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Review of Ewa Stańczyk’s Comics and Nation: Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland

By Ashley Ecklund

Stańczyk, Ewa. Comics and Nation: Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland. Ohio State University Press, 2022.

Ewa Stańczyk’s Comics and Nation is not only invested in delineating the development of comics in Poland, but showing how comics embolden an array of relationships between art media and national ideologies. Her analysis spans 100 years through “the establishment of the Second Polish Republic in 1918; the transition to Communism after World War II; the opening to the West in the 1970s; the political and economic transformation of 1989; and the memory and autobiographical turns of the 2000s” (4). Stańczyk’s research is intensive; this book is brimming with narratives and artifacts that form a multidirectional perspective of the production and reception of comics in Poland. Using a thorough approach, Stańczyk cites interviews, academic articles, and popular print media to analyze the views of comics that emerged from dailies, highbrow journals, religious institutions, governments, social influencers, and more. Further, she shows how different kinds of media during the twentieth century (such as film, comics, television series, posters, live performance, and music) have constituted one another. After just a few pages, it becomes clear that Poland’s comic strips never “existed in a void” outside western Europe and the United States, as it is sometimes assumed; from there, Stańczyk’s research proves that no national category holds as its own isolated domain of art and culture (29). In terms of the latter, in her words, this book aims to reveal the “uncomfortable dynamic between local and imported models, their interdependence, and their dialogical relationship” (4). Through an ethic of multiplicity, Stańczyk also nuances major world events through the issues of translation and cultural studies, making this book one of interest to scholars across the humanities.

The first of five chapters focuses on Interwar Poland, between 1918 and 1939, via comics adaptation. Using “Miki” (as Mickey Mouse) and “Baśka Figlarka” (as Betty Boop), Stańczyk explains, newspapers like Express Ilustrowany and children’s magazines such as Wiosenka offered “Polish adaptions written and drawn by local artists” which, in turn, showcased Polish artists just as much as the “foreign” inspiration (30-1). This adapting, to provide a few examples, included the removal of speech bubbles from United States comics, which were replaced with captions, while backgrounds from Swedish comics were drawn to feature familiar Polish cities (37-8). For me, this chapter speaks to translation theories that posit source texts and translations as their own narratives, or as co-created, rather than “copies” and “originals.” Stańczyk also shows how adaptations of popular comics could emerge through multiple representations of a single character; for instance, the “Swedish Adamson [or “Silent Sam”] functioned in Polish interwar press” under seven different names and contexts (37). As this chapter shows, after the 1921 freedom of the press constitution in Poland, there were publication approaches both familiar and unimaginable today (17). According to Stańczyk, when comics imports were delayed, local artists could draw episodes “from scratch” to get them released, rather than waiting for the “original” copy (38, 42). Also during this period, comics series publishers in Poland stimulated some “American-style mass consumption” by commodifying comics icons such as Froncek the Tintin-like adventurer and Tintin (23-5). These characters were used in games and contests, advertising, for public outreach, appearing in-costume like a school mascot or Disney World cast, and to sell merchandise (25-7). Additionally, Film scholars may want to note this chapter because Stańczyk uses the case of Snow White to demonstrate the narrative links between film, posters, and comics and their grappling with cultural translation via visuals, voice, and music (45, 49). With broad applicability, this chapter destabilizes notions of national and individual authorship and ownership by documenting the multiplicity in the narrative formation of popular texts.

But what about the Iron Curtain? Stańczyk explains how Polish artists and audiences were not as closed off as is popularly imagined during the Cold War Period and, in Chapter Two, explains The Curtain’s “porousness” by showing the distrust towards comics in this period was “medium-specific rather than nationally bound…” (9-10). In other words, though literature within Stalinist Poland was subject to “the cultural policy of the state,” anti-comics campaigns in Poland were nonetheless part of a transnational conversation (63). To provide just one example, Stańczyk cites librarian calls for censorship in the mid-twentieth century from Poland and other countries and finds not only that the United States created a regulating body to censor comics, expressing an anti-comics sentiment noticed globally, but that numerous comics were viewed in Britain as “pornographic” and “corrupting,” revealing widespread didactic concerns (55, 66). Ringing true with the book’s title, this chapter shows how different institutions around the world felt comics were either a threat to “nation building” or effective for building nationalist ideologies (57, 64). As described by Stańczyk, French Catholics in 1949 “criticized the ‘excesses’ of comic books,” for “threatening the national spirit,” rather than adapting comics to instantiate a national spirit of their own like the anti-communist comics published by select churches in the United States. For the latter, Stańczyk provides an analysis of an image from the strip Is This Tomorrow? America under Communism, 1947 (57, 67). This chapter ends by turning the focus toward the 1960s when “state enterprises” in Poland began to use comics “to spread regime-friendly content,” producing, for instance, the popular Romek and A’Tomek “to celebrate the launch of Sputnik 1 by the USSR” (85). I imagine this chapter will be pivotal for those studying censorship and sovereignty in Eastern Europe or the United States.

