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Czech Comics Anthropology: Life and Story in O přibjehi: Keva by José Alaniz

11 May

Graphic narrative suggests that historical accuracy is not the opposite of creative invention; the problematics of what we consider fact and fiction are made apparent by the role of drawing

(Chute 2008: 459).

In 2008-2010, cultural anthropologist Markéta Hajská, Romany linguist Máša Bořkovcová and scriptwriter/artist Vojtěch Mašek collaborated on “Negotiated Stories” (Vyjednávané příběhy), a project organized by the Czech civic organization Ašta šmé and supported by the European Cultural Foundation. The resultant trilogy of documentary comics, O Přibjehi (stories, 2010) [1], chronicled the lives and hardships of three Roma living in the Czech Republic through a combination of interviews, direct testimony, participant observation and graphic narrative.

From different life-stories – of Albina, a 45-year-old mother of seven in a Roma ghetto in Slovakia; Ferko, a 60-year-old disabled pensioner in northern Bohemia who fashions tall tales in a mixture of languages; and Keva, a 20-year-old entry-level worker in Prague’s industrial Smíchov district – there emerges a palpable sense of economic struggle, institutionalized prejudice and cultural alienation faced by a population still marginalized (if not vilified) by mainstream Czech society. But what also shines forth is the subjects’ canny instincts for survival, drive to make their narratives heard and determination to live on their own terms. Striking too is the trilogy’s self-conscious presentation: the “oral history” format reproduces individual language ticks and slang, partly through unconventional spelling,[2] while Mašek and his collaborators appear frequently along with their subjects, discussing the work the reader holds in her hands, in photos and drawings worked over on computer through a variety of graphic styles (with Ferko’s story told primarily in a yellow palette, Albina’s in red and Keva’s in blue).

Much of the reception for O Přibjehi, by a Czech readership that still sees “serious” comics as a novelty, emphasized its socially-conscious, even-handed and accessible qualities, its important “insight[s] into the life and mentality of the Roma in a documentary and at the same time readable form,” as Jiří G. Růžička noted in his review. He adds: “It exposes the reasons why most Roma in our society are not successful, while pointing out that this failure is not only in them. At the same time it’s not afraid to show the cause of some of the stereotypes through which the dominant society sees the Roma.”[3]

Michal Uhl, the rare Czech anthopologist who also has a deep knowledge of Czech comics,[4] praised the work even more effusively, maintaining that a visual/verbal medium could forge links between the academy and the lay public on important issues:

Social anthropology, which in the Czech case often explores the lives of the Roma culture and the lives of the Roma themselves, like most sociological work often has to deal with its own inability to reach mainstream society. Unfortunately, often the only readership that knows the conclusions of research reports are colleagues from the departments of anthropology, ethnology or Roma studies who can listen in at a professional conference, or read them in the proceedings of a professional journal. And that’s a shame, because the results of these final reports are usually the product not of tedious research, but very interesting experiences in the field. Many studies and ethnography researches deserve more than just an academic hearing. The role of anthropology as a bridge between cultures would finally begin to really realize itself. Comics as a genre seems ideal for this task.

Through an examination of Keva, this essay considers the stakes in the O Přibjehi trilogy for comics’ treatment of (personal) history, in ways that put to the test Uhl’s point about the medium’s serviceability (echoed by other proponents of “comics anthropology,” such as Hannah Wadle) for making complex issues and unfamiliar subjectivities “accessible.”[5] In particular, I want to explore how comics’ image/text framework invokes tensions which have beset visual anthropology since the 19th century; in my conclusion, I weigh what promise such an approach holds for the fledgling Czech comics industry itself.

Comics Anthropology and the ‘Threat of the Visual’

Although the visual, as noted by Chris Wright, has been “central to anthropology since its inception” (16), whether as 19th-century ethnographic photographs, the cinema of Jean Rouch, indeed in the explicit meaning of the term “observation” itself, the subfield of visual anthropology has had to contend with a long-held professional suspicion of the visible.[6] Its ambiguity, incapacity to capture ethnographic “intangibles” or “confirm” pre-established categories of race (visual evidence tended rather to contradict them),[7] along with intolerable levels of “excess,” among other sins, constituted a threat to the discipline’s cherished notions of scientific objectivity.[8] As argued by Deborah Poole:

