Cofounders of Laydeez do Comics’ Czech branch on gender, graphic novels, and pushing boundaries

Komiksodějky, photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

‘Laydeez do Comics’ is an international organisation that promotes female comics artists and their work. I spoke with the co-founders of the Czech branch shortly after the publication of their new book Komiksodějky. This anthology of essays and interviews about the genre, its history and specific Czech development, features a wild, eclectic mix of comics and illustrations by local female comics authors, many of whom poke fun at stereotypes.

Štěpánka Jislová,  Tereza Drahoňovská,  photo: archive of Laydeez do Comics
Tereza Drahoňovská was studying journalism and writing reviews of comics and graphic novels when she first met illustrator and comics artist Štěpánka Jislová six years ago. She was writing an article about young Czech comics authors, and Štěpánka had just won first prize in a contest for her short story The Tree. During their interview, Laydeez do Comics came up. Within a year, they had founded the Czech branch and begun holding annual symposiums for female comics authors.

I began by asking Tereza Drahoňovská and Štěpánka Jislová how they got into the genre.

Tereza: “Well, for me in the beginning it was mostly about reading comics. When I was around 16 or 17, I got into it somehow, but mostly into humorous comics and so on. I started to write reviews of the books. I probably started to get deeper into it when I moved to Prague and met people involved with Czech comics – the young generation of artists and so on. I studied journalism, and through that I somehow had a chance to meet those people at events like KomiksFEST! – which was a regular event in the Czech Republic until recently. And it was like a new universe for me. I was so amazed how creative those people are; how their books full of drawings are just unbelievably… unbelievable! (laughs)”

And Štěpánka what about you? How did you get your start?

Štěpánka: “I was reading a lot of those typical adventure ABC comics when I was a kid, but that wasn’t really the gateway for me. I think I started creating comics because I was really into storytelling; I wanted to find more ways to tell a story. And visual storytelling for me is the complete way you can actually give it all because as an author, you are in control of the script but also of the visuals, and sometimes you don’t need to draw everything – you can just use the text – and vice versa. A lot can be said through the pictures. So, I spent a lot of years writing books and short stories, and then I moved to drawing. But then I thought that drawing and illustration is nice, but there’s not enough storytelling. So for me, comics kind of encapsulate both of these things that I really like doing.”

Komiksodějky,  photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

Tereza, maybe you could tell us how the two of you met and then we can talk about Laydeez do Comics.

Tereza: “Well, five years ago I was writing an article about young Czech comics authors, and through that I got to Štěpánka, because she won the CZ Komiks. We were doing an interview, and somehow we touched on the topic of Laydeez do Comics. I had met Paul Gravett, who is a noted personality in British comics [author of several books on comics and sequential art] and he presented me to Laydeez do Comics and asked if I’d be interested in starting a branch in the Czech Republic. And when I met Štěpánka, it was clear it was something she could be really into, together with me.”

Štěpánka, how did it get started? Where do you begin in forming a Czech chapter of Laydeez do Comics?

Štěpánka: “We began with a simple blog and really thought that was all we were going to do. We thought we’d maybe be writing reviews, maybe doing profiles on the less famous Czech female comics artists was something that needed to have more space. But it all grew so much quicker than we anticipated. So, soon we were thinking about making a symposium because that would be a place that all those comics artists could meet and create together. And from that it was a really short step to making an exhibition from the comics that were created during the symposium. And once that was finished, we were like, ‘Oh, this was fun – a bit tiring but fun. Maybe we can do it next year, and the next year’. We had our fourth symposium in June. So, there was kind of a shift from let’s do a blog and be more text oriented to let’s do events so people can actually meet in person.”

And this year is also different because it’s the first year that you’ve produced a physical, print copy of some of those comics – a book called ‘Comic witches’ [Komiksodějky], which is a great title. Tereza, please tell me about the book.

Tereza: “Well, I’ll go back to when we were thinking about the projects we had at our symposiums, we were somehow sorry that we had those exhibitions after the symposiums; that only certain number of people were able to see the work of the girls. And we had the idea to collect them into a book, where anybody could see those comics. However, and this was maybe also connected to the fact that for example we got the Muriel Award for helping Czech comics, we were thinking about creating something bigger, putting in more context apart from those stories, to do some interviews and show the world of Czech female authors – not only now but even in history.”

Komiksodějky,  photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

And what is the ‘world of Czech female authors’ like? How does it differ from the male world?

Štěpánka: “I think it’s quite big and getting bigger every year. We get asked this question quite often – are there any tangible differences between how male and female comics artists work. We think that they are mostly interested in different themes, but of course you can find the same level of quality and maybe the same level of interest. We notice that female comics artists are more interested in introspective stories. They tend to do a lot of autobiographies, and they are in general more intimate in their storytelling whereas the men tend to do these big stories of Good vs. Evil. We’re not saying that you can’t find these things in the stories of the other gender, but maybe if we were to say that there is some kind of a line between them, then it’s probably there.”

