All kids in the Czech Republic know it - and most love it. "Ctyrlistek", or a four-leaf clover in Czech, is a children's comic magazine and a very popular collectable; you will find at least a few copies in virtually every household. The comic book, which has been around for more than thirty years, was named "Ctyrlistek" after its four main characters: a human-like cat called Myspulin, a dog called Fifinka, a pig named Bobik and a rabbit called Pinda. They live in a house together and experience all kinds of adventures. Although they must be well into their thirties, they still maintain their youthful appearance and spirit. It is difficult to explain the "Ctyrlistek" phenomenon to someone who has never waited for weeks for the latest issue to appear and never queued for hours to grab the last copy in the shop, like Czech kids used to in the years of socialism.
But before we get to the story of "Ctyrlistek", let's take a brief look at the history of comic books in this country. While comics have a special place in western popular culture, in the Czech case they were suppressed before they even started to catch on. After a short period of relative development between the world wars, the pop culture form was stifled by the communist regime. Socialist ideologists dismissed comics as "capitalist trash". They presented comics as a decadent, low and even perverse form of art. Petr Stepan is an art historian.
"Comics as an art form had a very bad reputation in the 1950s. But still they lived on in quite a lively form, for example in the "Dikobraz" magazine. The stories had to promote the regime but sometimes the artists did a good job: the stories were funny and did not look like blunt propaganda. The 1960s saw comics flourish, the best-known author being Kaja Saudek. Two popular films were based on his stories. That short golden era ended around 1970 and in the 1970s and 1980s comics survived only in children's magazines. But the stories had a very educative character and were meant to increase children's interest in science and technology. "
After the fall of communism all types of art that were formerly banned suddenly blossomed, including comic books, as Petr Stepan says.
"After 1989 there was a great thirst for comics and new magazines started to mushroom. Some had a print run of 200,000, which is an unbelievable number in this country, but they quickly went bankrupt because they had no distinctive style. Czech comics sank into a deep crisis and people kept complaining there were no new artists. But in this crisis many newspapers and magazines started featuring comic strips which commented on current political issues. Also at that time some publishers started reprinting old Czech socialist-time comics. They enjoyed great success, proving the readership for comics was still there."
Art historian Petr Stepan mentioned the 1960s as a heyday for comic books in this country. It was in those days that "Ctyrlistek" came into being, as its author, artist Jiri Nemecek, recounts.
"When the borders opened in 1968, my wife and I went on holiday to the West. Looking around the shops we noticed something that was completely absent on our market - comic books. So we thought for a while that we could somehow import them to our country. But then it occurred to me, why should I try to import something when I can write and draw my own things. For me as an artist it was a challenge."
Jiri Cehovsky is the publisher of "Ctyrlistek". He, too, recalls the old days of the magazine.
"The characters as designed by Jiri Nemecek were luckily chosen and are easy to write for. It is a kind of a family model. Myspulin the Cat is a father figure, Bobik the Pig and Pinda the Rabbit are naughty sons and Fifinka, a female dog, is a maternal figure who takes care of them. Every character has its individual traits which help trigger each new story. There is no end to the adventures, new situations always spring up - all thanks to the lucky choice of the characters."
After a few issues were published, the magazine became very popular and children wanted more and more. But political control of it was strong: "Ctyrlistek" was not allowed to be published even on a monthly basis, and only nine issues were permitted in one year. The publishing house Panorama was directly under the control of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The Ministry of Culture made a few attempts to discontinue "Ctyrlistek", but even the communist functionaries had young children who were great fans of the comics and that is how "Ctyrlistek" survived. Publisher Jiri Cehovsky recalls.
"In those days 'Ctyrlistek' was actually lucky to be considered trash because as such it was never discussed at the official meetings. 'Ctyrlistek' was simply ignored and that is how it could survive. Besides, 'Ctyrlistek' - with its enormous print run - brought substantial profits to the publishing house, so the company accountants held a protective hand over us."
The authors say that children's comic strips often do not translate well into other cultures because they bear strong national traits. That is why foreign comics never really caught on in this country and why "Ctyrlistek" remained only a local Czech magazine.
"'Ctyrlistek' did get across the border, but only thanks to those who left Czechoslovakia. After a few years they remembered only Prague Castle, mushroom picking, Czech beer and... "Ctyrlistek". Before 1989 we used to ship around a hundred copies to Canada, Germany and so on, to children who were born there to Czech parents. 'Ctyrlistek' helped them to keep in touch with the Czech language."
To this day, the authors of "Ctyrlistek" receive mail from children from Canada, Sweden, Australia and even Kuwait. In those many letters children often recommend new storylines to the authors. Writer Ljuba Stiplova is the author of most of "Ctyrlistek's" scripts.
"A long time ago I foolishly believed that one could get inspiration and useful tips from the kids for new stories. So I went through all the letters the publishing house was receiving and I found out the kids always wanted what they had already seen before. There was not a single new idea in the letters."
Its authors say "Ctyrlistek" is very different from some of its western equivalents in one respect: there is strictly no violence, no blood is shed and no mischief is being done even to enemies. After thirty-four years of its existence, Ctyrlistek remains popular with the young and old and there are many who continue buying and collecting the issues even though they are far too grown up. Publisher Jiri Cehovsky.
"Once we sold 220,000 copies eight times a year, and still 'Ctyrlistek' was hard to come by. There is more competition on the market now. But among Czech magazines for kids we are still number one. As far as readership is concerned, we are even ahead of the Czech versions of foreign magazines. 'Ctyrlistek' is still popular with children from 5 to 18 or maybe 45 years. It remains a family magazine, as it used to be. Adults buy 'Ctyrlistek' with the pretext that it is for their 8-year-old Pepicek, but before him everybody else in the house has a read."