The launch party of the fifth edition of the famous Belgian comic book magazine Stripgids was held at the Muntpunt Library in the centre of Brussels yesterday.
The new issue of the magazine features a detailed overview of the contemporary Czech comic book scene, as well as a 32-page special report celebrating the life and work of the Flemish comic book artist Charel Cambré, author of the well-known “Amoras” and “Jump” comic strips.
Mr Cambré was present at the launch yesterday, where he offered a number of interesting remarks about the nature both of his own work and the Flemish comic book scene more generally. Joining him at the launch was the Czech comic book historian Pavel Kořínek, who offered an excellent history and overview of the current state of play of Czech comics.
During his talk, Mr Kořínek noted that in the 20th century, Czech comics were “predominantly aimed at children, not adults”, but that this began to change around the start of the 21st century, with the arrival on the Czech comic book scene of adult-catering artists such as Jaroslav Rudiš.
Mr Kořínek went on to remark that, unlike comics in other countries, there is no “hegemonic” Czech style; rather, he said, Czech comics exhibit an “eclectic mixture of different genres and drawing techniques”. Another peculiarity of Czech comics that Mr Kořínek highlighted is the fact that the “default” Czech comic publication format is the graphic novel – that is, a complete, autonomous piece of work of around 100-250 pages. This distinguishes the Czech comic scene from the Belgian and American ones, where the publication of much shorter comic strips – or edited collections thereof – is far more prevalent.
Mr Kořínek also noted that the genre landscape in the Czech Republic has become “increasingly diverse and interesting” over the last twenty years or so. Whereas the majority of Czech comics used to focus on medieval-themed tales involving knights, kings, and princesses (and, very occasionally, recent Czech history), now Czech comics exhibit a far more varied set of styles and genres. Intriguingly, Mr Kořínek noted that today the Czech comic book scene is building upon its own local traditions and customs – traditions and customs which, only a few decades ago, barely existed.
Finally, Mr Kořínek discussed the potential pedagogical uses of comic books, and how, in particular, they could be a “brilliant tool” for use in history lessons, and/or to help students to learn about important contemporary issues such as the treatment of mental illness. However, Mr Kořínek also emphasised that students “must be taught how to use and properly engage with [comic books]” before they could reasonably be appropriated for teaching purposes.
Mr Cambré then spoke briefly about his experience as a professional comic book artist in Belgium. Among the many interesting points he made, he emphasised the difficulty these days of getting young children interested in comics given the vigorous competition for their attention from video consoles, iPhones, and television.
In the ensuing panel discussion featuring both Mr Cambré and Mr Kořínek, the latter spoke about how Stripgids’ focus on Czech comics in its most recent issue “presents a great opportunity” for Czech comic artists and the Czech comic book scene more generally. However, he also emphasised that he “certainly doesn’t expect things to change overnight” for comic book artists in the Czech Republic. He also stressed the importance of “connecting national comic scenes” in order to “promote the ‘global republic of comics’”.
Mr Cambré, in turn, spoke about his love for his job, and the enjoyment he feels everyday in being able to draw varied styles and genres throughout the work week: “There’s not a day when I draw without pleasure,” he said.
More ominously, however, Mr Cambré emphasised that we are now possibly at a “turning point” in the global comic book industry:
“Sales are dropping,” he said. “Comic book editors are adopting the easy response by, for instance, printing comic book series about well-known characters, in order to seek some kind of recognition among consumers. But this won’t last forever.”
Mr Kořínek, by contrast, emphasised that “we are now living through the Golden Age of Czech comics – we’re in brilliant shape”. However, he too offered a word of warning:
“Despite what a lot of comic book artists say, I’m not sure if comics are the medium of the future,” he said. “I think – and fear – that it’s likely that mobile phones will be instead.”
In the subsequent Q&A, Mr Kořínek spoke about the decline of satirical newspaper cartoons as a direct consequence of such satire shifting to the internet where, he said, “media can respond virtually instantaneously to events as they occur” in the form of (e.g.) memes. He also noted that nearly all Czech comic artists only work as comic artists part-time, and are usually forced to work other jobs to make ends meet.
Mr Kořínek also discussed how the Slovak comic scene is “less developed” than the Czech one, and how the best Slovak artists can usually be found in Prague.
Finally, he spoke about how there was not a strong dissident comic book scene during the country’s Communist era due to the fact that (as mentioned previously) during this period comic books were predominantly aimed at children, and hence were not viewed as an artistic form “worthy of serious intellectual attention” or even as a medium that could potentially be used purely for satirical purposes.