Unwittingly, I have known Lucie Lomová’s work for years. A few weeks back I posted on Hrdý Budžes, a book that was gifted to me a few years ago, and which I have translated into English, something which means I have spent more time with it than perhaps any other book (with the possible exception of a number of guides to programming BASIC for Acorn microcomputers which I carried around with me obsessively as a child). The illustration on the front of the book, of Helenka, the eight year old hero of the piece, walking through the snow in her home town of Ničín with a lantern held out on a stick in front of her casting a long shadow behind her, red stars in the sky above, is pitch perfect. I discovered a few days ago that this illustration was by Lucie Lomová after reading her first graphic novel, Anna Chce Skočit, Anna Wants to Jump.

A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon the Sheldon-friendly comic shop, Comics Point, near Jířího 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 the counter was helpful and picked out a few examples for me to look over. There was Kája Saudek, a huge spread-out-FT-sized album brought down from the top shelf with some ceremony, and the usual “of course” I have now heard every time his name is mentioned (”he would have been as famous as Walt Disney were he not born in Communist Czechoslovakia” claims a quote on the Kája Saudek museum, and whilst this is clearly hyperbolic, from the evidence I have seen so far it is far from being absurd and, since it may be technically easier to write prose for the shelf and publish it as samizdat abroad than to stockpile, copy or hide comics, it may prove to be the case that the impact of totalitarianism on Saudek’s output is one of the greater artist tragedies of Czechoslovak history). Saudek then, is something I will certainly look into as soon as I have the money. Stylistically though, his work appears to be varied, but I might describe it as the action film school of comics, and I was looking for something a little different. I looked over the others he had brought down. One was, stylistically, simply not my cup of tea, I remember little about it aside from there being a bunch of heavy metal album cover style post-apocalypse gas masks or some such. Might be great but I didn’t see myself getting on with it. There was then a couple from Lucie Lomová. The first, Anna Chce Skočit, Anna Wants to Jump, was familiar. I vaguely recall looking over it in Palác Kníh bookshop in one of my regular hunts for graphic novels on my holidays in Prague after moving back to Britain in 2005. I always bought something back, and asked others to do the same, but, as I tended for a long time to be more assiduous in my struggles with the Czech language than my efforts to familiarise myself with its literature, it was most often something translated into Czech. I waited impatiently for every book of David B’s L’Ascension du haut mal, Epileptic, for instance, and for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to come out in Czech translation. At some point I must have looked over Anna Wants to Jump and decided against it. I looked over it now, liked the style and theme of the first pages and put it aside as a possible. Another, Divoši, Savages, by the same author was a little thicker, possibly a little more demanding on the finances, and full colour. I don’t know why but with newspaper cartoons and graphic novels both, I have always tended to prefer monochrome – my favourite artists, from Craig Thompson to Marjane Satrapi, David B and Seth, all have tended to work in monochrome or grey scales. I cast an eye over the lot and plumped for Anna Wants to Jump. As much as anything, I was in the mood for a female protagonist.

It was sunny, I had a little time before my next lesson and found a park bench by the church and started reading. First thing’s first, the drawing style is distinctive, leaves space where space is needed – she knows how to let a frame breathe and lead a reader to focus on what is important – but though she is sparing at times, using a mere handful of lines, she is gifted with both anatomy and expression. For me the number one skill possessed by an artist who takes on the graphic novel is this mastery of those tell-tale movements of the face and body; this allows characters to convey emotion like the best actors, without the need for dialogue or action.

These first pages come alive and rate with the best in sequential art I have yet come across. It’s been a while since I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets but in terms of tone, rather than style, in handling the everyday emotions of ordinary relationships, this first section appealed in much the same way.

It’s Prague, 1994. Anna returns home with the shopping, kicks her shoes off and steps into some slippers. She says hello, to no response. Her boyfriend, Zdeňek is sleeping on the sofa. The television fills the room with inane dialogue. She does the washing up. She thinks “Christ, everything’s so banal it’s like someone were taking the piss out of me.”

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In a sense, someone is. Zdeňek carries on sleeping. Evidently sub-clinically depressed at the very least, Anna appraises herself in the mirror. She ought to start exercising again, go to the hairdresser, to the dentist, perhaps to some kind of counsellor. She sits down in the armchair in an old nightdress and flicks through the channels. Not yet a full five years after the revolution, she listens to the advertising slogans on the television, full of bastardised, brash, internationalised Czech and wonders that everybody so looked forward to this new world. She talks, as if to herself. Zdeňek opens one eye as the telephone rings as if irritated by the intrusion. “What?” It’s just her mother, they arranged to go swimming in the morning. They climb into bed. There is a single dismissive response as she talks to herself some more, and then he reaches over. “I thought you were tired,” she says. Mechanically, having shown no interest whatever until this point, he fucks her.

