Time was when Hungarian comics were synonymous with the
adaptation of major literary works and notable pieces of pulp
fiction, published chiefly in crossword puzzle books and magazines
of the young pioneer movement. Soviet communism didn’t like the
Western type of comics, so they were simply banned. It wasn’t until
the late 1980’s that modern comics made their entrance on the
Hungarian market, and young readers immediately knew that they
preferred Spider-Man and Batman to the courageous Russian and
East-German security agents still busy fighting fascism after all
It wasn’t that Hungarian comics lacked talents: Ernő Zórád, Pál Korcsmáros, Imre Sebők or Sándor Gugi would have been welcomed by any French or US publisher and some of these excellent artists’ work is reedited for collectors these days. Unfortunately, none of them were around anymore (or were way too old) by the time the regime that deemed comics the symbol of decadence and cultural imperialism fell, and the next generation was unable to resist the first wave of imports, despite the valiant efforts of Attila Fazekas who created Botond, meant to be a Hungarian Astérix of sorts, and the magazine Krampusz published by Sándor Kertész and supported by an Italian group.
Kretén, a magazine based on Mad and its French equivalent Fluide Glacial was founded in 1994 by editor István Láng and published by the Hungarian subsidiary of the Semic group. In addition to translated materials, new Hungarian comics found there a place to stay. The humor of authors such as Imre Fekete, Marabu, Zoltán Varga, Gergely Göndöcs and Zsolt Garisa has graced the pages of Kretén ever since, even if only a few pages are available for them every other month.
In the meantime, those young readers of Superman and the X-Men grew up and graduated from the University of Fine Arts or Applied Arts. A nationwide contest announced in 2004 brought them together – their collective took the self-mocking name of Hungarian Comics Academy. Working hand in hand with some enthusiastic new publishers on the revival of Hungarian comics and taking an active part at the 1st Comics Festival held in the Budapest in March 2005, they came out with their own review called Pinkhell in December of that year. Ever since that moment, we have been eagerly awaiting that those new artists achieve commercial success.
At the end of 2004, Hungarian bookshops didn’t have a shelf dedicated to comics – they had no reason to have one, since less the ten graphic novels or French type albums were available. Four years have passed and we now have more than 300 books, including about 120 mangas, 20 strip collections, 45 US trade paperbacks, some fumetti and 50 or so French or Belgian albums in the comics section. Still, there are only a handful of Hungarian authors published and not more than 30 are available on the national level, which is less than 10 percent of the titles.
It’s hard to break through. Even if the rapid growth in the number of otakus allows manga publishers to think more boldly and print over 3,000 copies instead of the starting 2,000, sales in other comics genres rarely go beyond the 1,000 mark over a period of one year. Mind you, we're talking about very well-known titles such as Naruto, Death Note, Batman, Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert or the Marvel superheroes. What hope is there for our own perfectly unknown authors who cannot rely on the free publicity offered by television series, blockbusters or merchandising products?
Against all odds, the first bestseller in Hungarian comics was born in 2008. The Napirajz series ("Daily cartoon") came out of the virtual universe of web comics and long queues formed in front of the booth where Dániel Merényi was signing his voluminous debut book. Initially, the author only started drawing his one to four-picture long pieces to help pass the time at boring conferences at the office. His colleagues and friends loved the sketches he sent out in e-mails and started forwarding them. Since his mailing application had a limit of 50 simultaneous addresses, he created a blog and was astonished to see the statistics, especially after it won the Goldenblog fan vote. His weekly record of 50,000 hits convinced the daring publisher Titkos Fiók whose catalog already included Ptiluc and Enki Bilal to come out with a first collection before Christmas 2007. The operation was not without risk: in a country where the rate of content downloading is largely above European average, how many people would be willing to dish out the equivalent of 15 dollars for something that is freely and legally available online?
Napirajz was a surprise hit. Of course, coming from one of the smallest publishers, the book had some difficulty in finding its way to all the bookshops, but as customers started looking, asking and demanding, orders and reorders soon flowed in. Volume 2, published in late November 2008, immediately went up to number 8 on the bestseller list of the largest distributors and did even better in specialized shops.
Merényi's highly controversial look at life in contemporary Hungary does not please everyone and some older people fail to see the humor in it, while most young people simply adore it and the author regularly returns to Budapest from his voluntary exile in Italy (where he’s working in an entirely different profession) for a series of well-attended personalized signing session.
Another sensation in Hungarian comics was created in 2008 by Spiral, the hyperrealistic graphic novel beautifully painted by up-and-coming artist Attila Futaki, and scripted by Gergely Nikolényi. First published by Magvető, one of the most prestigious Hungarian publishing houses, Editions Carabas came out with a French version only a couple of weeks later, making Spiral the first Hungarian graphic novel ever to be published in such a de luxe format abroad. Critically well received, the book opened doors for its author to more ambitious projects in France but also in Hungary, where he will illustrate a novel by Péter Esterházy.
Other artists tried their luck with US publishers. Zoltán Korcsok became the first Hungarian author to be published in Heavy Metal magazine with his short story Esurience, while Henrik Horváth inked a story in the anthology Tales of the Starlight Drive-in published by Image Comics.
Back home, all other new Hungarian comics face serious distribution problems. Napirajz’ success made it almost impossible for booksellers to ignore it and the name of Spiral's publisher is sure to open every door, but how to convince those who find even the idea of comics more than a bit suspicious that Nocturne by Dániel Csordás, Kulo City by Attila Stark or the brand new Zap anthology collecting the works of the young authors of the Roham stable also deserve their chance? Not to mention the books in economic format that can only count on sales online or in one of the two Budapest comic shops.
Johnny Fellow by Brazil, A fiú, akit Zsuzsinak hívtak (A boy named Sue) by Miklós Felvidéki, Klausztropolisz by Mihály Vass, the latest issue of Pinkhell or the adventures of Kalyber Joe are just a few of the titles added last year to the list of comics hard to find outside of the Budapest comics festival and some other notable events. The latest development that can only be applauded is the appearance of a dozen of self-published comics including the promising Stroboscopa by Iván Kemenes and Péter Varga as well as three anthologies by amateur Hungarian mangaka artists with a printrun limited to no more than 200 copies.
More luck this year, maybe…