[T]he mid-nineteenth century anthropological romance with photography was fueled in important ways by a desire for coherence, accuracy, and completion. It was also, however, plagued almost from the beginning by a certain nervousness about both the excessive detail and the temporal contingencies of the photographic prints that began to pile up around the anthropologist’s once comfortably distant armchair … By specifying uniform focal lengths, poses, and backdrops, anthropologists sought to edit out the distracting “noise” of context, culture, and the human countenance (163).[9]

The obsessive urge to police visual excess, particularly the photographer’s traces – in short anthropology’s “disenfranchisement of vision” – belies a certain “Cartesianism within anthropology” (Wright: 17), a refusal of the sensual, as well as an anxiety that “art” might overwhelm “data” in a discipline that traditionally privileged words over pictures:

It is possible to see the relation between words and images within visual anthropology in terms of the polarity between anthropological relevance and aesthetic composition … The tendency to adopt an oppositional model between anthropological relevance and aesthetic composition, between word and image, perhaps belies, or actually works to perpetuate, some perceived threat that the visual poses to anthropology (ibid: 20).

In turning to comics, a medium with a propensity to use sequentially-ordered cartoons for narrative purposes – coupled, it need be said, with its traditional dismissal by the mainstream public as a children’s diversion – the disciplinary anxieties cited by Wright and Poole come all the more insistently to the fore. Perhaps this helps explain why anthropologists have only recently incorporated comics into their work. As Hannah Wadle has written:

While film and photography have fallen on fertile ground from the early days of Anthropology and moulded the sub-discipline of Visual Anthropology, comics has not yet become an equally respected and applied ethnographic methodological tool and format of presenting anthropological knowledge.

Yet comics’ modus operandi bestows distinct advantages for just such a presentation; besides depicting qualities and events difficult to photograph, its amalgam of word, picture and sequence conveys the multiplicity of experience and presence in unique ways. As Wadle notes, through their textual/image strategies “comics ethnographies are freed from the restrictions of soloist scripts to represent orchestral pieces.” Furthermore, comics’ forthrightly constructed and interactive nature analogizes how subjectivity emerges out of social collaboration. As Joseph Witek has argued, the medium at every turn reminds us how identity is shaped by others (157); its visual/verbal tensions complicate any monolithic or totalizing version of reality, including social reality.[10] For such reasons, Wadle relates the “authenticity” of comics anthropology to that of the animated documentary (which also wears its artifice on its sleeve), a move I embrace and extend in my conclusion.

With the foregoing in mind – comics anthropology’s collaborative, verbal/visual poetics; its (for some) suspect status in light of “traditional” anthropology’s logocentric biases; “art” vs. “data” – let us turn to the ways Hajská, Bořkovcová and especially Mašek negotiate such fraught terrain in their landmark work.

Keva and the ‘Roma Problem’

As explained by James Goldston, “Lacking a territory or government of their own and numbering only eight million to ten million, the Roma today are in many ways Europe’s quintessential minority” (147). With most of the Roma living in Eastern Europe, the issue of how to integrate them into mainstream society while respecting their ethnic diversity has grown more acute as states of the former communist bloc angle for membership in the European Union, with its demands for enhanced human rights standards. Racism, segregation, violence, even ethnic cleansing have been directed at the region’s Roma population (which already under communism had suffered discrimination, attempts at cultural assimilation, accusations of “parasitism” and worse). As Rick Fawn writes, “If one group of people seems today to be consistently verbally derided, subjected to physical abuse, social marginalisation and even legal disenfranchisement in the post-communist space, it is them” (1193).

The Czech Republic, an ethnically homogenous society (Roma population: 2.4 percent), has proven no exception to these trends, and in some cases has been a leader. Indeed, outsiders have remarked how Czechs’ popular attitudes to the Roma strikingly deviate from their reputation as a free-thinking, liberal people. If, as former dissident and first post-communist president Václav Havel declared, the Roma question is a “litmus test of civil society” (ibid: 1195), the Czech Republic has largely, regrettably, failed it. In short, the country’s Roma up through the second decade of the 21st century remain second-class citizens – ghettoized, morally suspect, their children often sent to “special schools” for the mentally retarded, and subject to attack.[11]

Keva reflects all these realities – from the receiving end – through a 20-year-old heroine who embodies the hopes and despair of a post-communist Roma generation still kept at the periphery of society. Nonetheless, as the youngest, Keva is the most culturally assimilated of the O Přibjehi trilogy’s subject/witnesses: she speaks a slang-filled, working class Prague version of the Czech language; she is fully conversant in current Czech and American popular culture as well as social media; she despises her service-industry jobs; skips school and goes clubbing; and practices a self-absorption familiar to her Czech coevals (perhaps to young people everywhere).

