By Serhend Sirkecioglu
I have not written anything for The Beat in a fairly long time, but I recently traveled most of the Turkic World (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan). With the exception of returning to Istanbul by plane and crossing the Caspian Sea by boat, it was me hitchhiking, taking cabs, trains, and buses everywhere.
One of reasons I took this trip was because I hadn’t seen my father’s side of my family in over 18 years. Another reason was because I was an artist in crisis. Not sure if I was cut out for being a cartoonist or not, creatively lost and confused, wavering convictions, etc… I was seeking inspiration. A side quest I also engaged in was looking for comics in each country, seeing if they had a comics scene of sorts and what it was comprised of. If there was not much of a comics industry, I tried to at least look for other artists. Out of all the countries I went to only two had any semblance of a comics scene or tradition: Turkey and Kazakhstan.
I do apologize in advance. My mastery of Turkish and Russian is basic and there were times where I forgot to take photos of something or my camera battery died; a running gag on this trip along with my other gadgets dying or breaking.
The Turkish Comics (Çizgi Roman. pronounced Chiz-gi Ro-mon) scene is a sizable one and a surprisingly unknown one on top of that. They have a breadth of iconic characters and comics like Kotu Kedi Serafettin, Robin Crusoe, and Jamal along with an industry that has a weekly amateur day where aspiring cartoonists can come to the major comics magazines to meet the artists for pointers and stuff, but the most baffling thing is the lack of exposure beyond Turkey despite the pool of talent and prevalence of comics in the country.
The first shop I visited was Arkabaçhe in Beşiktaş, Istanbul. It’s in a mall and is a familiar sight, a modern comics shop: white, slick, clean, and organized, sprinkled with some action figures, apparel, and memorabilia. I got the good feeling it’s all about comics here; I love that. The owner Sinan also knew good English, no need for the pre-written-as-simply-as-possible questions on Google translate!
He told me his shop also does the Turkish translations for Marvel and DC comics and has begun to publish original works like Istanbul Odyssey, among others. In terms of what’s popular, it’s all about Marvel, DC, and to a lesser extent at his store, manga. When I asked about comics conventions, Sinan was blunt and explained few to none in Turkey would go to a comic convention and there’s not much economic incentive for the few shops to pack up some books and go where they won’t make much money. When I asked him if people in Europe, Japan, and America know about the Turkish comics scene, he bluntly said no. He suggested if someone big from the US came or if Midtown Comics had a booth, that could bring in more people. He also mentioned that some people in Turkey would need to have explained to them the concept of paying for artists drawings/signatures at cons.
Speaking with translator Burc Uner, he told me that they don’t have a lot of contact with Marvel and DC because there’s a middle man between them and they have contact with the big two very minimally for design related issues. He also mentioned that it’s difficult to publish some books they would love to translate. For example, he would love to translate David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp but the given the printing requirements Pantheon has for the book and the already low interest in indie comics, it’s not affordable for them.
When I asked him about the self-publishing/indie scene he explained how it has a touch and go quality to it, where a group of artists get together publish an anthology then over time one person becomes more popular and then the group disbands. He showed one group of high schoolers who published a heavily manga-influenced and nicely printed(a glossy soft cover trade with recycled paper interiors) anthology and for their age it was an impressive feat. Not the best work in the world; vacuous backgrounds, unintentionally wonky drawing, and heavy amounts of emulation than originality, but a C for effort given their age. They managed to publish 3 issues but the dip in quality in each issue is very apparent.
Another self-published work (also black and white interiors) I was shown was Çizgi Fanzin, put together by a group of art school students and was a glossy covered book with recycled paper interiors. It has a familiar vibe of friends all hanging out, drawing, and grinding away making comics; hunched over their desks with a cigarette in their mouth and smile on their face, all having a good time. The work inside reminds me of people I went to school with at SVA; it’s all very promising and definitely the best self published work I came across for what little I’ve seen so far. By sheer luck, the group who put it together was just stopping by the shop and I got to ask them a few questions. They are more or less no different than any other young and budding cartoonists in North America and Europe. nothing really stood out other than the language barrier. When I asked them about how much it cost to print their work, they said it was not much because they all pitched in. Where their work is placed online varies. Some post on Behance and a Turkish equivalent, others Deviant Art, and some on Instagram.
