Julia Secklehner

Niche Culture on Display: The World of Czech Comics at the Moravian Regional Museum

Julia Secklehner

Niche Culture on Display: The World of Czech Comics at the Moravian Regional Museum

When one hears the word ‘comics’, most people will think of the recent flurry of films by large companies such as Marvel and D.C., which have helped characters such as Superman, Spiderman, Miss Marvel and Wonder Woman into the mainstream. Yet as a current exhibition at the Moravian Regional Museum shows, there is a whole different world to comics beyond these blockbuster productions, which also has a considerable tradition in central Europe. The World of Czech Comics (‘Český komiks a jeho svět’) focuses on the development of Czech and, to a lesser extent, Slovak comics from the early twentieth century to the present. Following recent publications, such as Signals from the Unknown. Czech Comics 1922-2012 and The History of Czechoslovak Comics in the 20th Century, the exhibition underscores the continuous development of Czech of comics and comic strips throughout a century of social and political change and challenges the assumption that comics are primarily for children.1

Fig. 1: Exhibition view. Source: own image.

Chronologically structured across four rooms, sectioned-off through different colours, Czech Comics first introduces comics as an international phenomenon: starting out with US-American and French comic strips in the early twentieth century, an introductory wall combines a display of comics from the US, France, Belgium and Japan (with its special comic variant, the Manga), to showcase the main centres of comic production. With the addition of Italy, which does not feature, these countries continue to dominate the production of comics and graphic novels today. Setting up Czech comics history against these giants, therefore, the exhibition appears to deal with a niche subject in a country marginal to its development. While this is hardly untrue, it does not make its content any less appealing. Rather, it gives a welcome insight into a popular visual culture that is all too often only consumed in passing. 

As an assembly of approximately twenty different examples published between the early 1910s and the 1970s, the US, French, Belgium and Japanese predecessors reveal the exhibition’s broad approach to what comics are: including strips as well as covers of comic books, some directed at a broad audience, some at young readers, some specialised to subcultures such as Steam Punk, the basic form of the comic – a sequence of images, in which text is often embedded by way of speech bubbles – represents a range of forms and styles with little to unite them other than their basic set-up. In line with this multiplicity, and with limited wall text available (aside from the introductory panel, in Czech only), the exhibition offers a relatively loosely structured, chronological narrative, which demands close attention to detect the themes and storylines that guide it. The main goal of the exhibition overall is notably broad: ‘to explore where the domestic comics have progressed in form and content over the past 100 years.’ A large task for a small exhibition – but Czech Comics does well in introducing key representatives and themes, albeit often implicitly so. 

Czech Comics includes several original artworks, a feature which curator Tomáš Prokůpek describes as a difficult task, given the fragility of works on paper, which often cannot be loaned for longer than a few months. These originals help to illustrate how comic strips were created across the twentieth century, with the caveat that the practice of putting ink to paper is slowly vanishing as many contemporary artists are now working on the computer only. There is certainly value in seeing the process of drawing in on the original pages: starting in pencil before outlining with a pen and then colouring in, with the text added in later (sometimes by the artist, sometimes by a different writer), the drawings reveal the process of bringing the story to the page, showing that this is often based on collaborations invisible on the printed page. However, the question remains how important, without wider discussion, it is to include these originals. After all, one of the defining features of the comic is its affordability and wide circulation, which gives the original work less importance than for an exhibition of paintings, for example. As an idea that is briefly picked up and then quickly discarded without further debate, moreover, the example of original artworks illustrates a broader issue with the exhibition overall: its aim to cover many different topics within a broadly conceptualised history, which runs danger of appearing superficial, because of the wealth of information included all too briefly. 

Fig. 2: Josef Lada, Šprýmovné kousky Frantíka Vovíska a kozla Bobeše, 1922. Source: Moravské zemské muzeum.

