Picture City – Kraków in Comics

8 April 2020

Kraków has been inseparably linked with comics ever since the rebirth of the Polish nation just months after the end of the First World War, when the satirical weekly “Szczutek” published the picture story With Fire and Sword, or the Adventures of Crazy Grześ: A Contemporary Novel. The rhyming captions were penned by Stanisław Wasylewski, while the storyboards and drawings were designed by the acclaimed artist and caricaturist Kamil Mackiewicz. The uproarious adventures and triumphs of the protagonist, a patriotic volunteer soldier, are regarded as Poland’s first long-running cartoon cycle and symbolise the birth of the genre in Poland. Although “Szczutek” was published in Lwów, the first editions featuring Crazy Grześ saw light here in Kraków, at the National Printing House at today’s 19 Piłsudskiego Street.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Kraków became home to Poland’s most famous cartoon citizen. In February 1948, Zbigniew Lengren’s Professor Filutek made his debut in the 147th edition of “Przekrój”. Although the artist came from Toruń, the escapades of the jolly pensioner were set – just like “Przekrój”’s editorial office – in Kraków. Locating him in our historic city allowed the artist to dress the kindly professor in dapper clothes, going against the strict diktats of the Stalinist era. Filled with warm humour and usually wordless, the stories about the professor and his little dog Filuś captivated the hearts of readers in Poland and beyond. Lengren’s comics were reprinted in France, Czechoslovakia, China, USSR and East Germany, and in 1963 a coastal vessel was even named “Professor Filutek”; it ran between Szczecin and Świnoujście until 1999. The debonair Cracovian enjoyed his autumn years for over 55 years, finally retiring for good in 2003. His author passed away just a few months later.

“Przekrój” also hosted another hand-drawn Kraków resident. Engineer Nowak was the protagonist of a cycle by Andrzej Mleczko, debuting in the magazine with the adventures of “a man who never fails” in October 1974. The sprightly representative of “technological intelligentsia” was a veritable superman – his ingenuity, excellent education and legendary Slavic resourcefulness meant he could deal with anything the world threw at him. Although he usually found challenges in distant, dangerous lands, he always returned to his home in Kraków. In one episode, the engineer hosted famous counterparts from all over the world: on Boxing Day, he welcomed Simon Templar, Zorro, Robin Hood, Eliot Ness and Superman for tea and cake. Unfortunately, the refined afternoon tea was rudely interrupted by the arrival of Janosik brandishing a bottle of moonshine…

Kraków is obviously appreciated by distinguished elders, but it’s just as popular with young people. One of them is Kwapiszon created by Bohdan Butenko – in a series of eight educational brochures published between 1975 and 1981, the teenaged protagonist spends his time escaping from crooks trying to steal his mysterious treasure chest. The pursuit led from Warsaw to Gdańsk, the lake district in Mazury, Frombork, and all the way to Małopolska. In Kwapiszon and the Mystery Key, the plucky hero visits Kraków, and the pursuit ends in Wieliczka. An important formal innovation of the Kwapiszon series was Butenko inserting his distinctive drawings into photos of sites visited by his protagonists to showcase the beauty of each region.

Our city also has its very own superheroes. The oldest is Straine, who made his debut in the magazine published by the Kraków Comic Club in 1996. The self-appointed lawkeeper operates in near-future Kraków, capital of the Galicia District of the Paneuropean Union. His nemesis is Simon Jozue Piehonsky, infamous terrorist responsible for such wrongdoings as blowing up the Basilica of St. Mary, embezzling biological weapons from the NATO base in Nowa Huta and attempting to destroy Wawel Hill. Straine is the creation of Bartosz Minkiewicz and Krzysztof Tkaczyk, AKA Burt Softa and Chris Weber.

Today’s most popular local cartoon protagonist is Bler, a superhero from a series of seven albums created by Rafał Szłapa – a subversive tale of a bookseller who discovers he is the result of a mysterious experiment and uses his newly-found ssuperhuman powers to protect Kraków against evil forces. Oscillating between a pastiche of American comics, horror and techno-thrillers, Bler provides a serious meta-commentary on the status of protectors of justice in the contemporary world. In the finale of the third album, the Rynek Główny is blown to smithereens, and the tsunami of destruction spreads across the city, introducing a previously unseen vision of Kraków as a setting for a postapocalyptic world.

Comics casting a fresh look at Cracovian legends deserve a section to themselves. In 1937, Kornel Makuszyński and Marian Walentynowicz, creators of the unforgettable Koziołek Matołek billy-goat, presented their own interpretation of the story of the cobbler Skuba and the lamb stuffed with sulphur in their comic About the Wawel Dragon. In 1974, the Kościuszko Foundation started publishing a series of bilingual albums popularising the history of Poland on the other side of the pond as drawn versions of excerpts from the chronicles of Gallus Anonymous and Wincenty Kadłubek, with text by Barbar Seidler and sketches by Grzegorz Rosiński. The first comic legend The Wawel Dragon and Princess Wanda was published in New York.

One of the most fascinating takes on of Cracovian legends is Peter Snejbjerg and César Ferioli’s 2016 story The Hero, the Bagel and the Old Dragon featuring a poultry cast straight from Disney: Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck’s nephews. The world’s wealthiest duck takes his young relatives to Kraków, the home of the bagel, to find out if they can make money selling their own baked goods. Once they get there, they decide to go back in time and start selling bagels before anyone else in the city gets in on the game. Unfortunately for them, their time machine – parked in the dragon’s den – wakes up the hungry beast… Ferioli creates perfectly drawn perfect depictions of Wawel Castle, the Vistula Boulevards, Św. Jana Street and the dragon sculpture designed by Bronisław Chromy. The author visits Kraków for the first time in spring 2021 as a special guest of the 10th anniversary Kraków Comics Festival. (Rafał Kołsut)

Rafał Kołsut is a historian of comics and animations, scholar of drawn narratives, lecturer at the Jagiellonian University and the Józef Tischner European University, member of the Kraków Comics Association and contributor to the “KZ” Comics Fan Magazine.

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