Marvel Comics may have created the superheroes of our childhood, but these Polish crime fighters were born out of history, literature and cinema. Here are the most popular superheroes of Polish pop culture.
The Black Knight
All tough guys in Polish pop culture are modelled after this 14th-15th century knight. A noble and courageous warrior, he was the pioneer of Polish superheroes. His chivalrous exploits were chronicled by Jan Długosz. Legends about him went around during his lifetime, and his death at the hands of Turkish soldiers in 1428 only strengthened the myth of the Black Knight (Zawisza Czarny).
Over four hundred years after his death, in 1844, Juliusz Słowacki re-used the image of the noble knight who fought in the Battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic Order in an unfinished play called Zawisza Czarny. To Słowacki, Zawisza embodied the national spirit and pure virtuousness.
The great Romantic poet wasn't the only one idealising the honourable knight. Zawisza the Black of Garbów made an appearance in Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Teutonic Knights, Stanisław Wyspiański's The Wedding, Jan Matejko's The Battle of Grunwald, and Andrzej Sapkowski's Hussite trilogy, and finally starred in his own comic book, created by Tadeusz Raczkiewicz and called Zawisza Czarny.
Winkelried & Wallenrod
Despite their foreign roots and citizenships, Arnold Winkelried & Konrad Von Wallenrode became heroes of Polish Romanticism. Thanks to Słowacki's Kordian, Winkelried, a Swiss soldier, who put his life at stake to save his fellow soldiers, became a symbol of Polish messianism.
Konrad Von Wallenrode, a Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights serving in the 14th century, is another foreigner who became famous in Poland. Adam Mickiewicz made Von Wallenrode more Polish than the Polish Pope. Putting Konrad's real story on the sidelines in the poem called Konrad Wallenrod, Mickiewicz used the character to portray different visions of patriotism and the various faces of war.
While Machiavelli advises in The Prince to be both 'a fox and a lion', Konrad Wallenrod demonstrated that in order to save one's homeland, one has to abandon knightly ethics and moral purity.
The best known heroine of Polish pop culture comes from the eponymous book Grażyna. Clad in armour, the Lithuanian princess created by Mickiewicz set off to battle the Teutonic Knights. In the fight for the freedom of her homeland, she served as an example of courage. When in 1823 Mickiewicz described her acts, he inadvertently created the Polish name Grażyna. Stemming from the Lithuanian word for 'beautiful' (graži), it became one of the most popular female names in Poland.
Though he is a creation of Polish Positivism, Andrzej Kmicic is more of a Romantic hero than anything. The brave knight from Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Deluge fought in more than one battle for his fatherland. The story of the hot-blooded young man who had to repent for the mistakes of his early adulthood and saved the country from the Swedish invasions, is associated with narratives about fault and redemption, as well as sacrifice and heroism which invigorates hearts and minds.
Jerzy Hoffman's cinematic adaptation of Sienkiewicz's tale brought the story it into the spotlight again. And because the film version of The Deluge airs every year on Polish TV, actor Daniel Olbrychski will forever remain the face of Andrzej Kmicic.
Heroes from behind the Iron Curtain
Although his lineage was decidedly pre-Romantic, the valiant Slav at the centre of the show Janosik became a pop culture icon under communism in Poland. Janosik, the Slovak bandit from the turn of the 17th century, fit right into the socialist realities. He was the Robin Hood of the Tatra Mountains. Taking from the rich, giving to the poor, opposing the ruling classes – Janosik's story had everything to please both the authorities and the people of the People's Republic of Poland.
The Tatra mountain legend became a canvas for Jerzy Passendorfer's TV series. With an unforgettable theme song by Jerzy Matuszkiewicz and Janosik played by the brawny Marek Perepeczko, it's more Polish than pierogi, with Janosik the ultimate 1970s superhero. Despite serious efforts, Agnieszka Holland's well-founded attempts to put a new face on the righteous villain in a feature film faltered in the face of the timeless TV series.
Captain Żbik (Polish meaning: wild cat) was the most famous policeman of the communist regime era. He was the star of 53 comic books between 1967 and 1982. A superhero that arose from the needs of the society, he unremittingly served his fatherland. Despite the rows of women lining up for him, his 24/7 job left no room for a private life and his priorities were law and order in his socialist homeland.
As if catching criminals wasn't enough, he also thrived in educating younger generations. The second page of the comic book was filled with Żbik's letters to young readers in which he would attempt to explain 'How one should live'. Żbik comic books also had a spread honouring the everyday hero, columns dedicated to the chronicles of the Citizen's Militia, science and technology and martial arts. Although from today's perspective, Captain Żbik might be seen in a less favourable light, he was undeniably a hero to many children at the time.
Four Tank-Men and a Dog
It turns out communist-era Poland had their own precursor to The A-Team. Quick on the draw and good-looking, these four tank crewmen and their fearless German Shepherd dog named Szarik told generations of Poles about fighting on the frontline. It was 1966 when tank Rudy 102 rolled onto Polish TV screens for the first time. And there's no stopping it. The series still airs occasionally, bringing up nostalgia and controversy.
