compiled his perspectives into Quaderni Giapponesi (‘Japanese Notebooks’, extract above) as a personal journal, scrapbook, memoir and meditation about this extraordinary culture. Transformed by manga, Igort’s graphic novels since the late Nineties have ranged from the award-winning, two-toned 5 is the Perfect Number, about an ageing, old-fashioned Mafioso gangster, whose son’s murder forces him out of retirement, to a colourful biography of jazz genius Fats Waller.
A planned biography of Chekov, told through his homes, took Igort to Kiev but he put this aside because he realised other more pressing stories needed to be told. Over two years or so he lived between Ukraine, Russia and Siberia. “I started stopping people in the middle of the street, to ask them, with an interpreter, if they would tell me how life in the Soviet Union used to be. They were very full of sorrows and hopes.” Less a journalist or autobiographer, more a literary observer and conduit, Igort came to understand their stories and histories by making them into an almost new genre of ‘graphic testimony’. “If you write and draw, you just need a pen and a notebook. And ‘a good pair of shoes’, as Chekov used to say.”
The results are The Ukrainian Notebooks (2010) and The Russian Notebooks (2011), released in English by Simon & Schuster in one exceptional, harrowing 352-page volume. The first part unlocks the darkest of memories, from first-hand witnesses and survivors of Stalin’s government-sanctioned famine of 1932. This is estimated to have killed between 1.8 to twelve million ethnic Ukrainians, part of a buried holocaust that the artist does not want to see forgotten. In The Russian Notebooks Igort deals with the life and death of the journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. “I am trying to convey this terrifying presence of silence which envelops present-day Russia.”
For ‘Haiku’, his new comic in watercolour and ink for ArtReview (below), Igort returns to his love of Japan and his readings of the 17th century poet Matsuo Basho. “In his aesthetic vision, nature was just to be observed. No action was needed. So I’ve tried to realise a visual haiku about Basho on his trips, looking for something very simple, catching the moment.” Igort proves that the comics need not always be about progressing through panels. Here, the reader is invited to join the poet, and to observe and contemplate. It is another example of Igort’s ceaseless search to apply the visions of artistic avant-gardes past and present to the language of comics. “To not be caged in. And to try to capture life.”
Igort: A Unique Vision (originally published in Comic Heroes Magazine)
Igort is the enigmatic pseudonym of Igor Tuveri, born in Cagliari, Sardinia in 1958. “From my first name, Igor, I have always felt a link with Russian culture. My father was a composer and I grew up surrounded by Russian music as well as the great Russian novels.” These formative tastes would colour the rest of his life and creative career. As a young man of twenty, he struck out on his own and left home for the cultural epicentre of Bologna. Here he would make his debuts as an illustrator, musician, essayist, radio presenter and author of comics. His first stories were published in 1978 in Italy’s pioneering comics or ‘fumetti’ magazine for adults, Linus, named after the character from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strip.
The following year, Igort joined his friends Daniele Brolli, Roberto Baldazzini and one other, to buy aprinting press to self-publish their own magazine, Il pinguino Guadalupa. Igort drew the first cover as a homage to Charles Biro’s lurid pre-Code American crime comic book, Crime Does Not Pay. With it came four small solo albums, Igort’s presenting short stories set on an island reminiscent of Sardinia. Other emerging creators would also contribute, notably Giorgio Carpinteri and Lorenzo Mattotti. Revolution was in the air in the Italian fumetti tradition in 1982, as the post-punk New Wave generation of Igort and his peers took a stand and formed the artists’ collective Valvoline, named after the brand of motor oil to suggest dynamism. Igort was not alone among them in taking inspiration as much from so-called serious art and culture as supposedly low-brow popular entertainment.
From January 1983, Igort and cohorts introduced Valvoline Motorcomics, a magazine within a magazine, as a supplement in Alter Linus, spun off from Linus. Despite the diversity of their members’ styles, including the ambient photographic washes of Marcello Jori and the crazed cartoonish Pop art of Massimo Mattioli, Valvoline were united by their goal to explore new forms of narrative with total freedom. Daniele Brolli enthused about “the ease with which they moved between different languages”. Igort summed up their credo: “Rather than breaking the limits of comics, we believe that comics have even greater limits on them than those which enclose them.” Goodbye Baobab, Igort’s first extensive story about a sumo wrestler and the Yakuza, developed here and foreshadowed another great love of his life, Japan.