Born premature within weeks of the November, 1989 Velvet Revolution (her first ride home from the hospital is diverted by rallying crowds), Keva – boldly, as she is an outsider – figures the new nation itself; her life (touched by violence, poverty and dreams) reflects the euphoria and pitfalls of a dawning 21st century in which reaching out across cultural divides grows only more difficult – for Czechs and Roma both. In this brief examination, I wish to focus on three major aspects of Keva’s poetics for how they construct, affirm and negotiate an at times unstable alterity: its aforementioned disparate visual registers; its treatment of time; and, most critically, the subject’s self-representation in concert with the text’s anthropologist authors.

Though O Přibjehi represents his first foray into non-fiction, since 2004 Mašek (b. 1976) has earned accolades as one of the leading practitioners of comics in the Czech lands. His work with a frequent collaborator, the writer Džian Baban, shows a deep influence of the avant garde, in particular surrealism.[12] His artistic approach to Keva privileges variety and experiment, sometimes at the expense of coherence. The overall impression is one of a ceaseless, ever-shifting flow of experience, its fluctuations signaled through styles ranging from photorealism to collage to crude near-stick figures scrawled with markers. Some images take up one or two-page spreads, while other pages consist of dozens of tiny panels. (Mašek fashions the book so that such disparate designs often clash, confronting each other on facing pages, or even on the same page.)

Such aesthetic exuberance and polyphony couch what are often banal incidents of the everyday: a child’s impressions of chaotic family life; the dullness of work; bus stop chit-chat. But the harsh realities of being Roma – the reminder that one is first, foremost and always regarded an outsider – lends an ever-present racialist edge to the depiction of Keva’s routine.

Mašek switches styles almost with every turn of the page. For example, an altercation with skinheads on the street appears in four tiers separated by thick black borders, like film strips. A mishmash of hastily-drawn figures – swastika, skinhead, the adolescent Keva, her friend Kačena’s beaten visage, an infant witness – succeed each other in action-to-action and aspect-to-aspect sequences, conveying violence and confusion. The much younger Keva’s encounter with a sensitive bodybuilder (she drives him to tears with her impromptu critique of his exaggerated physique) seems even more minimalist: the man’s face is rendered as two smeared dots for eyes, quick lines for nose, mouth and lips, with a thin vertical line to represent shadow, while Keva’s narration (“I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I got frightened he would kill me” [n.p.]) seems scribbled with a felt-tip marker running out of ink. Lest the reader simplistically associate “minimalism” with an earlier period in the heroine’s development, however, later in the story Keva relates her first memory, of being led by the hand to a crib and staring out from behind its bars (signaling her social status): here the art is less baroque and more detailed, with three blue-white panels along the right hand side set off against a great deal of white space.

Fig.1 – Keva and her friends are attacked by skinheads. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

In contrast, Mašek renders a scene in which a social worker visits seven-year-old Keva at home (she’s skipping school, enjoying a cigarette) through an etching technique over photographs. When the woman marvels, “You smoke? How is that possible?” Mašek reproduces the same picture from a previous panel, redrawn. Such re-reworked photos (the same yet different) appear throughout the book, creating an eerie effect, as if touched-up puppets or collages were performing the actions. Whereas Keva’s unflattering portraits of her hated teachers (on the page facing the social worker scene) are drawn in an “ugly” caricaturistic style recalling Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek.

Fig.2 – The social worker visits the young Keva, who is skipping school. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

A school ski trip scene displays yet another technique altogether. A married teacher’s affair and downfall into alcoholism unfolds on a single page, in 17 compact panels and a column of text offset by white space; here the story’s scope expands to the novelistic. While a later scene, in which Keva recalls a dream of shooting up with her friends in a tunnel, returns us to the “film strip” design: four tiers separated by broad black spaces. Only now the panels contain photorealistic portraits, including a graphic image of a needle penetrating skin – whose specificity seems to contradict Keva’s assertion that she only dreamed the episode. (By her own admission, drug use is rampant among her friends and young Roma in general.) Indeed, the blurring of reality, dream and fantasy plays a major role in the book. At her deli job, in a large walk-in freezer, the present-day Keva indulges a reverie of having an affair with the middle-aged movie star Jiři Langmajer (as her puffs of breath “transform” into a luxurious white fur coat). Her bemused reaction upon coming to: “I don’t know how an actor like that could come to my mind.”

