Although Hungary has had a tradition in comics for almost as long as the Western European countries, this art form never saw a real boom the way it happened in Belgium, France, the U.S. or Japan. Opinions diverge as to where to place the first Hungarian comics in time. Perhaps the earliest attempts at the creation of a more modern form of pictorial narration can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century, with Mihaly Zichy, the nation’s renowned painter’s illustrations to the equally highly considered poet’s, Janos Arany’s works.

For many years, Hungarian comics stayed in that embryonic form and kept text and image isolated, as if the drawings merely illustrated what was being told in words. This working method went as far as to delete the already existing balloons and moving the text underneath the picture in imported comics like Felix the Cat. However, in other cases the balloons did remain in the picture, thereby introducing this key element of the art-form on the Hungarian scene in the 1920s. Even so, it was not until the ‘50s and ‘60s that it became rooted in the methods of the Hungarian artists themselves.

We have to insist upon the delayed chronology of this essential development, because it can account for a number of characteristics that describe today’s mainstream and even avant-garde Hungarian comics. In effect, while in many respects contemporary artists are all undeniably miles ahead of the pioneers of the last century, the works of most of them still bear a basic resemblance to Mihaly Zichy’s art. Their anachronism stems from the relation of text and image: Hungarian comics art has ignored a major change that occurred in the twentieth century. The appearance of the balloon in the American comics of the turn of the century brought an artistic revolution in the sense that the equilibrium maintained between textual and visual information was abolished, and comics became an essentially visual art form, where the text (mostly transcribed speech) has a complementary role in many ways similar to the one it plays in films, as far as its share in the narration is concerned.

Scholars do consider balloonless and/or continuously narrated picture stories as comics, but in modern western literature that feature is present only as a conscious stylistic choice among many others. The same cannot be said of the mainstream Hungarian comics of the past 40 years, which consists mostly of adaptations of popular novels. Even though they make extensive and regular use of the balloons as a means to convey parts of the dialogue between the characters, they do not take advantage of the liberty given by the incorporation of the words in the picture: they add a continuous narration to the series of images, sometimes plainly describing what we can see with our own eyes or giving background information to it, sometimes relating events that occur between the images. They are constrained to do so, because they have to condense the stories they are supposed to transpose into comics. The fact that the word “comics” has been a synonym of the terms “facilitated literature” and “pictorial summaries of great novels” lets us guess the utter contempt with which intellectuals have always regarded this art form in Hungary. No one envisaging a career in the academic framework of high arts ever starts by writing or drawing comics in the modern sense. The talents are usually invested into film-making, literature, painting, or at best animated cartoons (could anyone tell me why comics are alien to us Hungarians, a people who is so good at and so fond of animated cartoons?). In these conditions, it is not surprising that comics have been exiled to the peripheries of “academic art”: the shallow world of popular entertainment on one side, where it has been degraded to the role of the “shadow of true art”; and the radicality of the avant-garde on the other, where the excursion into the “forbidden” takes place under the banner of artistic experimentation, therefore it is legitimate.

The modern narrative form of comics as we know it in Western Europe, in the US and in Japan is simply nonexistent for the vast majority of the Hungarian public. Not only is it nonexistent, but the recent attempts by mainstream comics authors to make their adaptations less didactically verbose were met with hostile reactions from the readers. At the moment, from the point of view of the scholars of artistic comics, the avant-garde is the only domain that can furnish material of any interest. First of all, we have to mention the unique achievement of Gyoergy Riczei, author of the only textless comics published in book form in Hungary, The Way of the Shaman (Riczei Gyoergy, 1995). To my knowledge, among Hungarian avant-garde artists, he alone uses all the elements of modern comics simultaneously and methodically in his abstract story: picture frames, balloons, onomatopoeias, symbols, meaningless characters and drawings of very different styles are set up in an unusual but aesthetic network behind which we discover the contours of an initiative journey.

However, not all artists have gone so far in the combination of the structural elements of comics. In fact, in much of their work we can see a certain reticence in mixing picture and text, similar to that in traditional Hungarian comics. Jozsef Szemethy’s and Ferenc Banga’s adaptation of 18th century Hungarian religious writer Janos Taksonyi’s stories (It Is a Dangerous Thing to Upset Witches and Three Other Stories, Kepes Proza Tar, 1996) is a good example of this tendency. In their traditional-looking book at the bottom of every page we invariably find the unmodified original text, the pictures are all silent, void of textual elements, which means that their work can be considered as much as a collection of four short stories illustrated with unusually frequent images as an extremely, almost provocatively conservative comics. The only place where avant gardism is overtly present is the drawing itself. Both Banga’s seemingly childish sketches systematically defying the laws of perspective and Szemethy’s collage-like pictures maintain an exciting thematic, chronological and stylistic relationship with the text they are expected to illustrate, without coming into any physical contact with it. Surprisingly, the authors have a regular column in the weekend supplement of Hungary’s most popular newspaper, Nepszabadsag (one million readers every day), where they publish a very similar type of artwork, making this rather indigestible experiment the most widely read Hungarian comics by far.

Writer Ivan Andressew and graphic artist Bela Tettamanti have recently started a type of collaboration that would not even qualify as comics if the authors had not given it the title Kepregeny (Picture-novel), which is the Hungarian word for “comics”. This work has not been in print yet, it is prepublished on the Internet [, but even there it is clearly visible that the proportions and the layout of texts and images are exactly the same as in any normal novel. The story is about somebody who buys a stack of old family photos and starts to muse over them. Bela Tettamanti’s redrawn (and thus reinterpreted) versions of these photos serve as a starting point for the writer to create the actual chapters in the book, so that the picturess do not illustrate, but engender the text. Even if the proportion of linguistic information clearly overwhelms the visual part of the work, this kind of artistic experimentation is comparable to Martin Vaughn-James’s famous avant garde excursion into comics, The Cage, where pictures were born first and then followed the text describing, completing and reinterpreting them.

The initial general statements about Hungarian comics art are only valid in the context of Hungary as a country. Artists coming from the neighboring countries —be it from the Hungarian minorities living there or from the dominant nations— have been exposed to a different kind of comics, especially in the case of the former Yugoslavia, where the western (Italian and French) influence was much stronger even in the years of socialism. Istvan Fujkin (born in Vojvodina) belongs to a generation of comics artists who grew up reading quite the same authors as their Western European colleagues. He moved to Hungary only a few years ago. Apart from his vain attempts at making success with western-style visual comics, he has mainly devoted himself to painting. However, he realizes some of his paintings as if they were one-page silent comics telling more or less abstract stories, often based on a musical idea, sometimes directly on a song.

Milorad Krstic is another artist living in Hungary who has not got anything in common with the Hungarian tradition. Once again, the Yugoslavian background shows its impact on his art. His comics are so visual that the story and the text (even though presented according to the western tradition) are secondary elements. The driving force of his work resides in the fantastically mobile morphology of the terrifying caricatured figures in his comics. In fact, comparing his animated cartoons (My Baby Has Left Me is now quite famous) and his comics, one has the exceptional impression that the cartoon versions are better, because they more efficiently underline this incredible versatility by keeping Krstic’s drawing in constant movement.

As we could see, there have already been a number of occasions when writers and graphic artists found their way to each other in Hungarian experimental art. We can only hope that these types of collaboration will remain regular and creative enough to develop a valuable individual style for quality Hungarian comics, which at the same time should remain accessible to the public.

Andras Gyorgy Toth