An Interview With Dennis Wojda
Published 11/19/2013 12:00:00 AM by Glenn Carter
We asked former Borderline Magazine reviews editor Andy Winter to have a chat with Dennis about 566 Frames, Poland and life in general - here's what we got...
How did you first become involved with Borderline? I remember seeing you in the magazine over a decade ago as part of a special feature on the Polish comics scene...
Ten years ago! What was I thinking about back then? Well, I guess I saw the internet as a means of crossing borders with art and with comics in particular. I just looked up all possible websites I could find about the subject. Who remembers today that back in 2003 there weren’t many good sites where you could find information?
The internet was like a desert and Borderline was an oasis. I immediately emailed Phil [Hall] and he asked me to send information about the scene in Poland – a scene that was having a boom at the time. Lots of new publishers, lots of Polish and foreign comics being published every month. I had published my first two books some time before and I guess I wanted to find publishers and creators outside Poland who I could show my work. So I wrote a few articles and got many of my friends in touch with Phil and Borderline. One thing led to the other and Borderline was invited to the comic festival in Lodz.
What has it been like to renew your acquaintance with Phil Hall and the rest of the Borderline team?
I was surprised! Honestly! I hadn’t heard from Phil in 10 years. It turned out we had both sort of grown out of the comic scene in our respective countries. We had become outsiders. I mean, I do my things. I publish and I write stories and many of my friends are artists, publishers or journalists. But I’m not engaged in stuff like festivals, comic-cons and promoting other artists any more and, frankly, I don’t read many comics. So, to hear from Phil after all this time really made me glad. And when he told me he wanted to publish my book... Wow
How has the Polish comic scene changed in the years between your appearance in the magazine and now?
There is a new generation out there. People use the internet to promote their work and the Polish comics community is really strong and well organised. Also the attitude of mainstream media has changed towards comics. What was described as something goofy for kids a few years back is now treated completely differently. You have reviews and serious coverage about comics in most magazines and on TV and radio. Perhaps this is because today’s journalists grew up reading good comics? Also more stuff is published today and there are more genres. Before most comics were author’s comics, like the French do. Now you have superhero stories, comics for kids and comics dealing with subjects like history, politics, war, feminism and LGBT. Comics are more important today and it’s actually considered hip to read them.
What do you think are the main differences between British, American and Polish comics? How do they differ in terms of style, influences and subject matter?
That is a really tough question! Well, perhaps the main difference is not subject or style but the possibilities artists from outside Poland have. If you are talented, hardworking and know the right people you will make a living as a comic artist in the UK or America. In Poland, it’s not that easy. If someone over here wants to make comics, he or she is bound to do their stuff just for the sake of self expression or to fulfil their artistic ambitions. Mind you, there are exceptions and you can make money on comics here. But you can’t make a living solely by doing comics. So many artists work as copywriters, art directors, storyboard artists, magazine illustrators etc. When it comes to talent – there is no difference. Brits, Americans and Poles are equally good.
I'm not sure this fits to the question but... My favourite comic artist from the UK is probably Dave McKean. The man’s a genius! And I love his collaborations with Neil Gaiman whom I admire a lot. Alan Moore and his V For Vendetta is also on the top of my list of UK comics.
How do Polish comics differ from other European comics?
I would say that being a European means you have a common history and origin so the subjects chosen by European artists will be understandable anywhere in Europe. French and Belgian artists make more money as their market is huge. The Polish comics market is probably similar to that of the German, Russian, Swedish or any other European country. European artists have good stories to tell, they are talented but the market is hard.
Is it fair to say that Polish comics have a distinctive voice from that found in any other country or culture?
In terms of storytelling, Polish comics don’t differ. Our stories are universal and understandable everywhere. We don’t try to copy what creators from outside Poland do and most comics focus on personal experience, local or historic themes.
Which comics and creators have been the biggest influences on your work?
I don’t really seek inspiration in comics. My stories are inspired by my own experiences and memories. Having said that doesn’t mean I don’t like to read certain comics. I will try to list a few artists I admire.
When I was in the middle of my comic blog, that later became 566 Frames,
someone told me I should read Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan. That comic made a big
impression on me and I’ve been a fan of her stuff ever since. The thing I like
in her stories is a sense of honesty and slice of everyday life. I don’t say
she has influenced me directly but I would like to think that our work has a
mutual approach. The same goes with Marjane Satrapi. Her Persepolis is one of
the best things I have ever read.
I have always liked the work of my fellow Swede Max Andersson. I helped out a bit with the Polish translation of his comic Pixie and I’m proud of the fact he gave me a blurb for the cover of my book.
Frederik Peeters from Switzerland is also someone I admire. He is a wonderful illustrator and his stories are unique. I would really like to draw like he does and his Blue Pills and Lupus really opened up my eyes for ambitious graphic novels.
Do you remember the first comic you ever bought or read?
I think my mum and dad would buy me comics before I even could read. The first ones would probably have been Disney comics and two classic Swedish comics for kids made by Rune Andréasson, called Bamse and Pellefant. Tintin and Asterix were also cool when I was in kindergarten. And when I went to the dentist there was a stack of black-and-white Moomin comics drawn by Tove Jansson in the waiting room. They made the waiting more bearable.
