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Comics culture in Czechia
May 8, 2003

Comics culture in Czechia

Bringing a new graphic art form to Czech audiences is a job for superheroes

Anyone who still thinks that comics are just kid stuff should spend a few minutes with Martin Trojan. Actually, that’s all the time Trojan can spare these days. He’s hard at work at his Comics Centrum shop and publishing company, which recently released the Czech version of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Probuzeni dabla) — the second volume in the Hellboy series and the second graphic novel published by Comics Centrum.

“I’ve been interested in comics since I was young,” says Trojan, 32, who grew up reading Asterix from France and local titles including Ctyrlistek and Rychle sipy, which were among the small selection available at the time. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 1990s that he got involved with comics professionally.

At the time, he was working for the graphic design studio DTP. One of their clients needed some work done on a magazine about comics, Crew (pronounced krev, the Czech word meaning “blood”), now a staple of local comic book culture. Eventually, says Trojan, it “became clear that fans need a place to buy their favorite comics without having to look for them all over town. And so Comics Centrum was born.”

When Trojan opened the small shop in October last year, he had no plans to take his idea any further. After he was approached by American publisher Dark Horse Comics, however, his plans changed. In February, Comics Centrum published a translation of The Last Temptation, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli, under the title Alice Cooper: Posledni pokuseni.

The Last Temptation is based on a story conceived by writer Gaiman and rock singer Alice Cooper for Cooper’s 1994 album and tour of the same name. It tells the story of Stephen, a young boy forced to confront his fears when he meets a mysterious character called the Showman — based on the Alice Cooper persona –and becomes trapped in his Theatre of the Real.

Trojan says he was drawn to the book by both Gaiman’s story and Zulli’s stunning artwork. In the future, he hopes to expand his publishing venture “to focus on American titles that are not very well known in this country” — comics like Vampirella, 30 Days of Night and The Crow.

“Thanks to the fact that several essential comics have been published here (Maus, Sin City, 300, etc.) people at least know what comics are all about,” he says. That represents a significant step in a country with no comics tradition.

A cultural experiment

There were virtually no comics available in the Czech Republic under communism, and certainly not classic American titles such as Superman and Batman. Acquiring those meant having contacts or reading third-, fourth- or fifth-hand copies. As a result, comic books did not become part of the culture.

As interest in comics grew after the fall of communism in 1989, so did the number of titles published here — but slowly. Even today, with comics showing up in more and more shop windows, there is still no way to gauge the size of the fledgling comics publishing industry. There is no real infrastructure for selling them, either. Comics Centrum is in fact the only store in Prague devoted solely to the sale of comics.

Crew editor-in-chief and bookstore owner Jiri Pavlovsky says, “People here were raised to think that comics are imperialistic trash for people who can’t read,” which is the reason public opinion of comics has been negative. “Comics didn’t appear until after the [1989] revolution and had a pretty difficult start until people got used to them.”

By one count, 13 separate publishers have gone under in the short history of Czech comics. Pavlovsky, 34, says the problem in the years immediately following 1989 was that publishers thought too big, issuing print runs of around 100,000 and then selling maybe only 10,000 copies.

Crew began with a run of approximately 2,000 copies and, despite a slow start, has managed to endure; the first issue of Crew2 hit stands in late April. The company has also released special issues of the magazine and has published titles including Lobo, Wolverine and Garfield, with others in the works.

“The hardest part about comics,” says Pavlovsky, “is showing people that the series is ongoing. People are afraid to buy the first part for fear that the next one may not come out, which has happened several times before.” Sometimes it can take two or three issues to build reader confidence — sometimes even six, as was the case with Garfield, a now-popular title.

Pavlovsky’s goal is to create a quality product that is not too expensive and to concentrate on more story-oriented comics. He says he now sees a comic-book generation emerging, one that grew up at least partially on Crew. “But it will still take another generation for comics to be more common, to become a regular part of life,” he says.

According to translator Viktor Janis, the future of comics in the Czech Republic is uncertain, as comic books have not yet seeped into the collective subconscious. “It’s still a big experiment,” he says. “It’s very difficult to revive a tradition that didn’t really exist.”

In other words

Janis, 28, has been translating professionally since 1994, when his translation of Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed (Orel pristal) was published. And while he has been an avid reader his whole life — a necessary trait of a good translator, he says — he knew very little about comic books and even less about American comics.

Janis’s other credits include short stories by Graham Greene, Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory (Vosi tovarna) and Louis De Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Mandolina kapitana Corelliho) — probably his most famous translation. So comics were a bit of a leap. When dealing with authors of the caliber of Gaiman, Alan Moore or Frank Miller, however, you need an experienced translator “to ensure that a good comic isn’t killed by a bad translation,” says Pavlovsky.

In 1999, Pavlovsky approached Janis and asked him to translate Preludes & Nocturnes (Preludia & nokturna), the first book (of 10) of Gaiman’s The Sandman. At the time, says Janis, “I knew I was skating on extremely thin ice.” Not only was The Sandman virtually unknown, but most of Gaiman’s other works also had yet to be translated, and his popularity was marginal. Furthermore, the book is loaded with quotations and references to various works of literature and to the DC Comics universe (The Sandman was originally published by DC’s Vertigo imprint), as well as events that occur later in the series.

“In 1999, I didn’t even have access to the Internet yet,” says Janis, a fact that made finding the sources of many references extremely difficult. Nor had he read the rest of the series, so it was impossible to know how important certain small details might become later. “If I had not read the second part in time,” he notes, “I would not have known that Nada is a woman.” Nada is referred to only by her sexless name, and then only in two panels, of the first book.

Janis calls himself a “culture smuggler” and likens his work to replanting a flower, roots and all, to not only make the language understandable to a Czech audience but also to give the work the same significance and meaning, both culturally and contextually. To that end, Janis has to decipher literally every word — be it as blunt as a direct quote or as obscure as a fragment of text written in the background of an image.

Also, since English is a much more concise language than Czech, it isn’t always easy to fit the same idea, pun or joke into the space of a word balloon — or to come up with an equivalent for a one-word expression like homeboy. “In that sense,” he says, “comics are more difficult [than straight prose].”

But making it all work is Janis’s job, and he clearly takes pride in the results.

“It’s like interpreting Baroque music,” he says. “It will never sound like it did in the Baroque period. But you’re also not performing it for Baroque listeners.”

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