Animal Farm; or, a Short and Somewhat Political History of Comics in Poland

The Goat

Polish comics began in 1919 with the publication in the Lvov satirical weekly Szczutek (“Fillip”) of With Fire and Sword; or, The Adventures of Mad Grześ, about a young soldier who battles enemies of Poland on various fronts.  For the next twenty years, the comics market developed slowly but systematically. Comics were published in magazines for both children and adults. Most were imported—among them Prince Valiant, Tarzan, and Mickey Mouse. The range of themes was broad, from propaganda and satire to gore and science fiction to tales for children, and the dominant form was “paracomics”: the text not in balloons but under the pictures, and often in rhyme.

Without a doubt the most popular of the Polish comics before World War II was Makuszynski and Walentynowicz’sGoat Matołek (Dopey Goat), about the adventures of a goat in search of the city Pacanów (“Blockhead City”). Now it is considered a children’s classic, but opinions differed when it debuted. Literary News wrote, “These are the adventures not only of a moron but also for morons. . . . This is trash of the common variety.” Similar criticism of comics persists in the Polish media to this day

Under the German occupation of 1939, the Polish comics industry came to a halt. Shortly after the war, from 1945 to 1948, a few publishers tried to bring back the prewar titles such as New World of Adventures, but the Communist regime did not like comics: they were a product of the vile West, of rotten pop culture. And so their publication was forbidden. In 1952, at the peak of Stalinism in Poland, the weekly Film wrote about American comics: “Supermen, astroboys, Tarzans, and Jack Carters are spreading among young people the cult of military invasion, racism, sadism, and sensuality, as well as the myth of ‘science’ used to exterminate the human race.”

The Monkey

That attitude changed only after the1956 post-Stalinism thaw. The comics weekly Adventure was allowed to publish its  first issue in ten years: it contained adventure, crime, and gore, and featured the debut of Janusz Christa, who would go on to create Kajko and Kokosz. Politics also drove the appearance in the scout magazine World of Youth of the chimpanzee astronaut Titus, created by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski. The strip was approved only after the successful mission of the first Sputnik in 1956: the government decided it was worth promoting space travel to young people—a decision that also led to the official approval of the publication of science fiction. Titus is unquestionably the most important and popular hero of Polish comics ever; his eighty-seven-year-old creator is working on his next book.

The authorities still disapproved of comics. Adventure was closed after only two years. The official reason was the paper shortage, but more likely the editors had seen too many articles and memoirs about World War II that dealt not with the Soviet army but with the Polish underground resistance and with the Poles in the West who fought.

The Communists disliked comics, but recognized they could be used as propaganda. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few classic series were launched: the adventures of Captain Kloss, a Polish-Soviet agent who worked as a superhero spy in German Abwera in World War II; Podziemny Front, about Communist partisan fighters; and Captain Żbik (“Captain Wildcat”), a good, capable, and handsome militiaman who solves crimes and helps children. Through these exemplary characters, young readers could learn the correct version of history and develop a positive attitude toward the system.

The main sources of comics in the 1960s and 1970s were World of Youth, which came out a few times a week, and local papers. To this day I have at home—like any lover of comics in Poland—thick folders in which I pasted comics episodes cut from the pages of World of Youth. When I showed them to my eight-year-old daughter, she asked, “Daddy, why didn’t you go to the kiosk and buy a regular comic book?” Growing up, thankfully, in a normal world, she couldn’t understand my emotional account of searching many hours for a kiosk in Warsaw that had the latest issue of a desired magazine.

Some of the comic artists of the 1960s and 1970s made it into the Polish comics Hall of Fame. Grzegorz Rosiński drew Thorgal for many years and is a great star in the European market. Tadeusz Baranowski (Orient Man, Kudłaczek and Bąbelek [Shaggy and Bubbles]) is a master of the absurd who plays with language and with the formal layout of frames and panels. Szarlota Paweł created a charming fantasy world about everyday life in Poland in Jonka, Jonek, and Kleks (Jonka, Jonek, and Spot). Janusz Christa made the longest Polish comic “Kajtek and Koko in Space” (more than 3 years of daily strips) and popular comic cycle “Kajko and Kokosz” about adventures of two friends living in fictional middlecentury era. Jerzy Wróblewski created a lot of science fiction, criminal and western stories. Bohdan Butenko wrote the children’s strip Gapiszon (Woolgatherer), while Andrzej Mleczko produced the satirical Adventures of a Cheerful Garbageman, and Zbigniew Lengren offered cultural commentary in Filutek (Little Rogue).

