New Czech comic book pays homage to Soviet-era superheroine Octobriana

Octobriana in the hands of Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger

Octobriana is the name of a Soviet-era comic superheroine, who originated from a major literary hoax spread by Czech artist Petr Sadecký. Sadecký, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, claimed it was the work of Soviet dissidents. In fact, he commissioned the work from two Czech artists Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian, who never got full credit for their work. The superheroine, sporting a red star on her forehead, gained unexpected popularity, appearing in various comic adaptations all over the world.

Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger with Octobriana | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

A new comic book has now come out in Czechia, paying tribute to the famous superheroine. I met with its authors, screenwriter Ondřej Kavalír and artist Marek Berger, to talk about the fascinating story behind Octobriana and about their own take on the story. I started by asking them about the man behind Octobriana, Petr Sadecký:

O.K.: “It was very closely connected to a young student of the Prague Film School, Petr Sadecký, and this young student, who was a very keen fan of adventure stories, or adventure in general, was the mind behind this character of Octobriana or its first version, Amazona.

“It was a mixture of different influences. He was very fascinated by everything, by everything exotic and he was very deeply influenced by oriental themes as well. So he invented this character and he invented the first draft of the stories, which were very adventure-like.”

As you said, Sadecký was the mastermind behind the story, but he actually commissioned two well-known Czech artists, Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian, to do the work. What kind of character did they create? And what did she have in common with her western counterparts, such as the Wonder Woman?

Petr Sadecký,  Octobriana and the Russian underground,  1971 | Photo: Tom Stacey Ltd

O.K.: “I would say the most important thing was that this character, this so to say Barbarian queen, was very different from the Western canon of beauty. She had many Asian and African traits in her face, so she was a very unlikely female hero compared to the beauty standards of that time.

“On the other hand, we can clearly see the influence of the sexual liberation movement, so this savage beauty also functioned as a sex symbol.”

M.B.: “She was also something like a female vamp, a vampirella. So in her case, the standards of beauty were much darker and animistic than in the West.

“She had these large eyebrows like Leonid Brezhnev. There is some kind of masculinity in her face. So that’s a big difference between her and say, Barbarella or Wonder Woman.”

After he commissioned the work from the two artists, Sadecký decided to leave Czechoslovakia. How much work had they managed to do by then? I assume the book had not been completed…

“Not at all. I think that at this point, we should mention one very important thing, and that is the basic idea behind this whole project. Petr Sadecký, who came across some western comic books during the 1960s, realised that this could be a very nice way to monetise the skills of these two masters of Czechoslovak adventure illustration.

“So that was the idea behind it, and it was kind of a business-like idea. However, as you mentioned, all that was created during those two years were just several covers for future stories and two fragments of longer comic adventure story of Amazona.”

Did the two artists, Bohumil Konečný and Zeněk Burian, know about this business plan?

Petr Sadecký,  Bohumil Konečný - Octobriana,  1971 | Photo: DOX

O.K.: “As far as I know, all three of them were part of this business, so they knew what they wanted to do.

M.B.: “At the time, Bohumil Konečný was a famous Czechoslovak author of pin-up girls, maybe the only author of pin-up girls in the whole eastern bloc.

“He made some commercials for Baťa and Škoda and his skills and potential to create this female superhero were huge and Petr Sadecký was aware of it.”

So after Sadecký left, he took the work with him, effectively stealing it from the two of them…

Octobriana by Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger,  2023 | Photo: Labyrint

O.K.: “Not at that point, although his emigration came by surprise to these two artists. But in the beginning, the two artists were not against it. They agreed that he would try to offer these bits and pieces of the bigger story to foreign publishers.

“However, Sadecký soon realized it wasn’t easy to get this fragmented story published, so he had to change his strategy. And that’s the most interesting point in the whole story, which reveals that Sadecký wasn’t just a very creative young man, a genius in a way, but he was also a very ethically problematic person.

“Octobriana owes its real origin to this very ambivalent act of creative thievery, if we can describe it this way.”

Octobriana and the Russian underground comix

So basically, after realising that he wouldn’t be able to succeed with Amazona, he decided to turn her into Octobriana, adding a red star on her forehead and portraying her in a completely different way…And most importantly, he also changed the whole background story, claiming that the character was conceived by Soviet dissidents…

“Exactly. It was, I would say, a very impressive work of imagination. He invented a secret underground movement, purely fictional as we know, called Progressive Political Pornography and based in Kyiv and Moscow and other big Soviet cities.

Octobriana by Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger,  2023 | Photo: Labyrint

“What Sadecký was claiming at that time was that they were in fact the anonymous authors of Octobriana, inventing her as a way of fighting the oppressive Soviet regime. He even provided some texts and photographs as a proof.

“So he invented this huge hoax, and it was so successful that he was able to get a publisher. In in 1971, only a few years after he emigrated, the book with Octobriana was released.”

