“Outside Our Sad Little Country, They Can Actually Achieve Something”: An Interview with Łukasz Kowalczuk

Łukasz Kowalczuk is a busy man. He’s a comics artist, translator, self-publisher, illustrator, festival organizer, and probably seven or eight other things we didn’t even get around to talking about. We spoke about his work and the history of his love of comics both before and after the recent Rumia ComiCon, of which Łukasz serves as the organizer.
- Robert Newsome

Photo courtesy of Joanna Kowalczuk

Robert Newsome: I wanted to get a little bit of background on your history with comics and how you came to the medium. I don’t want to use the term “early influences” but for lack of a better term, I guess I will. What were some of the things you were reading that made you decide that this is something you wanted to do for yourself?

I am 38 years old. I come from Poland, as you know. We didn’t have this kind of pop culture environment in our country until, I think, the late ‘90s. What I mean by that is that in the ‘80s when I grew up… I was born in 1983 and I started to read on my own at the age of six or seven. The whole Soviet bloc was slowly dying. We didn’t have the kind of access that you have or that there was in Western Europe or the UK. So there weren’t too many comics to read, simple as that. But we always did have a lot of books in our house. My older brother and my dad were—and still are—avid readers. They were buying books and whatever comics that appeared in Poland. There weren’t too many. One or two titles per month. My dad used to read comics to me instead of old fairy tales.

In the beginning of the ‘90s, the first American comics appeared here. These were Polish editions of American comics. In 1990 we had TM-Semic— the Polish branch of a big Scandinavian company—and we bought almost every comic book they released until the late ‘90s. It was almost a decade of buying most of the comics they were publishing. I grew up reading this stuff. I grew up reading late ‘80s and early 90s American comics. We were a little bit late because there was a gap of two or three years between the  American releases and the European releases. To be honest, I think that was the first big inspiration for me; things like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man, The Punisher drawn by Whilce Portacio, stuff drawn by Erik Larsen. When I was 9 or 10, Green Lantern was published here, “Emerald Dawn” was the first story arc. When I finished reading Green Lantern, I decided that I would do a comic book about intergalactic policemen. Of course, I drew maybe a page or two and that was that. Almost every bit of Western—mainly American—pop culture that came to us was digested by me and I tried to do something similar.

We didn’t have proper cable TV until the late ‘90s but we did have 5 or 6 channels, two Polish ones, British Sky One, German Pro7 and RTL, and I was watching a lot of cartoons in German. It wasn’t a problem. There was no language barrier. I just digested everything that was on TV, including advertisements of toys and games that you couldn’t buy here. There was also wrestling on Sky One, so it was all an influence. There were also movies on VHS, like Robocop. When I was really really young, like 9 or 10 years old, I did my version of Robocop. It was called Robocop 3 because I wasn’t aware that there was actually a Robocop 3.

Łukasz Kowalczuk’s Robocop III

I did my own version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I did my own Kowalczuk-verse full of superheroes, cheap knock-off versions of the ones I saw in American comics books. I had my Headhunter, which was my version of Punisher with some kind of gas mask and bullet vest with some kind of skull, of course.

This was 1992. I had a routine. I would buy a notebook like we used in school. I would buy the notebook on Monday and at the end of the week I had a comic book drawn inside, like 32 pages of comics. I did 10 or 12 of these issues. At the same time I had contact with Polish comics classics. In 1990 Asterix appeared, published by Egmont, so it was a combination of a lot of stuff, but mainly American pop culture. That was the main influence and I think it still is.

A lot of your work is rooted in a particular 1990s aesthetic. In 1990s pop culture there were lots of mutants, lots of slime. So much of the pop culture of that time was mutated and weird. That must have made quite an impression on you. 

It’s awesome. When I was a kid and we had 2 or 3 foreign channels on TV, I was really drawn to things like that, especially Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I can’t really say what was so appealing about things like that to me when I was a kid. Of course, it was dynamic, colorful, crazy, so for me it was a natural reaction. When I saw that or Samurai Pizza Cats I was hooked. There was so much going on on the screen. It was the same with wrestling. ‘93-94 WWF was so appealing. It was the same with music. If someone had MTV, he recorded Headbangers Ball or Yo! MTV Raps and teenagers watched it over and over again. There were no music copyright laws here until 1994 or 1995, so you could buy almost every album release pirated on tapes! Polish pop culture, or even culture as whole, owes a lot to piracy. So I keep my high horse in the stable when this topic appears.

During high school and most of my time at university, I lost interest in comics, I was more into punk rock and football. I started creating comics as an adult. I did a zine called I Hate People and a comic called VVreckless VVresters when I was 30 years old, but those slimy ‘80s/‘90s things are still one of the biggest inspirations for me.

A page from VVreckless VVresters

When I got married and we got our own place, I started to buy, watch, and read the stuff that I didn’t have access to in the past. I started researching this stuff on the internet, reading about stuff like Street Sharks or Stone Protectors or Defenders of Dynatron City. Toxic Crusaders were known in Poland because there was a bubble gum and you could win a Commodore 64 by collecting the stickers from the bubble gum packs. So after about 15 or 16 years, I was an adult creating comics again with a combination of influences from the hardcore punk scene and my childhood. I was searching for inspiration and the urge hit me to search for this kind of slimy stuff. I’m still doing it;  watching a lot of ‘80s anime, reading books based on RPG settings… that kind of thing is really appealing to me.

