Gamayun-Tales-Vasilisa-and-the-Doll-artwork-featured Reviews 

“Gamayun Tales II: Vasilisa and the Doll”

By | August 26th, 2021
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

[Featured artwork by Alexander Utkin]

Welcome back to our Summer Comics Binge of Alexander Utkin’s Eisner-nominated series “Gamayun Tales,” where I’m reading through all five stories that make up the collection of modernized Russian folk tales so far.

“Gamayun Tales I” was initially released in individual hardback editions, with one story per book, before being collected in a paperback volume. “Gamayun Tales II” skipped this format and released its pair of stories in a single paperback edition. For these reviews I’m reading the collected editions.

Having followed the adventures of the Merchant and then his Son in the first volume, volume two opens with a story that promises to shed light on one of the characters who lingers in the mind of readers despite only having a fleeting appearance in the first volume, that of the skull-staff wielding Vasilisa. So, without further ado, let’s delve into volume two with ‘Vasilisa and the Doll.’

Cover by Alexander Utkin
Written and Illustrated by Alexander Utkin

(Taken from the Second Volume’s blurb) In ‘Vasilisa and the Doll,’ a young adventurer seeks the mysterious Baba-Yaga to save those she loves, with the help of a magical doll, but the Witch doesn’t give away her magic for free…

Right, so last week I stated that ‘Tyna of the Lake’ was my favorite story in the “Gamayun Tales” series and, well, ‘Vasilisa and the Doll’ has taken its place. Now I’m not just saying that to get you to read on, I mean it. Let me tell you why.

First of all, this story is the most folklore-y in its structure since ‘The King of Birds’ and by that I mean, where that story had the three kingdoms and a repeated test, ‘Vasilisa and the Doll’ has a pair of trios, namely in the form of three riders who travel in the forest near Baba-Yaga’s home and three tests that Vasilisa must pass to be granted the healing fire she seeks. For me personally, the three riders are far superior to the three kingdoms. They have an incredible sense of the surreal about them, which is to be expected when they are a samurai figure on a giant silver chicken, a strange bag/mask wearing character on a giant feathered stag, and a straw masked individual on a giant three-eyed black panther, but they lose none of their mystique when the Baba-Yaga explains what/who they are, albeit in quite abstract terms. They are all revealed in quick succession in similar fashion, even down to the panel layouts of their reveals, but rather than feel incredibly repetitive, Utkin makes each rider feel unique and a part of something much larger. Utkin avoids too much repetition in the form of the three tests too. Instead of Baba-Yaga presenting a test, Vasilisa passing, and the next test being presented, Utkin, by the way of Baba-Yaga, weaves the second test into the narrative without labeling it as such, keeping it fresh. Furthermore, each test feels dynamic and different in nature.

In addition to this story being the most folklore-y of the tales so far, Utkin also makes ‘Vasilisa and the Doll’ the darkest and certainly the scariest for the target middle grade audience. ‘The Water Spirit’ explored some darker themes and brought with it much darker, shadowier visuals, but this story takes it to new extremes. It is flooded with shadows from start to finish, with light rarely being provided by the sun. Instead, the scenes are lit by the dim moonlight or flickering fires, and the spaces feel sinister and unknown. Even in Baba-Yaga’s house where she almost seems kind, the shadows cast across the setting bring a sense of unease rather than a sense of warmth and comfort that a wooden cabin may do in another story. Color-wise Utkin frequently uses deep green, blue, and purple in the panels of the book with brighter shades of the colors featuring very sparingly, though Utkin’s use of an intense white and yellow for the Fire Spirit feels uncomfortably so following pages of much darker artwork.

Looking at the actual subject matter of the dark artwork, readers will find no reprieve from the scarier tone: there’s dozens of skulls mounted on sticks surrounding the Baba-Yaga’s house; the aforementioned riders have an unnerving and silent intensity; there’s Baba-Yaga’s disembodied arm servants… I could go on. None of the features are terrifying, but to the middle grade audience that “Gamayun Tales” is aimed at, this story must surely bring the scares, or at least be a little freaky. I mean, who wouldn’t find a chained up chest filled with disembodied arms bursting open only to then surround Baba-Yaga and listen to her commands a little freaky, regardless of their age?

Continued below

With Vasilisa’s story being teased back in ‘The Water Spirit’ when the Merchant’s Son meets her, I was pleased that Utkin included that meeting in ‘Vasilisa and the Doll,’ this time showing events from Vasilisa’s perspective. It isn’t dramatically different but it gives the story its place in the continuity of “Gamayun Tales” as a whole, which Utkin has done a great job of encouraging so far. Interestingly, the wider world of the series is also quietly present via Baba-Yaga’s eating of what appears to be one of the Golden Apples that featured in the ‘The King of Birds’ prologue and are set to be the focus of next week’s story.

With “Gamayun Tales” consistently being presented as a fluid tapestry and Gamayun often teasing that stories will be told at other points, it’s strange that I was so surprised by the end of Vasilisa’s story: it doesn’t end. Not completely anyway. Rather, ‘Vasilisa and the Doll’ acts more as an origin story, detailing the powers that Vasilisa has and how she got them, with another quest to save her father as well as her now-cursed step-mother and step-sister being set up. I think my only complaint about this ending would simply be that at this point, it is unclear when Vasilisa’s story will continue. Perhaps all of the stories will converge in someway during ‘The Golden Apples,’ but hopefully a third “Gamayun Tales” volume is in development and Vasilisa is at the heart of it. She’s the character that I’m most interested in seeing more of and also has a longer journey to be chronicled. In the closing pages of the story we get glimpses at the world beyond the material one, with Vasilisa now able to see spirits and more through her ‘cursed’ left eye (which Utkin expectedly renders in a really cool way) and now she’s wielding a wickedly powerful and frankly awesome-looking flaming-skull-staff*. We must get the rest of her story.

Overall, ‘Vasilisa and the Doll’ is the most folklore-y and atmospheric of all of the “Gamayun Tales” so far and is absolutely spoiled for incredible visuals, even if they are a little more bizarre than the previous stories. Bring on the two-part conclusion of “Gamayun Tales” (so far) with ‘The Golden Apples!’

*Utkin details that the skull belongs to one of Vasilisa’s mother’s failed suitors in a two-page epilogue. Pretty wild.


//TAGS | 2021 Summer Comics Binge

Luke Cornelius

Luke is an English and American Literature and Creative Writing graduate. He likes spending his time reading comics (obviously), going out on long walks and watching films/TV series.

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