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“There Is No Doctor Octopus”: An Interview with Wojtek Wawszczyk

Wojtek Wawszczyk is a feature animation director, screenwriter, and artist. He graduated with honors from the Łódź Film School and the Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg, Germany. He’s the author of the autobiographical graphic novel Pan Żarówka (Mr. Light Bulb)[1] published in 2018 by Kultura Gniewu.

I met Wojtek in the Human Ark studio, where he’s currently at work on Diplodocus, an animated film based on the work of Tadeusz Baranowski[2]. There was a sizeable stack of comic books in his room. It held everything from European comics, American superhero titles, and works by such classic artists as Milo Manara.

Michał Chudoliński: How was Mr. Light Bulb received? I know it was named the year’s best comic by the Polish Comic Book Society.

Wojtek Wawszczyk: It’s been fantastic! It’s received a larger print run than usual for a Polish comic, but we are slowly running out. Szymon Holcman, my publisher, told me that we might run out of stock this year. The reception has been wonderful. The problem in Poland is that comics are still a niche medium. It’s hard to get into the mainstream. There’s still a lot of stigma, a lot of dismissing them as “not literature.” I was lucky to reach mainstream media. I got a great review in Playboy, but I think there were a handful of cases where people would need more experience to gain a perspective that would allow them to understand my comic. They were reading it too literally. They missed the metaphors completely and didn’t like it at all. They read it on a surface level. Like it was a Spider-Man comic. It might be a superhero comic, but it’s a comic about being a superhero in the everyday world.

In everyday Poland.

Exactly. The reality is the arch-nemesis. There is no Doctor Octopus.

Where did the idea come from?

It’s based on my personal experience. I was searching for a form through which I could explain to myself the stuff that happened when I was 14 to 16 years old. Mostly, my parents’ illnesses. The illnesses started when I was still a child, and their presence can be felt even today. I had to learn how to live with that. I had to figure myself out in relation to that. One of the tools to accomplish this was the comic, which started as a short story. It was supposed to be a funny story about a guy who becomes a light bulb and helps another guy to find his car keys, which he’d lost in the night. It was supposed to be 12 pages long.

Alfred asked Bruce Wayne, “Why bats?” I want to ask you, “Why light bulbs?”

Some ideas have more potential to develop, to become three-dimensional. Some don’t. From what I remember, Bruce Wayne fell into a cave as a young boy. In Batman’s case, it started with a spark and suddenly the bat turned out to be full of meaning. Bats are nocturnal. They’re hunting and so on. It’s similar with me and the light bulb.

I can’t explain my metaphor fully … What is light? Light is life. It’s the life force. The protagonist is shining. He participates in life while knowing one day he will go out. He can give light. He can guide people by shining. He can also burn someone. It’s his blessing and curse, almost like Spider-Man’s powers. With time, he’s burning out more and more, and he has less energy, but maybe he’s more accepting with regards to the surrounding realities.

I’d like to focus on the burning out. I read your comic partly as an attempt to face up to the sins of Polish mentality, Polish reality. It needs to be said that life in our country is difficult for sensitive people. I think you’re fighting against Polish can’t-be-done-ness – a general attitude amongst Poles that some stuff just can’t be done.

I don’t think it’s necessarily about criticizing Polish mentality or reality. For many years, Poland was subservient to other countries. And because of that we have adopted a makeshift attitude. Why build a house that will last 100 years? Someone might come and take it away or knock it down, or war will come. It’s better to make it out of metal sheets and scraps. At least we won’t feel sorry if it gets damaged. People in Poland have this inborn fear of a better future. A stable future. We are uncertain of the future because of all the changes we went through. Big changes, like political upheavals or war, affect sensitive people, of which there are many.

My parents’ illnesses erupted in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That was a time of transformation, when the world which was a certain way for so many years suddenly changed. The old world meant enormous deprivation. I ate my first banana when I was eight. It was one banana that my aunt acquired from a friend of a friend. She opened it like a holy sacrament and cut it into a few pieces. My cousins and I ate one piece each. That was the scale of deprivation.

That change, which created even more uncertainty and even greater poverty, resulted in my parents and masses of other people becoming the victims of the transformation. Victims of a fear that became so great they burnt out and couldn’t withstand. And that’s what Mr. Light Bulb is about – an enormous fear, enormous depression.

Depression which you did eventually leave behind.

I did. I hope.

