News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Book review: Comics and Nation. Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland

reviewed by John A. Lent

Ewa Stańczyk. Comics and Nation. Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland. Columbus:  The Ohio State University Press, 2022. 200 pp. US $34.95. ISBN:  978-0-8142-5838-5.

The focuses of Comics and Nation… are how foreign comics influences were received and discussed in Poland, and how those influences played in the work of local comics creators. The book is organized around the century-long history of Poland, divided into the creation of the Second Polish Republic in 1918; the post-World War II reign of Communism; the opening to the West in the 1970s; “the political and economic transformation of 1989; and the memory and autobiographical turn of the 2000s” (4).

Throughout those years, comics “elicited contradictory emotions from deepest fascination to deepest dislike,” which probably can be said of the comics scene in most countries. Examples of public debates concerning comics permeate the world literature, condemned as they were by the Catholic church, both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes in Indonesia, the Park dictatorship in South Korea, and all over the European and North American continents in the 1940s and 1950s, considered as hindrances to reading habits or the cause of juvenile delinquency, while lauded at other times, as educational and/or ideological indoctrination tools, a “medium of urban modernity” (38), and a transnational cultural exchange agent, with both good and bad impacts.

Author Ewa Stańczyk looks at all of these strands, sifting, as she said, through press commentaries from the 1930s to the present, in more than 200 newspapers and magazines, as well as academic journals, exile periodicals, and the samizdat (underground) press, and using memoirs and interviews with comics creators and publishers, and readers’ letters. She tells us that Poland’s first comic strip was in 1919 in a satirical magazine in Lviv (now Ukraine); that about 200 satirical magazines appeared in the country between 1918 and 1939; that much emulating and plagiarizing of European and American comics occurred over the years; that the first comics imported into Poland were from Sweden and Denmark, not the U.S.; that foreign characters were Polonized as early as the 1930s, and that it was not the American cultural influence that was considered dangerous, but rather, those that were “Jewish, Bolshevik, Masonic, socialist, communist, godless, moral relativist” (46).

Certain strips, characters, magazines, and genre/type were treated fully, such as the strip, “The Unemployed Froncek” of the 1930s, “Kapitan Żbik,” Poland’s first super detective of 1968 onwards, which featured the Kapitan’s regular letters to readers; the first comics magazine, Relax, beginning in 1976; one of Poland’s first comics exports, The Legends of Polish History, of 1974; Kapitan Kloss, based on a 1970s TV show, and the arrival of manga, also in the 1970s.

Comics and Nation… is an important resource, being a rare survey of the comics scene in an Eastern European locale, written in English. The book is packed with historical rundowns, quoted material from seldom heard-from Polish scholars and critics, and enjoyable side stories. Its shortcomings include a lack of sufficient images, and a surplus of contextual matter concerning outside-of-Poland comics history, particularly of the U.S. However, these do not take away from its excellence.

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