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Vojtěch Mašek, a graduate of the Czech film school FAMU, is not a traditional cartoonist. Given that his wide-ranging interests have led him to collaborations in film, theater, anthropology, and literature, he has been relatively free to invent his own unique aesthetic and approach to comics. Whether working in fiction or in a more documentary vein, however, what makes Mašek's work unusual is the way that he revives and recuperates an avant-garde sensibility in his graphic narrative. Mašek is drawn to stories about monstrosity—some figurative, like Fred Brunold's "melancholic freakshow" in Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda uvádí [Fred Brunold's Monster Cabaret presents] (2004–2008), which he co-wrote with Džian Baban, and others literal, in the case of mistreated minorities and dark episodes in Czech history (see O přibjehi [Stories] (2010) about Roma in the Czech Republic and the series Nejisté domovy [Precarious Homes] (2015) about children from orphanages and other institutions). This fascination with cruelty and the absurd is expressed through his use of collage, repetition, intertextual references, and unconventional page layouts, all of which renders his work highly unusual and experimental. From an ideological standpoint, Mašek's work is quite subversive, as these stories undermine standard assumptions about who is marked as "deviant" and what is considered "normal." This essay analyzes how Mašek develops his avant-garde aesthetic in the Monstrkabaret trilogy, which is primarily fictional but reflects historical realities, and compares this to his later work 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského [How Gottwald Murdered Slansky], (2014), which is historical in focus but elaborated with fictional details.


monstrosity, avant-garde, Czech comics, historical representations of trauma, post-communism

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In terms of both stylistic expression and range of cultural references, Vojtěch Mašek is one of the most experimental comics artists to emerge from the "generation zero" (post-2000) Czech comics scene. A graduate of the prestigious Prague film school FAMU, Mašek did not come to the medium from the Czech comics tradition. But his trilogy, Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda uvádí [Fred Brunold's Monster Cabaret Presents] (2004–2008), coauthored with Džian Baban, created a sensation for its dark, unconventional collage style and entangled plotlines. His work has expanded intermedially to encompass related films, theatrical productions, and further comics projects.1 Building upon the success of the first book, Sloni v Marienbadu [Elephants in Marienbad] (2004),2 a sly reference to the French film L'année dernière à Marienbad [Last Year in Marienbad] and the protagonist's trunk-like nose, the authors staged performances of Fred Brunold's Cabaret at Prague's Nablízko theater.3 One of the subplots of the original story, Hovory z Rezidence Schlechtfreund [Conversations from the Residence of Hermann Schlechtfreund] (2005), was turned into a comic strip and then adapted for theater as JožkaLipnikjebožíčlověkaneumílhát [Jozka-Lipnikisasaintandcannotlie], and Pandemonium aneb dějiny sousedství [Pandemonium, or, The History of the Neighborhood] (2008) features some of the same characters in the original trilogy. Mašek and Baban won five Muriel prizes, the highest award for Czech comics; two for Hovory z Rezidence Schlechtfreund in 2007 and 2008, one for the script of the second book in the series, Za vším hledej doktora Žena [Cherchez Dr. Žena] (2007),4 as well as two additional prizes in 2009 for Posledni chobotango [The Last Trunktango],5 the third book in the trilogy, and Pandemonium.6

In addition to his fantastical and satirical stories, Mašek has explored nonfiction narratives in collaborations with other artists, historians, and anthropologists on documentary subjects addressing serious social or historical issues. As part of Ašta Šmé, a group of social scientists and artists who produce documentary comics about minorities, cultural identity, and social inequality, he was the artist and scriptwriter for the nonfiction trilogy O přibjehi [Stories] (2010). With anthropologists Markéta Hajská and Máša Bořkovcová, Mašek produced graphic narratives—Albína, Keva, and Ferko (2010)—that recount the experiences of Roma struggling to get by in the contemporary Czech Republic, where they face significant barriers of discrimination.7 Mašek has also ventured into historical fiction, creating the artwork to accompany historian Pavel Kosatík's script for the graphic narrative 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského [1952: How Gottwald Murdered Slánský] (2014), which concerns the dramatic betrayals and injustices of the Stalinist show trials. Continuing his work with Ašta Šmé, he wrote the script for a biography of a Roma boy titled Silnější než někdo [Stronger Than Anyone] (2015), with art by Marek Pokorný, for another series, Nejisté domovy [Precarious Homes]. In his most recent work to date, he co-wrote the script for Svatá Barbora [Saint Barbara] (2018), about the strange child abuse scandal involving a young woman named Barbara Škrlová that erupted in the town of Kuřim in 2007.8 There is a considerable self-reflexive component in these nonfiction works, as Mašek represents himself in conversation with the protagonists of the stories and often alludes to the constructed nature of the narrative. [End Page 134]

