In recent months and years, comics for children and young adults have been experiencing one of their more buoyant and dynamic periods. At least in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, they have been receiving more and more attention from critics and readers alike; hardly a month goes by without a renowned publishing house announcing the creation of another dedicated imprint or division; and as far as sales are concerned, comic books for children and young adults – or, as modern parlance has it , the “YA” audience – have managed to see off competition from all other comic-book genres and categories: so, for example, when Guts, the latest semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier (whose books have been brought out in Czech by Paseka), was launched with a million-copy first print run in September 2019, it did not just become the best-selling comics of the week in question, but the best-selling book full stop. Comics for children and young adults have also ventured into areas they had previously steered clear of and have not shied away from difficult subject matter – as well as the more obvious issues connected with adolescence, they have increasingly tackled identity and otherness (construed in various ways) or having to cope with a family crisis, a serious illness or the death of a close relative. And on top of that, they have continued to serve up a hearty dose of cheerful pictorial entertainment – much of it still about funny animals, but frequently more complex and sophisticated than used to be the case.
These trends have been mirrored in the Czech market for children’s books and comics, and so in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of translations published in this category (and with it the number of publishers incorporating this kind of work into their editorial plans). In the domestic sphere, this wave coming in from abroad has met and merged with local developments prompted by the situation in this country: around the year 2010, Czech comics creators also gradually began turning to the child or adolescent reader, who had not been well catered for between 2000 and 2009 (as discussed in part one). The revitalization of Czech comics for children and young adults that can be observed with delight in recent years thus has its roots both at home and abroad and is connected with the desire of a number of talented creators to create new and interesting content for the child reader as well as with broader changes in the domestic comics cultural sphere.
Comics within magazines for children and young adults
If it was true that, with a few exceptions, the comics content of magazines for children and young adults from the first decade of the 21st century did not offer anything particularly engaging and did not amount to more than purely disposable, utilitarian reading material, a clear qualitative and quantitative shift can be said to have taken place in the following decade. Although translated content continued (and still continues) to be treated in a casual, rather unsystematic way (for example, in the spring of 2019 My Little Pony trotted back into Mateřídouška), between 2010 and 2019 there was plenty of original comics output as well, much of it conceived in a functional and successful way. Traditional periodicals like Sluníčko (Little Sun) and Mateřídouška (Thyme) increasingly began to make use of regular cartoon characters as mascots, and the series Líza a Pupík (Lisa and Tum), written by Eva Bavorová and drawn by Tomáš Suder (which came out in Sluníčko), as well as the tales of a pair of meerkats produced by Libor Drobný, Suri & Kata (Meera and Katy, from the magazine Mateřídouška) went on to prove their enduring appeal with book extensions or compendiums. Their adventures have thus managed to transcend the time frame of the periodical and become a more stable part of the culture of children’s comics in the Czech Republic.
In comparison to the beginning of the millennium, when the range of children’s magazines on offer basically stagnated, the period from 2010 to 2019 also saw relatively dynamic changes in this area, which has witnessed an unprecedented expansion in recent years. New magazines like Báječná školka, Nedělníček, Primáček, Puntík and Tečka often advertise comics content right on the front cover and delight in casting cartoon characters in a prominent role as a regular guide to the magazine: in Báječná školka (Fabulous Kindergarten) this has long been the job of the pixies Matýsek a Majdalenka (the scripts by Marie Kšajtová are transformed into comic strips by Antonín Šplíchal), while the pages of the magazine Puntík (Dot) have become home to a prehistoric duo with a rather uninspired name, Dino a Saura by Vendula Hegerová.
A completely new format for this type of children’s reading material is represented by magazines produced outside traditional bricks-and-mortar periodicals publishers as an alternative to mainstream production, which is often viewed by the creators of these magazines as being too commercial, overly slick and banal. Magazines like Hrana (Let’s Play, published from 2012 to 2015) or Raketa (Rocket, since 2014) are largely devoid of advertising, compose individual issues around a theme and build on more active involvement from the reader and more imaginative (and as far as artistic quality is concerned, more consistent and reliable) content. With Hrana, constructed around the tales of three children, Dorka, Prokop, Šíma, the lead comic strip (as well as other artistic content) was produced by Magdalena Bořkovcová, while Raketa features a number of comic strips, with recurring series including Nikkarin’s Dobrodružství Rockyho & Terky (The Adventures of Rocky and Terka), Doktor Racek (drawn by Lukáš Urbánek based on scripts by Milada Rezková) and Matylda a Růžovej vlk (Matilda and the Pink Wolf) by Petra Josefína Stibitzová and Jana Šrámková.
