A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Comics
While the Polish comics industry may not be as internationally recognised as that of the US or the Francophone countries, it certainly has its own share of writers and artists creating world-class comics. From the most famous albums and books and the best known names of the comics industry to obscure classics and personal suggestions, everyone can find something to suit them in the world of Polish comics.
The first Polish comics date back to the early 20th century, when the country regained its independence. As a free press started to develop, newspapers included image boxes with text in verse underneath. They were called image films, or stories in images, and were often copies of foreign comics. The comics' main audience was the uneducated inhabitants of big cities. They dealt with many different topics: social and political affairs or customs, always with a touch of humour. The best known titles are: Ogniem i mieczem, czyli przygody szalonego Grzesia (With Fire and Sword, or the Adventures of Mad Grzes), Przygody bezrobotnego Frącka (The Adventures of Jobless Frącek). The best comics of the period can be found in the Dawny komiks polski album series (edited by comics historian, Dr. Adam Ruska from the National Library of Poland).
Comics appearing in the press were avidly read by children. There were a number of publications for kids, in both newspaper and album form. The best known were Przygody Koziołka Matołka i małpki Fiki-Miki (The Adventures of Koziołek Matołek and Fiki-Miki the Monkey) by Marian Walentynowicz and Kornel Makuszyński. They are still republished today.
Following World War II, the communist state initially discouraged the publication of comics as they showed signs of "rotten capitalism". But no later than the 50s, comics made their way back into the newspapers. Those were the days of the founders of Polish comics: Janusz Christa and Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski. Christa came up with two sailors named Kajtek and Koko. From the late 50s, for a decade, their comical adventures appeared in the Wieczór Wybrzeża newspaper. Their most memorable exploits are captured in the comic series Kajtek i Koko w kosmosie (Kajtek and Koko in Space). The comics were also published in a 700-page compilation. Despite Kajtek and Koko's success, Christa's most popular characters are Kajko and Kokosz, two warriors fighting against the “Banditknights”. Their exploits are spread over several albums which have remained in print to this day.
Chmielewski (aka Papcio Chmiel) on the other hand is the brain behind Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek, two boy scouts and an anthropomorphised chimpanzee named Tytus. They get around in a flying vehicle, which was sometimes a bathtub, a trumpet or an iron. In the 60s, the communist leadership noticed the potential for propaganda and commercial use of comics and encouraged their mass production. Individual albums were published in runs of 100-300 thousand copies. Chmielewski's first albums were censored but after the change in the political system, the author re-released them in their original, unadulterated form.
In the Polish People's Republic (1952-1989) comics were almost exclusively made for children. The most famous comics apart from the ones mentioned above were Przygody Kleksa (The Adventures of Kleks), about a blue creature who lives in an ink-pot, created by Szarlota Pawel, and the comics of Tadeusz Baranowski (Antresolka Profesorka Nerwosolka, Where Does Soda Water Come From? and A Journey with Diplodok the Dragon). They were full of abstract humour and hidden comments on reality which only adult readers could decipher. Many of these comics came out in the magazine Świat Młodych (Youth World). Others, the more intellectual ones, appeared in the magazine Relax.
Other comics, published by the government, were pure propaganda. Titles include Kapitan Żbik (Capitan Żbik) and Pilot śmigłowca (Chopper Pilot). The former starred a headstrong officer of the Citizen's Militia drawn by several accomplished Polish illustrators: Grzegorz Rosiński, Bogusław Polch and Jerzy Wróblewski. Read more about comics for young readers (For children and teenagers).
Przygody profesora Filutka (The Adventures of Professor Filutek) by Zbigniew Lengren is from the same period, but constitutes a separate chapter in the history of Polish comics. The wordless three-panel stories appeared on the cover of the weekly Przekrój from 1948 until several decades later. Filutek is a noble gentleman in a bowler hat who lives with his dog, a source of both joy and trouble.