Whether working with fiction or in a more documentary vein, however, what makes Mašek's work unusual is the way that he revives and recuperates an avant-garde sensibility in his graphic narrative. As this overview of his comics production amply demonstrates, Mašek is drawn to stories about monstrosity—whether figurative, like Fred Brunold's "melancholic freakshow,"9 or literal, in the case of mistreated minorities and dark episodes in Czech history. This fascination with cruelty and the absurd is expressed through his use of repetition, reframing, collage, and unconventional page layouts, all of which renders his work highly unusual and experimental. For the purposes of this essay, I am interested in how he develops his avant-garde aesthetic in the Monster Cabaret series, which is primarily fictional but reflects historical realities; I compare this series to a later work, 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského (2014), which is historical in focus but elaborated with fictional details.


From the beginning, Sloni v Marienbadu, the first book in the Monster Cabaret series, is profoundly influenced by the works of Franz Kafka. The story concerns the absurd and tragic fate of the main character, Damian Trunk (Chobot), an office worker in the tradition of Kafkaesque bureaucrats who is abducted and undergoes an operation at the hands of Dr. Zena, the acolyte of the Russian surgeon General Trunkov (Chobotov). A great deal of wordplay and absurd twists of fate are woven into a complex, multilayered story in which Damian, his nose surgically extended into a "trunk," plays the role of the antihero who must save the world from the evil Trunkov. Fred Brunold's Monster Cabaret frames this story, inviting spectators to watch the Damian sections in tandem with other subplots presented as separate acts. Another subplot—or "act"—within this performance is a series of conversations between Hermann Schlechtfreund ["bad friend" in German], an obstreperous editor, and the aspiring yet obsequious writer, Jozef Lipnik. The homage to Kafka is centrally placed in a series of exchanges titled Metamorphosis I, II, III, and IV. When Lipnik brings Schlechtfreund his work, the grumpy editor suggests that he begin his story with the opening sentence of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." It is deliberately left unclear whether he is playing with Lipnik or just being obtuse; as readers, we are, in effect, in Lipnik's position.

Mašek and Baban's references extend beyond Kafka, however—a knowledgeable reader will notice that the text is replete with literary and artistic allusions. Mašek creates his comics through a collage of old photos and film stills, which he then draws over and alters with pen and ink as well as gouache. Because some of these fragments appear to be from the early twentieth century, the atmosphere of the story harkens back to historical avant-garde movements—Surrealism and Dadaism most prominently. Commenting on Fred Brunold's antics on stage, one of the audience members remarks, "Cute Dada!" Schlechtfreund, who is described as a former member of a Surrealist group, brags that he wrote the forward to André Breton's Nadja, and attempts to pass off an old essay he wrote for a book about Salvador Dali to his protégé Lipnik as the foreword to his book. In [End Page 135] a more general sense, Mašek's dark aesthetic, which combines humans and animals into strange hybrid forms, is indebted to Czech Surrealist Jan Švankmajer's animated films. Švankmajer's representation of individuals as infinitely pliable claymation characters, as in Možnosti dialogu [Dimensions of Dialog] (1982), resonates in the surgical procedure of "trunkification," where people's noses are pulled and extended into ridiculous trunks. The Monster Cabaret series also contains an echo of the darkly surreal films of David Lynch, whom Mašek acknowledges as a formative influence, along with Czech new wave directors such as Pavel Juráček and Jan Němec.10