Fig. 3 – The school ski trip: a man has an affair and eventually succumbs to alcoholism, all on one page. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

The foregoing litany of scenes gives some impression, I hope, of how Keva’s inconstant patchwork of styles resonates with, complicates, contradicts and synthesizes its subject’s varied experiences – colorful, unpredictable, humdrum, unique as any life – while giving voice to the fundamental humanity of the subaltern.

Yet the O Přibjehi trilogy insistently grounds its subjects’ inner lives in their particular places and times, linking their experiences to the greater social realities around them. To that end, in Keva Mašek utilizes a clock motif to remind the reader of the ineluctable historical context in which its heroine is situated. The clock – “floating” in the corner of the frame like a TV news graphic – appears intermittently, at times serving a pedestrian purpose; in the “Langmajer daydream” just discussed, it informs us that Keva’s reverie consumed about seven minutes of her working day (she hardly seems to regret the shirking). At other times the clock tracks her rhythms and routines: at 10:25, she discusses a potential paramour’s Facebook profile with a friend, at 8:26 her neighbors invite her over for chocolate, at 9:26 she’s having another session with Mašek, Hajská and Bořkovcová, at 3:51 the workday crawls along.

But the clock motif also carries out a more unnerving, “memento mori” function: like the hourglass – age-old symbol of death – it marks the passage of Keva’s limited time on Earth. Is she making good use of it? As the hours and days lapse, is she “progressing” or spinning her wheels in place? The clock therefore seems to serve, perhaps inadvertently, as a sort of judgment on Keva’s activities (and that of all Roma?), as well as a marker of the cyclical, repetitive nature of time itself for the subject’s private/public personae. This would explain the recurring scene of the neonate Keva being brought home from the hospital on November 17, 1989: she is tied to the fate of the Czech nation, itself newly-born, through a moment in time obsessively rehearsed, reimagined, revisited.[13] In other words, like Mašek’s stylistic heterogeneity, like Keva’s myriad perceptions, the clock carries a polysemous charge.

The book’s aesthetic and temporal structuring of Keva’s life, in collaboration with the subject herself, returns us to the initial theme of this essay, the “negotiated story.” For, not unlike Art Spiegelman’s Maus (to take the most prominent non-fiction graphic narrative example), Keva devotes extended passages to its own self-construction. Several pages depict the authors around a table with Keva, mulling, shaping and reworking the text (which emerged from many hours of recorded conversations and scores of photographs). As Uhl notes, “A reader thus has the opportunity to trace how the story was collected, including the subject’s interactions with various characters. The authors deal with the problem of anthropological fieldwork quite elegantly, seeing as how they interpret their field data without denying that their presence affects the ground which they examine.”

The final point strikes me as critical: Mašek, Hajská and Bořkovcová set out to produce not a work of reportage, but witness – they do not seek objectivity or verifiability. Keva has the final word on her own presentation; many scenes show her personally assessing the book’s pages-in-progress splayed out before her, even crossing out parts she doesn’t like. In this regard, O Přibjehi follows recent interventionist moves in anthropology to collaboratively hand over the tools of discourse to the “native” speaking subject (Poole: 170).[14]

Fig. 4 – The subject assesses, edits and censors her own story in a two-page spread. Note clock motif in corner. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

Keva begins precisely on such a note of postmodern literary collusion: over drinks the authors ask their young collaborator/muse how she wants to be drawn (as Mašek thinks to himself, with a self-satisfied grin, “This would make for a really nice opening …”). She replies with the body parts of celebrities: Jennifer López’s posterior, Mariah Carey’s legs, Angelina Jolie’s lips, “Or else the face of Salma Hayek, but with thicker hair! And thinner eyebrows than her, that’s what I’d like.” (The somewhat morbid “plastic surgery” on the actress’ face unfolds over three panels.) Upon turning the page, however, we see not an idealized, Frankensteinian portrait, but a photorealistic splash of Keva in the here and now.