When the Law and Justice Party came to power in the mid-2000s, Four Tank-Men and a Dog made it onto the censor's list. The right-leaning TV directors decided to take the series for what it was: socialist propaganda. Since it was made during the communist regime, it was full of pro-Soviet messages. The series was taken off air and re-broadcast with historian commentaries preceding each episode explaining the context.
The Four Tank Men were men of propaganda no doubt, but what most people remember about Konrad Nałęcki and Andrzej Czekalski's series is probably the charismatic character of Janek played by Janusz Gajos, the well-trained and clever dog and the stunning Pola Raksa.
Hans Kloss: Bond from behind the Iron Curtain
The People's Republic of Poland had something in store for the individualistically minded too: double agent Hans Kloss of More Than Life at Stake. Being literally everywhere – on TV, in theatre plays, comic books, TV series, stories – Kloss was made immortal in the late 1960s. Years later, songs were written about him, video games developed to relive his exploits and a feature film made to honour him.
The series More Than Life at Stake, made between 1967-1968 comprises eighteen episodes. The James Bond east of the Berlin Wall is a Soviet agent (personified by Stanisław Mikulski) who nonchalantly faces Nazi enemies. He gained fans in and outside of Poland. It aired in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Yugoslavia.
Being John Rambo, namely Linda & Cinema in the 1990s
One actor was the greatest superhero of the 1990s. Charismatic, handsome and masculine, loved by women and envied by men. Cinema in the 1990s would not have been the same without Bogusław Linda. Previously associated with psychological dramas (Agnieszka Holland's Lonely Woman, Kieślowski's Blind Chance), thanks to Władysław Pasikowski and his film Pigs, Linda created a new type of film character. He played Franz Maurer, a former Security Service agent looking for a new place for himself in Poland. A loyal bad boy with a cynical attitude, he always had a gun on him and didn't shy away from calling things by their name. Paradoxically, the magnetic rapscallion was a defender of values in a world deprived of rules.
The role turned Linda into Poland's best known lover and bad boy. His character was an incarnation of Poland's fascination with the American pop culture of the Reagan era. New patriotic cinema, thanks to both the Rambo and Missing in Action series, was very popular in Poland, and its Polish version soon emerged with Linda as its main man. For years he would play soldiers, bodyguards, murderers and policemen. Years later, he would toy with the bad boy image singing with the band Świetliki and playing a policeman from the series Paradox.
Other Polish actors whose performances struck a chord with action hungry audiences were: Marek Kondrat, who copied Charles Bronson for the film Prawo Ojca (Father's Law), Marcin Dorociński in Pitbull and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz in Cop. They created heroes straddling between Humphrey Bogart and Superman.
Polish pop culture heroes based in the 20th and 21st centuries never reached complete independence – they were either tied up in socialist assignments or turned into sad clones of their American counterparts. Jack Strong, however, is the exception to the rule. The protagonist of the first spy thriller in contemporary Polish cinema was one of the most important players in the real-life drama that was the Cold War.
Seen through the eyes of Władysław Pasikowski, Colonel Kukliński is a character straight out of Hollywood spy thrillers from the 1970s. To save Poland from nuclear Armageddon, the Polish army officer decides to co-operate with the CIA. The director is unwilling to portray his heroic act as treason, he sees Kukliński as a national hero. Jack Strong is the Wallenrod of socialist Poland, full of doubts, jittery inside and convinced at the same time that the ends justify the means and that in order to save the homeland, he must disregard his knightly ethos.
In a World of Demi-Gods
Polish pop culture can definitely boast about this comicbook hero. Since his creation in 1986 by Andrzej Sapkowski, he has ventured through fantasy stories and novels, fought on the silver screen, starred in a TV series, comic books, role-playing games and three globally-successful video games.
Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, has superhero written all over him: brave and facing the world alone. While fighting monsters, he proves that the most dangerous creation can sometimes be humans. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an interactive comic book released on 19th March 2014 by the famous American publishing house Dark Horse, which is known for its ambitious independent publications including Hellboy, Usagi Yojimbo, Sin City and numerous series set in the Star Wars universe.
Polish superhero Biały Orzeł (White Eagle) is a square-jawed, muscular Eastern European Captain America or Iron Man with superhuman powers. Created by Maciej and Adam Kmiołek, White Eagle is a retired businessman and CEO called Aleks Poniatowski who mysteriously fell out the window from the 15th floor and went into a coma. Three years later, with the medical expertise of his scientist father, Aleks gains superpowers. Now he hunts down corporations, mafia bosses, monsters from the darkest alleyways of Warsaw, as well as corrupt politicians.
Thorgal, the Polish-Belgian character drawn by Grzegorz Rosiński and brought to life by script writer Jean Van Hamme (with Yves Sente replacing him since 2007), has been in the spotlight in Poland for 35 years. 'Star child' Thorgal Aegirsson, was found and raised by Vikings. Taking the reader into the lost world of the Vikings and the Celts, Thorgal is the most popular comic book series of the Old Continent. In a serial case of polyglotism, translations of these horror and fantasy stories have appeared in English, Turkish, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Portuguese, Greek and Czech.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Mai Jones 13.02.2014; updated by AZ, July 2018