The second shop I visited was Gerekli Seyler in Beyoglu which was more heavy on the toy and memorabilia than Arkabache but they had more manga and a sizable collection of erotic comics and hentai too. They also translate books for Marvel and DC but this owner’s English was not as good.
He did give me a ballpark estimate of the number of comics readers in Istanbul though, around 5000 and said that out of all those comics fans probably only 300 at most would show up to my hypothetical Turkish comics convention. I ended up leaving after about 15 minutes and headed off to my final shop.
Gon is for me the most beautiful shop of the three and is also the smallest. It’s named after the character of the Japanese Manga series of the same name by Masashi Tanaka via a contest. Gon was originally just a place being used as storage for a bookstore called Robinson Crusoe. It began its life as a comics shop 8 years ago, originally selling English language comics but shifting towards Turkish language comics over time due to low demand for English fare.
I spoke to Nedim Okan further about the Indie scene and he continued where Sinan left off about the clashing egos and unrealistic expectations of cartoonists and literary journalists. The mentality of Turkish writers and cartoonists who publish their work is not far from that of a rock band. They get together for the music, but then the fame gets to their heads and once it dries up or one member goes solo they ditch the magazine. Nedim told me one story of a literary magazine that had printed 8 issues (a whole lot by Turkish standards) and the members came by the store to tell the owner they were no longer going to print the magazine because they said that “Honestly, we’re not making any money or getting any pussy out of this, so what’s the point?”
I laughed pretty hard and it was glorious. Nedim’s hope/advice was that if cartoonists actually stuck through with it and did not unrealistically expect to be make tons of money and get laid a lot, comics would get bigger in Turkey. Unfortunately, peoples’ egos hold everyone back.
The Kazakh comics (Komisky) scene is as sparse as the country itself. I found absolutely nothing starting from Aktau in the west to Shymkent in the south near Uzbekistan. However, I met some Otaku and it was pretty funny to see how similar they are to the otaku students I teach in middle and high school. It was not until I reached Almaty where I struck gold. Almaty is where the art is at. You can find artists selling their paintings of Kazakh epics and the pastoral life of the steppes. I even came across a few print shops, though they were unfamiliar with self publishing comics.
I searched the city and the interwebz for Kazakh comics and lo and behold I finally found them! Khan Comics published an anthology in 2011 called KZ Comics and they were putting on a show at a national art school. I used my limited Russian vocabulary to tell them about my background as an American comic artist and to talk to them about their comic. My credentials perked their ears up, so they scrambled to find the one English speaker, Timur from external relations.
He brought me to the head of the animation department who then explained that the comic only had a print run of 500 copies and there were no more, but would get me a black and white prints of the comics in side (I never got them because I forgot to pick them up like a dumbass). He also showed me a lot of comics done by the animation majors.
The talent was just as promising as the Turkish work I saw. For the Kazakh, comics and animation are one and the same. However, while Turkey has a large cartoonist scene and therefore many opportunities to prove yourself as a professional cartoonist, Kazakhstan did not. Timur explained that their school is not affiliated with any western school, only CIS ones (Commonwealth of Independent States aka the former Soviet bloc).
Logistically things are also very difficult. For example, if you were to host a comics convention or festival in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, people in Almaty, Aktobe, and Shymkent would be a day or more away if they traveled by train or bus, the cheapest ways for the average Kazakh to get around. Traveling so far for a small one day festival when it takes two or three days to commute to and from it is a hard sell. It’s hard to build a scene of comics readers when people are so scattered.
The handful of students I met in Almaty they expressed this sentiment. Nursultan, Mansur, and John (I forgot his real name but he said John was ok) all expressed this feeling of isolation and want to go to Europe or America because there isn’t much opportunity in their home nation. They can probably get jobs doing animation for commercials or graphic design work in Kazakhstan or Russia, but anything beyond that is unlikely. They asked me questions about opportunities in the States and I tried to help them with what little I knew about the film and animation industry and we traded contacts. They asked me to stay in Almaty a little longer but I was leaving for Bishkek by the end of the week and could not stay longer. I plan to return to Almaty someday.