The attentive visitor can detect several storylines and themes, which show how comics reflected wider cultural trends in their stories. After the cursory introduction in the first room, the exhibition delves into a fast-paced tour of the development of modern Czech comics. At its starting point stands an artist familiar to most: Josef Lada, best-known for his illustrations for Jaroslav Hašek’s Dobrý voják Švejk (‘The Good Soldier Švejk’). First published in the daily newspaper České slovo (‘The Czech Word’) in March 1922, Lada’s Šprýmovné kousky Frantíka Vovíska a kozla Bobeše (‘The Pranks of Frantík Vovísek and Bobiš the Goat’) represents the first example of a modern Czech comic strip. Juxtaposed with an older set of drawings by Lada, which are much more detailed and in colour, the Vovísek and Bobiš sequence on display is a simple story in six images, in which the pair tricks an old man into throwing apples at them, which they catch and eat. Drawn in Lada’s signature naïve style, which functions almost entirely without words, Vovísek and Bobiš exemplify one of the main departures for the comic strip as an entertaining page filler, appealing to both adults and young readers. So much so, in fact, that Lada was one of the few artists, whose drawings were continuously printed from the First Czechoslovak Republic well into communist times, when comics were subjected to strict censorship. Jaroslav Foglar and Jan Fischer’s popular series ‘Rychlé šípy’ (‘The Rapid Arrows’), for example, which first appeared in the children’s magazine Mladý hlasatel (‘The Young Announcer’) in 1938, was quickly banned by the communists (and earlier by the National Socialists) for prolonged periods of time, even though it overall ran until 1989.2

While, again, this is not addressed more closely, Lada’s work reveals an important strategy here: if done in an unassuming manner, comic strips could provide creative beadwork for artists unable to find another outlet. Safely placed into entertainment sections of popular publications, their appeal lay in their broad comprehensibility and their unassuming, low-brow humour. That Lada also produced more critical, politically engaged caricatures for magazines such as Rarach is not disclosed here. Rather, other comic strips such as Ondřej Sekora’s sequences about the character of Ferda Mravenec, or Hermína Týrlová’s humorous takes on a romantic encounter, emphasise a similar light-heartedness as the stories of Vovísek and Bobiš. In interwar Czechoslovakia, comic strips thus appeared to focus on entertaining stories of the everyday, in which ordinary characters struggle with routinely things. This recalls the image of the ‘little Czech’ as an unassuming national character, which again strongly relates to Lada’s well-known depictions of Švejk.3 Rather than showing what new narratives Czech comics could bring to a wider cultural history of the First Republic, therefore, it confirms its founding myths as they circulated in popular visual culture.

Fig. 3: Artuš Scheiner, Kulihrášek u čaroděje. Source: Moravské zemské muzeum.

Based on the strong influence of US-comic books and -strips from the early twentieth century onwards, however, a second strong thematic feature emerges from the works on display, which ought to be addressed more critically: adventure stories, building on familiar ‘Cowboy and Indian’ themes, stories about explorers similar to Hergé’s now infamous Tintin, and travels on the African continent.4 With comics on show in which non-European characters are strongly stereotyped, comics can evidently be made complicit in the circulation of everyday racism and exoticism. Were the exhibition arranged more thematically, rather than chronologically, this might have offered some more opportunities to address this. As it is, such ‘adventure’ stories inconspicuously appear next to the everyday struggles of the little man, implicitly hammering home the fact just how easily racist content slips past closer scrutiny when it is veiled under guise of entertainment.