As well as writing and drawing comics, you work in magazines and books as a designer and illustrator. Which area is most challenging to work in – comics, books or magazines?
Over the years I have written lots of comics for kids and teenagers and that can be pretty challenging. I loved to do a series called Kfiatuszki for teenage girls, together with illustrator Tomek Lesniak. Basically, we would make fun of stereotypes about girls but the teen magazine and their readers loved it. I often get asked to do a commercial story for a certain client and, if I don’t like the subject, that can be pretty hard. If I can’t do what I want I won’t do it. Unless they pay well.
Designing magazines is my main source of income. I love the fact that I often get the chance to work with top illustrators and I try to use illustrations as much as I can in my layouts. I think I know how to approach illustrators and I suppose they like to work with me.
Which of the three areas do you enjoy working in most?
It’s all about design or telling stories. It doesn’t make a difference for me as long as I can make something I like myself.
Your career in comics has gone from strength to strength over the last decade. What has been your proudest moment as a creator so far?
My first strip called Mikropolis (drawn by Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz) was published in Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, in the ’90s. I was so proud then. Back in the day you only had stuff like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Dilbert in newspapers. My aunt, who didn’t know I made comics, worked in a flower shop. One day she showed me a bunch of my strips that she had saved. She told me she had found them while wrapping up flowers in a newspaper for one of her clients. She became one of my regular readers.
Also, another thing I'm very
proud about is the fact I made a comic with Joanna (Sanecka) when some local
administrators wanted to cut down 30 trees in our park. We were going to
collect signatures together with
our neighbours in a protest action and Joanna and I came up with the idea to
create talking balloons that we would attach to the trees (without using nails
mind you) to give them a voice of their own in the debate. This was a huge success and it caught
the attention of national newspapers, TV and radio. In effect we managed to save most of the trees.
But my greatest moment so far is probably my book 566 Frames. The fact that I made it all by myself and that I got it published just like that is really something I’m proud of.
Which other Polish comic creators should British fans check out?
Poland has got lots of talented writers and artists. One of our most interesting publishers, Centrala [www.centrala.org.pl], is opening up their UK branch in London this fall. They have a lot of cool stuff to show. I actually wanted Phil to publish some of it, but it turned out they had this idea to go international themselves. Centrala will publish a book by Maciej Sienczyk, who was nominated for the Nike Award – Poland’s most honourable literature award. He is definitely someone to check out. Other names to look out for are Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz, Daniel Gutowski, Sebastian Skrobol, Sylwia Restecka, Berenika Kolomycka, Janek Koza, Karol Kalinowski, Michal Sledzinski, Marcin Podolec, Marzi... There are too many to list!
Are you aware of the British comics scene and, if so, which creators and books have you enjoyed?
I used to go to Britain as a kid during summers to attend language courses. I remember I would spend all my pocket money on secondhand vinyl records, candy and... comics! I loved 2000AD and I read The Beano. I don’t think I know much about today’s scene but I know of a lot of great illustrators from the UK because of my work. Many of them also do comics.
Is it easy to get British and American comics in Poland?
Yes, there are a lot of publishers who have things that are hot in independent comics from outside Poland. It’s mostly European but also American and Japanese comics. I guess we have everything that is important to have here. But I would like to encourage independent creators from the UK to contact our publishers if they have something good to show. We don’t see much of your stuff.
Will you be attending any British comic conventions to promote 566 Frames?
I would love to but I’m afraid I wouldn’t find the time. Also it’s a question of costs, unless organisers would cover them partially.
Do you hope to produce more material for the UK market?
I drew one short comic for Zombre – Borderline Press’s new anthology. Joanna Sanecka wrote the story. And I plan to write a piece for Sebastian Skrobol for the next anthology - Beasts. So my relationship with Borderline Press will possibly produce more things in the future.
What do you do away from comics? I understand you make plum jam…
I love to make plum jam! In fact I make the best jam in the world! It’s dead easy to make (I can give you the recipe after the interview). I have a beautiful wife who also writes for comics occasionally. And I have two small boys to take care of. What is left of my time I have to spend on work and that is designing things like magazines, book covers, logos, advertising etc. I also love to illustrate, so whenever I get an assignment to do an illo for a magazine I just throw everything aside.
Did you do the English translation of 566 Frames yourself? How many languages do you speak?
I am fluent in Swedish, Polish and English, and can speak German after two bottles of wine. Knowing Swedish also means I can understand Danish and Norwegian. As for the translation, I made it simultaneously with the Polish version as I made the comic as a blog. But for the Borderline edition I asked my friend Eric Bednarski (who is Canadian-British-Polish) and his mum Betty Bednarski (who is a professional translator) for help with all the nuances.
How did the idea for 566 Frames develop - am I right in saying it began life as a blog and you’d add a new panel each day?