Another experimental aspect of Monster Cabaret is apparent in the way the authors manipulate levels of fiction and reality within their imaginary story world, seeking to involve the reader through self-referential gestures. At the beginning of Sloni v Marienbadu, the director informs the audience that they may participate in the performance by entering in a contest for the best story at the end of the show. An audience member named Josef Huber comes forward towards the end of the book, and recounts a rather obscure short story by Arthur Schnitzler titled Ich [I.]11 Huber, also the main character of Schnitzler's story, is a comfortable, bourgeois father and businessman, but his grasp on reality begins to slip when he takes a walk in the park and notices an innocuous sign that somehow triggers a mental breakdown, and he begins to think that words do not correspond to the objects they designate. It's as if the signifier has come loose from the signified, precipitating the main character's identity crisis—a theme that consistently fits with the Damian trunk story of metamorphosis as well. This notion is taken to yet another level when Brunold, at the close of the story, mocks the audience and tells them that they are nothing but imaginary characters in a picture book, much to their chagrin, "My všichni jsme jenom … vymyšlený postavičky" [We are all just … fictional characters]. At every turn, Baban and Mašek play with readers, undermining their assumptions and switching between levels of fiction and reality.


Despite the avant-garde references, the trilogy is set in the 1990s, and manages to satirize both the Communist and post-Communist period. At the beginning of the first book, the hapless Damian is taken to a movie theater and forced to watch newsreels from the 1950s that laud agricultural harvests and social progress before gradually segueing into propaganda for the merits of "trunkification." In a sly gesture of détournement, Mašek alters a photo of a smiling mother and her baby by adding hand-drawn trunks and a caption satirically referencing the citizen induction ceremonies that replaced baptisms during the Communist era: "Tato maminka dobře ví, co je pro jejího malého občanka nĕjdůležitĕjší!" [This mother knows well what's best for her little citizen].

But when the propaganda film insists that "trunkification" is necessary for progress on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Damian objects, "For God's sake, what Iron Curtain? Didn't it already fall?." Even so, the monstrous transformation of Damian into an elephant–man resembles a surreal extended metaphor for Cold-War paranoia and life under [End Page 136]

Figure 1. By showing a mother with her child with the caption "This mother knows well what's best for her little citizen," Mašek satirizes the communist initiation ceremony. ©Vojtěch Mašekand Džian Baban, 2004.
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Figure 1.

By showing a mother with her child with the caption "This mother knows well what's best for her little citizen," Mašek satirizes the communist initiation ceremony. ©Vojtěch Mašekand Džian Baban, 2004.

Communism. Although the authors didn't intend the book to be a parodic glance at Czech history, Mašek concedes that there is something to this interpretation, explaining that "we were born during normalization and we remember the end of Communism. We have memories in common. As kids we noticed that there was something strange … [there were] these characters that we half feared and half ridiculed."12 Mašek conveys this sense of the uncanny and the grotesque throughout the comic by altering black-and-white photographs with his own surreal paintings and drawings.

The post-Communist period is not presented as the sunny road to progress, either. In the third volume, Poslední chobotango, the utterly bland smiley-faced Jan Štulec, a credulous twenty-year-old economics major, becomes the tool of General Trunkov in his scheme to annihilate the world by silencing it. Štulec, the founder of the company Idejedlík 90, gives seminars on how to "eat ideas," and thus gain control over other people. By posing Štulec with Václav Klaus, Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic in the 1990s, Baban and Mašek's work can be understood as implicitly critical of the free-market policies that preached business as the solution to the nation's problems. They also subvert the reader's expectations regarding monstrosity, since Damian's accursed trunk becomes the weapon that ultimately defeats his nemesis General Trunkov. As Baban states, [Damian] is "[a] kind of an anti-superhero compared to the American comic book tradition … [an] eastern bloc superhero, [since] his trunk has 'super powers.'"13 Freaks, misfits, and "monsters"—Fred Brunold's ragtag company—are sympathetic characters in the story. And Damian's wife, Olga, who comes to save him in the end, voluntarily undergoes surgery to get her own trunk in order to resemble her beloved husband. Their story closes with Damian and his wife fleeing to Scandinavia, where they start a family and run an organic farm, while Štulec's blank face hangs ominously over Prague. Whether this is a [End Page 137] "happy ending" or more pessimistic remains deliberately open-ended, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.