 

The comic seems very therapeutic to me. You demonstrate that in these difficult conditions – because Poland is not an easy country to live in – it is possible to find peace of mind, contentment, and happiness.

One of the more difficult things in these dark times is to not give up, to gain perspective. When we lose perspective, there is a danger that one of the wires in our light bulb burns out. I think that’s the theme of my comic book. I believe everybody can relate to this. This book is not only about Poland. I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that there are no dates in the comic. There is no mention of any specific country.

That was on purpose?

Yeah. And what’s more, people call each other mum, dad. There are very few actual names. They only appear from time to time to deepen the metaphor. For instance, when I name the grandmother after the dish she makes, or I call the doctor “Dr. Pear” because he uses the enema pear. The names I gave the characters illustrate that we are remembered not because of the way we are but because of what we do. So, the protagonist is named Mr. Light Bulb because he shines, but what goes on inside him is probably something only he and people very close to him know.

This makes the comic more universal in a time when we are undergoing so many technological changes. Tell me, what can sensitive people do for themselves and others to make the world a more empathetic, compassionate, bearable place?

The changes we are undergoing right now are surface level. Life looks different than 100 years ago and will keep on changing. I fear this might sound tacky. I think the universal truths often seem worn out and laughable, but we simply need love. Love that’s based on liking ourselves more, so we end up liking others more … but it’s difficult as hell.

Yeah, but why?

It seems that we live in a time of excess. People are addicted to things. They work hard to have more so to not be considered inferior. Social media has promoted the image of an eternally successful man. Online, we post information about our successes only. Amazing holidays, great food. In such conditions, it is very difficult to admit that what I have and who I am is enough. It’s harder to have respect for ourselves and to have respect for others. It’s more difficult to love.

How did your relatives react to your comic? They have read it, correct?

Yeah. The comic was instrumental for me to wrap my head around certain things and to understand certain mechanisms working inside me. And to let go of them. It worked. But before I wrote it, I talked with my mom. I showed her what I was doing. I had a lot of long and beautiful conversations with her. After reading the comic, my uncle called me in tears and thanked me that he could find out what I was going through.

It was very helpful for me to read reviews and opinions about the comic. Critics were saying they hadn’t read such a funny comic in their life. It was interesting to see my life from another perspective. It stops connecting with me directly. It becomes just a story. I wanted the ending of the comic to serve as a reminder that even though things do not go as we wanted them to, it’s still better to live. When there are dark moments and you’re feeling bad, you need to remind yourself that life can bring good surprises.

When did you begin work on the comic?

As long as I can remember, I’ve been carrying a sketchbook with me. And whenever I can, I take out the sketchbook and write or draw something. It started with the short story, but when I started to draw it, I noticed how versatile this idea was. It became this strange chronicle of certain situations and emotions. I finished it after four or five years and over 600 pages.

Four or five years … when was that?

That was when I was working in the United States. I was invited there in 2003 as an animator to co-create the VFX for the movie I, Robot.

How did that opportunity become available?

I graduated from two film schools: the Polish Film School in Łódź, which I graduated from in 2001, and Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where I was on a scholarship, and where I learned CGI and VFX, which were not as then common as they are today.

I made a few student films, which won awards at a few festivals. One of them, Pingwin (Penguin), a two-minute, amateur, no-budget production, was shown as part of a prestigious animation and VFX conference called SIGGRAPH. It must have been noticed because one day the phone rang, and I had a job interview. They put me on speaker, and I was interviewed by eight people at once. They asked what movies I liked to watch. What books I liked to read. Just general questions, and then they said it would be great to have me on the team. So, I went to Los Angeles, where I spent two years with some breaks.

I spent the years 2003 and 2004 working on I, Robot. Then one of my colleagues invited me to India, where I was going to oversee the cutscenes to the Fight Club video game based on David Fincher’s movie. Digital Domain then invited me to participate in an anniversary ad for Disneyland. That was the first time the Disney characters were animated in 3D. I animated Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. That was very cool. I then received one more invitation. It was to do animated VFX for Æon Flux with Charlize Theron.

Even though you studied drawing, how is it that you’re more of a literary storyteller than a visual one?

Comics have the potential to be intimate and direct because they can be made quickly. I draw quickly, particularly when I’m drawing emotionally difficult scenes. A lot of the pages were created without much preparation. It wasn’t an assembly line-produced comic, where several people work on refining the drawing for however many days. I was taking 10 to 20 minutes to draw a page because I had a need to express myself. Yes, they’re not perfect, but the story is so dear to me that I wouldn’t have been able to give it away to a professional comic artist to draw it better. It would feel fake.

