by Tomas Prokupek (email@example.com)
In the Lands of the Czech Crown, like elsewhere in Europe, the forerunners of the modern day ”comic strip” began to appear at the beginning of the 20th century in satirical magazines and humorous supplements of newspapers. In the 1920s the painter Josef Lada /1887-1957/, who is well-known even abroad thanks to his illustrations of the novel Dobry vojak Svejk /The Good Soldier Schweik/ by Jaroslav Hasek, became a pioneer of picture stories. Lada made comics for children, which in the beginning consisted of a succession of pictures under which there was a text in verse; only later did he start adding the now classic text bubble to his stories. Lada’s markedly stylised hand wasn’t modelled upon any style anywhere abroad and served as a foundation for creating the Czech comic art school.
The first important comic hero was the brainchild of the journalist and cartoonist Ondrej Sekora /1899-1967/ and has remained a character full of vitality even today. Ferda Mravenec /Ferda the Ant/, who owes his looks in part to Walt Disney, jumped out of his chrysalis in the children’s column of the Lidove noviny newspaper in 1933. Sekora created a series of other comic characters as well; however, none of them reached Ferda’s popularity. The first real cult comic strip originated from the collaboration of the scriptwriter Jaroslav Foglar /1907-1999/ and the cartoonist Jan Fischer /1907-1960/ in 1938. Realistically drawn stories about a group of boys called Rychle sipy /the Fast Arrows/ soon won enormous popularity among the youth thanks to its masterly graphic work and a perfect blend of humour and adventure. However, soon after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, both the Fast Arrows and Ferda the Ant had to disappear from the Czech press.
The post-war period of freedom lasted for only a short time. The Communist regime, which took control in February 1948, abhorred comics. They were labelled a product of perverse western taste, so in Dikobraz /Porcupine/, a satirical magazine of the era, Superman acted as a repellent caricature permanently drunk on Coca-Cola. The Communist ill will went so far that even innocent children’s magazines weren’t allowed to include dialogue bubbles and all the text had to be placed in lines under the pictures. The renewed Fast Arrows were soon banned again and Ferda the Ant was able to survive only because of his part in fulfilling a five-year plan and fighting against the evil American potato beetle. Slowly, at the end of the 1950’s, the atmosphere began to become more relaxed, and a lot of illustrators of resounding reputations gradually tackled children’s comics. Magazines for young readers were slowly filled with series by Karel Franta, Jiri Kalousek, Jan Brychta, or Adolf Born. Their works brought much needed playfulness and life, with a plethora of stories about the pioneers /Communist youth organisation/ and their red scarves.
From the mid-1960s the changes in the society were more and more apparent. People could travel to the West with less difficulty. Foreign magazines such as Pif Gadget, Tintin, or Mad started becoming available in Prague, and some exciting things started happening in the Czech comics. Kaja Saudek /1935/, who let everybody know emphatically that he was there, was soon to be called ”the King of the Czech Comics”. He grew up upon the Marvel superheroes and during his maturation as an artist he created an original style of his own based on exaggerated perspectives with a preference for minute jokes in the background of the individual pictures. As the first Czech he began to devote himself to adult comics and his dynamic drawings almost shocked the unprepared readers, leaving an indelible impression on them. Although the censorship of the time was inattentive, Saudek’s serials looked so western-style that many of them had to be left half finished by command of the ‘upper echelon’. Yet Kája Saudek felt he had his chance, so he started working on an ambitious cycle about the adventures of a beautiful doctor Muriel and a winged man from the future. Milos Macourek’s /1929/ script was inspired by Forest’s Barbarella with no attempt to conceal this fact. The whole story was full of the intoxicating and naive atmosphere of those times. Saudek had finished the first two parts of the series, over 250 pages put together, when the Warsaw Pact tanks arrived. In the end, out of the whole epic only a short black and white preview could be published in a weekly magazine Mlady svet /Young World/.
