“The magical thing” about Prague in the 90s: Adam Trachtman on his new graphic novel
Immersion, translated into Czech as ‘do hloubky’, is the new and cool-looking graphic novel by Adam Trachtman that details his adventures – linguistic, itinerant, and sexual – as he joins the hordes of young Westerners heading east in the early 90s to experience the brave new world of post-Communist Europe. What they find is, in Adam’s words, “a not-so-brave visa-free world where conversational English teachers make more than doctors, beer is cheaper than water, and law enforcement is entrepreneurial.” I spoke to Adam in our studio about how he used AI to help him with the novel, what brought a poor kid from Philadelphia to Czechia, and what kept him here for 29 years. But first, I wanted to know a bit more about the plot of the book…
“It starts off with me getting to the Czech Republic and wanting to leave Prague because the expat community was really easy to get sucked into. The people I was meeting just weren’t feeling like they were part of the Czech community – they were just trust fund kids living better off their money.
“So I wanted to get outside of Prague and I got an opportunity to move down to Český Krumlov, where nobody spoke any English. I knew that I would have a proper immersion there and it would be the best way to learn the language and the culture of my new home.”
The book was created using custom code with the Deep.Art neural network. For the technological philistines among us (like me), how exactly does that work? Do you just tell the AI 'draw this'?
"No, in fact, it's quite the opposite. Right now, generative AI like DALL-E and Midjourney is quite popular, where you ask it to draw dogs playing poker on a UFO and it will generate it.
"This is quite the opposite. The Deep.Art neural network in Stuttgart is based on kind of a rotoscoping concept, where it does something called neural-style transfer. You feed it images, and based on its large dataset, it's able to render them in different ways.
“So my code was able to define how I wanted it to look, to make it most look like my drawings. Then there was also some internal coding to render different versions of the photographs, and I would then composite it.
"So every page is pretty much based on high-res photographs, either composited beforehand or after I rendered them, to give it the look and feel and depth so it doesn't look too flat or noir, but has a real comic-book, graphic-novel feel."
How did you find the process of creating it compared to other projects that you've done?
"I had originally started doing this by hand, and after outlining the book back in 2007, I spent a good 10 years working on it by hand. But between raising a child, running a company, and trying to do different projects and charity work, I just wasn't getting anywhere. After 10 years, I really didn't have more than seven pages done. So I knew that if I didn't do it this way, it was never going to get done."
Do you still remember what the initial spark was that gave you the idea?
"There are graphic novels that I have really loved - Daniel Clowes, Joe Matt, Shaun Tan – those are really my biggest inspirations. Shaun Tan especially, because he followed the British graphic novelist Lynd Ward, who had done it 100 years prior with wood cuts to create illustrations to tell a story.
"So I didn't just want to do a comic. I've done comics before that are panel-based, and they're fun, but I wanted to tell the story using illustrations to really draw the reader into the place and the feeling of what was going on.
"I really was more into this idea of a single image or just a couple of images per page and telling the story with a minimal amount of text. The graphic novel format is one I've loved for a really long time, and I’ve always wanted to make one myself. People I've known for 25 years have been hearing stories of me talking about wanting to do a graphic novel, and I don't think they ever thought it would get done."
And was it always clear that you would do it about your own experiences or did you ever think about creating a fictional story?
"I like telling stories, and when people hear the stories they say, 'That would really be a fun book, you should write a book.' And I've always said I would like to illustrate it, so it just was the natural thing to do to tell the stories of the crazy adventures I got myself into moving here. I was only 19 and was not worried about where I was going to live, what I was going to do, what country I might end up in, and so forth. So it just seemed like the most logical way to go forward."
What brought you here at 19? Were you one of those trust fund kids?
"Oh no - I moved here with about $500 and a backpack with a couple of items of clothing. The book kind of talks about this a little bit. I grew up poor around rich kids, and coming here, I finally got to experience what it would feel like to be rich, because the dollar was so strong.
"But no, that being said, I came here because I originally wanted to live in either Madrid or Rome. I'm a fine artist and a painter by training and these were the cities that really inspired me. But a friend from Dresden who talked with me about it said, 'No, you belong in Prague because you have the same dark morbid sense of humour as the Czechs, and this is where you're going to be happy.' And she was right!"
Without giving too much away, what was your process of immersion? How did you immerse yourself in Czech culture? You said you moved to Český Krumlov?
"I moved to Krumlov, and luckily by the time I moved back to Prague and I was speaking Czech, I was able to not have to rely on the expat community here. There are different groups of people I started mingling with. I'm an avid chess player, and so in order to get a good game of chess in, you kind of had to befriend the mob, because the Russian and eastern European players were the ones that had time and were good.
"Also, just exploring the places that I knew I wanted to see. A lot of the time, things just fell right in your lap. You would just be talking to people in a cafe and they would invite you to go to a castle in Slovakia, or a chess competition in Russia, or motorcycle down to Bosnia during the war.
"One of the magical things about the 90s here was that there were so many opportunities just being thrown at you all the time and you just got to choose which ones you would take."
The book has been translated into Czech. Who translated it?
"I worked with the translator Alena Aichlmanová, and we also had a copyeditor, Zuzka Džupinková, because there's a lot of slang and things which are difficult to translate. Even the title, Immersion, if you literally translate it, it’s ‘ponoření’, which sounds a little bit like penetration. For some of the chapters in the book that would be appropriate, but I think as a whole, 'do hloubky' is a more palatable name.
"It was a hard book to translate and so the three of us worked collectively on it, but I think that it's been getting some good feedback from Czechs who have been reading it and liking it."
Just looking at both the books now, the English version has a blue background and the Czech one has a pink one. Is there any significance to that or is it just to differentiate them?
"It's a little hat-nod to David Černý and pink tanks and the Velvet Revolution. I wanted that background to be solid-coloured so it would pop off when you're in a bookstore looking at it, so that you wouldn't accidentally pick up the English book instead of the Czech one. So I thought if the two colours were there and they're next to each other, there's a better than likely chance you'll pick the right one."
You're an artist and designer by profession, but did you ever fall into the English teacher trap during the time that you lived here?
"No, I only taught art at an English-language camp in Moravia for about three weeks and made some really wonderful friendships there. And I substitute taught one class for a Czech girlfriend who was going to lose her job, and I basically told the kids stories about how dangerous Philadelphia was until it scared them all out of ever wanting to go to America. And then we went to a pub."
Immersion is available to purchase in selected bookstores in Prague, Philadelphia, and Berlin, and online in the US and EU. More information is available at the exquisitely-designed (as you might expect from a graphic designer) website www.immersion.cz.