Study traces Czech comics’ evolution from lowbrow to respected medium

Photo: Akropolis

For years, comics was considered a lowbrow genre and was neglected or even banned during the Communist years. Recently, however, the situation has changed with new, talented authors emerging, and it seems that comics has finally become a respected part of Czech culture.

Photo: Akropolis
At the start of this year, a group of authors published an exhaustive three- volume book on the history of Czech comics. I met with one of them, Pavel Kořínek, and started by asking about the origin of the genre in Czechoslovakia.

“Well, it’s always difficult to date the exact moment of the birth of a genre. Obviously comic strips evolved from caricatures and cartoons published in the satirical magazines in the latter half of the 19th century. They gradually became more and more comics-like, with the emergence of the speech balloons and sequence of images.

“For us the first proper comics in terms of using all the modern comic aspects were the Adventures of Mr Ťopásek by Karel Štrof published in Humoristické listy in 1905. But comics, in its modern form, really dates back to the start of the 20th century.”

At that time, how did we stand in comparison to other countries?

“I think that at the time we were on par with all the European countries, with France, Germany and England. Obviously the American comics were evolving much faster during the first decades of the twentieth century.

“The comics were at the time were dedicated mainly to youngest audience, but there were still some satirical strips or stories dedicated to adult readership.”

Can you mention some of the best-known comics from the 1930s and 1940s, from the pre-war period?

“I think that the most famous comics artists of the pre-war period were people that we are now not really connecting with comics. Josef Lada or Ondřej Sekora, the doyens of Czech books for kids and illustrated kid books started doing comics in the 1920s.

“It was really interesting to see that comic advertisement and merchandising were already quite established in the 1930's.”

“Ondřej Sekora created his Ferda the Ant as a comic character and only later it became the protagonist of the illustrated books that we all know.

“For me an especially interesting person is René Klapač, who did this comic series called Punťa, the adaptation of the American series. They didn’t really want to pay fees for the new episodes so they took the characters and redrew them in original style.

“The series was really interesting for the usage of the trans-medial narration and all these merchandising gimmicks. In the second half of 1930s it was definitely not something we were expecting to find.

“So it was really interesting to see that comic advertisement and merchandising were already quite established at the time.”

You mentioned Ferda Mravenec or Ferda the Ant, which is interesting since it reflects the historical and political changes in this country.

“The case of Ferda the Ant is really interesting. It was a series published from 1953 to 1961 with some breaks obviously during the Nazi regime and during the Stalinist period.”

“At the beginning of the series Ferda was this individual, slightly lazy character, who didn’t really want to mingle with the collective and stood for himself. He even tried to avoid enlisting to the army.”

But after 1948 Ondřej Sekora dedicated his ant to the socialist needs, so Ferda became an exemplary ant, who wanted to build Socialism, fought the American beetle and did all these ideologically charged things.”

“The Rapid Arrows is really one of the most fascinating comics in Czech history, because it was banned three times."

What about the Communists’ approach to comics? How did the Communists actually regard the comics genre? And when did they start to use it as the tool of their propaganda?

“It differed. In the 50s and 60s the comics were mainly perceived as something imperialistic which had nothing to do with the Socialist culture for kids, something that should be eliminated from the Czech culture.

“In the 70s and 80s, during the Normalisation period, they somehow changed their stance towards comics and decided to use it for their own needs and decided that comics to some extent will be allowed, but it had to be everyday stories without any real adventure or anything interested to anyone older than ten years of age.”

So during the 50s and 60s comics were banned, during the 70s and 80s the genre was regulated and relegated to restricted areas where it was allowed to exist.

One of the comics banned during the Communist regime were probably the most popular comics series in the country’s history, the adventure stories Rychlé Šípy or Rapid Arrows by Jaroslav Foglar.

“The Rapid Arrows are really one of the most fascinating comics in Czech history, because it was banned three times. For the first time in 1941 during one of the crack-downs on the Czech press during the Protectorate.

Pavel Kořínek,  photo: Czech Television
“Then it emerged in 1945 and was banned again in 1948, this time by the Communists. It emerged once again during the Prague Spring in 1967 but in 1971 came the third banning and that was the final one; that was when the series ended.”

Do you think it was only read by kids or also by adults?

“I think The Fast Arrows were mainly, during its first and second period, in the 1940s, were mainly read by teenagers and young adults.

“Obviously during the 60s and the break of 60s and 70s when the Fast Arrows came to life for the last time, I think they were read by adults as well as by teenagers. Obviously the adults were nostalgic towards the episodes they knew from their own childhood, so the readership was somehow widened.”

You also said that the Communist basically restricted the genre to kids. I guess that explains the popularity of another well-known comics and that’s Čtyřlístek, or the Lucky Four.

“I think the main reason for its popularity, which was huge, was the fact that at the time, it was the one and only comic magazine in Czechoslovak culture. There were no other magazines that published solely comics.

“Lucky Four was the only magazine that presented a new story of the well-established series eight or nine times a year. I think that the fact that it was using the same characters and that the readers were returning to the same story world, was somehow important for its popularity.

"All the other series at the time were quite limited in the number of episodes. Usually there had about 12 to 24 episodes. Čtyřlístek had published 180 stories before 1989 which is a huge amount. It was larger than any other series at the time.”

I also believe it was one of the longest-lasting Czech comic series.

“It was one of the longest lasting. And one of the other reasons for its popularity was its genre of “funny animal stories”, which is really a global phenomenon, because all the comic cultures around the world, no matter how different their comic traditions were, had developed their own “funny animals" comic tradition. And I think that The Lucky Four was popular also for the affiliation with this genre.”

What happened after the fall of Communism when authors were finally free to publish whatever they liked?

“The following years were a time of a huge comics boom in Czechoslovakia. The authors had new publishing opportunities. Several new magazines emerged and a lot of translated series were being introduced. In 1991 there were seventy series were published at the same time.

“That was obviously too much. The market was not prepared for it, everything was becoming much more expensive and new forms of pop-culture entertainment were introduced.

“So in 1993 the new Czech comics crashed. No magazine survived this year, with the sole exception of Čtyřlístek. For a few years from 1993 to 1999 there were basically no important Czech comics published.”

I have this feeling that Czechs discovered comics as a genre for adults only after 1989. Would you agree with that?

“I think that’s right. I think that an even bigger change came after 2000. That’s the time when I think that the polarity switched and since then the new Czech comics usually targets an adult readership. After 1989 it was still more or less targeted at kids and teenagers.”

Can you mention at least some of the contemporary Czech authors?

“I really like the works of Jiří Grus,Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban. They do all these really intelligent graphic novel stories that I think would be really interesting for readers of the so-called high literature.

Photo: Knižní klub
“I really like the new book by Toy Box, a young comics artist, who published the first Czech autobiographical story, which I have to say is really powerful.

“From the older generations I really like the works of Ondřej Sekora and René Klapač. I think that we still owe a big debt to these authors and I hope that one day it will be possible to prepare critical editions of their works.

“There are hundreds of beautiful strips in the archive of Ondřej Sekora that haven’t seen the light of day since 1935, so it would be great to prepare some selected works of these masters of Czechoslovak comics.”