 
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In this brutally well-observed sequence, the drawings are at their most simple, and most revealing. In one, as Zdeňek fucks her doggy style, she looks out of the frame at the reader with an expression that leaves us in no doubt how she feels about her present life.

Afterwards, his back to her, he powers down. She sits around a little longer on the side of the bed, asks him if he’s still awake, gets a monotone response, and then tells him she’s going out for a walk.

Anna stands on a railway bridge looking out over the Vltava. An old lady comes by pulling a shopping basket on wheels and asks her if she is thinking of jumping.

“Perhaps it would be for the best,” she says.

“Nothing’s as bad as it seems, I could tell you,” says the old woman, upon which the wheels of her shopping basket break and Anna helps her carry it.

The old lady, Helena, is having a celebration under the bridge with a few down and outs. She tells her story. Once, years ago, she was a film actress. She was forced to give it up when she married the man she did.

They walk to the Helena’s caravan a little further along and she reads Anna’s cards and tells her fortune with a crystal: it’s fear that can harm her; a young man will come and protect her; she should fear nothing; everything will turn out for the best.

On her way home, Anna puzzles this over, has something of a vision. By the time she wakes to Zdeňek cursing in the new day, she has changed.

And with her change of attitude, a change of fates. A man comes into her life and literally drags her off as she walks out of the changing rooms of the swimming pool of a hotel down town. Not in the best of moods, she has argued with her mother who has rather bluntly told her she’s getting old and needs to settle down. Having witnessed a murder, this stranger is making a run for it. He mistakes her for somebody else and tells her to run for it, to get out of harm’s way, and pulls her by the arm.

Anna has more of a back story than she was ever aware. Sat in what happened to be the first train to leave as they get to the station, hotfooting it out of town with a man she knows nothing about but that his name, Alan, corresponds to that of the man who will protect her in the fortune Helena read to her, she asks him who he is and why he dragged her away. Now he sees that she had long hair, that she doesn’t know him, that she isn’t who he thought. He realises how he has come to make such a mistake, and tells her what she doesn’t know about herself and her family: she has a sister, a twin.

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Alan is one of the three characters who tell what they know of this unguessed of backstory, of her father and sister, and in these passages, Lomová shows her formidable versatility, switching to a fuller pencil and charcoal style. We see Prague of the late sixties, San Francisco and Chicago of the mid seventies. Some have suggested the ex-pat scene we see is one of communist propaganda caricature. That may be so, but such lives involving struggles to adjust to a new place and culture existed alongside the many successes we hear about, and I found these passages beautifully drawn and well imagined, the fate of the American side of Anna’s family all too believable.

Alan and Anna continue their road trip and, saving a gypsy kid from racist bullying at the hands of a few older boys, are taken in by a gypsy community and found a safe place to hide away for a spell. Less helpful are the police, represented by an overweight officer recovering from a night on the town. These encounters are both funny and accurate, and I don’t feel that a deep knowledge of the Czech Republic is necessary to appreciate them. Finally, they come across a VIP, who is sure to be known to most Western readers and whose mannerisms and habits of speech are caught very neatly indeed.

It is the thriller plot that ties all this together, and Lomová handles action well, but for myself it is undoubtedly the handling of the subtleties of emotion, the tensions within relationships and families, that make her writing and drawing both stand out and which I hope to see more of in future. Anna meeting Helena and her presumably homeless friends under the bridge, her desperate unhappiness in the first few pages of the book, the subtlety and restraint of the few lines of dialogue between Anna and her mother in the swimming pool, and again, the generation gap laid out in a few panels over the dining table in the tensions of Prague of the late 1960s, all of these are among the strongest scenes I have read in any graphic novel.

Anna Wants to Jump was the result of Lomová accepting a commission from a French publisher to draw a graphic novel. She was the first Czech author to be given such an opportunity. It may be that the book is shaped somewhat by the expectations of a foreign market but it succeeds in being both distinctively Czech and comprehensible for an international market. Its Czech version won award of the comic of the year on the year of its release, and Lucie Lomová was commissioned to write another, more ambitious graphic novel, the very different Savages which I mention above, and which I had to return to Comics Point to get my hands on at the next available opportunity. It is certainly a worthy successor to Anna Wants to Jump, and I plan to write about it soon. Having now read both, I am certain of two things: Savages won’t be her last, and she is destined to be more widely known.

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