Fantasy comics made their debut in the 80s thanks to the monthly magazine Fantastyka (later called Nowa Fantastyka). They proved to be so popular that the publisher decided to release magazines solely featuring comics. Komiks and Fantastyka - Komiks is where the classics of Polish comics appeared: science-fiction comics like Funky Koval and fantasy such as Wiedźmin (the Witcher, based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski). Funky Koval was the first Polish comic for adults, and its brutality and nudity shocked audiences. Read about fantasy comics (Dragons, lasers and more).
After 1989, comics escaped from under the shadow of governmental institutions. New, young and independent authors began to publish zines. Read about underground comics (Zines and underground authors). But the market was dominated by foreign publications. The late 90s was the Renaissance of Polish comics. New publishing houses started to open, promoting Polish authors.
One such example is the magazine Produkt led by Michał Śledziński. The cult comic strip Osiedle Swoboda, showing the life of young people living in communist blocks, appeared in this magazine, and it was was an artistic and commercial success, as well as an accurate description of reality. The majority of the most important contemporary comic book authors started their careers or have been published in Produkt.
The second decade of the 21st century was marked by a generational change in Polish comics. The authors of the previous generation were replaced by younger artists. To name a few: Mateusz Skutnik (author of Revolutions), Michał Śledziński (Osiedle swoboda, Strange Years), Karol Kalinowski (Łauma), the duo Tomasz Leśniak and Rafal Skarżycki (George the Hedgehog), brothers Tomasz and Bartosz Minkiewiczowie (Wilq), Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz (Essence and Romanticism with Grzegorz Janusz, Mikropolis with Dennis Wojda). Other promising authors include: Marcin Podolec (Fugazi Music Club), Jacek Świdziński (Events. 1908), Michał Rzecznik (Maczużnik with Daniel Gutowski, 88/89 with Przemysław Surma). Read more about independent comics (Independent comics). Many accomplished artists also tried their hand at comics. Read about avant-garde comics (Experimental and artistic comics). Many Polish illustrators draw for foreign publishers. Read about foreign publications (Can I read something in English or French?).
The Polish People's Republic (1952-1989) marked the golden age of children's comics. Many cherished comic book characters were conceived during the period. Among the most popular are Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski (aka Papcio Chmiel), Kajko and Kokosz by Janusz Christa, Kleks, Jonka and Jonek by Szarlota Pawel and comics by Tadeusz Baranowski (Antresolka profesorka Nerwosolka, Where Does Soda Water Come From? and A Journey with Diplodok the Dragon). Many of them appeared in the children's magazine Świat Młodych and the magazine for teenagers Relaks. The communist leaders quickly started to use comics as means of propaganda and for commercial use. One such example is Capitan Żbik, starring an officer of the Citizen's Militia, or the war series Pilot Śmigłowca (Chopper Pilot). Such propagandistic comics quickly went out of fashion and are, for today's readers, no more than an interesting collectors' items.
Independent comics, on the other hand, continue to be sold. The history of Polish comics would not be the same without the adventure albums illustrated by Jerzy Wróblewski. Among them are the Legendy wyspy labiryntu (Legends of the Island of Labyrinths), based on Greek myths and aimed at teenagers, and the crime album Figurki z Tilos (Figurines from Tilos) and Czarna róża (Black Rose). Also worth mentioning is the Polish Travellers series that focuses on the lives of important figures from Polish history, such as the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz and scientists like the geologist Ignacy Domeyko.
Among the best albums with the adventures of Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek are Tytus na Dzikim Zachodzie (Tytus in the Wild West,) Poprawka z geografii (Tytus Improves on His D in Polish Geography), Tytus aktorem (Tytus the Actor) and Ochrona zabytków (Monuments Conservation). Kleks' best adventures on the other hand are in Pióro kontra flamaster (Pen vs maker) and Złoto Alaski (Gold in Alaska). Kajko and Kokosz bring laughter to readers in the albums Na wczasach (On Vacation), W krainie Borostworów (In the Land of Borocreatures) and Szkoła latania (Flight School).
After the political changes of 1989, Polish comic artists turned to creating comics for adults. Comics for kids became more rare and were packed full of advertisements. A change occurred in the second decade of the 21st century, when artists such as Tomasz Samojlik and Karol Kalinowski started working and the competition for comics for children named after Janusz Christa was launched.
