Creating Comics in a War Zone: Tatyana Nikonova

Comics editor and publisher Peter Duncan recently made contact with painter Tatyana Nikonova, from Ukraine. She is, like many downthetubes readers, a comic creator as well as an illustrator. But her working day, in the middle of a terrible war, is very different to most of us…

Ukrainian comic creator and painter, Tatyana Nikonova
Ukrainian comic creator and painter, Tatyana Nikonova

Tatyana Nikonova is a teacher who has worked in elementary schools and taught fine art. She is a painter, who occasionally uses her skills to bring her husband’s intricate Warhammer miniatures and terrain to life.

She is a self-taught comics artist, whose most recent work is an imaginative tale of a girl with COVID-19 (KOA-19), who develops a group of imaginary friends to cope with her illness. Tatyana describes herself as an amateur in terms of comic art, as someone who is still learning the craft of graphic storytelling – but evidence from her online presence is that she is learning quickly.

COVID (KOA-19) comic strip by Tatyana Nikonova
COVID comic strip by Tatyana Nikonova
COVID comic strip by Tatyana Nikonova
Above: Pages from Tatyana’s COVID comic

She’s one of us, a comics person. Someone you might see in an artists’ alley at your local comic convention selling postcards or sketches or chatting with creators and fans. But, for the moment, you’re not going to see Tatyana at any con, or teaching or painting in the countryside or indeed much of anywhere else except in her home. For Tatayana lives in Troyeshchyna (or Troy), a commuter-suburb of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, trying to make a little extra money by offering art commissions on on-line marketplaces. Working with the frequent sound of artillery shells in the background.

Troyeshchyna is a purely civilian area, with no military or strategic targets, but still shells have fallen close to Tatyana’s home. For the moment, conditions in ‘Troy’ seem to be relatively safe when compared to other parts of Kyiv, but as the people of Ukraine are learning, that can change very quickly and the fear of the Russian “fascists”, as Tatyana refers to them, is ever-present.

The view from Tatyana’s window as a shell falls in her area
The view from Tatyana’s window as a shell falls in her area

Tatyana need only look to the city of her birth, and home to most of her family, Chernihiv, to see just how bad things can get.

Chernihiv is an ancient city. First mentioned in tenth century treaties that ended one of the wars between the Russian and Byzantium empires, it is famous for the impenetrable Black Forest that surrounds it and the strength and toughness of its people.

Ancient legends claim that the people of Chernihiv were so strong that they tethered dragons to pull their ploughs, and on the hills above the city, cannon, left from older battles with the Russian empire that have stood for hundreds of years are now augmented by modern artillery guns.

It was one of the first cities to be attacked, tucked, as it is, in the northwestern corner of Ukraine, close to the borders with both Belarus and Russia.

Before and after images of the destruction in Chernihiv, Ukraine (2022)
Before and after images of the destruction in Chernihiv, Ukraine (2022)
Before and after images of the destruction in Chernihiv, Ukraine

Now, Chernihiv has practically no working communications, there is no electricity, no water, no food. In the early days of the Russian attack, the Ukrainian army and willing volunteers worked to escort people out of the city, all the while facing fire from everything from small arms and tanks to battlefield artillery pieces.

Everything possible was being done to deliver humanitarian aid to the city, but distribution was next to impossible, Tatayana told me about Russians firing at people standing in line for bread, or while trying to escape from the city, stories confirmed by the BBC in this report released late last week.

Tatyana somehow managed to arrange for the evacuation of her father from the city. He had to walk through an area where fighting had recently been taking place, and where Russian anti-personal mines were a constant danger. A volunteer driver took him out of the city to relative safety, a driver who a day later was killed by Russian fire alongside the family of three he was helping to escape.

As I write, Chernihiv is back in Ukrainian hands, the invaders having been driven back, but the news is full of threats of an expected Russian counterattack in the coming days.

Tatayana has other first-hand horror stories, of the artillery shell that fell close to her home, or her sister who saw another family blown up by a shell as she fled her home. Things we hear on the news every day but given extra poignancy when you can put a face and a name to the suffering.

One story, told almost as an aside, that was very telling of the situation in eastern Europe, was that Tatayana’s relatives in Belarus did not believe her stories of what had happened to her father and sister. Such is the control of the media in Russia and Belarus that this is all seen as a huge Western propaganda exercise and friends, neighbours and cousins in Russia have no idea what is being done in their name.

Through all this Tatayana stays at home, doing what she can, offering commissions and giving one-third of all monies received to maintain the defence forces and wondering what is coming next.

We can all watch in horror what is happening in Ukraine, often with a huge feeling of helplessness. It’s wrong, it’s simply wrong, but what can we do? And to discover someone who is part of your ‘tribe’ a ‘comic person,’ living through it. Somehow that brought it home all the more.

I’m searching for artists for a number of projects I’m involved with at the moment, and when I saw Tatyana’s page on fiverr.com, I approached her for a commission.

The initial plan was to add to my collection of cartoonists own characters beating the tripe out of my ‘Grumpy Penguin’ character. But somehow that didn’t seem appropriate, and we came up with the image you see here.

The commission by Peter Duncan, drawn by Tatyana Nikonova, featuring Grumpy Penguin and The Cthulhu Kids. The image is set in Mikhailovskaya Square. Tatyana says, “This is the ancient first square of the city of Kyiv. It has a special warm parental feeling”.

Every little helps, and there are ways in which comic fans can do something to support the Ukrainian economy and the comic creators and artists working hard to get the message of what is happening in their country.

As well as commissioning Ukrainian artists directly, both, Fivrr.com, the freelancer’s webpage and Redbubble are waiving their commissions for Ukrainian artists and downthetubes has previously featured details of the War anthology comic and the associated Patreon page produced by Ukrainian artists, in support of their countries war effort.

I’ve used the ‘News’ page from my comics web-site, Box of Rain, to start a links page for ways to help artists from Ukraine, and I’m in the process of confirming details with a few more and will update the page as I get the details.

If anyone has any useful links, please send them to admin@sector13comics.co.uk – and I’ll update details as I go.

Peter Duncan

• Tatyana Nikonova is on Fivver.com | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn

Web Links

Box of Rain – Links Page

Redbubble

Fivver

• Check out the WAR anthology from The Will here on Patreon

Check out The Will and their titles here in English on their official web

The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.



Categories: Art and Illustration, Comic Creator Spotlight, Comics, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

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1 reply

  1. Glory to Ukraine!

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