In the second half of the 1970s, science fiction dominated  Polish comics. The magazines Relax and Alfa—both announced as monthlies, but publishing out irregularly—launched. They presented historical, criminal, comic and science fiction comics made by Polish artists, but also imported works from Czech and Hungary. The monthly  Fantastyka, launched in 1982, was dedicated to science fiction but dealt with all of pop culture. A few publishers started their own series; the current bestseller Thorgal debuted. Fantastyka introduced Polch’s Funky Koval, adding gore, politics, and sex to Polish comics. Zbigniew Kasprzak also began his career with science fiction; today he draws for the French Market (Halloween Blues, Yans).

The market expanded despite the constraints of censorship,  the lack of funding for foreign licenses, and the poor quality of print. Nevertheless, the 1970s and 1980s saw the appearance of a large group of artists and young fans. It was from the ranks of these fans that today’s comics publishers, critics, and journalists come.

The end of the 1980s brought an economic crash. The Communist government could not supply its citizens with enough toilet paper, let alone paper for comics. Strips were printed in dreadful quality or discontinued. Fortunately that government met its deserved end.

The Hedgehog

In 1989 we began building a new, free, prosperous Poland, and—so hoped all fans—a new, free, and prosperous comics market. Censorship was no more; the borders had been opened; and demand, rather than the whim of Party secretaries, began to determine supply.

The beginning was promising. For the first time since 1939, comics featured American superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Punisher, etc.). Several publications were imported from France (Tintin, Chninkel, Valerian, Astérix, Lucky Luke). Young Polish writers began not only drawing their own stories but also publishing magazines (AQQ, Superboom, Awantura), organizing conventions, and creating fandom. Comics for children were produced on a mass basis (among them the Disney weekly Donald Duck). The two most important artists to debut in this pioneer period are Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz and Przemysław Truściński. The major event of the field, the International Festival of Comics in Łodz held every October, celebrated its twentieth year in 2009.

But lean times followed the boom. It turned out that the enormous readership of comics in Poland (editions ran in hundreds of thousands of copies) resulted from the lack of other entertainment for young consumers. Now comics had to compete with videos, computer games, and popular fiction. More and more publishers closed; many Polish comic artists could display their work only at shows and festivals.

But in the second half of the 1990s, comics regained their ground. Their advances came from several directions. The leader was Egmont, the publisher for whom I have had the pleasure of working for fifteen years. Sales of Donald Duck reached two hundred thousand copies a week. In 1998, Egmont introduced the monthly magazine The  World of Comics, and then series of French, American, and Japanese titles and reprints of Polish classics, in addition to new Polish titles. Egmont initiated several contests and anthologies for young creators, including September, a collection of short stories about World War II, and Man in a Test Tube, about abortion, cloning, euthanasia, and other ethical problems of medicine.

Small family-run presses—JPF and Waneko—brought manga to the market. Other new publishers included Mandragora, Post, Kultura Gniewu (Culture of Anger), Taurus, and Timoff. Serial comics began to be published by magazines devoted to computer games and hip-hop culture and by newspapers, for example, the popular series Forty-Eight Pages, by Adler and Piątkowski, an instantly engrossing parody of pop culture films and books and of computer games.

Finally, Produkt, an in-your-face alternative magazine, brought out a group of new artists and series—among them Śledziński’s Freedom Residences and Minkiewicz’s Wilq (Wulf). With the third title—Jeż Jerzy (George the Hedgehog; the Polish is pronounced “Yezh Yezhi”)—by Leśniak and Skarżycki—they set the tone for young readers of comics. This work was carelessly drawn, it was humorous, but it captured accurately the life of modern Poland, especially the world of teenagers and people in their twenties: their aspirations, their problems, their fun. At last free of the censor, comics could laugh at unpopular politicians, national shortcomings, and general human stupidity.