In his essay "Somewhere Behind," Milan Kundera remarks that "there are periods of modern history when life resembles the novels of Kafka."14 Czechoslovakia in the 1950s was one of those times, and thus Mašek's surreal and grotesque aesthetic of Monster Cabaret found its ideal subject in the tragic execution of Rudolf Slánský, a high Communist party functionary forced into false confessions and ultimately executed for treason. In fact, in Czech, the term "monstrproces" [monstrous trial] is used to describe these show trials.15 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského [How Gottwald Murdered Slansky](2014)16 is a graphic narrative published in conjunction with a nine-part television series on Czech history, České století [Czech Century], by historian Pavel Kosatík. Although the editor's remarks appear to distance the work from a strictly historical text,17 he nonetheless makes a powerful bid to provoke the reader's conscience: "The aim is not to reconstruct or recount history; instead, [the authors] offer a striking glimpse into certain isolated conversations, into the thoughts of individual actors and their moments of doubt, conflict, opinions, and the different decisions they made." In this respect, the series echoes a larger trend in Czech popular culture, as a new generation comes to grips with its troubling history. Notably, the Alois Nebel trilogy by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 (collected in a single volume in 2006), also subsequently adapted into a film, deals with the traumas of WWII and the Communist period, and stands out as the most famous example of a new post-1989 aesthetic in Czech comics. Similarly, Jěstě jsme ve válce [We Are Still at War] (2011), a project organized by the Center for Totalitarian Studies, represents the testimony of survivors of Communism and WWII in comics form thanks to the collaboration of a number of Czech cartoonists. Thus, Kosatík's České století, which is comprised of nine books including the Gottwald–Slánský episode, already builds upon an increasing interest in bringing historical events to a broader public through the medium of comics. Because the graphic narrative representations were published after the television serial, each artist could invent their own visual interpretation independent of the original version.18

My aim in analyzing Mašek's work is not to evaluate the verisimilitude of the content—that is, Slánský and Gottwald's actual relationship and Slánský's execution19—but rather to explore issues of medium specificity by asking how he uses comics to represent this story in a unique way. What is gained, aesthetically, by adapting what was originally a television script into a graphic narrative presented through Mašek's distinctive surrealist lens? In discussing Mašek's work, Kosatík praised Mašek's ability to evoke the atmosphere of what he calls the "temnou poetiku padesátech let" [dark poetics of the 1950s],20 which he had already begun to develop in the fictional world of Monster Cabaret. I would like to consider Kosatík's mention of "poetics" in order to invoke Scott McCloud's concept of the visual metaphor, a literal representation of something more abstract and figurative. Describing [End Page 138] David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik's comics adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass, McCloud argues that "the mere use of visual metaphors doesn't automatically draw out the subtext in fiction, but when those symbols echo one another and relate directly to the story's central themes, the results can be mesmerizing"21—an assertion particularly suited to Mašek's surreal aesthetic.