Samojlik is an academic in the field of biology who researches mammals from the Białowieża Forest, and so the protagonists of his comics are a bison and a shrew. His albums are both educational and entertaining. His best known works are Ostatni żubr (Last Bison), Ryjówka przeznaczenia (Destiny Shrew), Norka zagłady (Extinction Mink) and Bartnik Ignat i skarb puszczy (Ignat the Bee-Keeper and the Forest Treasure).
Kalinowski's Łauma tells the story of Dorotka, a girl whose family is moving to the countryside. It turns out that her grandmother was a witch and the little girl gets entangled in wars between forest deities. The story is based on folk beliefs and myths.
Named after Janusz Christa and organised by Egmont Publishing House, the competition for comics for children is a breakthrough in the Polish comics industry. It is the first such attempt in decades to create characters to replace Tytus, Kleks or Kajko and Kokosz. The result of the first edition of the competition are five promising albums. Kubatu, Tomek and Jacek or Rysiek and Królik are worth remembering, because in a couple of years they may become younger reader's favourites. Kids will also go crazy for the adventures of Detective Zbyś the Teddy.
Every Polish comic book can be considered to be an authorial work. Unlike in the United States or France, there is no mainstream trend in Poland when it comes to comics. Comics are usually an "after-hours" job and not a source of stable income for authors. Hence, the market and publishers don't dictate how albums turn out. Many comics from the Polish People's Republic (1952-1989) could also be considered independent, especially those from the period free of censorship.
Despite complicated working conditions, Poland had many great comics. If you're a Polish comic book newbie, you have to start with comics by Mateusz Skutnik, Karol Kalinowski, Michał Śledziński, the duo Tomasz Leśniak and Rafał Skarżycki, Tomasz and Bartosz Minkiewicz, Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz and Grzegorz Janusz as well as Dennis Wojda.
From the older generation, try out Tadeusz Baranowski, Szarlota Pawel, Janusz Christa, Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski (Papcio Chmiel), or last but not least Jerzy Wróblewski. Also not to be missed are the works of the satirists Marek Raczkowski and Janek Koza, who mostly publish in the press. They are ironic and present the world from an entirely new perspective. Skutnik created an independent series called Revolutions. He made use of steampunk and fantasy elements and created an oniric adventure / crime drama about human dreams, attempts at making them come true, and the effects of human actions. Tomasz Bagiński's third volume (Monochrome) inspired him to create the animation Cinematograph.
Mikropolis is a city conceived by Gawronkiewicz and Wojda. The protagonist is a fat boy named Ozrabal. The comics first came out in the press and later in the form of two albums. The series asks philosophical and existential questions. It's a commentary on reality and at the same time, a universal oeuvre on emotions and human dreams with elements of fantasy.
Wilq curses, and is gruff and asocial. Nevertheless, he's a superhero who defends the city of Opole from evil – monsters, psychos and pigeons. The series by the brothers Tomasz and Bartosz Minkiewicz is a parody of the superhero comic genre. Through specific language (sometimes rated PG) and humour the authors managed to create their own take on the conventions of the genre. Despite being a caricature, it's both taken with a pinch of salt and seriously at the same time. The series proves that even a minimalistic line drawing can show everything.
George the Hedgehog smokes joints, rides a skateboard, picks up chicks and gets himself into all sorts of shenanigans. He fights with the Russian mafia, Satan and nationalists. He's a walking personification of Peter Pan syndrome, the image of a man who refuses to grow up. Rafał Skarżycki and Tomasz Leśniak's comic was turned into a full feature-length animated film and can be found on ComiXology.
Essence is a crime comic about the search for the meaning of life, Romanticism is a horror comic in which the government wants to resurrect the long-dead national poets. The former received the Grand Prix in the TV Arte and Glenat Publishing House comics competition. Achtung Zelig on the other hand is an oniric and fairy-tale-like vision of the Holocaust in which reality intertwines with fantasy.
The heyday of fantasy comics in Poland was the 1980s. The genre was so popular that the editors of the monthly magazine Fantastyka (later Nowa Fantastyka, which is still published) decided to print comic books and initiated the publication of a special series of albums (Komiks Fantastyka and Komiks).