The sector of magazines aimed at young adults has developed much more slowly, but even here comics have started to play a more important role again. A regular spot was traditionally set aside for cartoon strips in Scout magazines (drawn by artists such as Jiří Petráček, Miroslav Schönberg, Tomáš Chlud and Jan Smolík), and at least a few pages of comics content were incorporated into the monthly magazine Časostroj (Time Machine), founded in 2011, with the subtitle “a fun journey into history” (again with visuals by Smolík and Chlud). One deviation from established editorial policies was the inclusion of Dan Černý’s teen series Jelita (Puddings) in the magazine Bravo, which had traditionally tended to be free of comics. However, when it came to youth-oriented comic output published in magazines, the lion’s share was provided by a fixture of the Czech periodicals market, the fortnightly ABC – according to its subtitle, “a magazine for the 21st-century generation”.
ABC, whose editor-in-chief has been Zdeněk Ležák since 2010, set itself the goal of carrying on the legacy of the famous series of the 1970s and 80s and once again began to place greater emphasis on sequential comics content published in instalments. This declaration of allegiance to an illustrious comics past was affirmed most openly by new work scripted by Vlastislav Toman, who was editor-in-chief at ABC throughout Normalization and himself produced a number of legendary stories during that time. The question of whether fairly traditionally conceived cycles like Malý Bůh – čas Kruana (Little God – The Time of Kruan) or Příběhy psané střelným prachem (Stories Written in Gunpowder) can appeal to a wider readership than just those who remember the original prototypes with nostalgia is debatable; nevertheless, they provide clear evidence of the editorial ambition of affirming the continuity of the magazine’s comics content (which is also reflected in another “comeback”: the aeronautical comic strip Král vzduchu [King of the Air], which was drawn by Michal Kocián based on a script by another “stalwart of ABC during Normalization”, Václav Šorel). In addition, the old hand Vlastislav Toman constantly makes an effort to come up with new subject matter: in 2019, for example, the magazine published an attempt to resuscitate the otherwise moribund genre of “boys club comics” Parta z bílých domů (The White Towers Gang, artwork by Jiří Filípek).
Nevertheless, apart from these works harking back to the magazine’s glorious past, ABC also carried a large amount of new, original comics content in the decade in question. All kinds of variations on the genre of the adventure story were produced for the fortnightly publication, for example, by the writer Martin Šinkovský and the cartoonist T762 (the detective stories developing a wryly humorous cycle about two detectives Prokop & Buben, or a series about an ancient clash between the Celts and the Romans, Mlžný ostrov zbarvený do ruda [A Misty Island Tinged With Red]); Matyáš Namai drew the martial-arts-inspired story Mistr Šao-linu (Shaolin Master) based on a script by Eduard Štěpař; and Petr Macek (script) and Petr Kopl (artwork) attempted an original take on an urban and pop-culture legend (Pérák: Oko budoucnosti [Spring-heeled Man: the Eye of the Future]) as well as the most famous classic of the “sword and sorcery” fantasy genre in the series Conan a jeskyně života (Conan and the Cave of Life). Jiří Tesař has repeatedly featured in the magazine with self-penned comics (e.g. Tajuplný ostrůvek [The Mysterious Little Island]) as well as collaborations where he only took the role of script writer (e.g. the cycles created with the cartoonist Veronika Sýkorová Zapadlé království [The Forgotten Kingdom] and Co číhá pod vodou [What Lurks Beneath the Water]); and the aforementioned Zdeněk Ležák also made his debut as a scripter with the educational historical series Stopa legionáře (The Trail of a Legionary, artwork by Michal Kocián) on the pages of “his” magazine – more will be said of his other comics work below.