In 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského, Mašek applies familiar devices from Monster Cabaret—but his artistic embellishments assume a more sinister gravity when anchored in the specific historical circumstances surrounding these two Communist officials. Beginning with the execution of Milada Horáková, the text corresponds to the actual transcript of her last words.22 After this point, however, Mašek follows Kosatík's script of the imagined private conversations that take place between Gottwald and Slánský as we witness how their friendship progressively deteriorates. Under pressure from Soviet advisors to find a traitor in their midst, the two officials argue about who might be at fault. Slánský wants to eliminate all of the Spanish agents under suspicion for spying because he believes that it is "better to arrest an innocent than let a guilty man go free." Gottwald accuses him of calling for a "pogrom," but Slánský stays firm. Mašek portrays Slánský in a highly unusual way; I want to pause here to consider a page in which this transformation first appears. The background is black, consistent with his Monster Cabaret books, contributing to the sinister atmosphere. In the top two panels, Slánský is depicted in profile and from the front, most likely on the basis of official photographs. This is Mašek's process—he alters and paints over reproductions of pictures, which in this context is especially meaningful given the history of the falsification of photos under Communism.23 Below these panels are two longer, rectangular fragments containing a gargoyle from St. Vitus Cathedral, a reference to the opening scene of the script (not portrayed in the graphic novel version). The last and largest panel depicts a bleating goat or ram; the juxtaposition of the character with this image establishes the central visual metaphor of Slánský as a "scapegoat" or "sacrificial lamb." At this stage, Slánský's role is somewhat ambiguous—one reviewer comments that [his] "dark curly hair changes into horns, and the character looks like something between a sacrificial lamb and Satan, which corresponds to his role as killer and victim."24 Later in the narrative, the image of the gargoyle is paired with Slánský a second time at his official fiftieth birthday party. And here Mašek adds a scene not present in the original: a crowd of people throws him up into the air, yelling "hip hip hooray" in celebration, but he drifts mysteriously upward, out of the panel. When his wife remarks, "I was scared for you, Rudy … at such a height … what if people didn't catch you," the irony of his answer is chilling: "You must trust people." As the reader well knows, his friend Gottwald will ultimately betray him and hand him over to his Soviet executioners.

Another crucial aspect of Mašek's dark poetics is the prevalence of twisting and intersecting lines throughout the narrative. Paranoid connections and suspicions are rendered visible through curling tendrils and red strands, which could be telephone wires, entrails, or both. These designs proliferate in the end papers and in the pages that separate different scenes within the book, literally and figuratively serving as the connective tissue that holds [End Page 139]

Figure 2. Rudolf Slánský is depicted as a "sacrificial lamb" or "scapegoat," foreshadowing his execution. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014.
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Figure 2.

Rudolf Slánský is depicted as a "sacrificial lamb" or "scapegoat," foreshadowing his execution. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014.

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the story together. In a page that describes the planning of Slánský's arrest, tangled lines snake between nightmarishly surreal images of faces and figures implicated in Slánský's downfall: Gottwald, Alexej Čepička (his son-in-law), StB (státní bezpečnost, secret police), and the outline of Slánský's head, fractured and opened to reveal an empty shell with curling tendrils of wire inside. The last image in particular recalls Salvador Dali's paintings of deconstructed faces, or even the hand in Louis Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) that opens to reveal a mass of swarming ants. This page also demonstrates the way in which Mašek constructs his style out of overlapping layers; rather than operating with a static black-on-white grid, he collages together small paintings which function as panels, making it occasionally difficult to trace fragments of text to their corresponding source. On other pages, hands are drawn at the bottom of what appear as surveillance transcripts, which adds to the three-dimensional quality of the story while also cleverly involving and implicating the reader.

Discussing Eddie Campell's From Hell (1999), Mašek describes how there are many "techniques that are not possible in film or literature—through the distortion of time, and the use of layering, [comics] communicate through text and image, and thus create a third meaning, a new perspective on reality,"25 but he could just as easily be referring to his

Figure 3. Mašek depicts the secret police surveilling Slánský with surreal imagery: curling tendrils, finger prints, and cracked faces. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014.
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Figure 3.

Mašek depicts the secret police surveilling Slánský with surreal imagery: curling tendrils, finger prints, and cracked faces. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014.

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own work. Slánský's impending doom is represented and foreshadowed in multiple forms in the graphic narrative. When representing Slánský's execution, Mašek brings together the literal and the figurative, image and text, to produce a startling and disturbing image. The faces of the Soviet advisors, whose visages have an eerie plastic quality as if made of clay, stretch into monstrous beaks that spear their victim, Slánský, while labeling him a "traitor." The malleable and distorted features of these characters recall Švankmajer's clay animations, but here the rather ridiculous and embarrassing "trunks" from Monster Cabaret transform into swords that pierce the victim's body. A more realistic portrayal of his hanging is also represented, paralleling Milada Horáková's execution at the beginning, although Mašek's surreal invention is much more horrific.

