I haven’t met many comics artists whose one and only dream was commissioning comics. Sure, there are those who dream of infiltrating publishing houses such as Marvel or DC. Imagining that the cup of your morning coffee was once the source of energy for Jack Kirby or Stan Lee might be infuriating, but from my experience, most of us are in it for… us.
If we were to be true while making our business cards, we’d need much bigger formats, as it would be required to write down not only the profession of a comics artist but also script supervisor, storyboard artist, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, and graphic designer as well. Making comics is not an easy job, because you’re doing ten of them instead of a single one.
That’s why a lot of artists tend to be inclined to do their own comics projects, as only the story they hold the true passion for is seen as a fulfilling (time and energy) investment.
Now then, that’s an article for a different day. This is a story of how I got commissioned...
THE REAL THING
Let’s go four or five years back. Here I am, single, penniless, living with my parents. I was in a kind of limbo, partly because I didn’t need to make living yet and partly because I just wasn’t that good of an artist. I was getting there, sure (wink-wink), but my style was still pretty messy and underdeveloped. I had this dumb belief that the quality of art is measured by the level of realism it achieves.
I was considered fairly mainstream by my peers at Uni and a fairly artsy by the Internet. And then it came: an offer that would promote me to be The Real Thing ™.
A few years before, the Czech TV Channel 1 produced a TV series of nine episodes, each exploring significant moment of Czech(oslovak) history. The show was a moderate success, so in years to come comic books were created, each covering a single episode. The project went on much longer than anyone anticipated (or wished for), so when I got my hands on it, three years went by since the last episode aired.
There were two stories left to be adapted, both quite prominent and both covering a very touchy subject. Especially the first one is still considered to be one of the most damaging events in Czech history. In the year 1938, everything was leading up to a war. In the last attempt to stop the bloodshed, leaders of the most prominent countries decided to throw Czechoslovakia under the bus by signing up the Munich Agreement, even though they were bound by previous promises. This gave Hitler the official permission to take over a significant portion of Czechoslovak territory, seizing the rest soon after.
The second one was about the events of 1948, that led the young Republic to the claws of the communist government and kept it there for more than four decades. Most of it was achieved by scheming, talking and (mostly metaphorical) backstabbing.
I felt a bit overwhelmed, as I felt the responsibility of taking a piece of my own country history, but in the end, I chose the former story, as the script promised slightly more action and slightly less talking heads.
I was ready to go. But it wasn’t that easy.
ADAPTING A SCREENPLAY: COMICS IS NOT A MOVIE
One of the first hick-ups was the fact that I was doing an internship in Brussels, so the beginning of the work had to wait a bit. Three months, to be precise. Then it became extremely difficult to meet up with the original scriptwriter, resulting in more delays. In the end, I was encouraged to go with my own take of the script. And so I did.
After the first read, I was sure of two things. First, something needed to be done with the sole two female characters in the story. They were either there to repeat the words of their husbands or serve as a nude object to fill the screen while exposition was happening. Second, a movie script is no comics script.
You see, the thing with movies is that something is always happening. While talking, characters can move around, make gestures, maybe there’s wind blowing in the background or people running around. Even if the audience is forced to listen to a long monologue, their eyes won’t get bored as easily, because they can be entertained by different kinds of movement. Sharp dialogue is needed either way, but comics as a medium can’t hold the reader’s attention as easily. I bet you can name two or three amazing conversational movies. Would you be interested in eighty pages worth of talking heads?
I was far from being the only one struggling with this. Going through the already finished novels, I saw that each of the artists tackled the issue differently. Karel Jerie re-painted his version of Prague spring with... dinosaurs. One is truly amazed by how easily and naturally the shapes of communist chiefs are transformed into the twisted heads of the long-dead creatures. Or my dear friend Karel Osoha, who worked on the last remaining story, re-imagining the overthrow of the country as an evil wizard’s move to take over the magical land.
I searched for a visual metaphor, as I tried to shorten the script by ‘showing not telling’. As the story progresses, the characters find themselves in a more and more desolate land. Their situation is becoming hopeless and their world falls apart, metaphorically and literally.
The colors are slowly drained away as well, leaving the last scene dissolved into complete darkness. The contract was for 60 pages. That wasn’t really an issue, on the contrary: the original script could be easily spread over two hundred pages or more. Before the real cutting began, I started working on the cover, for advertisement purposes created first.
I saw the core of the story in the conflict between two approaches towards the crisis. One was the violent, aggressive and merciless tactic of Hitler, full of sharp rhetoric and promises of guns and pride. The other was how the former president Beneš tried to handle the situation and that is via diplomacy, contracts and by finding allies. One is symbolized by a gun, the other by a pen. The hands holding them create a subtle echo of the shape of a swastika. That was my thinking behind the cover, which I still appreciate till this day, though it is for sure that my present self would not choose brown as the dominant color.
More time went by and when we finally agreed on the script, suddenly it was three months to the deadline. Making a graphic novel for three months is a great way to lose your sanity. We settled on approximately 70 full-color pages, meaning I had a little over a day for each page. The numbers were not in my favor.
It was a long, long summer, that at the same time went by really quickly. There was no time to waste. As the pages kept piling up, the whole project was becoming more real every day. Up until then I have finished only short formats when it came to comics and many of them got published in various magazines and anthologies, but this was the first time I had my name on a stand-alone graphic novel. I liked that idea.
The hardest part turned out to be the finish line because this is when the revisions started coming, after working myself to the ground it was really hard not to lash out at every publisher’s note. It felt like a malicious attempt to destroy what was left of my sanity, even though everybody’s intention was obviously to make the best book possible.
It took me a few weeks to see what an incredible opportunity this was. There were interviews, presentations and most importantly, the sheer sight of the books on the shelves in bookstores.
Looking back, it really was a jump start of my career. I had something to show for myself. Do I like the book now? Er, well, not really. It’s been three years. I draw differently, I like different things. But I am very proud of my younger self for stepping up to the occasion and I am still reaping the rewards of her dedication. It taught me so much, not just comics-wise. Thanks to this book, I have a much better understanding of myself, my own thinking and my creative process. I do apologize, Mr. President, but what has actually changed? We have been saying this for years, the situation is bad, but you never listened. The Englishmen were saying: ‘Hang in there till autumn! Churchill will be in power by then!’ And you nodded along! You said it was under control!
We’ve seen how it went down in France. Their morals, their nation in pieces! We ran to you and you said: ‘If you don’t believe in France, have faith in me instead. Trust me, I know my France, I know my West.’
Oh, I see now. You’ve kept it a secret for so long on purpose so that it could not be changed anymore!
And so you present this to us as given!
Author: Štěpánka Jislová
Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.