Džian Baban & Vojtěch Mašek – Creators of an unusual Czech graphic novel about a man with a trunk

17-04-2009

Comic books and graphic novels have increased greatly in popularity in the Czech Republic over the last ten years, which saw release of both mainstream and avant garde titles, both classic as well as lesser-known authors. On the domestic scene artists also began to emerge, writers such as Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrators like Jaroslav 99, who collaborated on the celebrated graphic novel White Brook. In today’s Arts, another Czech duo: screenwriters Džian Baban and Vojtěch Mašek, authors of a phantasmagoric trilogy focusing on the adventures and misadventures of Damian Chobot, one of the most unlikely heroes you’re ever likely meet.

Damian Chobot is a man with a murky past and… a bizarre secret, having undergone mysterious surgery and been given a “chobot” an elephant’s trunk. The story, full of dark and unexpected twists harkening back to the Cold War, is ultimately about survival in the face of manipulation and evil, represented by the books’ arch-nemesis referred to as “the shadow” - a former Soviet-era general bent on overtaking the world. When I caught up with the authors this week, they explained the idea for the comic came to them years ago when they were studying at the FAMU film academy. Co-author Džian Baban:

“We got the idea of doing a comic book just to relax, something outside of school activities. We found a similarity to film making but much more freedom to do what we wanted with the story. We found we could put a lot more imagination into it than we could do in movies. So that was the main idea.”

Interestingly, neither Džian Baban nor fellow collaborator Vojtěch Mašek had been fans of graphic novels when they set out, learning as they went along and getting further into the medium. As a result, they were unafraid to take risks and break conventions in terms of story and design. Co-author Vojtěch Mašek:

“When we began it was really a process of discovery. Neither of us had much experience with comics but we were both thrilled to try out such a project. We opted to use photos and to re-illustrate and re-interpret a number of film images. The first book was more experimental, using collage and so on. But as we learned more about the medium we have moved towards a more classical approach.”

For both artists, memories from childhood and relics from under communism, dusted off, were also inspiration. Džian Baban again:

“We were fascinated by old photos and old magazines – what we read as children. We grew up under communism in the ‘80s and we were fascinated in particular by a magazine called 100+1 Interesting Things! Stories from abroad which were distorted by Communist censorship, so our ideas about what was happening in the outside world, whether West or East, were also affected. We just tried to imagine the world from a child’s point of view. Maybe this is the strongest idea. Next to that: the influence of old photos, circus photos, as well as the idea of manipulation by a circus master who manipulates not animals but people and their fates.”

In the story, unseen hands turn the wheels of conspiracy, with many victims, many of them bizarre creatures on the periphery. Damian Chobot is one of them, although he manages to escape.

“He’s a kind of anti-superhero compared to the American comic book tradition: a kind of eastern bloc superhero, his trunk has ‘super skills’. The idea may have been a bit influenced by Kafka: the common man, the common clerk. One day on the street he is kidnapped by unknown men, who persuade him to undergo a procedure giving him a trunk, convincing him everyone else already has one. So he agrees. And he becomes a freak.”

For a time, it appears that the main character is the only one who can stop the shadow’s striving to wipe out all thought and replace it with pure quiet. One of the most powerful sequences in the final book depicts the possibility of such a world: villagers stare stupidly into the distance, not even aware their town has been hit by floods.

“For both of us it is a powerful moment in the book. We were trying to imagine what the world would look like if someone wanted to destroy it. We got the idea that the disintegration of the world would be based on the loss of minds. The images were inspired by images of real floods in the Czech Republic and New Orleans.”

The books, including the last in the trilogy, Poslední chobotango (The Last Trunk Tango), also make use of motifs common in film and popular culture. The opening book in the trilogy, for example is called Sloni v Marienbadu (Elephants in Marienbad), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Loni v Marienbadu or Last Year in Marienbad, the famous avant garde film from the 1950s - itself a story of perception and enigma, of layers within layers.

“Reality can be interpreted in multiple ways and there isn’t just one interpretation. This is connected with how reality is reflected by the media. We are fascinated by the power of the media, the written word or the TV news. Maybe this is one of the layers which we tried to hint at: something happens and there are many choices and in the end it is you who has to choose.”

Gradually, from settings ranging from sleazy flophouses to backrooms and cluttered apartments, matters come to a head, and masks are pulled off to reveal new connections. How does the anti-superhero Damian Chobot fare in the end? And does evil prevail? Well, I can’t quite give away the ending, but Džian Baban makes clear it’s a bit of both. The co-author again:

“We like and always liked open endings, so this trilogy ends a bit open. There is always a shadow of evil that remains but you can still be happy… even if you are an anti-hero… with a trunk! (laughs) So this is the message.”

To date the Chobot trilogy has only been published in Czech but the graphic novel duo of Džian Baban and Vojtěch Mašek say they would like to see a print-run in English, something they will strive to achieve in the future. In the meantime, if you’d like to look up more about the artists’ work, including animation based on the final installment in the series, visit their website www.monstrkabaret.cz

17-04-2009