Let’s take a closer look at George. This spiky hedgehog always wears a baseball cap. He travels by skateboard, smokes pot, drinks beer, hits on women, fights with skinheads. When ecological activists urge him to return to the forest and live in harmony with nature, he replies, “To the forest? Me without a cold brew, a hot body, and my board? Are you out of your mind?”

The new realistic comics—in mystery, fantasy, or adventure—are less popular, although creators of this genre are becoming more successful. Piotr Kowalski debuted a year ago with his fantasy cycle Gail and now works in the francophone publishing market, where he publishes his series Le Branche Lincoln. Marek Oleksicki debuted his Slavic fantasy Changeling and now draws for the American Avatar Press.   Other popular and critical successes in this area include Mateusz Skutnik’s Revolution and Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz’s Mikropolis, and Karol Kalinowski’s Łauma. A new group of paradocumentary, historical comics address important events in twentieth-century Poland: the Battle of Westerplatte in September 1939, the Solidarity movement, the murder of the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko by the Communists. The daily press opened the door to comic strips, most often running international favorites like Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes (of course). But Polish strips also appeared, among them the work of Marek Raczkowski, an excellent observer of life and human behavior, and a master of the absurd, surprise ending.

The current situation of comics in Poland is not bad. Several publishers are considering bringing out titles from all the treasures of world comics—in France, the United States, Japan. We also have Polish rising stars, and some young illustrators have begun selling their work in Europe and the U.S. The media cover important publishing events, public appearances of artists, conventions. Children’s magazines sell in the tens of thousands, creating—we hope—an adult readership in the future. Comics conventions, though obviously not as big as those in the United States or France, draw two to three thousand people, and we often have as guests of honor such world-famous creators as Gaiman, Carey, McKean, Sakai, Moebius, Manara, Rosiński.

Yet comics in Poland face a number of problems. Although they are seen as a “mass-culture,” popular phenomenon, they are more a medium for hobbyists. They are read by young men who live in big cities, have a higher education or are students, and enjoy incomes—their own or their parents’—that is above average. They are more interested than the average citizen in culture—which contradicts the stereotype that comics are for semiliterate dropouts.

The price of comics is in fact a little lower than in Western Europe, yet high for the Polish consumer. Each new volume of Thorgal may sell twenty thousand copies in the course of a year, but an average print run is in the range of one to two thousand copies. Even the most popular young authors cannot support themselves by writing comics—they live by drawing storyboards for ad agencies, and their creative work is done after hours. Much of the media still does not recognize the existence of this art form, and many critics still practice the old cultural prejudice, seeing comics as something inferior, not understanding their language, aesthetics, special qualities, their difference from literature or film. Reviews of weak films or books often characterize them as being on a comic book—read “primitive,” “simple,” “infantile”—level. In contemporary encyclopedias we still have this definition of comics: “A genre of popular culture, for purposes of entertainment, found in magazines or stand-alone booklets.” Such encyclopedia writers are apparently unaware of Bilal, Moebius, Gaiman, Miller, Manara, Pratt, Moore, Spiegelman.

But I am an optimist. How could I not be, who as a kid of ten combed the Warsaw streets for the latest number of World of Youth or Relax? Who as a youth of twenty published his first stories for comics? Who as a man of thirty was responsible for the publication of the most popular children’s magazine in Poland? And responsible, too, for the largest imprint of comics for adults, in which practically all the authors appeared for whose adventure stories I had combed the streets two decades earlier. Today, as a doddering forty-year-old, I see in bookstores that the comics shelves hold European and American classics; I read about comics in the most important newspapers; I note the Polish names in the catalogs of foreign presses.  So I believe that—provided they can avoid politics-- comics as both an art and as a business will continue to develop in Poland.

Copyright 2010 by Tomasz Kołodziejczak. Translation copyright 2010 by Michael Kandel. All rights reserved.