Peter Gärtner and Ďuro Balogh: Joyful News
Published by Monokel, Bratislava, 2021
The phenomenon of the comic book is nowadays truly hard to miss and successfully touches different intellectual levels of all generations of curious people interested in non-traditional artistic-literary productions. Combining image and text to convey information or to evoke a specific aesthetic experience has been part of world cultures for a long time. However, from around the middle of the 18th century onwards, when the simplification and constant improvement of reproduction techniques in print coincided with an increase in the literacy of the population, this type of entertainment production began to gain importance in everyday contexts and gradually became an essential part of all print media.
Comics, as the term is usually spelled in the original, was created by combining two English words – comic and strip. At first, they were just short cartoons consisting of a few pictures, often in black and white and without words, a kind of shaved clippings of actual feelings, strips of drawings of humorous situations without the unnecessary talk. Later, added texts, placed in so-called bubbles in the middle or at the edge of the picture, also appeared. Historians of the medium usually agree that today's comic strips find their immediate ancestors in the cartoons and caricature humour of the most diverse periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. After timid beginnings, by the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, these short cartoons became such a popular art-commentary full-of-action item coveted by the public, that they had to be part of the world's major daily newspapers as a distinctive refreshment for the readers. Gradually the picture stories were colored and the number of drawings of a single series increased, which logically started the publication of very attractive comic notebooks and booklets. As a result, the art form gradually became a hit item, understandable to all kinds of generations, regardless of language. As the diverse cartoon characters made their way into animation and later live-action film, the comic genre, now part of modern big-city folklore – along with the Western and the musical –, became one of the typically American (the term comics and the first drawings originated in the U.S.), internationally recognised nooks of the visual arts. It was very popular in the 1960s, when it also became a significant part of the oeuvre of the world-famous representatives of Pop Art, notably Andy Warhol (who first exhibited his comic strip Dick Tracy in 1960, sparking a new interest in figurative drawing on both sides of the Atlantic) and, even more so, Roy Lichtenstein, whose characteristic yellow, red and blue photo-orchrites in the form of enlarged comic strips with monologue bubbles were inspired by a gum wrapper with a comic-strip drawing and by the provocations of his children. "The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire," wrote Lichtenstein, who considered his art a kind of irony... Probably the most widespread in the world is the reading and creation of comics in the USA, Japan (where it is referred to as manga) and France (here they speak of the "bande dessinée"), then in Poland and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Reinhard Kleist's comics about the life of Nick Cave or Johnny Cash are famous, as well as the current book about the "indestructible" Czech hockey player Jaromír Jágr by the young duo Lukáš Csicsely and Vojtěch Šeda.
Although attractive comic-book series of older and new original authors, such as Božena Plocháňová, Viktor Kubal, Schek Babušek, Plšek, Danglár together with Taragel, Shooty and especially the phenomenal Daniel Majling and his character Rudo have existed in Slovakia for quite a long time, the genre of comics is still underestimated by many people and viewed as mere fairy-tale storytelling or something a bit subpar. That kind of attitude, however, stems from a certain ignorance. This is perhaps also because, apart from little experience of their own, domestic readers interested in the theory (and practice) of comics have so far been offered few opportunities to familiarize themselves with both current issues and enduring concepts of "thinking about comics".
Perhaps (well, probably definitely) screenwriter Peter Gärtner and illustrator Ďuro Balogh – who is also responsible for the pictures in Dušan Dušek's book Pištáčik – managed to rectify this situation. Their comic story of the comedy duo Lasica and Satinský, Joyful News (published by Monokel in 2021) is set against the backdrop of the short history of the legendary Divadlo na Korze (Theatre at the Promenade), the social thaw of the 1960s, and the sudden turn and onset of political normalization, proving that the current comics are already part of culture on almost the same level as literature or film. The author of the idea for the book is publisher Peter Michalík, founder of the Monokel brand for publishing visual books in which pictures are as important as texts. His biggest collaborations so far have been with Michal Hvorecký and illustrator Simona Čechová, resulting in the books Bratislava – The Magic Metropolis, The Painter and the Boy, and Danube – The Magic River. In addition, he prepared the first Slovak translation of Scott McCloud's classic Understanding Comics, in a way making readers ready for Joyful News. Aside from being the publisher and brain behind the project, Michalík also became producer and co-author.