This period also brought about the tragicomic events associated with Octobriana, the only comics character who was born in Czechoslovakia and yet gained a certain reputation in the West. The Czech scriptwriter Petr Sadecky /1943-1991/ was the initiator of an adventure comics story starring a charming female hero, which was intended for a western publishing house. The heroine was supposed to be called Amazona, whose mission was to lead savages in their fight against civilization. The drawing was handled by the experienced illustrator Bohumil Konecny /1918-1990/. Even Zdenek Burian /1905-1981/, a well-known painter, was invited to the project and was asked to design the covers. However, in 1967 Sadecky emigrated and took most of Konecny’s and Burian’s works with him. He renamed Amazona to Octobriana, adding a red star on her forehead and turning her into a warrior fighting for true Communism. What is more, he passed the story off as a product of a fictitious Ukraine underground organization PPP – Progressive Political Pornography. The album with Octobriana’s adventures was published in Great Britain and even though the whole fraud soon came out, for years Kone?ný and Burian were in trouble with the Communist regime on account of the blonde savage. However, what is fairly ”comic” about the whole thing is that a few British second-rate publishing houses have continued publishing new Octobriana's adventures up to the present.
In 1967 comic books with re-editions of some older stories of the Fast Arrows started to be published too. When the stocks of the stories ran out, Jaroslav Foglar and the new artist Marko Cermak /1940/ began to work on new episodes. Also a number of new comic strips started to appear together with the Fast Arrows comic books, which gave birth to the first Czech comics magazine focused on young readers. Unfortunately it was banned in the course of the progressing normalization. A children’s comics magazine called Ctyrlistek /Four-leaf Clover/, which first saw the light of day in 1968 thanks to its spiritual father and cartoonist Jaroslav Nemecek /1944/, was more successful. The main heroes of the magazine were four anthropomorphic animals who soon drew level with Sekora’s characters. As well as Fast Arrows, the magazine Ctyrlistek offered room for some other children’s series – so innocent that even the greatest censorship faultfinders couldn’t find anything objectionable. Although the magazine wasn’t allowed to be published as a regular monthly and appeared intermittently nine times a year, it survived the rest of the Communist era without greater difficulty, ranking among the press that was hardest to get hold of.
The 1970s swept away all the hopes of the previous decade and Communists sat tight in the saddle. Kaja Saudek, who tried to find a way to cope with the new situation, and after having some bitter experiences with foreign publishers, focused, willy-nilly, on the home market. He tried to find a non-controversial theme and thus sought a historical topic; for Mlady svet he drew stories about a noble highwayman called Lips Tullian. After its ban, in despair, he agreed to transfer the propaganda TV series Tricet pripadu majora Zemana /Thirty Cases of Major Zeman/ into comics, but even this was not approved by the officials; thus Saudek’s comics disappeared from legal Czech magazines for a long time. The situation for young people’s comics was slightly better. The youth magazine ABC, containing lively comic adventure series, appeared regularly and became the flagship for artists like Milos Novak, Frantisek Kobík, or Milan Ressel. A few very good quality comics were published in Ohnicek /Little Fire/; such as the sci-fi stories Profesor Dugan /Professor Dugan/ and Pavouk Nephila /Nephila the Spider/. Both were the product of a collaboration between Ivo Pechar /1938/, a scriptwriter, and Theodor Pistek /1932/, an artist well-known in the world for his costume designs for Miloš Forman’s films.
