For many years, comics in the Czech Republic was regarded as a genre for children. To this day, most people will probably associate it with the Four-leaf Clover, a popular children’s comic magazine, or the legendary Rapid Arrows, which have enjoyed a cult following since its first publication in the late 1930s to this day. But in recent years, comics has made something of a comeback, establishing itself as a respected literary genre for adult readership.
So what are some of the most interesting graphic novels that have come out in recent years? And what topics are they dealing with? I discussed these and other questions with comics expert Pavel Kořínek, and I started by asking him about the origins of the genre:
"Comics came to Czechoslovakia, or to the Czech lands, at the same time as to other European countries. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a huge number of various pictorial series being published in society magazines and newspapers. And these one-time humour pages slowly evolved into something more, into pictorial sequential series that we today call comics.
"If we try to establish the founding stone of Czech comics, we often go back to 1922, when Josef Lada started publishing his comic strip called Funny Pranks of Frantík Vojísek and Kozel Bobeš. It was the first serialised comic story being published in Czech periodicals."
So what are some of the best-known comics from the period before the Second World War?
"In inter-war Czechoslovakia, there were several really popular comics or comic series, even though the majority of them were published in the latter part of the inter-war period, in the 1930s.
"Josef Lada is one of the most famous names. But there is also Ondřej Sekora, the artist and creator behind Ferda the Ant, the stories of an anthropomorphised ant that are hugely popular up to this day, even though not so much in the form of comics, as in illustrated books.
"There were several funny animal stories, like Punťa, and others, that had a huge circulation at the time, but obviously the most famous Czech comics, not just of the interwar period, but maybe of all times, were The Rapid Arrows.
"It was a story about a group of five boys living in the city and having adventures in the streets and in the countryside, filled with didactic examples and adventure thrills.
“Obviously the most famous Czech comics, not just of the interwar period, but maybe of all times, were The Rapid Arrows.
"These stories, written by Jaroslav Foglar and illustrated by Stanislav Fisher, started in 1938 and became probably the most famous Czech comics of Czechoslovak 20th century. "
How did the genre of comics develop after the onset of the communist regime? We know that for example the Rapid Arrows were banned by the communist authorities.
"The communist regime was definitely not a huge fan of comics per se. The majority of comics were banned and ceased publication. They were perceived at the time as something that does not fit in the new communist state. So in the 1950s, comics were nearly non-existent.
"In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of comic series being published, but comics were tamed and regulated at the time. There were virtually no comics for adult readers, there were just comics for children being published in kids’ magazines.
"There were no huge adventure stories, there were just a few permitted genres, such as everyday funny animal stories or tamed science fiction stories. Comics in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s were really strongly censored and were perceived as something that was somehow allowed, but had to fit into the prescribed limitations."
So what happened to the genre after the fall of the Iron Curtain? How long did it take for comics to establish itself as a fully-fledged literary genre?
"There was a really strange intermission, following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Comics came back to Czechoslovakia immediately. In 1990, just a few months after the Velvet Revolution, there were dozens of comic projects and comic magazines being published in the country.
"Foreign translated series, like Mickey Mouse and Spiderman, all these superhero and funny animal stories, found their way to Czechoslovakia. But after a few more years majority of these comics ceased publication once again.
"After 1989 publishers, artists and editors thought that comics, since they were banned before, would be an immediate success and would earn them a huge amount of money and popularity, but that was not the case. Comics will always be a niche genre, something that is not for everyone, and in the second half of the 1990s, this became quite obvious once again.
"When we take a look at contemporary comics, I think we can find its roots in the year 2000 or the years around the break of the millennium. That’s when the new generation of artists started publishing their works, although first only in subcultural fanzines without any commercial gain for them. So that’s when the contemporary stars of Czech comics started publication."
So who, according to you, are some of the most distinctive authors to appear on the Czech comics scene in recent years?
"There are these long-established stars, who started publication in the years following 2000, such as Jiří Grus, Karel Jerý, Tomáš Kučerovský, ToyBox or Lucie Lomová. These are some of the big names of Czech comics.
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"But fortunately, the Czech comics scene is living in better times right now, so there are new artists emerging every year and there are new stars being born. I think some of these names that I mentioned, are really the huge personalities of Czech comics.
"But there is a wide variety of other artists and authors who are publishing their works. There is now a possibility for them to publish their books commercially in proper publishing houses. So I would say the situation of the Czech comics right now is quite good."
Can we actually trace any common themes or topics that are explored in contemporary Czech comics?
"That’s a difficult question. I think it’s really difficult to establish something typical for contemporary Czech comics, since Czech comics of the present-day grew from subcultural roots, it doesn’t have a unified style. Each artist has his own visual style, his own approach to the medium. So there is no mainstream in Czech comics.
“If there is something that is typical for new Czech comics, I think, it is the will to experiment.”
"We could probably change the question and ask what is missing from Czech comics and there are some interesting omissions. We don’t have that much autobiography, which is quite common on the European scene these days.
"If there is something that is typical for new Czech comics, I think, it is the will to experiment, to try new ways how to present a story, establish the atmosphere or tell something via pictures and speech balloons."
"When we take a look at the recent winners of the Muriel Awards, a Czech comics award, you can see some really interesting works.
"There are books by Vojtěch Mašek, who is a big star of Czech comic script writing right now. He co-authored several graphic novels that are really interesting and present something new on the Czech comics scene.
"His Dietl Sister is a surreal graphic novel that somehow works with the topics of identity, of the power plays people play between themselves, of this willingness to do something terrible to someone else just for personal gain.
"You can also look at Svatá Barbora, Saint Barbara, this really interesting comic thriller about a true crime case, which happened in the Czech Republic about ten or twelve years ago and was never solved.
"This graphic novels takes this case and builds upon it a specific narration about an obsession of a journalist who searches for the truth and examines what this search for truth can do with us in our everyday life.
Unfortunately, none of Mašek’s books has yet been translated into English. Is it because of the uneasy topics he explores or because the Anglo-American comic books market is hard to reach for foreign authors?
"I think the latter is true. I think that to publish a comic book on the English market is really difficult not just for Czech artists, but from artists from all around the world. English-speaking countries have a huge amount of domestic comics and the percentage of translated material that is present on these markets is really low.
"Czech comics are nowadays quite often translated into other languages. There are a lot of Czech comics available in Polish and there are some translated into French. But there are nearly no graphic novels and comics from the Czech Republic available in English. Hopefully this will change, there are some plans for the near future but we will see what happens with the Covid-19 situation."
"There were several books by Jaromír 99 or Jaromír Švejdík. His graphic biography of Emil Zátopek, the famous runner from the 1950s and 1960s, will bes published in English by SelfMadeHero. It is a really interesting piece of graphic biography about this huge Olympic legend that somehow formed the idea of Czech Olympic sports in the second half of the 20th century.
"There was also one book by František Skála, who is much better known for his fine art, but he created this beautiful book of photo comics, in which he narrates this story of Cílek and Lída, puppets made from small branches and leaves and other material found in nature.
"He places these figures in various forest scenes and constructs a narrative based on their stories. That is a beautiful book that was published several years ago under the title Cecil’s Quest.
"There is also one anthology called We Are Still At War. It is a project that brought together Czech comics artists with people from the NGO Post Bellum, that tries to archive oral narratives and memories on the 20th century.
"In We Are Still at War, you get 12 or 13 stories based on the memories of Czech people about the 20th century and the totalitarian regimes, but it can also serve as a kind of sampler of Czech comic artists."
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