Comics publishing in the Czech Republic: from Garfield to the avant garde

10-09-2008

In the past when Czechs thought about comics, classic children’s publications like Čtyřlístek (Fourleaf Clover), about four animal characters, or Fast Arrows – adventure stories for kids - came to mind. But after 1989, conceptions of comics gradually changed as comics not seen here before gradually entered the market. Soon, many grew instantly recognizable to most teenagers: classic superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and others; on the other, newer genres also began to come in, edgier so-called new wave productions, of which Art Speiglman’s classic Maus was one of the most famous. What is being published now and how has the audience come of the age? Find out in Czechs Today.

No overview of the Czech-language comics scene would be complete without mentioning Crew (pronounced krev, as in blood, in Czech). In 1996, Crew magazine first hit the stands with a mission: to broaden Czechs’ minds about comics. Petr Litoš, is one of the magazine’s original founders.

“The very first title we published was the magazine called Crew. We always felt it was very important to educate people. The magazine gives you a platform for that because you get to introduce the best stories, the best authors. Of course you always have to have the stories: the other part is dedication to news, articles, reviews, and building the fan community.”

Beginnings weren’t easy: where Crew was then attempting to succeed, others, wide-eyed in the emerging market after the Velvet Revolution, had already failed:

“There had been print-runs of hundreds of thousands in the early 90s. Everyone at the time was thinking, this is huge, this is what we’d been waiting for. And then all of sudden it started dying. It went to a normal level of consumption on the market, a couple of thousand units. Anyone trying to publish in the tens of thousands or more was sure to go bankrupt. We started smaller – 4,000 print-runs.”

As its fan-base grew, Crew went on to also publish soft and hardcover graphic novels, sometimes as co-productions – titles such as Frank Miller’s seminal reworking of the Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns, or the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman or most recently gritty titles such as Wanted. Hardcover – with a heftier price tag - are by definition for more dedicated fans. To a degree they are prestige projects, admits Petr Litoš, a great part of the motivation in publishing, but ultimately not what pays the bills:

“Hardcover books are rather for hardcore fans, so for them we did books like Batman – Arkham Asylum, which is a very famous work, but only in a limited number. On the other hand, we also did The Simpsons which was reprinted four times, for the mass market. Likewise, for years we only did ‘Garfield’ and I would tell people Garfield is paying for this. Nothing against Garfield, it’s just that Garfield has a much broader audience.”

Another publisher, Ivan Stable – who co-founded Prague-based publisher Mot (as in the French for “word”) knows a few things about going against the grain. Since 2000, he has been active in introducing many French-language comics, which redefine the medium, onto the Czech scene. But with mixed results. He told me, all too many people here still think comics are only for children; too many still think they’re only stories about superheroes and villains battling it out in the city.

“When we started we thought ‘Good, we are going to take readers from classic comics’ and we are going to find new readers and we are going to find students who are used to reading more serious stuff and we are going to get readers from both sides. But what happened was that we got stuck in the middle: our comics were too intellectual for many of those who were used to reading them, and ‘only comics’ for those who were used to reading more serious stuff. It has changes gradually, though thanks to titles published over the last six to eight years.

I mean, as a kid I loved Spider-Man and was at the shop waiting every week for the next issue and loved it. I was 10 or 12. But for people who read it as adults, I say, well, it‘s time to grow up.”

New Wave comics published by Mot included a series created by Slovak author Branko Jelínek or Swiss author Thomas Ott. But Czech audiences sometimes proved tough to convince. It’s too bad, the publisher says, given how new styles have broadened the definition of what comics can be.

“Now you have newer subjects, more autobiographical than they used to be. Usually you have bigger books, in B & W, often inspired by literature or based on personal experience. One title we published that was very-well known but not successful in terms of sales was ‘Padoucnice’, published under the name ‘Epileptic’, an autobiographical about family life in France in the 1970s when his older brother had epilepsy. It’s all questioning himself, his family, how he was raised and how French society reacted.”

After eight years as a publisher Stable is calling it a day, he has had enough of what all too often has been a hard-fought battle. The Czech market is small and - like elsewhere – graphic novels here will always be a niche hobby: tough and tougher is what anyone entering the business end of the market can expect. On the other hand, he has lost none of his admiration for the graphic novel itself, and his conviction that comics remain a great medium, eventually to be mined by new brave publishers, with similar goals like himself.

“All the great painters and artists today would not go into painting they would go and they do go into comics. I mean you have such great opportunities to build combinations between the text and the drawings and the way to use the page any way you want to. It’s such a rich medium. The opportunities are huge and there are still a many, many great comics to see.”

Crew’s Petr Litoš agrees there is still a broad future for comic out there across the spectrum, in both visuals and narrative:

“In general, the comic narrative has become mature: I mean, it expects that the reader wants to be engaged, wants to be entertained actively. It’s very important if you are reading a comic that you allow you feelings in, that you really react to what you’re reading. It’s somewhere between a book – where your imagination is almost all you have – and a movie where you have no space for your own imagination. Comics are somewhere in between.”

10-09-2008