Slowly, in the second half of the 1970s the underground scene started to develop. The first herald was represented by a comic samizdat called Kombajn /Harvester/, the publishing of which was launched in 1977 by the students associated with Martin Nemec /1957/ at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. The magazine had only an ephemeral life and contained very avant-garde works. Nevertheless, some of its contributors /Jan Patrik Krasny, Libor Pav/ remained loyal to the genre and continued to draw for the magazine even after the fall of the Communism. Two years later Kaja Saudek also got down to creating underground comics. He was taken under the protective wings of the Czech Spelaeology Society, which for the rest of the totalitarian regime secretly published his albums with uninspiring covers of its internal print, which belied the content. The best Saudek’s creation from this period of time was Arnal a dva draci zuby /Arnal and Two Dragon’s Teeth/, which drew upon Ondrej Neff’s /1945/ script. It depicts the adventures of a rather dim-witted superhero in a post-catastrophic world and was eventually translated into Polish, Hungarian, Finnish, and Norwegian. Another outstanding personality of the underground comics is Vladimir Tucapsky /1958/. He drew during the 1980s and published in very limited quantities series of comics appealing to the "alternative scene". In his creations we can find hand-painted passages /each piece is an original/, wild collages, objects sticking out of the pages or even deliberately burnt-out, as well as "soft-soaked" places. Tucapsky's fortitude is admirable in itself as he has produced and continues to produce even today, with only minor interruptions in activity, and always regardless of external conditions.
During the 1980s it started to be clear that the regime was slowly but surely losing its breadth of control over the Czech society and the appearance of comics started to take on the traditional rather than the exceptional. The breaking point was the year of 1985, when two essential events occurred. Firstly, the first number of ABC Special was launched, which was a collection of comics published earlier in the parent magazine. Thus, after years something finally appeared that could be labelled as a comics magazine proper. Simultaneously, the first year of the comics competition "Bemík" took place, which was held for the next five years. Its organizers were enthusiasts and the works for the competition weren’t published anywhere. Nevertheless, the event was paramount not only in exposing young authors to different drawing techniques but also in motivating them through pitting their ability against the rest and the best. Some of them started publishing in sci-fi fanzines /Makropulos, Trifid/ and a few years later most of these young authors became contributors to classic magazines too.
The Velvet Revolution in 1989 swept away with the degenerating system and the comics stage got wild spin on events. Saudek’s spelaeo-comics were published in hundreds of thousands of copies and newsagent’s stalls were glutted with comics magazines such as Kometa /Comet/, Arena /Arena/, Stopa /Footprint/, and others. Thanks to them, several great cartoonists were able to present their works to the general public and names like Miroslav Schoenberg, Vladimir Hanus, Lubomír Hlavsa, Bohumil Fencl, or Jana Komarkova became widely known. Soon afterwards a fairly successful full-length film based on the Fast Arrows was made. A group of comics fans founded the Czechoslovak Comics Club, which organized regular meetings called "Days of Czechoslovak Comics". All the same, in new economic conditions, things soon started to take a turn for the worse. The Czech market was too small since the majority of people perceived comics as something infantile. So, the original enthusiasm faded away somewhere and comics magazines went bankrupt. Kája Saudek digressed from comics and began drawing illustrations for erotic magazines instead. Similarly, most of the other creators redirected the course of their interest to whatever they were able to make a living from.
In the mid-1990s the situation in the Czech comics looked as unfavourable as in the period of the deepest totalitarianism. The hangover could not have been worse. Only Ctyrlístek preserved its position despite the hard competition from Mickey Mouse & co.. Fortunately, a new generation of young enthusiasts and comic strip creators who remembered Communism only very dimly started asserting themselves. Thus, in 1997, Crew /Blood/, a comics magazine, started up and has been publishing sometimes better, other times worse Anglo-American comics since then. Works by Czech authors are included only sporadically. Of course, its merits in upbringing a new generation of comics readers are no doubt unquestionable. At the turn of the century the first fanzine Aargh! appeared, which aims at home production and so does Pot /Sweat/, which appeared a few months later. Simultaneously, the first year of the comics meeting COMICZON took place. It is chiefly due to these events that most of the people connected with comics start looking to the future with cautious optimism at the moment. The potential of quality Czech authors is considerable; the important thing is how quickly comics will succeed in becoming a standard part of Czech culture.