By Maggie Zebracka
Reading foreign-language comics reveals an active, vibrant world to which English-only speakers are granted half-access, like watching a movie without sound. You can grasp the meaning sometimes, but often, without text, entire plots—not to mention important nuances—may be lost. Happening upon a comic book or graphic novel translated into English can feel like plucking a needle from the internet haystack.
Often overlooked by American readers, Eastern Europe produces a wide array of comic books in a dazzling variation of styles, a portion of which are accessible to English-speaking audiences. Yes, some (perhaps many) of them are in direct response to the area’s fraught and unstable history. They are vital works of journalism, highlighting dark, uncomfortable truths. But others seem to be moving towards a cautiously brighter, stranger, more whimsical future. Both are represented in this list and none of them will disappoint the lucky reader who picks them up.
Here are ten comic books worth diving into:
Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 by Joe Sacco.
“Praised by The New York Times, Brill’s Content and Publishers Weekly, Safe Area Goražde is the long-awaited and highly sought after 240-page look at war in the former Yugoslavia. Sacco (the critically-acclaimed author of Palestine) spent five months in Bosnia in 1996, immersing himself in the human side of life during wartime, researching stories that are rarely found in conventional news coverage. The book focuses on the Muslim-held enclave of Gorazde, which was besieged by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Sacco lived for a month in Gorazde, entering before the Muslims trapped inside had access to the outside world, electricity or running water.”
Safe Area Goražde is so incredibly detailed, the human subjects so carefully rendered, and the accounts so compelling and affectingly told that one wonders why more journalism isn’t conducted through a graphic medium. Even at the risk of sounding trite, I will say this book is an important one and it should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in comic art.
Adventures on a Desert Island by Maciej Sienczyk (translated by Ewa Lipińska).
“Woken up from a catastrophic dream, a man finds a diary behind his front door and starts to read it. He follows a story of a man who embarked on a cruise to Africa. The ship was sunk by a tsunami but he survived and found himself on a
mysterious desert island. The plot is composed of strange stories whose peculiar character is highlighted by the author’s stylized language. A journey into the unknown provides an opportunity to show the true face of modern man whose life remains unchanged even after a disaster. There is an inherent fallibility to Sieńczyk’s characters, as well as inability and unwillingness to change. Stranded on a desert island, they don’t take any action—they simply recount incredible stories and wait to be carried along by the tides of fate.”
Adventures on a Desert Island is the first graphic novel to be nominated and shortlisted for Poland’s prestigious Nike Literary Award, which is awarded each year to the best book published in Polish. It is a stark book, crisply drawn, its color palate minimal, and its uncanny mix of familiar folktales with disoriented settings ensures this book will be quite unlike anything you read anytime soon.
Blacky: Four of Us by Mateusz Skutnik (translated by Ewa Lipińska).
“Blacky might seem to be just a regular guy but there is something very special about the way he looks at the world. Seen through his eyes, daily routines and things that tend to go unnoticed in a busy everyday life serve as triggers for reflection. It is a funny and thought-provoking collection of bittersweet observations on living in a big city, growing older and being a parent. Read it, but be warned – you will never look at a mug of cold coffee in the same way again.”
Locomotive/IDEOLO by Małgorzata Gurowska, Joanna Ruszczyk, and Julian Tuwim.
“A big locomotive has pulled into town,
Heavy, humungous, with sweat rolling down,
A plump jumbo olive.
Huffing and puffing and panting and smelly,
Fire belches forth from her fat cast iron belly.”
begins the first stanza of the Julian Tuwim poem for children, “The Locomotive.” The train huffs and puffs and clanks and toils, laden down with a Noah’s Ark full of eclectic cargo: bananas, corpulent people enjoying sausages, tables, circus animals, bags and boxes, and more.
Locomotive/IDEOLO, “a graphic and literary reinterpretation for adults”, is a far cry from the light verse and exercise in onomatopoeia of the original poem. The book unaccordians completely—truly optimal viewing requires that it be laid out flat in a long hallway—each page illustrated with a separate train car and its revised contents. “Jews, aggressive football fans, soldiers, gays and lesbians, animals, as well as inanimate objects. It is all accompanied by political commentary, summarizing inequality and social injustice. In this way, the authors challenge not only Polish reality with difficult questions about national identity, racism, anti-Semitism, and attitudes towards ecology and animals.”
The book is, in a word, impressive. In two, starkly beautiful. Certainly worth a long look.