Too experimental for most readers, the supplement was dropped after seven issues, but resumed in 1984 in the more radical counterculture glossy Frigidaire as Valvorama. The group was soon joined by American Charles Burns, resident in Rome when his wife’s job took them there. Through this exposure, opportunities opened up for Igort, alongside other members, to apply and expand his talents across almost all media, in fashion, television, journalism, visual arts and music. In 1985 Igort with two friends formed the Slava Trudu Orchestra, named after the Russian newspaper whose name means ‘Glory to Labour’. Their first album of Darkwave electronic pop was suitably titled Mélodico Moscovita with a Cossack-inspired cover by Igort.
Publishing comics is as much in Igort’s blood as writing and drawing them. He went on to co-found other magazines, notably the oversized 64-page showcase Dolce Vita in 1987 for comics, articles, fiction and reviews, which ran for 23 issues. Out of this period came two fully-painted stories, adults-only mash-ups of elegant decadence with gutsy pulp culture compiled into Dulled Feelings in 1990, his first major work translated into English. Dulled Feelings, translated into Japanese and Russian, is the title of both stories, which deal with suppressed desires. For his Japanese tale, Igort combines ultra-modernist clothes, decors, vehicles and architecture with references to Italian Futurist paintings and the occasional explicit ‘shunga’ or Japanese erotic print from the past. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, a Japanese man is torn between two lovers, a male secret agent and a female spy.
The Russia story gave Igort the chance to pay homage to his childhood obsession with Batman. His version in all but name is the American crimefighter Night Creature who is posted in Moscow. The father of Aaran Krilenko, a Russian Jewish teenage boy, asks the superhero to instruct his son, whom he has forced to do weigh-training from the day he was born and who has developed into a muscular specimen, but at the expense of his intellect. Night Creature accepts and adopts the kid, training him as his successor when he has to return to the West. Throw in some three-way sex with treacherous KGB femme fatales and you have one of most unexpected, unofficial variation on Batman - not least because whenever he is in costume, nothing can disguise the large, traditionally missing bulge between his legs.
The dawn of the Nineties brought new ventures and voyages. Igort ran another magazine Fuego, billed as the ‘Linea Latina’, presenting his comics alongside those by up-and-coming graduates from the Zio Feininger comics school where he taught, all set in the same imaginary city. Launched in February 1990, it ran for six numbers. The first issue came with a free vinyl single by Igort’s next New Wave band, Los tres caballeros. He collaborated with other musicians like Yello and Ryuichi Sakamoto and with labels like Alchemy, Alessi, Memphis and Swatch, while in 1994 he exhibited as a visual artist and musician at the Venice Biennale.
In May 1991 Igort made his first trip to Japan, a dream ever since he started drawing. A month before he had met a representative of Kodansha, one of the three biggest manga publishers, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and suggested that it would be good for them to explore collaborations between Japanese and European creators. Inadvertently, he had stumbled onto Kodansha’s secret plan to initiate such projects, starting with an eventually unrealised team-up between Katsuhiro Otomo and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Invited over by Kodansha, this visit would lead three years later to his winning a Kodansha Fellowship and the chance to live in Tokyo in 1994 for six months and work with an editor on originating manga for Morning, an anthology for men which at the time sold 1.4 million copies a week.