Besides, the creation process for Mr. Light Bulb was irregular. I wasn’t creating it methodically, sitting down every day. Sometimes I drew and thought, “This sucks. This isn’t working.” I needed to take a break for a few weeks and find out what was off. I was editing the novel just like a movie. I could add pages to slow the action down or, if the dialogue was wrong, I would change the lines or cut them.

The editing of the comic consisted mainly of cutting dialogue. The character is supposed to feel things, not necessarily talk about them. Even after I had finished the comic, I made a few revisions. I would read it and carve at it. Someone asked Rodin once, “How do you sculpt?” He said, “I just remove unnecessary stuff from the stone.” That’s what revising was like.

What do comics give you as a medium that you don’t get from animation or film?

Freedom and pace. Animation is like running long distance in slow motion. I often work on something for 10 to 11 hours and end up with one second of motion. I often have to work with someone. You can make animated movies alone, but if you want to achieve the blockbuster production level, you need a group of people. There’s no other way. So, you have lots of people and a big budget. That’s a movie. With comics, you have a blank sheet of paper …

You are the master of this world!

Exactly! That was fascinating to me. I worked on Mr. Light Bulb after hours. By day, I worked in an animation studio, where I directed and animated, and then I’d come home and between 8 p.m. and midnight I would draw one or two pages, and that was beautiful. Comics give you more freedom.

And when it comes to audience participation, comics surpass film in many respects. It’s more challenging because film is passive. You’re being led by the hand throughout in a linear fashion from start to finish. You get a one-size frame. Sound effects help a viewer understand what’s going on, and there’s motion which also makes it easier to follow. You sit in a chair just absorbing passively. Whereas in comics, you need to be an active participant. You open a book, and the whole page affects you first. The creator is able to control the speed of reading by using panels of different size. You can rewind, and in that way comics are interactive. Of course, you read it linearly, but you also experience it holistically. I really like ending a page with a bit of information and then when you flip the page, you get something that stands in relation to the ending of the previous page.

Comic books let you play with space and time in ways that we’ll never see in movies. Look at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana, where panels from different streams of consciousness fit together to form the scene of a crime. Chris Ware is another example. He drew a fantastic short (in Quimby the Mouse) about a man’s life told from the perspective of a lamp. There’s also Ware’s masterpiece Building Stories, another radical experiment that demonstrates what comics is and what it can be.

And what is comics for you?

It’s the most perfect medium for sharing what’s inside my head. It’s an intimate medium. Look at what’s happening with my movie Diplodocus. I am very passionate about this project, but I’ve been doing it, circling around this one story, for nine years. If I was making a similar comic, I suspect it would be long-published by now. I would have gotten this story out of my head ages ago.

Speaking of Diplodocus – it’s based on several comics by Tadeusz Baranowski, one of the most prominent Polish creators. I take it you grew up with his work?

I did. I was born in 1977. As I have tried to depict with Mr. Light Bulb, it was very gloomy and very poor. In the ‘80s, when I was growing up, there were very few comic books, but among the ones that were published some resonated with me, and they became portals to other worlds. These were Baranowski’s books. You’d open his comics, and you’d see the colorful pages, more colorful than anything else, and you’d just disappear into them to such an extent that they would become a part of you. I started drawing by using translucent sandwich paper and copying the characters from Baranowski’s comics.

Baranowski is one of the few Polish creators included in Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. Aside from the escapism, what would you say are his essential features?

Flair, freedom – incredible freedom. The baroque bulbous-ness of the form. The classical composition framed with floral ornaments and a limited palette of strong colors. They bring to mind the fashion of the ‘80s that’s referenced in today’s comics, or the intensely red, cyan, green, and yellow filters in productions like Stranger Things. I’m making my movie the same way. I want it to be very ‘80s, lit and told in a Spielbergian way. These things don’t get old. They’re coming back for a reason.

Baranowski’s lines are very painterly. He studied painting, and he paints to this day. You can see that the line wants to get away from him, but he’s not afraid of it. He’s not doing it straight by the ruler, and that’s something that has universal appeal. It’s fascinating to me, by the way, that he’s 75 and working on another comic.

Really? I heard he was retiring due to health reasons.