Fig.5 – The opening of Keva: the subject expresses her desired body type by making reference to pop stars and celebrities. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

The episode underscores an uncomfortable fact (aside from how readily Keva kowtows to Western corporate body image ideals for women): the text’s “collaborative” ethic is a bit of a chimera. Keva looks like herself in photographs, not like Salma Hayek. However “inclusive” their aims, the authors of course determine the ultimate cast, content and tempo of the book; even when Keva censors something, they show us what she’s censoring. Some critics deem such an admission a sign of the authors’ sincerity: “Their presence in the comics enhances the authenticity of the stories, demonstrates their personal involvement and relationships with actors; the questions they pose often guide the logic and direction of the story” (Macáková). But the line between “personal involvement” and coercion at times wears awkwardly thin. Bořkovcová’s request that Keva recount her skinhead story a second time sparks this exchange:

K: Again? I just told you!

B: But we didn’t record it.

K: That’s bad luck!

At other moments the authors coax their collaborant into telling them about things she doesn’t find interesting, while on the issue of style – as discussed, a critical feature of the work – Keva’s opinion is not solicited. However generously we frame the issue, it’s clear that the subject’s oral testimony is both driven and resculpted, at least in part, according to its authors’ well-meaning agenda and the drive towards “accessibility.”[15] This threatens to make Keva less Rigoberta Menchú than Eliza Doolittle. Whose story is this?

The climactic denouement of Keva – immediately before the last two pages, which show the heroine retiring, then sleeping in her bed – emblematizes the quandary of author/subject power relations which I’m describing. Speaking in her bathroom with Bořkovcová (by telephone), Keva stands before the sink in a photorealistic splash. The older woman is asking for her impressions of the book so far. She answers, with a thoughtful look:

To me it’s like a kind of biography. Even though I can see that I’m young. That actually it’s just a small part of my life. That it’s just the past and the future. No, not the future. There’s nothing there about how things are going to be later on.

The youth continues her monologue over the next two pages, whose style sharply deviates from the splash: against a black background bleed, the panels progressively shrink and proliferate, eventually numbering in the dozens as they illustrate Keva’s catalog of experiences and her flirtation with religion:

I was thinking, that if I’m going to take up those books, if I’ll have to change after a while. I’d like to change …

I was thinking, actually, that I need to change. Not like for the better, but just like everything is going to change on me. Like I’m going to be doing something different.

I’m not worried or anything, it’s just that sometimes you go through times when the same things keep coming your way, over and over.

Like I get up in the morning.

I go to work.

I come home. Go to sleep.

Or I have time off. And I wake up early anyway.

I call my girlfriend. I go have coffee or go out.

Then we go out together for a while.

I come home. I clean house.

I watch a movie that I’ve already seen a thousand times.

Friday comes. I go to the discotheque.

Saturday and Sunday I doze all day long.

On Monday I go to work.

And it just feels like the same thing, over and over.

It’s just like, those Jehovah’s people, they have nice ways of doing things, or ways that make your life feel like it’s on an even path or just ways that make you learn to think about one thing all the time.

But then, as soon as you get past all that, as soon as you get to know everything, then it seems to me like it’s all for shit. Like they already have everything behind them, they’ve got harmony with the world. That’s what it feels like to me when they’re worshiping. Like they haven’t needed to learn anything new since they were baptized.

The words are Keva’s, but the entire structure of their presentation – the illustrations’ multi-stylistic registers, the visual dialectic between her full-page splash and the more fragmented, cartoony moments of her life depicted on the subsequent pages along with her narration – creates contrasts, continuities and complexities not present or implied in the oral testimony itself. This episode of summation (of her book/life-in-progress) – fittingly Lacanian, as the subject stands before a mirror – resists any simple reading due to what Chute calls comics’ “expansive visual-verbal grammar” which “can offer a space for ethical representation without problematic closure” (214).

Fig.6 – Keva’s assessment of her book/life-in-progress near the work’s end: a full-page “summation” splash confronts its opposite, copious tiny panels of everyday life. Image used by permission of the artist. Click image for larger version.

Keva seeks a sort of mastery over the material facts of her life; she asserts the right to interpret their meaning, to privilege the unified image of herself before the mirror as the “true” self, its beset essence transcendent over an ordinary, stultifying, routine, “particulate” daily existence. But Mašek’s art and design point to a more Heideggerian reading: we are all constituted and determined by being-in-the-world; the tiny “particulate” slivers of experience, to say nothing of the socioeconomic forces that drive them, make up who we are. By the end of the sequence Keva herself has “vanished” – the scene closes with a caesura: two silent panels of the empty bathroom, Keva gone. Silent, but not unspeaking.