Čtyřlístek, its challenger, and attempts at an “American-style” comic book
In the decade in question, Čtyřlístek (Four-leaf Clover) remained the only homegrown magazine for children that was truly exclusively comics-based, but – as with ABC, described above – it can be said to have undergone a distinct revitalization (and rejuvenation) too. After Jan Endrýs became its editor-in-chief in 2011, the magazine expanded its circle of regular collaborators to take in creators from the younger generation (including several members of “Generation Zero”), who helped to restore some of the earlier originality and appeal to the otherwise slightly stagnating magazine. So, apart from the basically unchanging, time-and-trend-resistant title series about four animal friends from the small town of Třeskoprsky, which even in the fifth decade of its existence was still being drawn by Jaroslav Němeček, the magazine also began to carry work by other artists that was more modern in its conception and represented a refreshing variety of genres and artistic styles: Dan Černý (a warm and funny pastiche of superhero stories from the world of insects, Tryskošnek [Jetsnail]), Tomáš Chlud (the historical quests of two brothers and a robot Cyril a Mikuláš [Cyril and Nicholas]), Lucie Neisnerová (the emancipated female pirate captain Isabela, královna Karibiku [Isabella, Queen of the Caribbean]), Filip Škoda (the prehistoric scallywags Pazourek a Zoubek [Flint and Fang]), Petr Kopl (the serialized wizarding epic Morgavsa & Morgana) and Nikkarin (Hubert & Hugo, a comic strip inspired by the world of computer games and modern pop culture). Apart from the basic series of sixteen issues (or rather twenty, since four editions were brought out in a double-length format and are listed as double issues), the Čtyřlístek universe also developed spin-off magazines: between 2012 and 2019 the puzzle magazine Čtyřlístek Speciál was joined by a quarterly magazine targeted at girls, Ahoj, tady Fifi (Hi, Fifi Here), which, as well as the story of the eponymous Fifinka of Třeskoprsky, provided another publishing opportunity for Dan Černý (with the series Tritonky [Tritons]).
The “comics review for girls and boys” Bublifuk (Bubble Blower), which was dreamt up by Klára Smolíková and published by Triton from the end of 2015, could be ascribed the role of a kind of magazine contender/challenger which aimed to offer a fully comics-based alternative to the traditional Čtyřlístek. The strong authorial line-up consisting mainly of experienced creators from the younger generation (e.g. Kateřina Čupová, Lukáš Fibrich, Karel Jerie, Petr Kopl, Tomáš Kučerovský, Viktor Svoboda, Vojtěch Šeda, Martin Šinkovský, T762 and Petr Šrédl) offered readers an impressive array of new series; nevertheless, the magazine was beset with difficulties from the outset. Instead of an expensive magazine distribution network, it opted to sell direct to customers in bookshops, but many of them did not know how to display the small, slim booklets; the effort to ensure the greatest possible diversity turned out to be rather problematic (some artists found it very difficult to work within the limited number of pages provided to them); and even a quarterly rate of publication proved to be too low. A few years later, the first ambitious attempt at a new anthological children’s comic magazine came to an end after just eight issues in February 2018, and unfortunately most of the series that were underway have remained incomplete.
Greater longevity and popularity with readers was ultimately enjoyed by two projects which attempted to transpose the publishing model of the “American comic book” (i.e. a magazine of about 24–32 pages with dimensions of roughly 19 × 25 cm) to the Czech setting. As a local paraphrase of the signature superhero genre, the series (and magazine of the same name) Dechberoucí Zázrak (Breathtaking Marvel) by scripter Petr Macek and cartoonist Petr Kopl took on the difficult task of trying to provide original content that was not built on strong franchises underpinned by feature films or merchandising while competing with the translated superhero series that were being regularly published at the same time. Between 2015 and 2017, this monthly magazine published by the Czech News Center (which is also responsible for the daily tabloid Blesk [Flash]) totalled 25 issues, and even though it failed to avoid some fluctuation in the quality of the scripts and artwork, it still convincingly demonstrated both the ability of the creators to produce a regular monthly series and the willingness of the Czech comic-reading public to support a project of this kind.
One comic that stood apart from the usual Czech categories of genre and form was Jirka – komiks Jirky Krále (Jirka – Jirka Král’s Comic), which first came out in 2016. This magazine, which captures entertaining everyday episodes in the life of a successful Youtuber in drawings by Pavla Navrátilová, is virtually the only Czech contribution to the genre of the celebrity comic, which last made a significant appearance in this country in the early 1990s in the form of a translated series about the boy band New Kids on the Block. The child and adolescent readership of this magazine may well be recruited outside the circle of the usual comics readers, but because of its conspicuous and continuous presence on the market (by the end of 2019, the 43rd issue had been published and two book anthologies had also come out) it cannot be overlooked – and it is quite possible that for many young readers Jirka plays the role of a kind of “gateway” comic, as Čtyřlístek has done for decades, providing them with an entry point to other (thankfully, often more accomplished) sequential storytelling through pictures and words.
