Signals from the Unknown highlights history of Czech comics at DOX

'Fast Arrows', photo: Michaela Dvořáková, The Brno House of Arts

An exhibition called Signals from the Unknown is on now at the DOX Gallery in Prague, allowing visitors to learn about the fascinating history of Czech comics – from the year 1922 to the present.

Photo: DOX Gallery
This week I spoke to one of the show’s curators, Pavel Kořínek, asking first about the show’s title and what it referenced.

“Basically in the 20th century Czech comics were quite influenced by ideological regimes and several times – in the 1950s, ‘70s, obviously under the Protectorate – they were banned. It was forbidden to publish comics, it was forbidden to present them in periodicals and so on. The title Signals from the Unknown refers to emergence and re-emergence and disappearing after a while.”

Why did you choose to start with the year 1922? Was that the year Czech comics in fact began or were there earlier inceptions?

“There were earlier inceptions of course. It is always hard to present a single date and say this is the beginning or this is the year zero or year one. Obviously in the second half of the 19th century there were illustrated cycles in humorous magazines, sequential cycles that could be considered proto-comics today.

“Why 1922... that was the year that Josef Lada – who we consider the father of Czech comics – published The Pranks of Frantík Vovísek & Bobeš the goat. That was his first really famous comic strip which made use of speech balloons, in other words using the modern comics form or modern comic techniques.

Photo: DOX Gallery
“1922 was also the year that Ondřej Sekora began publishing his strip Pan Brousek, which was also quite an important comic strip during the First Republic. And, as a third reason for that year: Ladislav Vlodek, the future influential cartoonist of Sphere magazine who had returned after several years from the United States and began doing comics as well.”

So children’s comics were dominant?

“Most definitely. During the 20th century most Czech comics were for kids. The genre was omnipresent in the First Republic: every newspaper had its weekend supplement where there was usually a page for children. The comics were usually published in this context.”

What were important genres at the time?

“Funny animals were the most dominant at first, influenced by comics tradition elsewhere but also influences by Walt Disney or Otto Mesmer. During the 1930s the ‘action’ comic became more and more important although it is important to distinguish between the American comic: we never had a superhero in the Czech context. What was typical for the Czech scene were ‘youth club’ comics. They are basically adventure comics with strong didactic reasoning; they are supposed to focus on groups of boys between the ages of 12 and 16 who live in the city but enjoy adventures in Nature as well as the streets of the city. It is quite a strong Czech genre which doesn’t have a strong antecedent in other comic book traditions.”

And Jaroslav Foglar’s Fast Arrows (Rychlé šípy) is the apex of this?

'Fast Arrows',  photo: Michaela Dvořáková,  The Brno House of Arts
“Well he’s the founding father of this style. After Fast Arrows there were several dozens of similar series produced; there many other series in that style.”

What would be a typical storyline in Fast Arrows?

“There were three or four basic story formulas. The first would be strongly didactic: in this kind of episode the Fast Arrows would see someone misbehaving or not behaving properly and they give him a lecture or somehow explain why what is doing is not okay. One lesson might be ‘don’t drink water after eating a whole bowl of cherries’ or ‘don’t go swimming right after lunch’. Another model would be when they see something by chance, like a thief getting away and they follow him or get involved in a light adventure and they go to explore. There were also several longer storylines but the basic characteristic was that the comic was very didactic.”

You already mentioned, briefly, the fate of comics during darker periods: in 1948 Czechoslovakia descended into what would be 40 years of communist rule. How did comics survive... and was there any point when the regime tried to make use of them?

Photo: DOX Gallery
“That’s the funny thing: comics were really oppressed in the 1950s but at the same time the regime tried to use it for its needs, adopting Ferda the Ant (who originated in the ‘30s). The working ant was employed in the late 1940’s and early ‘50s as a progressive character who fell within the ideals of the Socialist realist depiction of society and community. Later, Major Zeman, a TV production of the 1970s and 1980s that was pure propaganda, was adapted for comics by Kája Saudek and Jaroslav Faigl. But when you ask Kája Saudek to draw Major Zeman what you get is not propaganda but a version that is somehow subversive. Subversion on lower levels that you won’t read in the comic but which you understand inherently; for Saudek Zeman is not propaganda but more of a classic action hero.”