For all the procrastination and wasted time, Twitter occasionally pays off. In that it can resemble the occasional revelations and opportunities thrown up by idle conversation and ‘cafe culture’ (whatever that is) more than the thumb twiddling brain-altering dopamine-stimming pez dispense cornucopia of whirling superficiality I usually take it to be. I remain ambivalent, but anything that puts me in touch with people I can see eye to eye with is no bad thing when I often struggle with this in what I perhaps ought not to call the real world without loading the dice.

Twitter put me on to German graphic artist, Clara Roethe when I was really struggling to find like-minded folk, surrounded by gregregious uber-psyched-extroverted-adrenalin types on the one side and drunk or perma-stoned small market town types on the other in North Wales a couple of years back, and so whatever may be its addictive qualities and drawbacks, I can say of it much as Winston Churchill said of alcohol, that I have taken more out of Twitter than Twitter has taken out of me.

Having said that, I probably was procrastinating when checking my Twitter timeline, no doubt for the umpteenth time, when I saw a tweet from Clara who forwarded a message from @Lizzlizz, Lizz Lunney, a cartoonist she follows. It was a question: ‘does anyone know any good comics shops in Prague?’ I answered, pointing out that most bookshops stock a very good range, but also looking up a couple of comics shops. In another cursory search, I came up with an exhibition of Czech comics at the DOX gallery of contemporary art which looked well worth a look. A further question, of whether there may be comic artist groups who might arrange a meet-up, had me contact a few likely types known in Czech comic circles who I follow on Twitter. No response from some, others were very helpful, pointing me on to others who themselves might be able to point me in the right direction. A few e-mails and tweets and the like, and we we were on the verge of setting up a meet with various comics types, but, with the very short time-frame, ended up with an invitation to one artist’s house where he would be able to show us a few interesting examples of Czech comics and the like and chat to us about his own work.

Being as this was out of town, and would have involved Lizz meeting a strange man on the internet in order to travel for an hour or so to a strange village in an unfamiliar country in order to go to a further strange man’s house, we politely declined. Lizz opted to meet the strange man from the internet at a gallery instead. Still, contacts have been made, and I will likely use them in the coming weeks.

I have been to DOX, the Centre for Contemporary Art, once before, and it is an impressive, sprawling, purpose-built gallery that is evidently professionally managed (this is still far from being invariably the case). Back then, it was to see a exhibition on Rudolf Steiner, the self-styled mystic I had fondly despised ever since I worked with the cultish clog-wearing hippy types at a college for young adults with special needs in the West Midlands. I am, in the words of Graham Greene “a good hater”, but as much as I enjoy the odd sneer, to return to the venue to see something I was genuinely interested in was far more exciting.

Like many a Brit, my relationship with comics and sequential art started with the Beano and Dandy. My geek credentials, however, which in many ways ought to be off the scale given my childhood Napoleon Dynamite-like lean into the aspergic range of the autistic spectrum, are scuppered somewhat by the fact that I never knew any of the Marvel stuff and consequently don’t relate to it in its ubiquity now. I did subscribe to the Transformers comic, though, and confirmed, one of the last times I was at home, how much I used to look forward to it, by the fact that I had counted down in felt tip pen on the cover of a number of magazines to a special edition with some kind of robotic showdown.

I was a reader. My parents had seen to that, signing up to a book club package with Puffin Press. Books arrived I don’t know how often, perhaps every month, no doubt at an expense I didn’t appreciate at the time, nor fully since.

I devoured books, rejoiced in those packages, exalted in my early switch to an adult library card. I’m told I used to skip forward to the end of the books, there were signs of the problems I would later have with reading, but for all intents and purposes, I was a dreamy, bookish kid. Comics and the strips I would later discover were an inextricable part of this, not some alternative to more serious, more involved forms of reading nor a mere way for my parents to draw me towards the pleasures of reading. That rather artificial distinction perhaps came later, aided and abetted by the puzzling and too infrequently discussed consensus, which emerged sometime in the middle of last century, that illustrations do not belong in adult books.

I shouldn’t have to explain any of this, of course, and maybe I don’t, but there have no doubt been several occasions when I have forgotten how much I love sequential art. I rediscovered, for example, Garfield in Prague when I was first learning Czech in the early noughties. I never neglected them for long, but there have been several such rediscoveries, as if I myself, though I have loved stories in pictorial form since I was in primary school, thought it only natural that I should grow out of them.