A flood of (often educational) books
In spite of the exceptions mentioned above, purely comics-based magazines – whether anthological or, following the American model, single-series – did not turn out to be a particularly productive and durable platform in the local conditions either (recently, even long-running translated series like Kačer Donald [Donald Duck] and Star Wars have come to an end). Since 2010 the role of the key publishing format that has been most successful in communicating with its readers and helping reprinted work to reach a wider audience has increasingly been taken on by comic anthologies and books. The wave of collected or selected reprints making high-quality 20th-century Czech comic strips available has continued or perhaps even intensified, and as was mentioned before, there has been a rapid increase in the number of translated titles too. Compared to the previous decade, it has become increasingly common for collected editions of comics to come out in parallel in specialized and non-specialized magazines. For example, of the aforementioned comics, the following cycles have been published in book form: Líza a Pupík, Suri & Kata, Matýsek a Majdalenka, Jelita, Mlžný ostrov zbarvený do ruda, Pérak: Oko budoucnosti, Tryskošnek, Morgavsa & Morgana and Doktor Racek, and other volumes are being prepared for publication.
In addition, there have also been lengthy comics for children and young adults originally published in book form, even though some of these books may have been based on a popular template in another medium. For example, there were numerous comics adaptations or extensions of children’s television cartoons: publications of this kind include Žížaláci (The Wormies) by Jaromír Gál (2011), O Kanafáskovi (Tales of Dimity) by Galina Miklínová (2012), Tarbíci a Marabu (The Gerbils and the Marabou) by Martina Komárková and Bára Dlouhá (2012) and Bílá paní na hlídání (The White Lady Nanny) by Petr Friedl and Pavel Brycz with visuals by an artist who signs himself Vhrsti (2013). Between 2015 and 2018 the cartoonist Martin Krejčí devoted not one but three albums to the rabbits Bob and Bobek, originally by Vladimír Jiránek. Further out on the margins of comics output are books in which stills from the original animations are arranged into comic-strip panels: in 2015 Večerníčkův pohádkový špalíček (Večerníček’s Treasury of Tales), published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the titular television programme Večerníček (Bedtime Stories), offered several dozen such pseudo-comics stories.
However, most homegrown book-mediated comics for children and young adults belong to a different genre: the vast majority of Czech comics for this age category published on a standalone basis are not only attempting to engage and entertain their readers, but also to educate them. The plethora of educational comics for children and young adults published between 2010 and 2019 can be explained both by creators’ and publishers’ awareness of the high commercial potential of these books (based on the logic that “parents will buy it for their errant offspring”) and by the prevailing but problematic tendency of domestic cultural policy (and its grant programmes) to focus on “big national anniversaries”. Unfortunately, this logic all too often results in the quality of the artwork together with the skill and sophistication of the visuals and scripts taking a back seat to the effort to “bring out something in time to tie in with Charles IV (Jan Hus, 100 years of the Republic, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, etc.)”.
These kind of entertaining-and-instructive or unapologetically educational comics can be divided into several categories based on their formal techniques or chosen subject matter. By far the most numerous are works drawing on (mainly national) history and capturing its major milestones and key figures. Apart from Jiří Černý, whose recent books have embraced the legacy of Obrázky z českých dějin a pověstí (Pictures from Czech History and Legends) by Pavel Zátka, Jiří Černý and Jiří Kalousek (such as Obrázky z československých dějin [Pictures from Czechoslovak History], on which Jaroslav Veis collaborated as scripter and Barbara Šalamounová drew the artwork, 2011, or Obrázky z moderních československých dějin /1945–1989/ [Pictures from Modern Czechoslovak History /1945–1989/] with visuals by the cartoonist Lukáš Fibrich), the most productive originator of this kind of work in terms of quantity is the aforementioned Zdeněk Ležák. His popularizing retellings frequently combine comics segments with commentary in the form of illustrated prose and have involved collaborations with various artists: Michal Kocián, Petr Holub, Jakub Dušek, Jiří Zimčík, Jonáš Ledecký. Between 2014 and 2019 he managed to produce and publish a dozen of them through various publishing houses (apart from the two volumes of the aforementioned Stopa legionáře, there were the titles Ve jménu Husa – Zrození kalicha [In the Name of Hus – The Birth of the Chalice], Karel IV. – Pán světa [Charles IV – Master of the World], Tři králové [Three Kings], Kronika bolševismu [A Chronicle of Bolshevism], TGM [Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk], 100 let Československa v komiksu [100 Years of Czechoslovakia in Comics], Sametová revoluce [The Velvet Revolution], Stalin: Krutý vládce Ruska [Stalin: Russia’s Cruel Ruler], Kronika nacismu [A Chronicle of Nazism] and Jan Žižka – Boží bojovník ve jménu Husa [Jan Žižka – A Holy Warrior in the Name of Hus]). Unfortunately, the quality or sophistication of these projects seems to correspond to the quantity; nevertheless, “parental” support, which translates into commercial success, has ensured that this source of a petrified image of history is unlikely to dry up any time soon.
