Tomáš Prokůpek (born in 1975) is a Czech comic artist and scriptwriter, editor, curator and comic theoretician. In 2000, together with Tomáš Kučerovský, he founded the comics magazine AARGH!, which he still edits today. His short comics have been published in Croatia, Italy, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Slovenia (in Stripburger). His theoretical texts have appeared in many Czech periodicals, as well as abroad, for example in Zeszyty Komiksowe(Poland) and International Journal of Comic Art (US). In this interview Tomáš reveals his views on Czech comics, their history and the present-day situation, as well as his own work. He was interviewed by DK and GR.
2002 – Czech Comics Award for the best script-writer
2003 – Award for the best alternative story, International Comics Showroom, Belgrade, Serbia
2006 – Politikin Zabavnik Award, International Comics Showroom, Belgrade, Serbia
2008 – 1st Award, International Festival of Comics, Lodz, Poland
2007 – Generation Zero – New Wave of Czech and Slovak Comics; Brno, Prague, Poznan, Lodz, Paris, Stockholm
2009 – Returns of Comet – Czech Comica 1989 – 2009; Brno, Prague
Which would be, in your opinion, the very first Czech comic? Do Czech comics have any history prior to the Second World War?
It depends what you mean by comic. If we keep to a strict definition that it must have speech bubbles, the oldest comic I know of came out 10 April 1906 in the 10th issue of the satirical magazine Neruda, under the title A good idea over gold! The author was Josef Lada, who later became famous as the illustrator of Hašek’s novelThe Good Soldier Švejk. Of course it’s possible that there were older comics with text bubbles. An illustrated series by Karel Ladislav Thuma came out as early as the 1890s in the children’s magazine Malý čtenář (Young Reader), which managed without speech bubbles or accompanying verses – completely without text. Then there are also older examples of sequential stories, usually published in satirical magazines, which are however helped along by accompanying texts under the frame, usually in rhyme.
Was there any significant change in the Czech comics scene after the Velvet revolution?
Of course! Under communism comics were at first completely banned as “imperialist trash”, and although the communists’ hatred toward comics let up slightly later, they could only eke out an existence in children’s magazines, and were viewed as an inferior form of literature. The only exception, when comics had it slightly better, was a short period at the end of the 1960s when it briefly appeared that the totalitarian regime could be reformed. At that time Kája Saudek found his place in the sun, the first and for a long time the last creator to make comics for older readers. But then August 1968 came along, the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in and everything returned to the way it was before.
And after the Velvet Revolution that all changed. All the bans were dropped, there was an enormous hunger for comics, which brought about a great boom in comics. That ended however in 1993 – it turned out that television and the rise in interactive media were more interesting for the masses. At the same time it became evident that due to the interrupted continuity in development there was a lack of strong authors who could speak to readers with their subject matter. This was accompanied by a collapse in distribution and other negative by-products of the transition to a market economy. A new generation of authors didn’t crop up until the start of the next millennium. They founded a few underground magazines in which they could freely experiment, and some of them are now even making a name for themselves outside the circle of traditional comic readers. Thematically and stylistically contemporary authors cover essentially all imaginable genres of comics.
Which are, in your opinion, today’s most important Czech publishers of comics? What are the differences in their approach to publishing comics and in their editorial policy?
In 1997 the publisher Crew was founded (a play on words with krev – blood), bringing Anglo-American mainstream production to the Czech Republic. Four years later the publisher Mot came onto the scene, dealing with more ambitious comics, primarily from a francophone environment – it brought Czech readers David B.’s Epileptic, for example. In the mid-90s it wasn’t possible to come across a comic book in a normal book store; now practically every one has at least one shelf with illustrated stories. Large publishing houses have also started to take an interest in comics – BB Artworks with Crew, but aside from pop they also publish quality titles, primarily from America. Labyrint mainly supports domestic authors, Argo fishes in French and America waters, Albatros publishes Tintin and Thorgal…
What’s the availability of foreign comics like in Czech Republic? Are there a lot of translations being made?
The Czech Republic has caught up on at least part of the lag that arose under communism, and readers have lived to see translations of a number of key works – from Spiegelman’s Maus and Burns’s Black Hole to, for example, Thompson’sBlankets or Peeters’s Blue Pills. I think it’s very important for the domestic scene to see all the different appearances comics can have. Surprisingly, manga hasn’t really caught on here yet, though the first seedlings are starting to poke through, so it’s likely a question of the near future.
This year, Komiksfest, the biggest Czech comics festival, will take place for the 4th time. What is, in your opinion, its importance for the scene? Are there any other comics festivals that you would like to point out?
Komiksfest is without a doubt highly important. One of its main goals is to expand awareness about the fact that comics are a universal format that can contain any kind of content – i.e. including an artistic and serious content. People still have preconceptions left over from communism here, and Komiksfest plays an important role in gradually overcoming them. Aside from that there is also the awarding of prizes for the best domestic works, exhibitions, interesting guests and all those other nice things you associate with festivals. Another festival is Crwecon, which is focused primarily on more hardcore comics fans. But I think both festivals complement each other nicely.
What are the possibilities for Czech cartoonists to publish their works in publications that are not primarily aimed at publishing comics (newspapers, magazines, periodicals in general)? Is it possible for a Czech cartoonist to make a living drawing comics?
The situation isn’t ideal, but it’s getting better nonetheless. Illustrators who make their living by making comics and comic strips can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but newspapers and magazines are becoming more and more open and more and more frequently experimenting with the use of comics. The current economic crisis has put the brakes on the promising development however, as all periodicals are feeling the squeeze right now.