Chernobyl: The Zone by Francisco Sánchez and Natacha Bustos.
“This is a story of one of many families that were forced to leave their homes after the tragic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. They were told that they would return after a few days but it was too late—the invisible enemy had already claimed all their possessions and occupied their houses and land for years to come.
In their story—which aims neither to shock nor cause controversy—Francisco Sánchez and Natacha Bustos look from a distance at three characters who, though fictional, could very well be real. The authors make their readers understand what happened in Chernobyl and reflect on its meaning for today’s generation.“
Moscow by Øystein Runde, Ida Neverdahl (translated by Agnes S.D. Langeland).
After visiting Russia for the first time for the KomMissia, a comic book festival held in Moscow, Øystein Runde and Ida Neverdahl were so inspired that they created a travelogue of their trip.
Two distinct personalities and two distinct cultures merge in this hilarious, whirlwind book replete with photographs, whimsical, vibrant dreamscapes, and shirtless Putin. Lots of shirtless Putin. The resulting book is so much more than a travelogue—it is a blend of imagination, satire, and politics that explores and comments on the current “chaotic state of affairs in post-Communist Russia” from the perspective of an impartial outsider.
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks by Igort (Igor Tuveri) (translated by Jamie Richards).
Originally written in Italian, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks is forthcoming in English from Simon and Schuster on April 26, 2016. (Mark your calendars! Pre-order now!)
“After spending two years in Ukraine and Russia, collecting the stories of the survivors and witnesses to Soviet rule, masterful Italian graphic novelist Igort was compelled to illuminate two shadowy moments in recent history: the Ukraine famine and the assassination of a Russian journalist.”
As a result, the book is split in two.
“In The Russian Notebooks, Igort investigates the murder of award-winning journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkoyskaya. Anna spoke out frequently against the Second Chechen War, criticizing Vladimir Putin. For her work, she was detained, poisoned, and ultimately murdered. Igort follows in her tracks, detailing Anna’s assassination and the stories of abuse, murder, abduction, and torture that Russia was so desperate to censor. In The Ukrainian Notebooks, Igort reaches further back in history and illustrates the events of the 1932 Holodomor. Little known outside of the Ukraine, the Holodomor was a government-sanctioned famine, a peacetime atrocity during Stalin’s rule that killed anywhere from 1.8 to twelve million ethnic Ukrainians. Told through interviews with the people who lived through it, Igort paints a harrowing picture of hunger and cruelty under Soviet rule.”
Regards from Serbia by Aleksandar Zograf.
Published in 2007, Regards from Serbia is still relevant in 2016. “This book captures the essence of life during wartime, seen from the apartment window of one who was there at ground zero. The moral ambiguities of war, the horrific reality, the humanity. This volume includes Zograf’s entire e-mail correspondence to his friends throughout the world during the bombing of his hometown of Pancevo, as well as all of his comic strips produced over the decade Bosnian/Serbian war.”
Of particular interest are the comic strips, especially those where Zograf shines a spotlight on his existential struggle and desire to continue creating art despite the war and life’s persistent but mundane concerns. Zograf punctuates the darkness with humor, even giddiness, which often bewilders those drawn into his comics. It makes for compelling and honest journalism that should be required even for those not already interested in comics.
Double Portrait: Polish Female Comics (translated by various authors).
If reading 162 pages of female artists living, writing, and drawing their lives (yes, this anthology is all autobiographical) in post-Communist Eastern Europe sounds like a good way to spend several afternoons, then this is your book. Readers will find a wide range of artistic styles from black and white to color, sketchy scribbles to highly polished pieces, simple several-panel comics to extended multi-page storylines.
Novice multimedia translators may be especially interested in comparing the equally diverse and creative ways translators tackle comics (and with 20(!) translators, there is sure to be quite some diversity). Some replace the original text directly with the translation. Some number the panels and place the translated text in a column under each corresponding number, right next to the original comic. Some retain choice original phrases. This anthology has it all.
Several Eastern European countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine—are represented in this anthology of text-less comics, which totals 89 works by artists from around the globe. No translation required, Silence 2012 is an introductory sampler platter of artists to an audience who might not have been fully able to access their talents otherwise.
And if you still haven’t had enough…
Why not check out this beautiful translation from Asymptote? Their first-ever graphic novel in translation is Karim Zaimović’s “The Invisible Man from Sarajevo,” in collaboration with Aleksandar Brezar and Boris Stapić. You can read the beautiful Parts 1 through 3!