The last thing I want is for this post to come off as exploitative. Right now, my thoughts are for the people of Ukraine only. What’s happening there is not just tragic, but the kind of thing that makes you question whether we’re living in a storybook. It’s like Trump and the January 6th insurrection. You keep asking yourself, “Is this really happening?”
Let’s break it down, shall we? President Vladimir Putin isn’t some misunderstood villain, he isn’t a complex, 3-dimensional character—he’s a cliche, every generic bad guy from every book/movie/show you’ve ever seen. He’s Cobra Commander, he’s Darth Vader, he’s Sauron. If this were a Tom Clancy novel, the publisher would say Putin is too unoriginal. He wants Ukraine. That’s it. And he’ll murder every man, woman, and child to get what he wants. On the flip side of this unreal coin, we have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, playing the part of the heroic leader, the badass good guy we all love to root for, dolling out clever one-liners history is sure never to forget, stuff our grandkids will be memorizing in the classrooms of the future. “I don’t need a ride I need ammunition!” Shit, that’s up there with my Spartan ancestors, with King Leonidas telling the Persian king when asked to lay down his weapons, “Come and get them.” If someone doesn’t someday make a statue of Zelensky, I’ll really be disappointed. And let’s not forget the border guards defending the tiny island of Zmiinyi, who told an invading Russian warship they could, and I quote, “Go fuck yourself.” So I ask again: Is this real life? Or is this just fantasy?
Sorry, I digress …
I’d like to think—actually, have long argued—storytelling is much, much more than entertainment. Storytelling informs our lives, instructs our actions, gives meaning to the things we fight for. Right now, Ukrainians are finding inspiration not just in their history, but in the same pop culture media that has taught us what heroism means and why it matters. As Putin’s 40-mile convoy rolls into Kyiv, a seemingly unstoppable force, an EVIL force, let’s not mince words here, some nerdy teen shouldering a kalashnikov is remembering Captain America’s stand-off with Thanos. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m being silly here. But I know Avengers is popular the world over and even in moments of warfare (especially during those times, I believe) soldiers find solace where they can get it. Tolkien fought orcs in the trenches of World War I while Captain America comics, among other books, gave men the courage to face their fears during the second great war.
My Ukrainian friend, Alexey Lipatov, is a fan of all the things I love, the illustrations of Frank Frazetta, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (the OT and PT only, thanks), and A Game of Thrones. The world we live in is no longer as divided as it was when the Nazis invaded Poland. We are connected by a shared cultural fandom—a fandom that unites us in our values. Case in point: I watched Spiderman: Homecoming for the first time in Morocco. The attendees were French-speaking Muslims and the movie was in English, and yet I’d never before experienced such a show of enthusiasm. The theater was in a constant uproar of excitement. Later, when I exited the movie, a random girl in a Deadpool mask gave me a high-five. I have no doubt that the same love for Spiderman was felt in Ukraine, in theaters that are now being bombed to dust by Russian forces. We are waving the blue and yellow flag in a show of solidarity with people we’ve never met because we recognize the same heroes, share the same stories, and as a result, value the same ideas.
Since 1999, I’ve worked with dozens of artists to help me bring my books to life. Most of these talents live outside the U.S., in Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, and even Russia. But it wasn’t just talent I was searching for . . . it was attitude, it was passion, someone who aspires to the making of great art. On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve had illustrators refuse to make changes, fail to deliver on time, or just quit on me altogether. Alexey Lipatov is the ONLY person to give me MORE than I ask for, literally 110%. He adds little flourishes to already dense pieces, like the pterodactyls over the skies of Hedonia and in the Radia portrait (the man loves pterodactyls), or the raven on Emma’s head when I told him she likes ravens. His interpretations never fail to improve my vision. I am still in awe of all the tiny details he put into Thelana Discovers Civilization (below). If I am ever unhappy with his sketches, he starts over from scratch (see the black and white pic below) even when I insist he needn’t bother. Alexey pushes himself to do his best and that’s why he is my go-to artist, the man I know I can trust with my books.
On February 21, shortly before the Russian invasion of his country, Alexey posted his most recent artwork. We also got together to produce one amazing illustration for The Feral Girl, perhaps his best work yet, which I can’t wait to show you guys! I hope we’ll be seeing more from Alexey soon, and can only pray, to whatever gods may or may not exist, for his and his family’s safety during this dark time, because the world needs more like Mr. Lipatov, and because after all these years, I consider him my friend.
Now please go and check out his gallery and offer him your best wishes!