While the comic strips from the first half of the twentieth century by and large introduce comics with a simple, naïve formal language, the visually most interesting examples can be found in the following sections, 1945 to 1989, and 1990 to the present.  For example, Karel Franta’sNávštěva z džungle (‘Visit from the Jungle’) (1975) shows a man built like Tarzan, dressed in a red overall, as he rescues people stuck in an elevator. Franta’s use of speech bubbles, which were censored under communism and a character inspired by American comics – again, with strong exoticist connotations – made his work controversial during the Normalisation period of the 1970s. Yet the comic strip on display also shows how he ironically mediated Tarzan for a socialist framework by putting him in a red overall to make him look like a good, stronger worker. In doing so, Franta’s work subtly points towards the comic’s role as counterculture. The use of references to US-American culture as a means of subversion is even more evident in the work of Kája Saudek, who started working in the more liberal climate of the Prague Spring and was the first Czech comic artist predominantly working for adult audiences. Exaggerating the artificial styles of US comics and pairing them with a strong dose of irony, Saudek’s work represented a ground-breaking change to Czech comics: his reworking of references to high culture, such as Fantom opery uvádí Rigoletto (‘The Phantom of the Opera shows: Rigoletto’) (1973), indicates a shift towards a more serious and sarcastic version of comics – paired, unfortunately, with a transformation of female characters into grotesquely sexualised figures. 

Fig. 4: Karel Franta, Návštěva z pralesa aneb Tarzan, synek divočiny. Source: Moravské zemské muzeum.

In the final section, the hypermasculinity of Sekora’s comics gives way to a focus on historical narratives that came onto the scene in the 2000s, most famously Jaroslav Rudiš und Jaromír Švejdík’s Alois Nebel (2006), which focuses on a train dispatcher in the Czech-Polish borderlands, where German citizens were expelled after 1945. The exhibition stresses the international success of Alois Nebel as an important shift in the Czech comic industry after 1989: as a niche market, artists needed to cater to international readers to find a bigger audience, meaning that some of its most successful representatives, such as Lucie Lomová, today predominantly work abroad. A vitrine emphasizes this internationalization of the Czech comic book market with a display of translations, including a highlight successful graphic novel version of Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. by Kateřina Čupová in Korean, Turkish and Spanish. After struggling to find its place, this display seems to conclude, Czech comics have become part of a global network. 

Fig. 5: Zuzana Čupová, Štefánik muzeu. Source: Moravské zemské muzeum.

The World of Czech Comics is an entertaining exhibition for anyone enjoying comic strips. Its size is well-measured to give a broad overview of a long time span, which allows closer engagement with the artworks (many of which can only be appreciated when reading its panels up close) without being overwhelming. However, given the wealth of topics as well as the long temporal focus, the exhibition will be most accessible to those who already have some knowledge of the (Czech) comic scene. Tucked away in the rooms behind the permanent display in the Moravian Regional Museum, both the exhibition location and content remain ‘niche’ – a feature ever-haunting comics as a popular and relatively young art form. Yet for all it brings together, visiting the exhibition is worthwhile and, if anything, might encourage visitors to engage more with what the world of Czech comics has to offer. 

Český komiks a jeho svět is on display at the Dietrichstein Palace of the Moravian Regional Museum until 28 February 2023. 

  1. Lucie Česálková, Signals from the Unknown. Czech Comics 1922-2012, Prague: Arbor vitae, 2012. Tomáš Prokůpek, Pavel Kořínek, Martin Foret, Michal Jareš, Dějiny československého komiksu 20. Století, Prague: Akroplis, 2014.
  2. Jiří Kubalík, ‘Český dětský kreslený seriál ve službách nového režimu na příkladech seriálů Rychlé šípy a Jiskrovci (1945-1949)‘, MA Dissertation, Charles University, Prague, 2010: https://dspace.cuni.cz/handle/20.500.11956/26919
  3. Ladislav Holy, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and the Post-Communist Social Transformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996. Micha Jareš and Tomáš Prokůpek ‚Dobrý Voják Švejk a Komiks‘, Česká Literatura, 58:5, 2010, 607–625, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42688113 . Martina Winkler, ‚Nationale Identität Revisited . Die Tschechen und ihr Švejk im 20. Jahrhundert,‘ Themenportal Europäische Geschichte, 2007, <www.europa.clio-online.de/essay/id/fdae-1365>.
  4. Paul Montfort, ‘Yellow skin, black hair … Careful, Tintin’: Hergé and Orientalism‘, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1:1 (2011), 33-49, https://doi.org/10.1386/ajpc.1.1.33_1.