You personally take part in a comics magazine called AARGH!. What can you tell us about it?
AARGH! started in 2000 as the first of the new (first) wave of comic fanzines. Basically there was no platform for young domestic authors then, so Tomáš Kučerovský and I said to ourselves that no one else is likely to do it for us, so we set about publishing one. We were inspired by the underground publications that Vladimír Tučapský had been making since the 80s, and the Polish scene had a strong influence on us too (particularly the magazine AQQ), but then we also discoveredStripburger, which also pushed us forward in some areas. We publish authors from both the Czech Republic and other countries, primarily from central and eastern Europe. Personally I’d define the content of AARGH! as a mix of alternative and intelligent mainstream; sometimes we’re called an artist magazine. Aside from comics themselves we also give a lot of room to journalistic features (making up about a third of every issue), we publish interviews with current authors, and then we also try to map out the history of Czech comics, which still holds many hidden treasures. Every numbered issue is also thematically focused on a specific country. Last issue it was Russia, the next presents the Polish scene. We also put out special issues – the last one was in the form of a extensive comic report from a workshop in Singapore that Tomáš Kučerovský represented the Czech Republic at.
Let’s focus on the last ten years. Which were, in your opinion, the most significant Czech comics published in this period?
In my opinion there were four seminal projects. Jiří Grus’s Voleman, which comes out in black-and-white issues of 48-64 pages, is probably my personal favourite. The author had a classical education in painting and his artistic expression is masterful. The script blends everyday relationship moments from a couple around thirty with a number of quite bizarre events and as a whole it is very original and also entertaining.
Lucie Lomová wrote and illustrated the volume Anna chce skočit (Anna wants to jump) with which she became the first author from the Czech Republic to make a name for herself in the West, specifically in France. The comics that tell the story of railway employee Alois Nebel, written by Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrated by Jaromír 99, showed on the other hand that if a Czech comic is well-promoted it can reach a very wide circle of readers. And I also have to mention the series Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda. Its authors Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban experiment in a highly original way with both the artistic appearance and the script, which has many levels and layers.
Do Czech comics have any recognition abroad?
Aside from the aforementioned Lucie Lomová, who is now working on a second volume for the French market, the only one who has broken out significantly is Jiří Grus (whom we also already mentioned), who drew the bloody space opera Nitrobased on Štěpán Kopřiva’s script. That’s been put out in five European countries so far and soon it will be reprinted in Heavy Metal as well. In spite of that Grus does not plan to continue with similar projects. He now concentrates on more subtle projects and essentially sees Nitro as an old youthful mistake.
What was it that made Alois Nebel such a big success?
Alois Nebel was the first in the Czech environment to present a story from normal life based in everyday reality. Thanks to its black-and-white printing and smaller format it could also offer a reasonable price. As I touched upon above, its publisher Joachim Dvořák, who has extraordinary organisational and promotional skills, deserves a lot of credit for its popularity. I have to say that I’m somewhat critical of the Alois Nebel phenomenon – for example the attempt to publish it as a comic strip didn’t really work, and in my opinion needlessly watered down the original concept. Nevertheless what I truly appreciate about Alois Nebel is that it showed everyday readers one of the important facets of comics and cleared a path for other authors.
Another author that impressed us a lot is Lucie Lomova (here presented by a 15-page story Tylova hlidka). Our impression is that she is outstanding in the way she uses the comics medium to tell longer, more sophisticated stories, while many other cartoonists still prefer shorter, gag-like comics. Would you say that with her works (and also Alois Nebel) Czech comics are entering a new stage of maturity?
I really like Lucie Lomová’s work and we were truly pleased that we could presentTylova hlídka to Czech readers in AARGH!. I would add though that Lucie and the creators of Alois Nebel are part of a larger wave, which in addition to those authors already mentioned includes Branko Jelínek or Nikkarin. Still, it’s definitely true that Czech comics has finally started to come of age.
You are a cartoonist yourself. The three comics featured in this issue of Stripburger that you co-created with Karel Jerie pay an obvious homage to various, more or less well known comics classics. Can you tell us more about these references?
These three pages are part of an open series of micro-stories, of which there are eight all together. I liked the idea of joining the individual phases of a comic book writer with the development of comics as a medium. Comics also worked its way up from childishly naive creations to amazingly illustrated works with challenging content. The first story is a tribute to trail-blazer Wilhelm Busch and his heroes Max and Moritz; the second alludes to Little Nemo, but characters from a range of other comics appear there as well – from Czech Ferda the Ant and American Mickey Mouseto Woodring’s Frank. The third page fuses the popular Czech series Rychlé šípy (Fast Arrows, a five-member group of urban boys from the 1930s) with the somewhat similar artistic aesthetic of early super-hero stories.
One of the comics that you made with Karel Jerie (which can be read in this Stripburger) introduces a character called Pérák. Apparently, this character is something of a legend in Czech Republic. What can you tell us about him?
Pérák is a typical example of an urban legend. During World War II people in Prague and other cities told stories about a masked avenger who had big springs in his shoes and could make enormous jumps with them. According to these legends he attacked the Nazis in the night and caused them substantial material damages. There are similar characters in other countries as well – in Great Britain for exampleSpring-Heeled Jack appeared as early as the 19th century, though in contrast with Pérák he was a dangerous and evil character. The similarity of Pérák to American superheroes is also interesting, so it’s not surprising that a number of comic adaptations of his stories appeared over the years – at the end of the 40s these were in the form of communist propaganda, and at the end of the 80s they conversely came from the anti-communist underground.