Many well-known characters took their first steps in this magazine, including Funky Koval, the first Polish comic book character to appeal only to adults. He was conceived by the scriptwriters Jacek Rodek and Maciej Parowski (chief editor of Nowa Fantastyka for many years) and the illustrator Bogusław Polch. Koval was a private detective, a ladies' man who liked to drink and get into fights. And the same time he was the last of the righteous, and the fate of the world depended on him.
Polch and Parowski adapted Andrzej Sapkowski's stories about the Witcher into a comic book. Years later, Michał Gałek and Arkadiusz Klimek explored the character anew (they created the animated app called The Witcher). Polch also drew the series Bogowie z Gwiazd (Gods from the Stars), called Expedition or Deanikens because it was inspired by Erich von Daeniken. Wyprawa na Ziemię (Expedition to Earth) and Planeta robotów (Planet of the Robots) are two interesting comics for kids drawn by Jacek Skrzydlewski.
Polish comic book authors discovered fantasy after the fall of communism in 1989. Worth mentioning are: the duology Status 7 by Robert Adler and Tobiasz Piątkowski, the series Yorgi by the duo Dariusz Rzontkowski and Jerzy Ozga, the steampunk Revolutions by Mateusz Skutnik, Pierwsza brygada. Warszawski pacjent (First Brigade: Warsaw Patient) by Tobiasz Piątkowski, Krzysztof Janicz, and Janusz Wyrzykowski, which features characters from the classics of Polish literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, Alma by the duo of Michał Gałek and Mariusz Zabdyr and the album by painter Joanna Karpowicz, Jutro będzie futro, about a futuristic world with humanoid animals. Jakub Wędrowycz, a popular character from the fantasy writings of Andrzej Pilipiuk, was also turned into a comic book character. The most popular sci-fi series is BiOCOSMOSiS, about the fate of the entire galaxy. Two albums from this series by the trio Edvin Volinski, Nikodem Cabała and Grzegorz Krysiński appeared in the magazine Heavy Metal.
There was no such thing as truly independent comics in the Polish People's Republic (1952-1989). Solidarność – pierwszych 500 dni (Solidarity – The First 500 Days) by Jan Marek Owsiński and Jacek Fedorowicz is an exception. This comic book is an account of the first months of the existence of the trade union Solidarity. It was published underground. The new political and social system in Poland spurred change. Especially for the younger generation, comics turned out to be the ideal medium to express their expectations and disillusionment in the era of newfound capitalism. Underground publications also gave the possibility of trying out new things and publishing content that didn't stand a chance in the mainstream.
Most of those who came to the fore after 1989 started off in zines. Mateusz Skutnik published Vormkfasa, Michał Śledziński brought out Azbest (Asbestos), and Tomasz Leśniak Mięso (Meat). The legendary names of Polish underground comics are Dariusz "Pała" Palinowski and Krzysztof "Prosiak" Owedyk. The former started to publish for the first time after 1989, the latter a year later. Pała authored the zine Zakazany Owoc (Forbidden Fruit) and a mini-album about the adventures of the Kowalski brothers. Both used characteristic line drawings and aimed to shock readers with ugliness. Palinowski and Owedyk were linked to the punk subculture and reality-defying, anti-religious and anti-fascist content dominated in their comics. Owedyk, author of the Piglet zine, is considered the forerunner of graphic novels in Poland. His first such work is the apocalyptic Ósma Czara (Eighth Goblet) – a story of a love that survived the final judgement. Ryszard Dąbrowski, the creator of Likwidator the eco-terrorist, is also from the punk milieu.
To name a few stars of the Polish underground, there are Father Rene, Sławek Lewandowski and Łukasz Kowalczuk, and authors who create for the independent publishing House Bazgrolle. Rene built a universe is which everyone copulates with everyone in a contrived way. Lewandowski reaches for nonsense and the grotesque to comment on reality or poke fun at pop culture, while with the series Vreckless Vrestlers, Kowalczuk showed contrived and strange violence. Kowalczuk's series can be found on ComiXology.
