‘I want sci-fi to be normal and intimate’: Interview with Czech comics artist Filip Zatloukal

Excerpt from the Czech comic book “Mezitah: Chyba lávky” by Filip Zatloukal, Albert Maršík and Markéta Černá. Image used with permission.

As Czech comics for adults are slowly being recognized at home and internationally, Global Voices spoke to Filip Zatloukal, a Prague-based artist who explores new styles in an art form crossing over literature and illustration.

Czech comics kicked off in the 1920s in then Czechoslovakia with a key figure of the local art scene: Josef Lada, who has cult status to this day in the Czech imagination, as he also illustrated the probably most famous and definitely most translated Czech book “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války” (The Good Soldier Švejk), written by Jaroslav Hašek, as well as reference children books still reprinted today.

One of the leading pioneers of Czech comics for adults is Kája Saudek, who found inspiration in the US tradition of graphic novels, and adapted it to the Czechoslovak context, but could not be published officially because of Communist censorship until the early 1990s.

Since that period, Czech comics have experienced a renaissance and cater to children, young adult, and adult audiences in all kinds of styles, coloring, and genres: adventures, sci-fi, erotica, historical stories, fairy tales, current affairs.

At the same time, Czech comics are getting to be known abroad and translated. The best example is probably the series called “Alois Nebel,” a black-and-white comic inspired by trains and the ghosts of Czechoslovak history, namely the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII, whose families had lived on Czech lands for centuries, yet were collectively punished for Nazi crimes as decided by the then Czechoslovak government. Written and designed by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99, the series was also adapted into a long animation movie that was selected as the Czech entry for the 2012 Academy Awards.  The comic series is now available in several foreign languages and featured at international comics festivals.

Here is a video of the animation adaptation:

Another artist emerging on the Czech comics scene is Filip Zatloukal, a 28-year-old who studied book illustration in Prague, and launched his career as a graphic designer and later as a graphic novel author. In 2022, he published his first comic book  “Mezitah: Jádro pudla” (Intermediate Stroke: Core of the Poodle). In September 2023, he published the second part, called “Mezitah: Chyba lávky” (Intermediate Stroke: Error), that is inspired by Czech classic and science fiction writer Karel Čapek‘s “Bílá nemoc” (The White Disease), a play written in 1937 about a pandemic and threats of an invasion by a powerful neighbor, clearly a reference to Nazi Germany. Zatloukal plans to publish the final part of his trilogy in 2024, and works with scriptwriter Albert Maršík and coloring artist Markéta Černá on this project, all of whom can be seen in this video:

The main characters in both published parts are a couple of young queer women, Anka and Eliška, who travel across planets with their dog Malér, and collect items in abandoned spaceships to make a living or recycle them for their own spaceship. One day, their adventures take a dramatic turn as their own spaceship gets stolen.

The interview with Zatloukal took place in Czech in a café in Prague, and was translated and edited for style and brevity.

Portrait of Filip Zatloukal. Photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): What defines Czech comics? 

Filip Zatloukal (FZ): It is indeed quite specific. Historically, it was long considered as an art form for children only, under the Communist period [1948–1989], but not for adults, which makes it very different from let’s say the French school of comics. Today we witness a major change as Czech adults take a growing interest in comics.

I recently had a small exhibition of my work in Belgium and attended the Paris Salon de la Bande Dessinée [Comic Book Fair] where the Czech Republic was the invited country to represent Czech comics. And once again, I understood that, in countries like France, there is no such stigma around comics as being literature aimed solely at children. At the same time, I do see we have a lot in common with the French school when comparing to the US model of comics that is radically different. This is why I think that Czech comics are generally well received in France. I think French fans of Czech comics are particularly sensitive to our illustration style with softer colors. I also notice that French translators of Czech literature do come to Czech events such as Knihex [small publisher book fair in Prague] and are interested in translating comics.

FN: Can people study comic making in the Czech Republic?

FZ: In Plzeň [fourth largest city in the west of the Czech Republic] the University of Western Bohemia has a faculty of design named after Czech illustrator Ladislav Sutnar where comics are taught as a subject. I personally studied book illustration and book making in Prague at the Hellichovka school of graphic design. My skills in book making became very handy when I was involved in the printing of my first comic book I have to say! That’s the nice part of working with a small-size publisher that allows you to have your say.

FN: So what is your first comic book about? 

FZ: Well I always drew things, but I am an illustrator first of all, not a scriptwriter. When Albert Maršík saw my drawings, he said this was material for storytelling, so we started working on the scenario together. I think my own style is inspired by both the French and the Japanese traditions. You can see I use pastel colors and thin lines, typical of French comics, but also neon-type colors, closer to Japanese comics.

As for the story, I was inspired by the recurrent theme of science-fiction that is prevalent in Czechoslovak films that often featured robots [a Czech word] in a very realistic form. Many of those movies are not sci-fi per se, but have many elements of this genre: carnivorous plants, people having their size reduced. This is why my book is about people travelling across space, but I wanted to make it look very normal, realistic and intimate. Sci-fi is also a space to explore ideas much harder to describe in our worldñ it allows metaphors.

We worked with Maršík on the basis of a democratic rule: I would have the last work regarding illustrations, and he would for the scenario. We worked during the pandemic mostly remote as he was in France for six months. The main thing is to brainstorm, discuss — which is also how we worked with Markéta. It all starts with the scenario, but there are clearly parts in the comics where illustrations without text dominate.

Here is an image from the second comic book just published, used with permission:

FN: How would you define a style in the context of comics? 

FZ:  I think it refers to a pattern that resurfaces and repeats itself: the thickness or thinness of the line, to what extent scenes depicted are close or far away from our reality, the use of perspective, and the combination of colors or the use of black and white.

Here is another excerpt from the second comic book; image used with permission:

FN: You also work as a poster designer, is there a difference in the work you do as a comics artist? 

FZ: Certainly, but both sides are connected: I may test a specific technique when doing a poster that I will later use in comics design, or vice versa. Indeed comic artists need to have another job to make a living, I am lucky that I can remain in the field of illustration, even if it is for commercial purposes.

Zatloukal’s work can also be seen on Instagram.

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