Conclusion

No matter how we might conceive the actual relationship between a representation and “reality,” an epistemological wager is part of the code that governs the reception of non-fiction genres: the viewer or reader expects that a work purporting to be non-fiction will be true. The challenge for the author of such a work is to encode it with recognizable signifiers of truthfulness in order that the audience might believe in it. To put it another way, non-fiction genres rely on regimes of authenticity rather than verisimilitude

(Woo: 169).

O Přibjehi, along with the “Negotiated Stories” project, joins a number of recent Czech cultural productions which either address the Roma issue itself or attack the country’s rising incidences of xenophobia and racism more generally.[16] The trilogy’s producers and sponsors confront a society in which, “[a]t a minimum, the common Czech view is that the Roma opt for a lifestyle of indolence, theft and unsanitary living conditions” (Fawn: 1196).

Comics anthropology in its Czech iteration both complicates and facilitates that task in exciting ways. A visual medium embracing what previous generations of anthropologists spurned as “excess,” it compels a reconsideration of subjectivity, authenticity, ontology itself along a complex text/image axis. As Benjamin Woo has written, “nonfiction comics are inescapably hyperreal, for, although they maintain a truth claim, they do not provide any access to the referent outside of the system of simulacra contained on the page” (175). Or, as Hillary Chute puts it, comics’ “manifest handling of its own artifice, its attention to its seams. … [i]ts formal grammar rejects transparency and renders textualization conspicuous, inscribing the context in its graphic presentation” (2008: 457). Works such as Keva thus pull off a neat trick: their realness about their fakeness, so to speak, lends them an aura of greater reliability for the trained reader. (Not bad for a medium which most Czechs still associate with the long-running children’s series Four-Leaf Clover [Čtyřlístek]).[17]

Comics anthropology thus exploits the readerly assumption of the form’s “inescapable hyperreality” in ways readily comparable to the approach of such animated documentaries as The Sinking of the Lusitania (d. Winsor McCay, 1918) or Waltz with Bashir (d. Ari Folman, 2008), made all the more potent by their blatant artifice. Sybil DelGaudio, writing on such films, notes:

If we agree that “representing reality” … is of critical importance to the projects of certain animated films, I will argue that the reflexive mode seems a particularly appropriate mode in which to situate certain animated films, since animation itself acts as a form of “metacommentary” within a documentary …         [A]nimation prompts the viewer to a “heightened consciousness of his or her relation to the text and of the text’s problematic relation to that which it represents” (192).[18]

In his own work on the comics memoir, Rocco Versaci comes to a like conclusion: readers “already view comic books as ‘unreal,’ so any further distortion of reality becomes a mere extension of the form” (76) under whose auspices one can smuggle (always contestable) truths.

Ah, yes – that “contestable” part. Oral testimonies, especially those of subaltern groups, have weathered criticism for how they strain at the bounds of verifiable “fact” – with the case of the Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú among the most notorious examples.[19] A visual analogue of such “misconduct,” the staged scenes in the early film ethnography Nanook of the North (d. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922), recall us both to “traditional” anthropology’s distrust of the optical as well as to its problematic prescriptive “solutions.”

Should it bother the reader, then, that, as the Ašta šmé website puts it, the authors of O Přibjehi “didn’t aspire for an objective and impersonal record, they were influenced by their relations with the heroes”? Given my discussion of Keva’s (I argue) vexed production process, such questions may seem for the most part secondary. We can at the least say they fall along a spectrum. Does it really matter whether Keva daydreamed of Langmajer or another well-known older star, Zdeněk Svěrák? More concerning perhaps: whether Keva lies about the “shooting up” dream sequence, as the answer to that question (is she a habitual drug user or not?) influences the reader’s opinion of her, however subtly. Finally, if Keva were to accuse someone of rape or murder, then the accuracy of her “truth claim” would indeed become critically relevant; recall the “repressed memory” controversies over parental abuse of the 1980s/90s, which pivoted precisely on questions of verifiability and establishment of guilt.[20]

Old-fashioned as it may seem, the issue of whether Keva tells the truth, how one might tell the difference and whether her interlocutors care should concern us because of non-fiction comics’ power to, as Woo notes of Joe Sacco’s work, give “solidity” to a respondent’s story [21]; we are after all dealing with a medium which, in the words of Marianne Hirsch, “definitively eradicate[s] any clear-cut distinction between the documentary and the aesthetic” (quoted in Chute 2008: 457).