The preeminent independent comics shop in the UK, Nottingham’s Page 45, a comic shop like those in the films, and the films of comics, like Ghost World, or series like the Big Bang Theory, helped while I was at uni. Friends put me on to comics such as Red Meat, Maus, artists such as Seth. I tried to keep up with Doonesbury in the Guardian, though I never quite managed it, and cut out cartoons by Chris Riddell from the Observer.

Their use in language learning (their use of the spoken language in short, condensed form, alongside contextualising visual material) pulled me back again, to bandes dessinées, loaned and cherished Tintin, David B and Marjane Satrapi.

Thinking about it now, and remembering more and more comics that I was addicted to, perhaps those many which filled in the minutes rather than the hours, part of series in magazines I subscribed to and newspapers I read, perhaps there weren’t so many times I forgot completely how much I enjoyed cartoons and sequential art, and indeed there have been enough times I have wanted to have a go at it myself. (Most recently, I have been looking over an idea with Clara, and took a look at some sketches towards it on a recent trip to Dresden.) But even if the stretches I didn’t actively seek out comics at all weren’t so long, what there have certainly been are a number of times when comics seemed like mere fun, and mere fun seemed like a waste of time; times when I took myself too seriously, and comics not seriously enough.

I have been neglectful, until recently, of what I read in Czech; whether it was the original or translated into Czech, was never a matter of complete indifference, but if I found a decent book in an antikvariát, it didn’t much matter to me if it had originally been written in Czech. As the names above ought to indicate, this was also true of comics. The last graphic novel I read in Czech before the exhibition was Alan’s War, originally published in French. There were two and a half exceptions. The half, Zelený Raoul, Green Raoul, because this long-running single page spread – something like a mordant cross between Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, with a script and attitude redolent of the glory days of British television’s Spitting Image – has always been compelling but utterly impenetrable to me since I have always found the machinations of Czech politics far more opaque than even the workings of its system of cases. I recently came across a ten year compendium of the strip, which was as thick as a Complete comics of the New Yorker coffee table book Clara and I came across in Dresden. Hana a Hana, in comparison, was simpler. Something like a female, comic strip Beavis and Butthead, Hana and Hana, the teenaged, fashion-conscious, vacant-eyed and pouting mouthed protagonists, exchange inanities in a vernacular that was useful to me in my first couple of years here and though it may at first sight seem as vacuous as the characters themselves, sociologists may in due course make much of its arrival so soon after the revolution with the emergence of that first unscathed generation with their, to some, incomprehensible argot and very different conerns. Written and drawn by men, it’s quite possible some may find it exploitative and/or mysogynist. My take in the early days at least, was that it was a comment on this alien new generation as a whole. It is interesting though to see that in recent years, the drawings have become more exploitative, the girls if anything more curvaceous and more skimpily attired, while their eyes have morphed peculiarly from the bold-type x’s of old to an almost apologetically dot and line human form which perhaps clashes with the style of the whole.

CzechComics-027.jpg

There was then the masterful Alois Nebel, a trilogy of evocative graphic novels which has since been filmed in a very appealing rotoscoped style, and is, I believe, in the process of being translated into English. It deserves every success. This tested my Czech and knowledge of Czech geography, history and politics, in the early days of my first stint in the country, being set in the borderlands and filled with a range of dialect, German and Polish expressions and the like.

Alois Nebel - Bílý Potok

But, though I had picked up a discounted collection of Hana a Hana some time before @Lizzlizz’s tweet, I had been swatting up more or less exclusively on Czech prose since coming back over this way and so, I looked forward to discovering more.

Entrance was by no means expensive, and took in the whole gallery. We walked around a few video installations and the like in the first few rooms – I don’t get on with video installations as a rule, and this was no exception – and then got to the meat of the thing having got ourselves lost in the place, which in its white corridors and seemingly endless flights of stairs and alcoves, brings to mind a hospital in its ability to have you lose you bearings.

Signals from the Unknown - Dox Gallery, Prague

The full title of the exhibition was Signals from the Unknown – Czech Comics from 1922 – 2012. Organised thematically, it begins with comics magazines.