What is at stake in depicting Slánský's betrayal and execution using surreal and avant-garde inventions? Hillary Chute and Kate Polak, scholars who analyze the representation

Figure 4. Soviet advisors, emblazed with letters that spell the word "traitor," spear Slánský with grotesque beaks. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014
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Figure 4.

Soviet advisors, emblazed with letters that spell the word "traitor," spear Slánský with grotesque beaks. ©Vojtěch Mašek, 2014

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of history and trauma in graphic narratives, have embraced the subjective, idiosyncratic expressive possibilities of comics in this arena. Chute, in particular, argues that we need not turn away from trauma as unrepresentable, but rather explore how a cartoonist's drawing style "materializes"—renders the invisible, visible—historical trauma.26 In visual studies, photography has already been debunked as an objective art form (since it can be manipulated), opening the path to other mediums of expression more affective, more creative, as a response to trauma. Writing about Art Spiegelman's two-volume Maus (1986, 1991), Chute asserts that "Spiegelman's characters are clearly humans overlaid with a visual metaphor—[which] provides a crucial layer of abstraction that creates a compelling tension with the book's deeply researched specificity."27 In Ethics in the Gutter (2017) Polak notes that all of the attention directed to autographics and documentary comics has overlooked a crucial subset of graphic narrative that is based in historical reality, but is nonetheless fictional. Referencing Linda Hutcheon's concept of historiographic metafiction, Polak argues that we need a similar term for comics, and thus she proposes "historio-metagraphics" as a means of designating "works that deal with real-world events in fictional ways so as to comment on the way in which we shape narratives, receive them, and reframe them."28

Of the nine graphic narrative volumes of České století, Mašek's 1952: Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského goes furthest in Polak's direction by not only illustrating historical events and people but also by employing visual metaphor to materialize connections and sinister connotations. As a work of historio-metagraphics, the book alludes to the way readers receive and reframe narratives, consistent with Polak's assertion. Readers are drawn into the narrative through the hands depicted on fake interrogation transcripts, alluding to the audience's participation and complicity in this history.29 In Pavel Kořínek's typology of adaptations,30 Mašek's work would fall into the third category, which not only illustrates or seeks to resurrect forgotten works, but changes the form of the comic to create an original interpretation of a work.31 Precisely because Mašek does not come out of a comics tradition, he freely experiments and breaks standard conventions.


One of Mašek's later projects—Recykliteratura [Recycleliterature] (2015, with Baban)—is yet another creative revolution in the development of his avant-garde aesthetic. This time his work focuses on humor rather than horror, and both the text and image are "found" objects from old magazines; a surrealist aesthetic emerges through the singular juxtaposition of these two elements.32 He originally got the idea from creating the Monstrkabaret books by using old photos and film stills, which he then painted and altered to fit his story. In this case, he decided to democratize the process and make it into a game that anyone could participate in through a series of public workshops in Prague. The rules of the game called for a more constrained method of composition than the Monstrkabaret series: participants could not draw on the photos or alter the texts, nor could they collage the pictures together. What results is a sometimes hilarious mash-up of discarded images from another era. [End Page 143] Literary critic Dominik Melichar compares this work to early twentieth-century Dadaism and to the experimental literature of Devětsil, a Czech avant-garde movement from the interwar period. Melichar also traces these odd text–image combinations to the tradition of the theater of the absurd as practiced by Alfred Jarry, Eugene Ionesco, and Václav Havel. In this case, the resulting artwork is not the creation of a single artist or author, but rather the product of a collective author. Mašek and Baban, as the architects of the project, successfully combined old and new media to create this piece: funds for publication of the book were crowdsourced, with participants recruited through Facebook.