Igort shares his Japanese experiences and perspectives in his most recent graphic novel, Quaderni Giapponesi (‘Japanese Notebooks’, 2015), coming out in English from Chronicle Books in 2017. He shows pages from his first attempt at a manga, Amore (‘Love’), a consciously cinematic, exaggerated and brutal Mafia thriller set in Sicily. In sublime contrast, his follow-up starred the first extremely kawaii or cute baby in space named Yuri, a nod to cosmonaut Gargarin. Two seasons of eight-pagers appeared in full-colour in the mostly monochrome weekly and Igort discovered that readers loved the character. “Around four hundred letters arrived from readers with advice and declarations of affection for Yuri. I remember when the fax arrived with the translations of these letters, I was trembling with emotion.” Igort also records the gruelling ten days, over the course of two weeks, when day after day he had to deliver to his editor roughs for another 16-page story, and the disappointment of being told by him that they could not run more Yuri in black-and-white because the readers really wanted its bright colours, but Morning was now reduced to only 8 pages of colour. Quaderni Giapponesi is about much more than manga, it’s more akin to a personal journal, scrapbook, memoir and meditation about this extraordinary culture.
While in Tokoyo in 1997, Igort developed an earlier idea into what would become his most widely translated and awarded graphic novel, 5 is the Perfect Number. Initally serialised in three comic books from Daniele Brolli’s Phoenix Press in 1998-99, it appeared in its final form in 2002 from Coconino Press, a new publishing house co-founded by Igort in 2000 which would revolutionise the graphic novel in Italy. This book follows the path of vengeance of Peppino, an aging, old-fashioned Mafioso gangster, whose son’s murder forces him out of retirement. Betrayed by his own gang, the father learns that rules and loyalties no longer apply. The period and mood are captured in Igort’s refined line-work and layouts, enhanced with a petrol-blue second tone and subtleties learnt from his manga experience and his appreciation of Japanese cinema. He is currently developing a movie adapation of it.
Next, Igort collaborated with Argentine writer Carlos Sampayo on the life story of American jazz genius Fats Waller in 2004 and 2005. Together they portray Waller’s role within the panorama of the Harlem scene in New York in the Thirties and his meteoric career, cut short at the age of 39. Richly documented with historical background, this two-part, 136-page graphic biography was hailed in 2006 at the Naples Comics Festival as the best comic of the year.
All things noir were also the spark for a new book-format anthology which Igort found in 2004 called Black, published in both French and Italian, as were the Ignatz collection of large comics books, A4 size with dustjackets, which included Igort’s return to Japanese characters and settings in his ongoing series Baobab. As he says of Japan, “The mystery, trip after trip, remains intact, indeed, is renewed. I know more and know less.”
But it was Russia, then and now, which became the main focus of his attention. His original intention for his trip to Russia in 2008 was to research a biography of Russian author and playwright Anton Chekov (1860-1904). To reach Crimea, he had to go via Kiev, but once there he was overcome by a feeling in its people of dignity with deep misery. “It was a shock and I couldn’t understand what was happening. I told my publishers I want to do a different book. I moved in and in total spent almost two years there between the Ukraine, Russia and Siberia.” Two exceptional, harrowing reports grew from this immersive period, The Ukrainian Notebooks (2010) and The Russian Notebooks (2011), both being released in March 2016 in one volume in English by Simon & Schuster, subtitled Life and Death Under Soviet Rule.
The first unlocks the darkest of memories, from first-hand witnesses and survivors of Stalin’s government-sanctioned famine of 1932. This is estimated to have killed between 1.8 to twelve million ethnic Ukrainians, part of a buried holocaust that should never be forgotten. Igort is not a cartoon journalist here who includes himself and his opnions in his panels and narration. Instead, he steps back and works as a writer and artist who finally gives these unheard victims a voice. “Drawings can reveal their humble, hidden lives and illuminate the shadowy areas which probably the written word cannot tell.”
In The Russian Notebooks Igort deals with the life and death of the journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. “Her assassination took place on the very day I arrived in Moscow. Stanislav Markelov, lawyer for the Chechen cause and Anna’s friend was killed by a bullet to the head; Anastasia Baburova too, five minutes by foot from the Kremlin. The killer calmly walked away and then he took the subway. Unpunished… I am trying to convey this terrfiying presence of silence which envelops present-day Russia.” In Igort’s sensitive hands, this almost new genre of ‘graphic testimony’ proves once more the power of comics to generate both understanding and empathy.
Posted: July 10, 2016
These Articles originally appeared in the magazines ArtReview and Comics Heroes #26, January 2016.