Čtyřlístek or the Four-leaf Clover, a legendary Czech children’s comic magazine, marks its 50th anniversary this week. The comic series was named after its four human-like animal characters – Myšpulín the cat, Bobík the pig, Pinďa the rabbit and a dog called Fifinka. The first issue of the magazine was published on May 15, 1969. Since then, Čtyřlístek has enjoyed a cult following among generations of Czech children.
I met with comics expert Pavel Kořínek, who is currently preparing a book on the history of Čtyřlístek, to discuss the ups and downs of the legendary children’s magazine, but I first asked him about its very first issue.
“Čtyřlístek started in 1969 and at the time it was really a unique type of publication for Czech readers. It was the only Czech comic magazine that was published during the Normalization era in Czechoslovakia.
“It was a 32-pages long magazine, which wasn’t published as a magazine. It was called Knihovnička, which is something like editorial book series. In fact it was a series of magazines that consisted of four comic stories.
“The first story was always reserved for Čtyřlístek, the eponymous series about the four anthropomorphised animals, and the remaining three series were different comic series from the genres for young kids and children.”
What kind of conditions were there for comic authors in the late 1960s and early 1970s?
“It was really a paradoxical situation for Czech comics at the time. In the 1950s, comics were generally banned, because it was perceived as something that didn’t have a proper position in socialist society. In the 1970s and 1980s comics was tolerated as literature for kids.
“There were nearly no comics aimed at adult readerships. There were no comics that were more artistic. Comic books were perceived as this somehow difficult, slightly dangerous version of kids’ literature. It was also accepted as a tool for acquiring reading skills.
“Čtyřlístek was the only Czech comic magazine that was published during the Normalization era in Czechoslovakia.”
“So Čtyřlístek was a magazine aimed at children from the age of six to twelve. At the time, comics were present in Czech magazines for kids and young people, but usually it was just one- or two-page-long episodes published as a series. Čtyřlístek was the only publication consisting solely of comic material.”
Were there any attempts to censor Čtyřlístek or to discontinue its publishing?
“According to stories told in the publishing house there were some early attempts to cancel Čtyřlístek. The magazine started as a single publication and there were no initial plans to present it as a series, but it had a really great reception and sold out really quickly.
“So a second and a third volume was produced and after six or eight issues, someone said that it was enough. But for some reason, the success on the market prevailed and Čtyřlístek was allowed to continue.
“What must be said is that it was published by Panorama publishing house, which didn’t publish books or magazines but merchandising publications and colouring books. These types of materials were not submitted to the censoring institutions.”
“So Čtyřlístek somehow survived in a strange vacuum between the various genres targeted by the censoring authorities. That might be the reason why it was able to survive for 50 years, or for the 20 years of the Normalisation period.”
As you said, Čtyřlístek was very popular from the very beginning. Why do you think so?
“At the time it was the only magazine there was. Kids at the time, if they wanted to read comics, had to wait for two weeks or a month to read one page of some comic stories in the kids’ magazine. Here, you had a 30-pages-long magazine that was full of comics.
“The other reason may be that Čtyřlístek, the main series, is really a well-prepared and nicely-done comic series. It has recognisable characters and easy, understandable stories. It is something that you can easily relate to.
“And what was really important was the serial form. It was something you could come back to. The heroes of Čtyřlístek were like old friends. With each new issue, you had a chance to return to the same fictional world and to see another adventure. So I think that the seriality was important as well.”
Was it affected in any way by popular western comics of the time?
“Čtyřlístek is really a typical example of kids’ pop-culture genre called funny animals. What is interesting about this genre is that it has some “international stars”. Everyone knows Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or Felix the Cat.
“There may be several reasons why Čtyřlístek remained so popular to this day. One is tradition and the other one is nostalgia.”
“But there is also a strong national aspect of this genre. Every comic culture produced some local variant during its history. In Germany you had Fix und Foxie, in Argentina you had Condorito and in Japan, there is a robotic cat.
“Čtyřlístek grew from this tradition. There was a really popular comic magazine called Punťa in 1930 and the beginning of the 1940s. Somehow, all these sources are present in Čtyřlístek and in its characters.”
The year 1989 brought all sorts of changes and also new competition to the market. Nevertheless, Čtyřlístek managed to survive the changes and has remained popular to this day. How do you think it has managed to do this?
“It was really hard for Čtyřlístek in the 1990s. In 1989 they had 220,000 copies of each issue printed, while five or six years later, they had 40,000 issues printed.
“They had a hard time finding a new way to address the audience. It was not just foreign comics that came to the Czech market. The society has changed as well, and so did the whole approach to popular culture.
“I think there may be several reasons why Čtyřlístek remained so popular to this day. One is tradition and the other one is nostalgia. People who are buying Čtyřlístek for their children today used to be its readers 25 or 35 years ago.
“Also I think what Čtyřlístek still has is this poetic simplicity to it. The stories are not as complex as the contemporary Donald Duck or the Duck Tale Stories. It really has this old-fashioned feeling to it. And for some type of readers it is something they like to find in their stories.”
Have the main characters also adapted to modern times?
“I would say the characters have remained more or less the same. To be honest, the characters are quite easily defined since 1969. You have Myšpulín, the inventor and the brain of the group, who is genial but not really practical.
You have Bobík the pig, who is the strong one. Then there is Pinďa, who is afraid of everything but overcomes his fear in every story and then there is Fifinka, who has this motherly towards the remaining three.
“These archetypes are still present in Čtyřlístek. They may be slightly outdated but they present easily recognisable characters that you can somehow relate to, that you can understand or even identify with.”
What about you? Do you connect Čtyřlístek with your childhood?
An exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the legendary Czech comics is currently underway at the City of Prague Museum.
“I grew up in the 1980s and at the time I loved everything about comics. This was the only comics I had a chance to take a look at, if I am not counting the Pif magazine which was available in French in shops with foreign press. Even though I didn’t speak a word of French I was really interested in it.
“So Čtyřlístek was this really interesting and much-loved magazine for me and I was always hoping to get the next issue. I am a younger sibling and I have an older sister, so I had a chance to peruse her collection of Čtyřlístek. It was something I would spend hours and hours of reading through or taking look at.”
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