Bazgrolle on the other hand is the work of Filip "Fil" Wiśniowski and XNDR. Their best known productions are the zines B Mag and Bart. In 2014, Wiśniowski spurred the first edition of an independent comics festival (ISBN-less) called Złote Kurczaki (Golden Chickens). The event took its name from the Dangerous Chicken, a character from one of Fil's comics.
A forerunner in the field of experimental and artistic comics in Poland is the comic book Trzynaste piórko Eufemii (Eufemia's Thirteenth Feather) from 1977, authored by Maciej Wojtyszka and illustrated by Grażyna Dłużniewska. It's aimed at younger readers but the surrealist drawings, the plot, and the look of the comic book make it appeal to adults too. Examples of formal experiments and fun with the medium can be found in the work of Tadeusz Baranowski, who appeared in his comics as an author and told his protagonists to move between the frames. The set designer and painter Professor Jerzy Skarżyński created expressive and experimental comics inspired by the series about Janosik, a highlander who stole from the rich and defended the poor.
There are two currents in contemporary avant-garde comics – there are authors of comics and the Maszin group. Kuba Woynarowski is an artist, a theoretician and a curator. In his work, he uses the medium of comics, or its formal elements. The illustrator Maciej Sieńczyk has a similar approach. Woynarowski takes more care of the visual effect than the narration, while Sieńczyk tells stories through image thus creating albums on the border between comics and picturebooks. Their work has been awarded: Sieńczyk's Przygody na bezludnej wyspie (Adventures on a Deserted Island) was nominated for the Nike prize and Woynarowski received a Polityka Passport nomination in the visual arts category. The famous artist and best-selling Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal also uses comics. His work Życie codzienne w Polsce w latach 1999-2001 (Everyday Life in Poland in the years 1999-2001) is an autobiography, while Lawa (Lava), published in the USA and Poland, is a crime drama.
Also worth knowing are the autobiographical photo stories about fatherhood, Baton III Taltosz, by the writer Sławomir Shuty, and his Ruchy (Movements) illustrated by Julian Tomaszuk – a dialogue between a penis and a vagina during copulation. The emotion-packed works of Przemysław Trust Truściński are also immensely popular.
The Maszin group took its name from a zine of the same name by Mikołaj Tkacz. They mostly publish on the internet (http://maszin.blogspot.com/), as well as releasing albums. They manage to cross the borders of the formal medium, bringing comics together with other forms of visual expression, surrealist humour, provocation and aesthetic graphics. Among the group's best known authors are Jacek Świdziński, Daniel Gutowski and Michał Rzecznik.
Świdziński creates independent comics that are minimalistic in terms of graphics and with a surrealistic plot. His best known works are Zdarzenia. 1908 (Events. 1908) and A niech cię, Tesla! (For God's Sake, Tesla!). Gutowski illustrates with prominent and memorable pen-strokes. Rzecznik and he created the meta-comic book Maczużnik. Rzecznik is a set designer that skilfully creates multilevel and multiplot dramas for adults and explains political events to kids. On top of Maczużnik, his best known comics are 88/89 (illustrated by Przemysław Surma), and the independent S/N.
Many Polish illustrators work for foreign publishing houses. The most famous among them is Grzegorz Rosiński, who co-created the fantasy series Thorgal and illustrated comics such as Le Grand pouvoir du Chninkel, Western and La Vengeance du Comte Skarbek. The illustrator Zbigniew Kasprzak also works in France, and took over the series Hans from Rosiński. He also drew the series Halloween Blues.
Among the promising talents are Szymon Kudrański and Piotr Kowalski. Kudrański illustrates Batman, Green Lantern and New Avengers comics for DC Comics, and Spawn for Image Comics. Kowalski on the other hand drew La branche Lincoln for Le Lombard, Badlands for Soleil Productions, Marvel Knights: Hulk for Marvel in the USA and Sex for Image Comics. Other illustrators working abroad are Marek Oleksicki (Frankenstein’s Womb), Robert Adler (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dust to Dust), Anna Wieszczyk (Interesting Drug), and Janusz Pawlak (Toshiro).