The last three chapters span the 1970s into the twenty-first century. Chapter three covers the proliferation of Polish comics and the intersections of superheroes and economic models in Poland, which Stańczyk addresses through research about who was invested in creating public-facing content during the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, Poland’s first “super detective,” Kapitan Żbik, was funded by “the largest publisher of sports literature in socialist Poland” (92). Though limited to “regime-friendly” scripts, Żbik was reflected in popular opinion as speaking to “the realities of the time” and be “popular with the ladies” (93). One thing from this section that caught my attention is Stańczyk’s explanation of Legendarna Historia Polski (The Legends of Polish History) because it is one of Poland’s first comics exports and demonstrated the aim to build national rhetoric beyond the borders of the nation itself. It was “First published in 1974… to educate young Polish Americans about the land of their ancestors” (111); however, this bilingual text sold “Polish legends” all over the world and “also became popular in the USSR” (113-4). In addition to addressing issues of censorship, this chapter offers a wealth of information relating to late capitalism’s reach. For instance, Stańczyk explains “how socialist publishers used the leverage of successful television series to market comic books to publishing companies outside the socialist world” (115-6). Specifically, Stańczyk cites the comic Kapitan Kloss, “based on [a] popular TV series,” which was published in, just to name a few, “Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland” (114). Kapitan Kloss’ setting is Nazi-occupied Poland with the protagonist working as a “double agent” and was said to be reminiscent of “early James Bond films” (114). From there, Stańczyk’s fourth chapter discusses the publishing boom that occurred in Poland immediately after the “abolition of censorship” in 1990; in just three years, thousands of publishing houses emerged (122-3). Stańczyk marks this period for Polish comics artists who engaged their work through an “artistic underground” to separate themselves from “mass culture” products such as Marvel and DC Comics (130-1). Another significant focus of this shorter chapter is Japanese manga, namely how it was received in Poland and in what ways it entered the realm of popular rather than niche interest.

The final chapter of Comics and Nation stands out in terms of literary theory, as it takes up contemporary notions of remembrance and nationality—including personal and public memory—via the comics form. For this analysis, Stańczyk develops two case studies: “contemporary graphic memoirs written by women” and “state-funded historical works” (145). One of the featured memoirs is Marzi, scripted by Marzena Sowa and illustrated by Sylvain Savoia (2005-2011), which Stańczyk compares to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2000). Through these examples, Stańczyk underscores the “state-sponsored politics of memory… exploiting the ability of comics to provide a documentary-like record of the past” and why we should read graphic memoirs by Polish women (156, 148). Even in this century, “Memories that contradict” the state-sponsored versions of history “have often been viewed as unpatriotic” (157)—unfortunately, this problem is also transnational. In Stańczyk’s words, “It is perhaps that said ability of graphic stories to render the past corporeal and urgent that inspired policy makers and publishers to consider the comic book a useful vehicle for various identity projects…” (155-6). Those who think about history as a web of voices—rather than as a finite list of “facts”—will welcome this chapter.

Though Stańczyk organizes these chapters in linear periodization, her analysis of media, ideologies, cultures, and rhetorical devices is multidimensional, which is the characteristic of this text most impressive to me. Another of my favorite aspects of this study is its attention to language; Stańczyk traces fluctuations in the terms used for comics in Poland, such as historyjki obrazkowe “pictoral stories” and filmy rysunkowe “drawn films,” and explains in detail which contexts developed them (59, 30). She also notes the word “comics” as a polemic site in 1950’s Poland and explains, “when the anti-comics campaign was in full swing, press commentators would refuse to Polonize the word…demarcating the medium as foreign and impossible to naturalize…[using] alien-sounding inflections…and awkward spelling ideas, including comicsy” (62).

At stake for Stańczyk is “nation building, legitimation of power, and citizenship formation” as “informed by cultural exchange, border crossing and the reimagination of foreign works” (4). As such, I recommend How Comics Travel: Publication, Translation, Radical Literacies by Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, 2022, as a companion reading. In How Comics Travel, also from the Studies in Comics and Cartoons book series, Kelp-Stebbins delineates publishing practices’ impact on the creation of texts and considers comics from the cultural and translation studies lenses, offering more research for those inspired by Stańczyk’s analysis of comics as “border crossing.” Also, for scholars interested in reading more about comics’ role within, and against, Stalinist regimes, I recommend Annie Gérin’s, 2018, Devastation and Laughter: Satire, Power, and Culture in the Early Soviet State (1920s-1930s), as it adds to this aspect of Stańczyk’s book, and likewise, Stańczyk compliments Gérin’s picture through Polish studies and information on the “late” Soviet State.

Turning back to the book’s first few pages, Stańczyk evocatively describes the streets of Kraków as Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus is released in April 2001, long after its initial reception abroad. Concerning a text continuously controversial in Poland, this moment involved anti-Maus protesters juxtaposed Polish Journalist, Piotr Bikont “donning a pig face mask” (2). Through this graphic meta-incident, Stańczyk gives readers a close look at how ideologies of “nation” surround, impact, and are influenced by comics even though comics themselves are not “merely a national phenomenon” (9). But I’ll leave the rest of this compelling and thoroughly researched book for you to experience.


Posted in Volume 14, Issue 2