“Polish Female Comics: Double Portrait” jams together the autobiographical work of twenty women whose approaches are all rather different.
The comics world continues to grow ever smaller as publishers like Centrala reach out with anthologies such as this one, which uses English text in most of its stories. Polish Female Comics: Double Portrait jams together the autobiographical work of twenty women whose approaches are all rather different. Indeed, it’s obvious that for some of them, memoir is not their preferred means of expression. (For example, Sylwia Restecka is primarily an illustrator of fantasy and fiction. Her autobio story consists of her listing every major project she’s done. It is interesting to look at, as she arranges each panel as though it were a photo in an album, but is otherwise unrevealing.) The book in general will be familiar to fans of autobio, as I’m sure many of the mostly young artists featured have been influenced by the usual suspects. That said, the book also offers a window into the experiences of artists growing up in an immediately post-Communist world, one that rapidly opened up all sorts of opportunities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Asia Bordowa’s “Radical Cheerleader” history. Punk rock became a huge rallying cry for a generation that seized their new-found freedom of speech to mix protest and performance. Dedicated to protesting against homophobia, sexism, and limitations against reproductive rights, Bordowa became part of an art-intensive group involved with comics, zines, music, and performance/protest art, creating a community out of whole cloth from the like-minded who rejected the ruthlessness of capitalism along with the shackles of communism. Her drawing is classic zine-scrawl. Maria Rostocka’s “The Flashy Queen” takes a different approach, attacking the oppressive greyness of post-Communist Poland with a bright palette in terms of dress. That move has its own problems, as the initial attention it gives her leads to jealousy and eventual ostracism—for her, creating art seems to be a means of coping. There’s a sensitivity to her watercolor technique that adds to the emotional fragility of the work.
A number of the stories in the book are mere snippets, like Ada Buchholc’s four-page, duo-toned piece about running that’s part of her larger project of comics related to body image. Maja Demska’s “Everything I Do Is Personal” is a design-heavy account of being frustrated with one’s identity, personified in the way she uses her eyeglasses to stand in for her. There are scribbly diary comics from Agnieszka Piksa, detailed experiences about art school from Marta Nieznayu, and memory flash comics from Jadwiga Zelazny. In general, the artists in this book tend to be either highly-trained designers with extensive art school backgrounds or DIY scribblers who have more in common with zine culture than comics culture.
One thing I always enjoy about anthologies like this is discovering artists I wish I could see more of right away. Maria Ines Gul smears black, white, and grey in interesting ways to talk about the past and wonder about the future, creating a visual style both childlike and sophisticated. Joanna Karpowicz is a superb illustrator with a rich color sense and a sharp sense of humor. Her “Five Random Life Lessons From Childhood” are hilarious, as when she portrays herself managing to sleep through being left outside in freezing weather as a baby, which leads to the moral: “Sleep your troubles away.” Ola Szmida’s fanciful drawings about trying to find a sport that fit her mixes a clear line, a restrained use of color, cursive lettering a la Vanessa Davis, and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor. Agata Wawryniuk’s mix of delicate lines for her figures and thicker lines for her panels and construction of hair, along with exaggerated and rubbery anatomy creates a dense but playful atmosphere for her history of antagonism with her mother. Her nearest American analogue in terms of style is Lilli Carré. Olga Wrobel’s beautifully rendered, deeply felt, yet sly satirical letters to her fictional future granddaughters about her loves and relationships gets across a lot of emotional content thanks to her sophisticated understanding of character design and body language. Finally, Oliwia Ziebinksa’s stark and brutal “Enter Me” is an account of her missing childhood memories and a harrowing tour of what might be missing, told in a visceral but stylized manner.
I’m hoping that this anthology is just the first of many attempts by Centrala to reach out to a larger audience, because there’s clearly a great deal of strong work here that deserves wider recognition. It’s to the Polish scene’s credit that no single visual style seems to be particularly in vogue, which makes sense considering the wide variety of influences that are cycling through the scene. There’s a freshness and lack of cynicism that stands out in this book, as using comics as a means of expression and possibly even making a living from it is still a new idea. Hopefully, this book can serve to further link Poland to the wider European and international comics scenes.