Thursday, June 2, 2011


We've had some fun here with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's exhibitions of manliness – his rides in fighter jets, his wading bare-chested through wild rivers, his riding fur-clad astride a horse across the Siberian steppe in winter – but now Russian artist Sergei Kalenik has gone one better casting the prime minister as a superhero in the online graphic novel “Superputin, A Man Like Any Other”, where Putin, clad in his judo gi, attempts to foil a terrorist plot with help from his sidekick, a giant bear that transforms into President Dmitry Medvedev.

Far from being an exercise in fanboy devotion, Superputin has a professional look about it, and it's pretty funny, loaded with inside jokes: The story incorporates elements of the movie Speed and the video game Mortal Kombat, while the last act is inspired by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko 's wildly popular Night Watch series of novels. Medvedev's disguise is a play off of his name (medved is the Russian word for bear), while his superhero name “Nanoman” riffs off his attempts to launch a Russian version of Silicon Valley in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo. The story even takes a post-modernist, self-referential twist when Putin prods Medvedev to quickly disarm a bomb by saying “hurry Dima, only nine frames left [in the story].”

Since its launch in mid-May, Superputin has been viewed more than three million times and has drawn enough international attention to prompt Kalenik to post an English-language version of Superputin on the website. But the story has also drawn its share of critics, many of whom label Superputin as nothing more than ham-handed pro-Kremlin propaganda, albiet in a slick, new package. Much of the criticism centers around the story's “Twilight” sequence, where Putin and Medvedev confront a horde of zombies with blue buckets on their heads. The Blue Buckets have been a visual group of government critics, largely in Moscow, who wear blue plastic buckets on their heads. The genesis of their movement came from misuse by government officials of car-top flashing blue lights, meant for emergency use but often employed by mid-level bureaucrats to speed through traffic, occasionally with fatal results. In Superputin, the blue bucket zombies spout off protest slogans like “Let us elect governors!” and “Free Khodorkovsky!” as they confront Putin and Medvedev.

For his part, Kalenik denies any official connection to the Kremlin saying that he did the graphic novel in an attempt to inject some humor into Russia's “depressing political scene”, though he adds that he sent a link to Superputin to Pres. Medvedev and that he hopes he and Putin like it. And if Superputin is “official” propaganda, it is interesting since it casts both Putin and Medvedev as heroes – many political moves during the past few months have been percieved as attempts by the Putin and Medvedev camps to undermine each other ahead of next year's presidential elections. It also puts Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin in the role of an invisible gunman helping Putin and Medvedev fight off the zombies, an interetsing show of unity considering that in real life Medvedev recently moved to undercut Sechin's power by stripping him of his chairmanship of Russia's powerful energy firm Rosneft.

Thanks to the online popularity of Superputin, Kalenik is now looking for funding to produce up to a dozen sequels.
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