Vhristi, the comics artist who had been so helpful in trying to put together a meeting of comics folk while Lizz was in town, wrote in a post on the original 2012 outing of the exhibition, that while exhibitions on comics were evidently doing well – he lists three or four that year – it was still a struggle for Czech artists to find an outlet for their work. One magazine, Čtyřlístek, or Four Leaved Clover, is the exception that proves the rule. Established in 1969, it has been running for decades, and has recently been made into a film. Lucie Lomová, a talented artist who’s work we will later look at, has done work for Four Leaved Clover and it is such an institution that it is used as materials for Czech as a Foreign Language in my school.

Otherwise, however, the tumultuous history of the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia (which broke up in the Velvet Divorce of January 1st 1993, a few short years after the Velvet Revolution), made it very difficult for a magazine to establish itself for a long period. The popular Punťa was seen to by the tightening restrictions of the German Protectorate, whilst Rychlé Šípy, or Fast Arrows, a comic which was referred to by one of my adult students as one of the major factors in his opting for a life of tramping with friends when he was ten years old, was throttled by the censorship of the post ‘68 period of Normalisation I have written about elsewhere.

Rychlé Šípy

Rychlé Šípy

Comics in the service of advertising was much as might be expected in a country with rather less tortuous history, and while it threw up a few nice examples of illustration and narrative both, I didn’t linger in this room. In the centre, however, set out on nice mocked up carboard tables and chairs, were examples of a few of the comic periodicals which had failed to take hold in the years after the revolution. Here, Lizz found a few cartoons drawn by friends of hers in Germany, now translated into Czech and collected in a special edition of one of these journals dedicated to comics from the North Western neighbour. The Czech scene, thriving for a country of ten million inhabitants, misses little from abroad, and shops are full of BD from France and Belgium, as well as translations of British and American, Spanish and Japanese comics as a matter of course, with other notables seldom overlooked for long.

The section In Thrall to Ideology sounded a little more promising, as indeed it turned out to be. Popular comics characters were in some cases ‘turned’ like characters in a John leCarré novel, walking and talking as they had before, but now propagating the nostrums of either of the two totalitarian regimes which had ruled over Czechoslovakia. More cack-handedly still, characters were invented to inculcate these ideologies, probably to little success. Comics were also used for the purposes of subversion, and there was mention of samizdat. I didn’t grasp how this worked technologically. Samizdat literature was generally distributed by means of poetry and prose typed and retyped on typewriters with multiple layers of carbon paper. I would have liked to have heard how samizdat comics were printed and distributed, but that would be a little too much for an exhibition even of this size to go into.

Some of the restrictions mentioned above led to the development of a specifically Czech sub-genre of comics, given the title in the exhibition of Clubs of Young Gentlemen. One surprise to me both in the exhibition and my own research since then, is the preponderance of foreign comics in translation in periods of Czechoslovak history where I might not have expected this to be the case. Since Communist encouragement of youth groups overlapped with the periods of its most stringent suppression of foreign influences, a new style of comics, involving groups of evidently self-sufficient young boys came into fashion in this time.

Rychlé Šípy, or, Fast Arrows, was the most successful of these. It’s author, Jaroslav Foglar, was a hugely influential children’s writer with a knowledge of scouting and an interest in the German Wandervogel movement. Of these two influences, he formed an idiosyncratic and, for boys of the time, exciting fictional formula for a type of youth group which did not yet exist.

As can be imagined, totalitarian regimes had no truck with the scouting movement and it was banned three times in Czechoslovakia by the Nazis and Communists both. Perhaps still more insidious was Foglar’s formula for boys groups based on friendship, good deeds, personal sacrifice and love of nature, so easy was it to more or less spontaneously replicate with no need for any pre-existing organisational structure. Foglar, unsurprisingly, had a great deal of problems with the communist authorities, and one well known autobiographical novella by author Petr Šabach, prominantly features Foglar’s novels as obsessively read by an increasingly defiant teenager in the period of Gustav Husák’s Normalisation in the 1970s. I now have students born in the mid eighties and even the nineties who have spoken of having read Rýchlé Šípy, one of whom, as mentioned above, took to emulating the blueprint laid out in the comic, and talks of how individual episodes gave practical advice as how to go about it. More surprisingly, given Foglar’s much-discussed lack of women characters, a gothicly-inclined girl now in her early twenties, talked the other day of having read and enjoyed the comic.

Being out of my price range, I haven’t yet got hold of Rychlé Šípy, but having looked over it in Comics Point, I can say that Jan Fischer’s and, later Marko Čermák’s drawings are characteristic of the style and technological reach of the early years of comics, full of busy frames and primary colours.