Those caveats in place, such complexity – even a controversy or two – bodes well for a burgeoning national industry in a market predisposed to keep its products at arm’s length. At a moment when, according to the journalist Radim Kopáč, “[o]riginal Czech comics for an adult reader are finally standing on their own two feet,” socially-engaged works such as Keva figure as significant milestones which adopt “reproducibility and mass circulation … as a mode of political intervention” (Chute 2008: 462) – doing good as they do well for the medium. Such sophisticated works don’t merely teach a skeptical Czech readership about comics’ potential, welcome a development as that is. More importantly, like some of the best art, they press a complacent Czech citizenry to confront troubling aspects of their culture they too often would rather avoid.

Works Cited and Consulted

Afonso, Ana Isabel. “New Graphics for Old Stories: Representation of Local Memories Through Drawings.” Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography. Pink, Sarah, László Kürti, and Ana I. Afonso, eds. London: Routledge, 2004: 77-89.

Bořkovcová, Máša, Markéta Hajská and Vojtěch Mašek. O Přibjehi: Keva. Prague: Lipnik, 2010.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. Vol. 123, No. 2 (2008): 452-465.

____________. “‘The Shadow of a Past Time’: History and Graphic Representation in Maus.” Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer, 2006): 199-230.

DelGaudio, Sybil. “If Truth Be Told, Can ‘Toons Tell It? Documentary and Animation.” Film History. Vol. 9, No. 2 (1997): 189-199.

Fawn, Rick. “Czech Attitudes Towards the Roma: ‘Expecting More of Havel’s Country?’”. Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 53, No. 8 (Dec., 2001): 1193-1219.

Goldston, James A. “Roma Rights, Roma Wrongs.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 2002): 146-162.

Kopáč, Radim. “Monstrkabaret vystupuje z mlhy: V českém komiksu se něco děje.” Uni, Vol. 8 (2007). http://magazinuni.cz/literatura/monstrkabaret-vystupuje-z-mlhy-%E2%80%93-v-ceskem-komiksu-se-neco-deje/

Mačaková, Martin. “Barevné příběhy života.” Konstruktor (November 8, 2010). http://www.konstruktmag.cz/barevne-pribehy-zivota/

Marečková, Tereza. “Keva, Albína a Ferko.” Novy Prostor, No. 362 (Oct. 19, 2010): 24. http://www.novyprostor.cz/clanky/362/keva-albina-a-ferko.html

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http://www.astasme.cz/en.html

José Alaniz, associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Comparative Literature (adjunct) at the University of Washington – Seattle, published his first book, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi), in 2010. He currently chairs the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), the leading comics studies conference in the US. His current projects include Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond and a history of Czech comics.

[1] – The trilogy’s glowing reception includes a Muriel, the industry prize, for Best Original Script (for Albina), awarded at the 2010 Komiksfest in Prague. A French translation, from Éditions çà et là, appeared in 2011.

[2] – The trilogy’s title, for example, is an egregious corruption of the word “příběhy” (stories). Most literate Czechs respond to “O Přibjehi” the way many English-speaking readers would wince at “storys” or similar non-standard spelling.

[3] – Unless otherwise stated, translations from the Czech are my own.

[4] – Uhl, a graduate of both the sociology and anthropology programs at Charles University, has taught courses on comics.

[5] – Note the similarity of Wadle’s language to Uhl’s:

Ideas and consideration, encoded in long prose texts, are often only perceived in academic circles, far away from the place where the research project had been conducted and written in a language inaccessible for informants. In the format of comics ethnographies could reach these groups of informants. Instead of excluding informants from academic discourses about their own culture and way of living, anthropology could benefit from their critical readership.

[6] – As recently as 1996, Jay Ruby could write, “Visual anthropology has never been completely incorporated into the mainstream of anthropology. It is trivialized by some anthropologists as being mainly concerned with audiovisual aids for teaching” (1345).

[7] – Poole’s article in particular deals with anthropology’s troubling imbrication with the history of Euro-American imperialism, Orientalism and racist thought. See also Scheper-Hughes.