Would you say that the fact the publishers didn’t see through the hoax shows that people in the West were perhaps a bit naïve about what was happening behind the Iron Curtain?

“I think this was Sadecký’s greatest joke, to come up with this idea that you can fight against communism by drawing comics.”

M.B.: “Definitely. I think this was Sadecký’s greatest joke, to come up with this idea that you can fight against communism by drawing comics. It sounds almost propagandistic, that you could defeat Stalinism using comic books!”

And even though the hoax was eventually revealed, it didn't really harm the popularity of the comics…

O.K.: “Exactly. Today, we can clearly see that many people in the West fell for the trap of this kind of romantic perspective of what was happening in the Eastern bloc. It was a sort of exoticism that Sadecký himself applied when creating the character.

“For me, it explains why he was so successful. I think that the story of a secret underground society was exactly what the western society was looking for.”

One of the examples of the book’s huge popularity is the fact that David Bowie mentioned the book as one of his most popular titles. Is it true that he even planned a film adaptation?

O.K.: “Yes, with Amanda Leary as the main character. As far as I know, and I made some research, he stated this in several interviews during the 1970s. It was the era of Ziggy the Stardust and he actually planned to add this character to the movie. Unfortunately, the film has never been produced.”

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust (2023 Remaster) [4K Upgrade]

We should perhaps also mention that the two artists, Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian, were persecuted by the Communist regime for having their work published in the West and they never got credit for all their work. To what extent were they affected by this?

M.B.: “Zdeněk Burian, the author of the covers, was the luckier one. He was really famous for making scientific illustrations of prehistoric life, and his dinosaurs were simply phenomenal. He was able to continue his career, but he was only allowed to do the prehistoric reconstructions.

“But for Bohumil Konečný, it was basically the end of his career. Before Octobriana, he was known as an illustrator of Jaroslav Foglar’s books, which were really popular in Czechoslovakia. But in the 1970s, during the normalization era, Foglar was banned. So this was the final blow, from which he never recovered.”

You recently released a brand new book about the adventures of Octobriana. Why did you decide to do so? What do you find so fascinating about this character?

Octobriana by Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger,  2023 | Photo: Labyrint

O.K.: “We were convinced that after 50 years since this character was born, it was the perfect time to pay all the debts we owe her. On one hand, she had this iconic status and she was really famous. But on the other hand, there were only short or medium length stories featuring Octobriana.

“We thought it was the perfect time to dedicate a whole book to her that will cover her real origin and some important story lines, in order to make the character more complete.”

To what extent did you try to stay true to the original character and to the original storylines?

O.K.: “Fifty years is quite a long time and many things have changed since then, especially the gender perspective though which we see this character.

“We were a aware of these differences and what we tried to do was to find a balance between the original pieces, while adding a more contemporary perspective, how to visualize them, how to tell them in our story.”

Can you mention at least one of the scenes from the original comics that you decided to keep in your book?

Octobriana by Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger,  2023 | Photo: Labyrint

M.B.: “There is the opening scene in the frozen sea with the fight between Octobriana and a huge walrus, and it’s a fragment of the original comics. It’s an Easter egg from the fragment of the original comics.

“But what I would like to say is that the three men, Sadecký, Konečný, and Burian created the body, and Sadecký gave her a cool name. What we wanted to give her was a soul and a personality that I was somehow missing in the original concept. It was just the body as an object.

“In our story the Soviet generals and Nazi scientists want to use this body as a weapon, so it's part of the story. And actually, I think that Petr Sadecký was the true villain in real life.

“Our story is about defence against the creators and adoptive fathers and real parents. It is also about the defiance against the bonds of toxic relationships and toxic families.”
So although she may look like a sex symbol, she is also sort of an empowering feminist…

O.K.: “Exactly. She looks like one of the sex symbols, but what she actually tries to do throughout the whole story is to fight with this status. She tries to revolt against it and to find her real self. She tries to find her true self and her true vocation in the world.

“We can say it is a story of a revolt against the oppressive world of fathers and against the oppressive world of two political regimes.”

“We can say it is a story of a revolt against the oppressive world of fathers, against the oppressive world of two political regimes and against some sort of patriarchy still present, at least in our story.”

Finally, do you think Octobriana will appeal to modern-day readers? Do you think readers still need superheroes?

Octobriana by Ondřej Kavalír and Marek Berger,  2023 | Photo: Labyrint

M.B.: “Yes, I think so, and I think the word superhero doesn’t necessarily have to refer to a person with double identity who is wearing a weird costume. It is not just an action figure. It can more complex. And it may be useful for adult readers.”

O.K.: “For me personally, it is a superhero character, obviously, but in my point of view, her superpowers are more mythical and mythological than the superpowers we usually see in the mainstream, for instance in Marvel comic books.

“It is more like some deep source of energy, creative and destructive as well. It is the source of a raw feminine energy in a world ruled mostly by elderly white man, with one exception, but that would be a spoiler. So this is how I see Octobriana.”