Although Mašek's style and approach seem unique in the context of Czech comics, I would concur with Melichar and place his work within the broader avant-garde tradition. The imaginative world of Brunold's cabaret in the Monstrkabaret series evokes interwar provocations of Berlin Dadaism and French Surrealism, as well as the Czech variants of these movements in Devětsil and Czech surrealism (Jindřich Štyrský and Karel Teige, in particular). Formally speaking, Mašek has embraced collage as a medium through which he can juxtapose complex and multivalent narrative strands. But Mašek's aesthetic is both more playful and deliberately constructed than André Breton's original exhortation that surrealism should consist of "automatic writing" and "unconscious" processes. In addition to cutting and pasting disparate photos and film stills, he uses overpainting (a technique originally developed by surrealist Max Ernst); that is, the application of gouache and ink drawings to an image. This combination of collage and overpainting gives Mašek additional expressive possibilities such that he can add painterly effects and fantastic elaborations to the source image. And these effects often function in ideologically subversive ways: a propaganda image becomes an object of ridicule; a party official is painted to appear grotesque and sinister; an arrogant business consultant has a blank smiling face.

In her discussion of surrealist collage in the work of Max Ernst, art historian Elsa Adamowitz develops a definition that provides insight into Mašek's work:

As a pragmatic act, collage encompasses various complementary or conflictual functions—critical, poetic, and political—which cohabit throughout the 1920s and 30s. As a technique, collage is a material mode of cutting and pasting distant elements […] As a subversive act, it is an instrument of détournement33

Mašek uses his method of collage and painting as a form of détournement to debunk and expose mendacity before and after 1989. Moreover, he continually "draw[s] attention to the intertextual process itself," by revealing his own graphic narrative as a formal construction.34 Adamowitz also highlights "the recurrent motif of the pointing hand, the frame within the frame, the theater set or podium"35 within Ernst's collages. Her observations effectively describe the structure of the Monstrkabaret series as well, since we must switch between Damian's story and the dialog between Schlectfreund and Jozef, and decide if both are simply acts in Brunold's spectacle, or if one can be subsumed within the other. As readers of Mašek's work, we are like the audience in the Monstrkabaret, invited to participate in the game when we attempt to disentangle dream from reality through multiple [End Page 144] narrative levels. But the game has a purpose that is fundamentally subversive, for Mašek is continually challenging our assumptions about identity—who is the "freak" and what is "normal"?—as one character unpredictably transforms into another.

Martha Kuhlman

Martha Kuhlman is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University where she teaches courses on the graphic novel, Central European literature, and critical theory. She coedited The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking with the University Press of Mississippi (2010) with Dave Ball. Her articles have appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture, European Comic Art, and the International Journal of Comic Art. She has contributed chapters to the Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel, The Cambridge Guide to the Graphic Novel, and the MLA volume Approaches to Teaching the Graphic Narrative, among other works. Her article "The Avant-garde Aesthetic of Vojtěch Mašek" will appear as a chapter in Comics of the New Europe, co-edited by Jose Alaniz (U of Washington), and will be published in 2020 by Leuven University Press. The book includes essays on comics from the Czech Republic, the former Yugoslavia, the former East Germany, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine.


1. Martin Foret, "A New Generation, New Worlds, New Heroes," Signals from the Unknown: Czech Comics 1922–2012 (Prague: Arbor Vitae), 307.

2. Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban. Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda uvádí: Sloni v Marienbadu. Prague: Tichý syndikát, 2004. np.

3. This is a particularly clever title in Czech, because "Last Year in Marienbad" is translated as "Loni v Marienbadu," which is close to "Sloni v Marienbadu" [Elephants in Marienbad].

4. Vojtěch Mašek, Džian Baban, and Jan Šiller. Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda uvádí: Za vším hledej doktora Ženu. Prague: Tichý syndikát, 2006. np.

5. Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban. Monstrkabaret Freda Brunolda uvádí: Posledni chobotango. Prague: Lipnik, 2008. np.

6. Information regarding the Muriel awards can be found at (for each year). All told, Mašek has won ten Muriels for his work on Monstrkabaret as well as other projects.