He’s drawing his final album – the third part of Fruwaczki (Fly-things), which closes out the trilogy. The pages he’s published on Facebook are totally him. He never lost it.

How’s work on the movie going? When might we expect it to come out?

We’ve been preparing the movie for a long time. The script was inspired by Tadeusz Baranowski’s comics. It’s an homage to him, but it was written from scratch. The movie is being developed by a few comic creators from my generation, including Rafał Skarżycki[3], Jacek Frąś[4], Michał Śledziński,[5] and Tomasz Leśniak. What brought us together is the fact that we all grew up with Baranowski’s comics. That’s why the pre-production process has been so long. We’ve been making a story that preserves the spirit of Baranowski but isn’t just a copy. It’s one that stands on its own and is in dialogue with his work. We are in contact with Tadeusz. We meet with him every few months.

Currently, our script is being re-written and edited by two brilliant screenwriters from Great Britain and the U.S. who work on big family productions. We are also correcting the storyboard and sending it to our great friend who directs big family movies. Unfortunately, I can’t give names. They will do one more storyboard editing pass. Once we finalize the budget (securing the funding is always the most difficult part), we will start production, which will last two years. If everything goes according to plan, the movie will premiere in 2021. The movie will be in English, and it will utilize a quirk that is characteristic of Baranowski’s comics, namely meta-language. A multi-layering of worlds. The movie will be largely animated, but it will also contain live-action parts because it will feature an author drawing the characters from the animated part, and the two worlds will interact with each other.

Will it be like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where each Spider-Man’s universe will be animated in a different style?

I don’t think we’re going to go that far, but yes, there will be a few worlds that the diplodocus will travel through with the protagonists, jumping from place to place[6]. But the idea to have the hand-painted backgrounds created by different artists is quite something.

This isn’t your first foray into movies based on Polish comics. You previously adapted George the Hedgehog[7] into a film. Can you tell me more about it?

It was a long time ago. The film reached no. 9 at the Polish box office in 2011. It was a strange experiment. The producers’ initial idea was to make it a mainstream movie, but in terms of its aesthetics it was a wild ride, sending up the media and our beloved football hooligans. For me, it was an important experiment because it taught me to distance myself from my creations. I made it when I returned from the U.S. It was 2007. I finished my short, and I was invited to return to the U.S. to work on Transformers 3. I was almost ready to leave, but Maciej Ślesicki[8], the co-founder of Warsaw Film School, asked me to try to get a feature version of George the Hedgehog off the ground. On that project, I met people that I’m still friends with to this day. And the project was seemingly impossible. It had a minuscule budget, a team of a few people and initially …

Are you saying it was a production hell?

On the contrary. It was a production paradise! A student-anarchist paradise. It was a strange experience, as for almost two years we were a team of just 10 people. That was all – director, animators, everyone! We were doing everything at once, so it was a feature film made by 9 to 10 people on a budget of $400,000. It was impossible, but at the same time we created a fantastic artist commune. We built amazing friendships. We became one big, tightly-knit family. After the production finished, I married Anna, one of the animators. We have kids …

At the same time, we did the impossible. None of us had any experience doing feature films. That was our first. We made a million mistakes, which were very important to us because only after that experience did we start asking, “What did we do wrong?” We became professionals.

How was the movie received?

The reaction was extreme, I think, because the movie is fairly naturalistic. It’s full of swearwords and tells the story of a character who vanishes halfway through the movie and is replaced by a disgusting clone (voiced by myself, by the way) who pukes, farts, and screws everything that moves, and that’s his only function in the plot. He becomes a national icon exploited by politicians and the media, and he gains immense popularity because of all the political shit and the promotion of shit. That’s what the movie’s about. It’s a vicious satire about topics that stink, so it’s not a movie for everyone. We had a lot of fun, but the movie had a very polarized reception. There are some who like it very much, and some hate it with a passion.

There was no middle ground, so the movie became arthouse. It was the first animated movie in history shown at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. We won a Grand Prix for it at one of the biggest animation festivals in South Korea, and we received the Spirit Award for weirdest narrative at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The movie was on Netflix, too, so it’s very much its own thing, which I think is the purpose of art. But it’s also very different from my own sensibilities. I just wouldn’t do a movie like that on my own, but in that group, in the course of two years, we became a team of satirists, so it resonated with all of us. We had a laugh making it and lots of fun. I think the movie did what it was meant to, and I’m proud of it. My next movie is the complete opposite of George the Hedgehog. It’s going to be a family comedy that’s universal. It will be CGI, which is currently mainstream, and not cut-out like George the Hedgehog.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m working on a few comics projects which I have been postponing because I needed a break after Mr. Light Bulb. It seemed like the wrong time to work on them.