To come up with something new, short, funny and original about comedians of the stature of the L+S duo is an immense effort, especially since everything about them has already been written. But still – a remarkable stretch in the long story of these humble and awkward and yet immensely proud and sovereign characters of an era that favored grey rather than colorfulness is especially appealing in the form a comic story, a multi-layered shortcut full of witty turns. At the same time, such partial coverage offers a good opportunity to peep through a keyhole, as it were, at an era that is strictly in the past.
Full immersion in the game
Joyful News for Everyone with a Bladder Problem was the second and last original play that Milan Lasica and Julo Satinský managed to perform at Bratislava’s cult theatre Divadlo na korze. The duration of this small but legendary stage was quite short – from 1968 to 1971. During three seasons it opened eight productions that presented a real dramaturgical novelty within Slovak professional theatre and concentrated such actors as Stano Dančiak, Marián Labuda, Peter Debnár, Martin Huba, Pavol Mikulík etc. The onset of normalization meant a ban on its activities, the forced departure of L+S from the theatre and relentless efforts to erase the duo from the archives of people's memory. However, the opposite happened, and the humor and tireless glossing itched and burned the Bolsheviks for years like an incurable ass sore. It so happened that the duo had a relentless enthusiasm and perseverance for good cause encoded into them. They were both enthusiastic and full of all varieties of humor, completely immersed in the game for the sake of themselves and for all the people around who understood. They always carried sprouting grains of hope in their pockets.
The book has minor characters accompanying the duo in this short tale, their friends as well as those in high places who made decisions on behalf of the regime. An important figure is Kornel Földvári, the former editor-in-chief of the magazine Kultúrny život, later director of Divadlo na korze, who is actually the third main character of the comics. Among others, Peter Mikulík, Laco Kalina, Janko Borodáč, Martin Porubjak, Alexander Dubček, Ján Roháč, Miroslav Válek, Miroslav Horníček, Jan Werich, Milan Sládek, the music band Prúdy and many others appear in the book. The authors drew on available theatrical materials, film footage, book and magazine interviews, as well as authentic recollections of actors or witnesses of the glorious era of Slovak theatre. In addition to the university library, the authors also visited the Slovak Film Institute, where they found a vaulted documentary about Divadlo na korze entitled Interview v metelici (Interview in a Snowstorm). For valuable information and suggestions in the book, the authors thank Martin Huba, Peter Mikulík, Milan Lasica, Lucia Molnár Satinská, Viera Satinská, Milan Sládek, Vladimír Strnisko and others.
A guffawing audience
The comic book chronicles two time lines. The dominant one is the aforementioned period of the Divadlo na korze and its socio-political context, but the story also returns to the point of the first meeting of Milan Lasica and Július Satinský in 1954 at the Pioneer (now Presidential) Palace in Bratislava. The first meeting took place symbolically onstage of the play O dvanástich mesiačikoch (The Twelve Months). Neither of them could have guessed at the time what they would experience together. The Academy of Performing Arts, the Military Art Ensemble, Tatra Revue as well as the House of ZČSSP (Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship) gradually followed. They made fun of the social situation; "imperialist" jazz (Traditional Club) as well as rock music was played, and to this day, both the guffawing audience and the long-term supporters still have fragments or even whole chapters of dialogues and monologues in their heads. All the content of those times is humorously compressed into a graphic novel for all generations. For a story to be good, it can't be sparse. And so, even many fans, connoisseurs and witnesses will discover quite a bit of new things and details, almost like in a suspenseful literary-historical detective story. It's all about the economics of storytelling – to say a lot within a small space.
"I prefer no respect..."
The participation of Milan Lasica was important in the creation of this ground-breaking comic book, as he was the godfather of the project and managed to approve it, but unfortunately, he was not there anymore to see its publication. "He told us a lot of well-known and lesser-known stories from his life, the best of which we have used in the book. He basically gave us a free hand: put in whatever you want, just finish as soon as possible," Peter Gärtner recalls. Both the publisher and the author of the idea wanted to reassure him at the last meeting that the idea was mainly based on their respect for the comedy duo and their work together. "His answer was: please – I prefer no respect," Peter Michalík recalls, adding that they also had support from the Satinský family from the beginning.
Lengthy tirades can be written about the book, but in the current fast-paced times, reduction and brevity are imperative. Therefore, let’s hope that many more such "brief" comics about the immortal legend L+S will appear.
Pavel Malovič (1952) is a physical-education doctor, songwriter and publicist. Since 1979 he has been a member of the songwriters' association Slnovrat.
Illustration from the book Joyful News, source: Monokel