Artist and writer Peter Rostovsky’s debut graphic novel, Damnation Diaries, from Uncivilized Books, had a challenging road to getting printed. The horror comedy, a political satire, is about a sinner in Hell who, after 300 years, decides to get therapy with Hell’s only psychotherapist, Fred Greenberg.
“It came out in wide release on September fifth after many, many delays,” Rostovsky said. “The book took me, I would say, about five and a half years to make. It’s my first book, and it had a very dramatic journey. It was actually censored at the printer in China—that was where we first tried to printer. The political satire in the book, which I really thought was very much an indictment of the West and Trumpism and all kinds of other things… I think flagged the censors, and it was flagged for propensity for violence. But it’s a horror comedy that takes place in Hell, so of course there’s violence!”
Rostovsky believes the revolution that occurs later in the book may have triggered the censors as well, as the first chapter was later included in anthology that was printed in China without a problem. The issue delayed the book by approximately three months, and it ended up being printed in Lithuania.
All the challenges were ultimately worthwhile, though, as the book was well received upon release, receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly, high praise from Artforum, and the 2023 MoCCA Award of Excellence.
“It’s very much a work of love and suffering. I learned a lot about the process of making a book. I’m really heartened that it’s received a lot of very nice press… it offset some of the traumas involved in actually getting it out into the world,” he said with a chuckle. “And then after all of this, I met a very nice printer [in China] who apologized that she couldn’t take the job and told me about the hardship that she experiences on a daily basis, dealing with censorship, and life in general. So it’s been a very interesting journey.”
While Damnation Diaries is Rostovsky’s first graphic novel, he has a long career in fine art as a painter, and his work been exhibited at museums such as PS1/MoMA, The Walker Art Center, MCA Santa Barbara, Artpace, The Blanton Museum of Art, S.M.A.K., and multiple private galleries. Moving into comics and graphic novels fulfilled a lifelong goal.
“I was a comics nerd when I was a kid,” he said. “So it was very much on my bucket list to make comics. And it’s something that… even when I was painting all the time, I would still go to Forbidden Planet before my therapy appointments and kill time.”
For Rostovsky, the accessibility of comics—compared to fine art that requires a “pilgrimage to see”—was especially appealing, particularly because of the book’s political dimension. “One of the things that I really adore about comics is that it’s a public art,” he explained. “It’s a distributed medium that’s affordable, that’s accessible… [that] actually comes to you via bookstores, comic book stores, phones, tablets, computers. And so that aspect of access is something that I actually find really utopian… [It’s] very important for me that it reaches people, and it’s not luxury goods, which fine art is.”
Despite the challenges he faced with his first politically charged book, Rostovsky—who emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a political refugee in 1980—has no intention of backing away from hot-button topics. “I am about to embark on a book on Putin,” he said. “So I’m sort of going from censorship to censorship, or treacherous waters to other treacherous waters… [The political element is] very important to me, and comics obviously has a very, very rich political history. It has a great tradition of political address, and that’s something that absolutely drew me to the medium for sure.”
Rostovsky also hopes to publish a second volume of Damnation Diaries. “I do want the story to continue…. I sort of see this book as Star Wars: A New Hope, and I have Empire Strikes Back, to use that analogy, already mapped out as well,” he said.
You can find Rostovsky online at https://www.peterrostovsky.com. He signed off with, “Follow my misadventures with this book… and stay tuned for other things that I’ll be doing within the sphere of comics, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring painting back into it as well.”