Fortunately, there are also other artists working in Czech comics for children and young adults who have turned their hand to national history: notably, in recent years the aforementioned well-established duo of Martin Šinkovský and T762 have come up with several interesting comics in which key moments in national history are generally seen through the eyes of ordinary people – in many cases, citizens residing outside the capital (such as 1918 Budoucnost ve vlastních rukách – 1968 Procitnutí do temnoty [1918 The Future in Our Own Hands – 1968 Awakening to Darkness], 2018, or Trikolora [Tricolour], 2019); back in 2012 a remarkable comic-book biography, Antonín Dvořák, was brought out by one of the most respected contemporary Czech illustrators, Renáta Fučíková; other compelling works include the “Hussite” books by Jan Smolík and Klára Smolíková, which came about through a collaboration with museums in Tábor, Husinec and Třebíč (Husité [Hussites], 2012, Jak se staví mesto [How to Build a City], 2014, and Husův dům [The House of Hus], 2015). With other projects – such as the series Češi (Czechs), based on television scripts by Pavel Kosatík – their age targeting is manifest, but they are still among the most interesting things to come out of Czech historical comics in recent years. Also to be commended are two book extensions of the television series Sám v muzeu (Alone in the Museum) in which stories of exhibits from Czech museums by Petra Braunová were given the Jan “Hza” Bažant treatment.
A separate niche of educational comics is made up of books about art: in many cases comics play only a subsidiary part in them; however, they are frequently more successful in combining their didactic and entertainment roles than their counterparts dealing with national history. Probably the most successful work of this kind, Proč obrazy nepotřebují názvy (Why Paintings Don’t Need Names) by Ondřej Horák and Jiří Franta (2014), manages to organically blend a detective story about a theft in a gallery with an everyday story of two siblings spending an afternoon in town with their grandparents and in the process, almost as an aside, explain a great deal about modern art.
Of course, comic books from other genres also crop up from time to time: adventure or science-fiction tales for young adults meet with attempts to take up the mantle of Jaroslav Foglar (whether in the form of a new trilogy by the scripter Josef Blažek and the cartoonist Jiří Filípek from 2017/2018, or an anthological volume of tributes to Rychlé šípy a jejich úžasná nová dobrodružství [The Fast Arrows and Their Wonderful New Adventures] edited by Tomáš Prokůpek in 2018), and there have been efforts to attract very young readers to comics with playful adventures about all kinds of cartoon animals. One unique artist who stands apart from these traditional genre categories but right at the epicentre of readers’ interest is Pavel Čech, who between 2010 and 2019 divided his talents among comics, picture books and fine art. Two of his titles clearly aimed at child or adolescent readers which deserve a mention are a humorous and playful series featuring a Red Indian, Dobrodružství Rychlé Veverky (The Adventures of Fast Squirrel, since 2013, five albums so far), and especially the magnum opus Velké dobrodružství Pepíka Střechy (The Great Adventure of Pepík Střecha, 2012). This 200-page comic book about the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the importance of taking one’s life into one’s own hands represented a major milestone – not only for the Čech’s work, but also for Czech comics for children and young adults in general: it was the very first work of this kind to be awarded a Magnesia Litera prize.
The Magnesia Litera for Pepík Střecha can be correlated with other events and systemic changes which in the period under observation signalled a partial re-evaluation of the approach and attitude of the Czech cultural scene and its institutions to the comic in general, and to its offshoot for children and young adults in particular. Comics for very young readers have been newly designated a separate category in the Golden Ribbon awards conferred by the Czech branch of IBBY, and after years of being overlooked they have also started to achieve recognition from the sector’s Muriel awards. Within the context of Ministry of Culture grant programmes, it is now possible to apply for funding for publishing comic books through a separate grant commission; it is becoming increasingly common for museums and galleries to make use of children’s comics within various exhibition projects; and comic-book titles are regularly showing up in the authoritative selection of Nejlepší knihy dětem (The Best Books for Children). Given the diversity of artists and subject matter, the range of genres and the growing interest from readers, the media and critics, there is every reason to believe that Czech comics for children and young adults will continue to flourish in the decade to come.