Currently, I’m working on three projects. One is called Fungae. It’s the story of a family making their way through a jungle, and it’ll be illustrated by Tomasz Leśniak. The second project is in a preliminary stage of sketches. It’s about the death of my dad (another heavy topic). I want to do a collection of shorts that circles this event. I’d like to depict the absurdity of dying. That comic is called Bardzo mi przykro (I’m Very Sorry).

In a way, Mr. Light Bulb ends with the death of your father. Is I’m Very Sorry a sequel?

No. It’s a completely different story. I think it could be seen as an appendix. There will be many connecting points, but it won’t have a plot, as strange as that sounds. It won’t have a plot in terms of a linear sequence of events or a three-act structure. Mr. Light Bulb had a movie structure, but this doesn’t. It’s more of an episodic structure.

The third project will be Rybtak (Fird), half-fish, half-bird, however silly that sounds. That will be a weird story of animals in a forest, a sort of fairy tale for mature readers.

A fairy tale for adults?

Yeah. Various animals living in a forest. There’s a bird living with his mom, who has no dad, and the mom tells the kid that dad was just some bird, but suddenly the child goes through adolescence. Its beak falls off. Its feathers fall out, and it becomes a sort of bird-fish hybrid. The mother’s strange past comes out, where she had this summer fling in a lake. I want to make a very funny, surreal tale set in the animal world that at the same time will be full of drama because I intend to start with this strange, funny concept that will actually lead to a story of searching for one’s father. The child will look for its father while being rejected by both groups. The birds will laugh at it for being a fish, the fish for being a bird. Another hero will have to search for their place in a world that rejects them.

Is this a fable for modern times?

You said yourself that the less sensitive have a great life. My wife says that if war broke out, we’d be the first not to survive. We, the sensitive, see too much, feel too much. We are affected too strongly by sociopolitical shifts. For some, it’s just fun and games, but we are affected in some way. Having children now, I’m trying to raise them to be happy and resilient to what’s going on. I think these are very difficult matters, and what I try to express in the comic is that the world around us is not always composed of our friends or people who think like us. But at the same time, we are drawn to it because we want to be a part of this world. We want to be of use to the world. We only need to learn how to not be too deeply hurt by it.

[1] Note on titles: for ease of reading, the original Polish title is only used the first time it is mentioned, with an English translation provided in parenthesis. The translation is used throughout the interview.

[2] Tadeusz Baranowski (b. 1945) is a Polish painter, illustrator, and comic writer and artist. He’s known for his absurdist humor, wordplay, and use of metafiction. His most famous comics are Skąd się bierze woda sodowa i nie tylko (Where Does Sparkling Water Come from and Much Else), Na co dybie w wielorybie czubek nosa Eskimosa (What’s the Tip of an Eskimo’s Nose Looking for in a Whale?), Antresolka profesorka Nerwosolka (Professor Nervosol’s Entresol), and Podróż smokiem Diplodokiem (A Journey on the Dragon Diplodocus).

[3] Rafał Skarżycki (b. 1977) is a Polish comic book writer and novelist, most famous as the co-creator of Jeż Jerzy (George the Hedgehog) and writer of the series Tymek i Mistrz (Tymek and the Master).

[4] Jacek Frąś (b. 1977) is a Polish painter, illustrator, and comic book artist. He is the only Polish artist to be honored with the Prize for Young Talent at the Angoulême International Comics Festival.

[5] Michał Śledziński (b. 1978) is a Polish comics creator famous for various series, such as Osiedle Swoboda (Freedom Estate) and Wartości rodzinne (Family Values).

[6] In Tadeusz Baranowski’s comic, A Journey on the Dragon Diplodocus, the wizard protagonist finds a dinosaur-like creature with the ability to travel through time and space.

[7] George the Hedgehog is a serial comic created by Rafał Skarżycki (writer) and Tomasz Lew Leśniak (artist). One issue is available in English through Comixology.

[8] Maciej Ślesicki (b. 1966) is a Polish screenwriter and director, famous for movies Tato (Dad), Sara, and the sitcom 13 posterunek (Precinct 13). He is co-founder of and a lecturer at the Warsaw Film School.

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