“I started drawing and writing at the same time: when I was big enough to hold a pencil,” Lucie Lomová recalls. “The oldest drawing of mine I’ve been able to find starts as a written fairytale, then there is an illustration, and it gradually changes into comics.”
Lomová was speaking at an event celebrating Europe’s graphic novelists, organised by London’s Czech Centre as part of the 2014 European Literature Night at the British Library. A series of lectures and discussions taking place on one night in cities across the continent, European Literature Night is now in its sixth year and a firm fixture in the literary calendar, but this was the first time that graphic novels had featured as part of its programme.
Comics and graphic novels are increasing in popularity, with a growing audience discovering that there is more to the art-form than DC and Marvel superheroes. This new-found respectability is perhaps best illustrated by the British Library’s hosting of Comics Unmasked, a current exhibition celebrating the history of comics and graphic novels in the UK.
This gradual acceptance by the literary establishment has not been matched by that of the art world, something that concerns one of Lomová’s fellow speakers at the event, Max (the pen-name of Spanish cartoonist Francesc Capdevila), who worries that the shoehorning of comics into the literary domain will sideline the essential visual aspect of the work. Lomová does not pay too much attention to this debate: “Comics is a separate kind of art, the neuvième arte as the French say. You can host it at literary events, present it as an artistic exhibition, you can hang it on a wall, but it doesn’t matter – comics is comics.”
Lucie Lomová has been publishing comics since she was eighteen years old, beginning with a number of strips in the magazine Dikobraz (“Porcupine”) before she achieved fame with Anča a Pepík, a series following the adventures of two anthropomorphic mice. Her first exposure to the medium came early on in life, when she and her family spent a year in Chicago in the late 1960s. “I was in kindergarten in America, and comics were the first way I learnt English and how I learnt to read and write,” she tells me, “I don’t think I knew then, but now I realise this was the very root of my passion for comics: it was all around, and that one year in America was like one year in paradise; when we returned [to Czechoslovakia] in 1970, everything was grey, and it was like when you switch TV from colour to black and white, like a cold shower.”
Due to its perception as a decadent western art-form, comics had a difficult status in communist Czechoslovakia: even the word komiks was suppressed due to its English derivation, with kreslené vtipy (“illustrated jokes”) the preferred term. Despite few success stories, most notably the series Rychlé šípy (“Rapid Arrows”) and the magazine Čtřlístek (“Four-Leaf Clover”), it was not until recently that a scene for comics and graphic novels appeared in the Czech Republic, but Lomová is very positive about its development: “There is a big boom in the Czech Republic now. I don’t know how long it will last, but now it seems like a golden age. Last week I was at the vernissage of a big exhibition that is taking place in a big shopping mall; this is an event which would have been unimaginable several years ago.”
Amid this wave of activity, Lomová published Anna chce skočit (“Anna Wants to Jump”) in 2007, her first graphic novel intended for an adult audience. Following the story of two siblings who are separated after the 1968 Soviet invasion, its plot is deeply bound up with Czech twentieth century history. She followed this in 2011 with Divoši (“Savages”), a biography of fin de siècle Czech botanist, explorer and anthropologist Alberto Vojtěch Frič. She is not the only Czech graphic novelist to tackle historical questions: probably the most successful Czech export has been Jaromír 99’s Alois Nebel trilogy, which deals directly with the issue of German expulsion after the Second World War, while Ještě jsme ve válce (“We Are Still at War”). published in 2011, is a collaborative collection of vignettes retelling the history of the Czech lands in the twentieth century.
“In my case it’s not intentional. It just happens that I use those fragments of history,” Lomová tells me when I ask her about this trend. “But I think it is understandable because for long decades it was impossible to talk openly about history or deal with it in a free way. Besides, comics are a good educational tool because – it’s a cliche – but it’s said that for children it is a shortcut to literature, to history, to everything. Everyone consumes comics more easily than written words.”
Lomová’s most recent book Na odstřel (“To the Shooting”), published this year, is a detective story starring a middle-aged theatre critic. “I thought it would be easy to do a detective story,” she says, “But then I realised I was naive.” She is currently working on an animated version of Anča a Pepík for Czech television. This will be her first animated work, and while the project is still in its early stages she tells me she is excited by “the miracle of motion.” When I ask her if she sees much of a future for traditional animation, she replies: “I don’t know, maybe not. But I am happy they agreed to do it this way, because it’s suited to that quite old-fashioned world. I cannot imagine those two mice in polished and sleek Disney animation, it would be horrible. So I hope it will be kept in this old-fashioned, calm mood.”
When I ask her about her plans for the future, she laughs: “I have no plans. I think I will do some more comics, but I have no fixed idea; I have some birds in my head, but I’m not sure exactly.” One thing that is sure is that the Czech comics scene appears to be in rude health.
For more information on Lucie Lomová, please see her website: http://lucielomova.blogspot.co.uk/ (Czech Only)