According to Tim Pilcher and Brad Brook's The Essential Guide to World Comics, "Of all the countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Poland has perhaps the largest comics scene -- you could almost call it an industry." My host and translator, Miroslaw Filiciak , took me to several comics shops on my visit -- the largest of which was located in the railroad terminal at the center of the city, a location which reflects the connection in many people's minds between comics (and other forms of popular fiction) and railroad transportation. This picture was taken of me reading some of the local product outside the train station in front of some murals (covered with graffiti) that suggest several of the other graphic arts traditions in Poland.
And here's a somewhat more traditional form of graphic arts -- some remarkable murals painted on the fronts of buildings in the old section of Warsaw. This one is signed and dated in the mid-1950s.
(By the way, thanks to Cynthia Jenkins for all of the great pictures of Warsaw I have been running over the past few entries).
Pilcher and Brooks tell us, "As in most countries, comics in Poland have been looked down upon as trash for subnormal people and slow children. Much of this attitude was created by the communist regime, which on one hand dismissed comics as imperialist garbage and on the other used them for propaganda amongst children and adolescents. During these years, such morally edifying comics like Kapitan Kloss, Kapitan Zbik, and the still published Tytus Romek I A Tomek had their salad days." Kapitan Kloss and Kapitan Zbik were among those works of Communist era popular culture whose loss was being lamented by nostalgia buffs at the Kultura 2.0 conference.
After the collapse of communist, independent comics emerged to fill a gap left by the end of state subsidized publishing of comics. In some cases, these new companies simply reprinted comics from abroad -- including the pulpy Prince Valiant inspired Thorgal series which happened to have been co-created by a Polish comics artist, Grzegorz Rosinski. Rosinski was the star of the Polish comic market (he prepared some of the best books of the Kapitan Zbik series) and wanted to cooperate with publishers on the other side of the iron curtain, but after the fifth part of Thorgal the martial law began in 1981 and there was no more possibility for postal cooperation. So he moved to Belgium where the author of the series lived. As a result, Thorgal is the Polish comic best known in the west.
This image suggests the larger than life heroics and blood and thunder fights that characterize the Thorgal series as a whole. Thorgal continues to be enormously popular if its high visibility not only in the comics shops but also the bookstores across Warsaw are any indication. It commands almost as much shelf space in the comics shop we visited as the entire output of DC comics.
This page comes from a graphic telling of the adventures of Janosik, who has been compared to Robin Hood (Text by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski and illustrations by Jerzy Skarzynski, 1972). The comic is an adaptation of a popular television series about the folk hero. Jerzy Skarzynski has been a member of the artistic elite of Poland and the most known theatre's stage designer -- given the work a reputation in both high art and popular culture circles.
Here's what one website tells us about this traditional Polish folk hero:
Juro (George) Janosik was a robber, who with a group of friends, plundered, robbed, and burned the houses of the rich. And was said to operate on those on both sides of the Tatra Mountains, Polish and Slovak, and hide out in the forests at the foot of the Tatra mountains. However, according to legend he never harmed the poor in any way; on the contrary, he gave them money and gifts. Hence, the story circulated that Janosik robbed the rich to feed the poor, and the comparison with Robin Hood. Folk tales present Janosik as a hero who had supernatural powers; a magical resistance to arrows, bullets and wounds achieved with the help of a herb he carried in his pocket, an ability to move from one place to another quicker than any other human being; and was able to leave the impression of his palm in a slab of stone.
To my western eye, this graphic style -- including the intense use of color shading -- owes something to the American horror and adventure comics produced by E.C. in the 1950s -- especially the work of B. Krigstein. Here, Janosik does battle with a bear, using only his belt, an image that recalls Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as much as it does Robin Hood.
Another popular early comics series in Poland, Janusz Christa's Kajko i Kokosz, has been compared to the Asterik books from France. It was so successful at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s that it ran to 20 volumes and has since been adopted into both films and video games.
As one might expect, given the country's history of ideological ferment and turmoil, many of the independent comics are deeply political in their content -- though the subject matter may range from student protest movements, as in the case of Ryszard Dabrowski's Likwidator & Zeielona Gwardia which reminds me a bit of Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez's Trashman, a key icon of the American underground comics movement.
to gender politics, as in the case of Agata "Endo" Nowicka's inventive and stylistically diverse Projekt:czlowiek, an autobiographical comic dealing with a young woman's pregnancy and the breakup with the child's father. The book mixes and matches stylistic elements with wild abandon but in the process gains the immediacy one associates with the best cultural projects of third wave feminist world wide.
The haunting Achtung Zelig! (Krzyszlof Gawronkiewicz and Krystian Rosenberg) uses surrealistic images -- including the metaphor of the rounding up and slaughter of kittens -- to depict the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. One can not help but compare its use of animal imagery to Art Spigelman's Maus which offered a much less sympathetic depiction of the relationship between the Poles and the Jews during this period. The Kultura Gniewu publishing house is currently preparing a book which pairs artists and writers from Poland and Israel on stories that comment on their shared historical experiences.
Some of the books deploy images one might associate with the Socialist Realist art of the Stalinist era and deploys it either to comment on contemporary political issues, as in the case of this page from ComX, an important underground comicbook...
Or these images from Poznanski 1956 Czerwiec (Maciej Jasinski, Jacek Michalski, Witold Tkaczyk, Wiktor Zwikiewicz) which depict an uprising against the Soviets through images which might have come from Soviet poster art or juxtapositions which recall the work of Sergei Eisenstein.
At the same time, we can see signs of Polish appropriation and transformation of images from American popular culture, ranging from the use of hip hop iconography in Adoptuj Rapera (Pierweza Paracirafowa and Gra Komiksowa), a work which is also designed to function as a choose your own adventure style game....
Or the use of superhero characters (borrowed liberally from both DC and Marvel, a sure sign that they didn't get permission) in Piotr Drzewicki's "Good Morning U.S.A." (which was reprinted in Komiks: Anthologia Komiksu Polskiego (edited by Najlepsi Mtodzi Rysownicy).
The Komicks anthology which features work by younger Polish artists includes an exciting array of visual styles and techniques, suggesting that Polish comics, like their counterparts in Western Europe, are understood at least in part within an avant garde context. There are wild experiments in color, as in these images from Marek Adamik's Weronika Sama W Domu....
or in Piotr Kowalski's "Niebezpieczne Zwiazki" which captures the excitement of the Polish rock scene.
There are stories which show strong gothic influences, such as this work by Aleksandra Czubek...
or in Rafal Szlapa's "Spotkanie"....
Or there may be surrealist influences as in this panel from Andrzej Janicki's "Przypadek Rajmunda K"....
On the other end of the spectrum altogether, there can be lyrical painted images, such as Piotr Kania's "On Obraz i Ona"...
Each of these images give us a glimpse into the artistic traditions shaping contemporary Polish comics. Some people I spoke with on the trip were surprised that I was bringing back comics in a language that I can not read. I will admit at times to frustration in wanting to know more about these books, but the pictures are so evocative that they communicate a great deal about Polish culture. (Not that I wouldn't welcome any Polish readers who wanted to send us a translation of the texts contained in these images). I always try to collect comics when I visit other countries and by this point, I have a pretty far ranging collection, but this is one of the best hauls of comics I have ever brought back from a trip to a foreign culture.
Niech zyje polski komiks!