7. José Alaniz, "Czech Comics Anthropology: Life and Story in O Přibjehi: Keva," Comics Forum, 2012,

8. For a review of this work, see Tomáš Stejskal, "Komiks Svatá Barbora je vrchol české tvorby. Z kuřimské kauzy činí thriller i úvahu o pravdě a lži," Aktuálně.cz, March 13, 2018,

9. Foret, "A New Generation, New Worlds, New Heroes," 307.

10. Correspondence with the author, July 15, 2017. "Jan Švankmajer je mým velkým vzorem, jeho rafinovaný surrealismus a kombinování snu a syrové reality mně zřejmě velmi ovlivnilo. Svým způsobem cítím i vliv filmu Pavla Juráčka či Jana Němce ze šedesátych let, ve kterých se podařilo zkombinovat skutečnou absurditu doby s metaforickou rovinou fantaskního podobenství. Také je mi blízká poetika a svět režiséra Davida Lynche." [Jan Švankmajer is an important model for me. His refined surrealism and combination of dream and reality was a major influence. Similarly, I'm inspired by [film directors] Pavel Jurack and Jan Němec from the 1960s, in which they managed to merge the real absurdity of the time with a fantastic, metaphorical level. [My aesthetic] is also akin to the poetics of director David Lynch.]

11. To date, this story is not translated into English, and so I have relied on Marek Přibil's Czech translation (2004) included in Sloni v Marienbadu.

12. See his interview with Klára Kolářová: "Scriptwriter and artist Vojtěch Mašek: Comics can do things that literature can't do" [Scenárista a výtvarník Vojtěch Mašek: Komiks umí věci, které literatura ne],šek-komiks-umi-veci-ktere-literatura-ne.html.

13. See Baban and Mašek's interview with Jan Velinger: "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! So this is the message." "Creators of an Unusual Czech Graphic Novel about a Man with a Trunk," Czech Radio, April 17, 2009,

14. Milan Kundera, "Somewhere Behind," in The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Harper and Row, 1993), 99–117, 105.

15. See Václav Cihla, "Politické procesy v 50. letech," Diplomová práce, Univerzita Karlova v Praze, 2013, He uses the term "monstrproces" several times when describing Slánský's trial.

16. Vojtěch Mašek and Pavel Kosatík. Jak Gottwald zavraždil Slánského. Prague: Česká televize/Mladá fronta, 2014. np.

17. David Pazdera is identified as the "odpovědný redactor" [authorized editor] of the volume on the back page.

18. Mašek deliberately did not watch the televised version before he created his comics adaptation. Correspondence with the author.

19. For a historical account the Czech show trials of the 1950s in general and of Gottwald's relationship with Slansky in particular, see Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–56. New York: Doubleday, 2012. 281–6. and Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. New York: Penguin, 2005. 185–91.

20. See the interview on Czech television where Kosatík discusses the graphic narrative adaptations (October 31, 2013): "Podívejte se: Vznik a pád Československa v komiksu," Česká televize, October 31, 2013,

21. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993) 34.

22. See David Mrnka's film Milada, a Czech/American production, Loaded Vision Entertainment, 2017.

23. See David King, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997). For an example, see pp. 40–1 for a photo of Lenin and Trotsky in 1919, and then again in a 1967 version of the photo in which Trotsky is excluded.

24. Stefan Segi, "Gottwald vs. Slánský, seriál vs. komiks," Lógr. Year 4, no. 14 (2014): 8–9.

26. Hillary Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 25–35.

27. Hillary Chute, Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 61.

28. Kate Polak, Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2017), 28.

29. This device has been used in other graphic narratives, most notably in Speigelman's Maus (1986, 1991) and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2007).

30. Kořínek identifies three types of adaptation: the first category concerns transmedial adaptations, in which the function of the comic is primarily to illustrovat [illustrate]; the second is primarily about bringing canonical works into comics form in order to připomenout (resurrect or recuperate) them; and the third type goes furthest in altering the comics form—stvořit—through adaptation and thus creates a new, parallel artistic work.

31. Pavel Kořínek, Martin Foret, and Michal Jareš, V panelech a bublinách (Prague: Akropolis, 2015), 164.

32. Markéta Kučová interviews Vojtěch Mašek. "Mám rád humor, který pracuje s absurditou, převracením stereotypů, podobně jako se to děje ve snech." The Student Times. August 4, 2015.

33. Elsa Adamowitz, Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 13.

34. Adamowitz, Surrealist Collage, 15.

35. Adamowitz, Surrealist Collage, 15.

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