I woke up one day – it happened to be my 37th birthday – and I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something big’. So I got the idea to make a comic blog. It seemed easy at the time. One frame a day. No problem. It turned out to be one of the hardest things I have done in comics so far. I didn’t have a script so I just let the story develop itself, like a creative flow. If I would have started off by writing the script first, I don’t think I would have found the energy to bring the whole thing to an end. Making up the story and drawing it spontaneously is really inspiring and it helped me to develop as a writer and illustrator. Also I didn’t tell my friends and family I was doing this thing. It was my secret for a long time as I wasn’t sure it was good enough. And as it was very personal I didn’t want people I knew to comment on it.
The book is very ambitious, taking in the history of your ancestors, the supernatural and music. Did you have a grand plan for the project right at the start with everything all plotted out, or was the process more ‘free form’ in its approach?
As I mentioned before, it was all
spontaneous. First I thought I would write about my childhood but then I
started to dig into the history of my family. And in my family no one really cares
for the past. But I remembered snippets and anecdotes I had heard ever since I
was a child. I put all these pieces together and they became the story.
The supernatural was something I grew up with. My grandmother was very superstitious and she told me stories about ghosts she had encountered. In fact, ghosts and premonitions were so common in my family that I was dead scared as a kid that I would have the gift myself.
Another thing about growing up was all the stories about the war. Poland was occupied during the whole war and it seemed like all the evil forces were concentrated on this small country where so many people suffered and died. Surviving was really about being lucky or smart, and my family managed to get through it all in one piece. After the war we had communism – not a very funny episode as well. So all these things put their imprint on my family and my parents. I don’t blame them for not caring much about the past. And I grew up in Sweden, a country that was as far away from the bad things of the world as you could get.
I use a lot of musical references in all my comics. That is because I grew up surrounded by music. My dad was a musician and we had a lot of records and instruments at home. I played a lot of instruments myself and I had a few bands as a teenager. Certain records and songs are like landmarks in time for me. When I think of a certain episode in my life I try to remember the music I used to listen to back then. I guess that is why two of my favourite books are The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
You are known in Poland as a writer first and foremost, what made you want to draw 566 Frames as well as write it?
For me it’s much easier to invent stories. I love to write. Drawing is much harder and I really respect good artists for what they do. I think Marjane Satrapi once said that comic artists are like monks as their work is so meticulous and time consuming. When I came up with the idea for 566 Frames, I knew nobody else would want to draw it. It was far too personal. I had to roll up my shirt sleeves and do the job myself. So I became a monk, sort of.
Did you have to do a lot of research into your family tree for the historical elements of the book?
I did interviews with my mum and I wrote down things I could remember. I even went to see the place where my dad had lived as a kid. A lot of research was put into finding pictures of historic places in Warsaw. The history of Warsaw is a hobby of mine so that wasn’t so hard.
Music – particularly Jimi Hendrix and ABBA – plays a big part in the book. Why are those two acts significant to you? I understand you are also a big fan of jazz…
Ha ha! As my dad was a jazz musician I had to rebel against his musical taste. So I listened to electronic music, techno, acid and indie rock as a teenager. He didn’t like that. I only started to listen to jazz when I got older.
ABBA was one of my first favourite bands. Actually my dad knew Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. And my godfather, who was also a musician, played in ABBA before they got famous.
And the Jimi Hendrix handshake my dad experienced (depicted in the comic) was something I would brag about at school. Peter, my best pal at high school, was a huge Hendrix fan and we would listen to his vinyl records and jam ourselves. I would play on my dad’s old Fender bass and Peter on his Stratocaster guitar.
One Polish reviewer compared 566 Frames to Will Eisner's seminal A Contract With God – do you think it’s a fair comparison in terms of subject matter and tone?
I was surprised and flattered when I read the review. The journalist who wrote it was referring to the fact that, like Eisner, I was telling my family story in a comic. But I wouldn’t dare to compare my story to A Contract With God myself.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on a collection of short comics with Sebastian Skrobol. We have a frame story called Ghost Kids, about children with psychic powers living in an asylum. It’s a very spooky story full of paranormal stuff. Something I really enjoy writing. I am also thinking about what to do next myself. If I can just come up with a good title I will start a new comic blog that perhaps will become a new book in a few years.
How would you like to see Borderline Press develop over the next few years?
I think that the concept of Borderline is a very strong one. I hope they will focus on great European artists and quality comics that have been unknown to the British reader until now. Language shouldn’t be a barrier. Like with poetry and films, comics can and should be translated so that more people can enjoy them. I am really excited about what will happen next.
Please choose 5 records, 5 books (including comics), 1 film and one luxury item you would take with you if you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island...
Records: Past Life Martyred Saints – EMA, Grown Unknown – Lia Ices, Sweet Sour – Band of Skulls, Staring at the Sea – The Cure, Off the Wall – Michael Jackson
Books: The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi, Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco, On The Road – Jack Kerouac, Moominsummer Madness – Tove Jansson, Explorers on the Moon – Hergé.
Film: Alphaville (dir: Jean-Luc Godard) or Together (dir: Lukas Moodysson)
Luxury item: A white Lambretta scooter from the ’60s.
Thank you, Dennis – Good luck with everything!