Though not mentioned in the exhibition, it would perhaps be remiss to discuss Foglar and Rychlé Šípy, without mentioning the discussion of homoeroticisms in his work. Foglar’s supporters, and the writers of Foglar’s Wikipedia page in both Czech and English, go to great pains to dismiss such talk (steering perhaps a little close to homophobia in the evidently stagnant editorial waters of the English page in particular), but a glance at the comics – which, in a Google image search, will as likely bring up images of the comic with a doctored text which, let’s say, rather unsubtly skews the narrative in just such a direction – the often topless bronzed bodies of the Arrows do leave scope for interpretation, and the extracts from Foglar’s novels in Šabach’s Hovno Hoří, or Shit Burns, would suggest this is not down to the artistic license of either Fischer or Čermák.

I had talked up the painter and illustrator Josef Lada to @LizzLizz on our way round the exhibition and, urged her to take a look at his illustrations for The Good Soldier Švejk, which, though they may not have been a part of the first printing of this classic, though arguably patchy novel, have been become so strongly associated with it, that some of his over 1300 drawings have, according to some sources, adorned the work in all but one edition since then (a Czech edition in 2008-2009 was illustrated by cartoonist Petr Urban, who occupies a space in Czech cartoons similar to that of Giles in Britain). Disappointingly, I found only a couple of examples of Lada’s early cartoons in the exhibition, though I may have overlooked one or two of his Kocour Mikeš, Mikeš the Cat on my way around.

The last section of the exhibition had a hodegepodge of sci-fi, fantasy and work from Four Leaved Clover, and with early Punťa comics with what seemed to all intents and purposes to be mute black slaves perhaps purloined from the stock characters of American comics of the day, next to drawings of various styles and periods, and having taken to skim-reading some of the introductory texts, I can safely say that I had by this point lost track of the reasoning behind the thematic organisation and had taken instead to picking out one or two favourites.

Signals from the Unknown - Dox Gallery, Prague

In the last room of the exhibition I did much the same, attracted to many of the huge prints or, perhaps, original drawings of the Saudek Phenomenon. “If Czech sequential art were to be defined by one name,” ran the gloss to this display, “the honour would undoubtedly belong to Kája Soudek, whose best work bears comparison with the best of American and European authors.” Since as yet I know no more about Soudek’s work, which was offered to me in Comics Point in an almost A3 book I would have struggled to get home by public transport and would doubtlessly have bankrupted me just as much as the similarly compelling but cumbersome collection of Josef Lada I found on Wenceslas Square yesterday evening, I will quote at length. It goes on “the volatile history of the second half of the twentieth century allowed Saudek to draw freely and almost without restriction only during a short period at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies. The artist, however, used this opportunity to the fullest… The sad fact remains that for Saudek, the year 1989, and the changes that came along with it, came too late. That is, they came at a time when he had lost the drive and strength to dedicate himself intensively to comics from an internal conviction.” From what I saw of the drawings in this room, this is a great shame indeed. I look forward to reading his work.

Signals from the Unknown - Dox Gallery, Prague

We were all at this point a little tired by so much information and visual stimulation. We idly strolled through the last room, dedicated to more contemporary artists, as the museum was about to close.

The exhibition and the contact I had made with comics artists through Twitter left me determined to find out more. I have done in the three weeks since the exhibition in the scattered free hours I have, and have written the above in much the same manner. Some of what I have found out since has crept into the above, which, being written in sprints, being shoehorned into my schedule with the many commitments and projects I have on the go at the moment, is a little more rambling than I would settle for if I had time to be more particular and no competing demands on what time I have for writing. I have, though, got the bit between my teeth with this subject and will continue to do some research and plan do a couple of interviews and to write a second post on the Czech scene, paying greater attention to particular artists and graphic novels.

I would welcome any questions from those with a serious interest in particular aspects of the Czech scene, and will, within reason, attempt to direct any relevant questions to anyone on the scene I meet in the coming weeks, so please do comment below.

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Comments
  1. […] z Poděbrad, a couple of hundred metres away from the famous television tower. Mentioning the comics exhibition at DOX, I asked for some Czech graphic novels, perhaps something like Alois Nebel. The guy behind […]

  2. […] exhibition in Prague last year with a stranger I was put in touch with on Twitter who likes comics. He did a great write up of the exhibition. I plan to do my own write up on my blog soon but like many things it’s been on my to-do list […]

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