The Poznań-based publisher Centrala moved to London and brought the comics of Tomek Samojlik to the island (Forest Beekeeper and the Treasure of Pushcha), as well as those of Maciej Sieńczyk (Adventures on a Desert Island), Mateusz Skutnik (Blacky: Four Of Us) and the duo Gosia Herba and Mikołaj Pasiński (Fertility).
The Italians got to read Sieńczyk (Avventure sull’isola deserta) and Zosia Dzierżawska 's debut album (A testa in giù).
George the Hedgehog by Tomasz Leśniak and Rafał Skarżycki is available on ComiXology. Two parts of the crime/philosophy series Otto & Watson: Essence and Romanticism appeared in France. They were authored by Krzysztof Gawronkiwcz and Grzegorz Janusz. Together with Krystian Rosenberg, Gawronkiewicz released the Holocaust comic Achtung Zelig! on the French market.
Among all the illustrators working abroad, there's Marzena Sowa, a set designer who released a series of autobiographical comics about childhood in socialist Poland entitled Marzi. In the United States it was called Marzi: A Memoir. Furthermore, a comic about the Warsaw Uprising, L'Insurrection: Avant l'orage, illustrated by Gawronkiewicz, came out in France, Switzerland and Belgium.
Historical comics are a strong suit for Polish comic book authors. There are many different kinds. Some single out particular events, especially from recent history or World War II, others have fictive plots set in an historical context. The genre began to flourish in the 21st century. The first ones dealt with dramatic events from the Polish People's Republic (1952-1989). Some titles include 1956: Poznański Czerwiec (1956: June in Poznan) and 1981: Kopalnia Wujek (1981: Wujek Coal Mine) about the brutal repression of the striking workers, and the album Cena Wolności (Price of Freedom) about the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko by the secret service. Also worth mentioning are the anthology 11/11=Niepodległość (11/11=Independence) and the album Westerplatte. Załoga śmierci (Westerplatte: Death Crew) which is now also available to download. There's also the series Epizody z Auschwitz (Episodes from Auschwitz) – several stories from the German concentration camp; one about Saint Maksymilian Kolbe (who volunteered to replace a co-prisoner sentenced to death), or another about a Pole and a Jewish woman who met and fell in love in the camp and managed to escape.
With the support of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and the Uprising Museum, historical comics are now institutionally promoted. IPN encourages comics about national liberation, the role of the Home Army during the German occupation and the anti-communist underground movement active after 1945. Among the best known titles are W imieniu Polski Walczącej (In the Name of a Poland at War), Zamach na Kutscherę (The Assassination of Kutschera) and Kampinos ’44, as well as the albums Korfanty and Łupaszka. 1939. Add to that Wyzwolenie? 1945 (Liberations? 1945) and the series Wilcze tropy (Wolves' Trails) about the post-WW2 “cursed soldiers” resistance movements. An important position is held by the anthology of the Uprising Museum. Sławomir Zajączkowski and Krzysztof Wyrzykowski are the two main creators of comics for IPN.
So-called costume comics (fiction in historical settings) are a category apart. Jakub Kijuc's independent series Jan Hardy. Żołnierz Wyklęty (Jan Hardy: Cursed Soldier) is in the superhero convention while Jacek Frąś mini-album Stan shows Martial Law in Poland through the eyes of a child. Another interesting work is the oniric and surrealist story about the Holocaust Achtung Zelig (Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz, Krystian Rosenberg), the anthology Powstanie 44 (Uprising 44) and the album Powstanie. Za dzień, za dwa (Uprising: In a day, in two) by Gawronkiewicz and Marzena Sowa, Herma św. Zygmunta (Reliquary of Saint Sigmund by Maciej Pałka and Bartek Biedrzycki), about transporting relics funded by King Kasimir the Great on the Vistula and Tragedyja płocka (Płock Tragedy by Grzegorz Janusz, Frąś) about a short-tempered Prince who suffocated his wife. Among the comics published in the Polish People's Republic worth mentioning is the series Historia Polski (History of Poland) that shows the most important historical events in the country, including the mythical ones.
Author: Łukasz Chmielewski, translator: MJ 18/01/2015, all title translations have been suggested by the translator