Can you tell me something about the CZ Komiks prize that you won for your comics – when was that, what was your theme”?

Štěpánka: “That was back in 2013... The CZ Komiks award is specialised on giving space to comics artists who are still studying at university, and it’s mostly focused on short stories. My story was called ‘The Tree’, and it was a story about a boy who meets a ghost and tries to keep this friendship going, even though it can’t. There was this whole aura or atmosphere of the summer that has to end – I really liked that theme back then. And I ended up winning first place, which was a really big deal for me back then, especially because the prize was a fully paid trip to Angoulême, which is the biggest European comics festival. On the one hand, it was a huge boost to my professional self-esteem, and on the other, I got to see what the actual worldwide scene looks like. There was tons of inspiration – books and so on.”

Is it quite difficult for comics authors of any gender to get published in print form? From what I’ve read, an awful lot of it is online.

Tereza: “I think if we’re talking about recent times, for many Czech authors it’s a huge step – they would love to have a book, but they’re not sure how to get to that point and are a bit scared of the idea of having a print book. So, in Czech comics and mostly for young authors, it’s usually about shorter stories – because there are quite a lot of magazines or other areas where they publish them. They are mostly trying to use spaces that are not only Czech but international because online publishing is way more open for that.”

Štěpánka: “It must be said that this is not only a question of say the author’s self-esteem or his or her portfolio. I had an interesting conversation with people who work for a publishing house and the reality of the Czech publishing industry is that it’s actually much, much cheaper to take a foreign book and translate it and publish comics by a foreign author than to invest into making a completely original book from a Czech comics artist. So, they need to think about the money too.”

Komiksodějky,  photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

That’s unfortunate! So, what’s next for Laydeez do Comics, Czech Republic? You’ve got the book – is there another one already in the works?

Tereza: “Well, as Štěpánka mentioned, we just had the last symposium in June this year, and after each symposium we have an exhibition, usually here in Prague but also in other cities in the Czech Republic. So, that’s what we’re currently working on – preparing everything with a new group of female comics artists. Every year we have different people there. And are also focusing on workshops and presentations. We recently had a presentation about gender in Czech comics, which was even more interesting than we’d anticipated. (laughs) So that’s another area of our focus. We’ll see if there’ll be another book, but somehow the concept of Komiksodějky was or maybe is promising.”

What made the symposium so interesting? What did you learn?

Tereza: “For us, the goal of the symposium was to connect the female artists and usually that’s something that they appreciate the most. They have a week where there’s no intrusions – not only people but anything; work, studies and so on – and we all have the space to create the story on one topic. We can cooperate, we can inspire each other, and also we are of course creating friendships there too. So usually that’s the strongest area. And we were surprised how strong the feeling is – the community of women. How it can be safe for us, inspiring and creating the story itself, sharing our experience.”

Štěpánka: “We have a different team each year, so the comics are very different for each exhibition, and we always try to make space for discussions between the artists on the topics of comics, gender and also feminism. It’s always very interesting for us to see all those different takes on these topics, which we somehow find very certain – for us they’re not that surprising, but when we see for example the younger generation, how they view feminism, how they maybe feel that they don’t need it or maybe are not comfortable calling it ‘feminism’. And on the other hand, there’s the older generation who can’t really get a good grip on what it means for them. So that part is really interesting for me.”

Komiksodějky,  photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

I’m curious about the symposium – how many people participate in it? Is there a review process of their work, and they must apply to take part? Do you have funding?

Tereza: “Usually there are about eight people, including me and Štěpánka. And for the whole week we don’t have any specific schedule, but we try to discuss the stories that each of us has, and we somehow go together through the process of creation. As Štěpánka mentioned, we usually try to have this discussion about various topics and different views. It’s something we try to empower, and create space for different opinions and views. We don’t have any special funding. We try to ask for some money from the Czech state and so on, but in the end we found that it’s easier for us to work and make money ourselves and invest it into it. That’s the way we chose to go in the end.”

Štěpánka: “And the review process is very simple. During the year, we try to see as many interesting exhibitions as possible, go to festivals and talk to artists we meet there. We keep spreadsheets in our computers and when the time is right, which is usually in January or February, we sit down and go through that list and make the best possible combination of ages and styles, so that the people can teach each other something but work well on the people level, let’s say. Fortunately, we are getting a lot of emails lately, girls writing us saying, ‘Hey, can I be part of the next symposium?’ So the supply is never-ending (laughs).”

Štěpánka: “One thing I’d personally maybe tell people getting started in comics, especially those wanting to do their own stories, would be: really stick to your own stories. Because there are a lot of tendencies to do adaptations, or just follow the story structure we’ve had for many years, which means that the same types of characters will always end up being the main characters. And maybe we’ve already told a lot of stories that are kind of the same. So, find time – I know it’s not easy, but find time – to really tell your own, personal, story. Whatever that is.”