[8] – Although such anxieties seem much less pronounced for film critics. For example, Annette Michelson could declare Mikhail Kalatozov’s documentary Salt for Svanetia (1930) an “ethnographic masterwork” (33-34) despite its “intrusive” early Soviet experimental editing, slow motion sequences and consciously rousing tempo.

[9] – Compare, for example, Lt. Henry Boyle Somerville’s “Portrait of Roviana teenagers, Western Solomon Islands, 1893” (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), with its many markers of “excess” and “visual noise” (including a man in the background who stares into the camera) to G. Roche’s Sami woman (Inga Eriksdatter), Norway, 1884. (Norsk Folkemuseum), with its rigidly posed subject in profile against a featureless backdrop.

[10] – In her writings on history in comics, Hillary Chute emphasizes a similar complexity: “In the graphic narrative … the non-transparency of drawing – the presence of the body, through the hand, as a mark in the text – lends a subjective register to the narrative surfaces of comics pages that further enables comics works to be productively self-aware in how they ‘materialize’ history” (2006: 457).

[11] – Fawn’s article documents many of the sad facts of life for the Roma in the contemporary Czech Republic. Most disconcerting, perhaps: the casual “it’s their own fault” bigotry with which many Czechs express themselves on the Roma question – something I myself have witnessed. As Fawn writes: “Many Czechs, including those holding university degrees and in professional capacities, are frank in asserting that any social inequality Roma may claim is of their own making, as if it is also preordained, ethnically-based or even biological” (1196). The reprehensibility of such beliefs, of course, is that they lend legitimacy to mistreatment of this population; between 1990 and 1998, at least 30 Czech Roma were killed by skinheads (ibid: 1198).

[12] – In 2004, Mašek and Baban (both graduates of the screenwriting and dramaturgy program at FAMU, the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) co-founded the multimedia arts group Fred Brunold’s Monster Cabaret (Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda), under whose auspices they released such Kafkaesque works as the Damien Chobot trilogy, about an anti-hero with an elephant’s trunk.

[13] – The subject’s perception of time has long preoccupied anthropologists. For an anthropological examination of time in the late communist era of Eastern Europe, see Verdery, chapter 2.

[14] – Wadle describes a similar technique practiced by the Portuguese artist/anthropologist Manuel João Ramos:

These graphic notes, which visualised the stories of the people were then discussed with the participants and refined, extended and redrawn by Ramos on the basis of the given feedback. The first step of narrating and note-taking thereby developed into a mutual collaboration, in which the informants were closely involved in controlling the recorded narrative and a representation of their stories, which were visually accessible for them.

Afonso too highlights the visual’s “potential as a collaboration device” in anthropology (75). See also Ramos’ own essay in the same volume as Afonso.

[15] – According to the Ašta šmé website, “[W]ere it not for the authors asking, Keva probably wouldn’t share the grimmer details with them.”

[16] – A handful of films such as El Paso (d. Zdeněk Tyc, 2009) have tackled the Roma question; graphic narrative treatments include “Czech Made? An Exhibit of Comics on Working Foreigners” (Prague, Brno, Ostrava, 2009) and Lucie Lomová’s important novel Anna Wants to Jump (Anna Chce Skočit, 2006), in which it forms a sub-theme. For a reading of Lomová’s “post-colonial” historical novel The Savages (Divoši, 2011), see my “History in Czech Comics: Lucie Lomová’s Divoši” in Ulbandus No. 15, forthcoming.

[17] – Launched in 1969, and in constant publication since, Four-Leaf Clover was the only communist-approved children’s comics after 1968’s rollback of liberal reforms.

[18] – DelGaudio here quotes Bill Nichols.

[19] – On the Menchú scandal, see Stoll, Chapter 13.

[20] – Such disputations have haunted psychoanalysis since Sigmund Freud’s “seduction fantasy” theory launched a thousand discontents – the subject of Janet Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic.

[21] – In his discussion of Sacco’s Palestine, Woo points out how the author “matter-of-factly” inserts into the diegesis his interviewees’ “authentic but unrepresentable experiences” through “formal tricks”: “Sacco does not attempt to corroborate Ghassan’s case; he simply shows what he has been told, and, in doing so, gives a solidity to his respondent’s story” (Woo: 174).

 
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Posted by on 2012/05/11 in Guest Writers

 

One response to “Czech Comics Anthropology: Life and Story in O přibjehi: Keva by José Alaniz

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