The whole idea of doing stories that are supposed to sell toys and still making the stories interesting and appealing is mind-blowing to me. The fact that you could have comics and cartoons like Transformers and GI Joe that were created as advertising material but they’re still readable and watchable today. Larry Hama is the greatest. I found out about the ‘80s knock-offs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Hamsters, Gerbils, Kangaroos... the creator of the hamsters turned out to be a big Comicsgate guy, so fuck him. But I’m not getting rid of those comics. The whole story of TMNT is very inspiring because these guys self-published their work. Every animated tv show done after the original one is good. IDW’s TMNT run is the only ongoing series I try to follow. I don’t want to do a second TMNT or whatever, but it is definitely an inspiration. My RadioActive Cross was created with GI Joe in mind, TMNT was a huge influence on my Violent Skate Bulldogs etc., etc.

A page from Violent Skate Bulldogs

How did you come to be involved in translation work? I know you did a Polish edition of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit. Have you done any other translation work?

I don’t do a lot of translation. I think my first big translation was Secret Santas written by Ben Grisanti. I knew the material and I felt secure enough in my ability to do it and thought there was no reason for us to search for a translator for a single-issue comic. I drew it, so I understood what was going on, and I understand English well enough so I just did it. Prison Pit was a book that I always wanted to have on my bookshelf in Polish and since 2017 or 2018 I’ve been working with a publisher called Słowobraz. It’s not a big publishing house. It’s just one person, Kasia Kamieniarz. After we did a few smaller books, I pitched the idea of doing the whole run of Prison Pit, and she agreed, so we contacted Fantagraphics and did it here in less than three years. I decided to translate it because I swear a lot, and I had a feeling that I could translate this tough English language into Polish because I know the Polish words that can be insulting enough to give the Polish reader the spirit of Prison Pit. Kasia helped as well. She wasn’t censoring me, but giving good advice as an editor.

I’m not really working on any other translation projects, I just felt that Prison Pit is something that I was invested enough in doing a Polish edition that I wanted to do it myself. I recently did translation work for a small role-playing game called Tunnel Goons, but it’s a really small thing (you should check Nate Treme’s work!). Nothing like Dungeons & Dragons with six one-hundred page books, it’s just one piece of paper for the whole thing. There are people who translate professionally, but Prison Pit was something that I really, really wanted to do.

So, what are some of the things that you’re working on currently? 

Currently I am doing more and more stuff that isn’t comics but is still cool. The work is mostly for independent tabletop role playing games—covers, interior art, logos. Mork Borg, Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland, Kosmosaurs to name a few. I would love to create a game in the Slimeverse setting. That’s almost half of the work I am doing now.

There are still comics, of course. At the moment I’m drawing Rourke, a comic about a CIA agent. It’s written by Ben Grisanti. We did Secret Santas together a few years ago. Secret Santas was a one shot, and Agent Rourke appeared there for the first time, so I can say it’s kind of a prequel to Secret Santas. This will be longer, probably two or three issues. There are some talks right now with potential publishers.

I finished half of an issue of ATOMAX. It was initially going to be published as a part of a new digital comics app called “Comics Ink,” but the app isn’t going to happen, so I’m left with it. It was work for hire, but I have the rights to do a printed edition. I was paid to do the first 11 pages, and now I’m left with half of an issue and I’m just too tired to search for publishers again and again. ATOMAX  is in some kind of hibernation or… I don't know what to call it. From time to time I’m doing work-for-hire comics for advertising—shout out to Michael Gordon from Iron Horse Games—Dungeoning is a good example of such work. I did a series of comic shop exclusive variant covers for a shop called Linebreakers; 3 issues of Cinnamon and one MFKZ (published by Happy Tank).

Cinnamon cover

I’m also drawing some pages for an upcoming Hockeypocalypse:Slashers, which is written and mainly drawn by Jeff Martin. Frankenrocker & The JailBait Punks (written by Roel Torres) is a mini-series that we started in 2017. 3 out of 4 issues are finished, and the first one will finally appear published by Bad Kids Press. That one will be in Previews in November and in comic shops in January, 2022. It’s sort of a Sunday Hardcore Matinee mixed with a Saturday morning cartoon. Another title, The UnderHogs (with my script and art by Henryk) should be published in “normal” distribution in 2022.

I am also writing the first batch of Slimeverse stories for some Polish artists. The series will be titled PULP(A) and the format is similar to UK’s Starblazer or Commando. I would love to release as many titles as possible next year, also in Poland. So... there is a lot of stuff.

What is the state of small press and independent publishing as you see it in Poland right now? 

We do have a solid independent scene. Not big, but solid. There is a Golden Chicken independent comics award. There have been 8 editions so far. We have one small event that is dedicated to zines, self-publishing and small press. Self-publishing, zines... that sort of thing is doing fine. It’s very diverse, I think. You can find a lot of younger people who are doing really interesting stuff - mini-comics, anthologies, zines. A few years ago we did an anthology that is available at Sliced Quarterly for free. Independent comics are doing fine, but I feel less and less connected with Polish comics as a whole. I feel like I can keep in touch with ⅓ of it, I don’t care about ⅓ and ⅓ can... fade away.

An image from the Neon Lords roleplaying game

I don’t keep up with too much at the moment. I do some check-ups and research in regard to the festival I organize, but otherwise I’ve lost a lot of interest in the community as a whole. I guess there are some people who have the goal of going straight to work-for-hire for a larger publisher (not a Polish publisher, of course). The bad thing about comics in Poland is that doing comics is not a popular way of making a living. It is not popular worldwide, I think we can agree, but it’s one of the hardest jobs in the whole creative world and many people here at some stage realize that they can’t make a living from comics. They do it after hours and make a living from animation or tattoos or some kind of concept art or illustration. Some of them could easily work for established foreign publishers, but they don’t want to do work-for-hire. Comics aren’t seen as a professional career, so comics creators aren’t taken seriously and barely take themselves seriously. I’m speaking mainly about  people my age (give or take a few years). I think there are some people—younger people that I don’t know very well—who are trying, and I hope they will succeed. We have some young blood on the independent scene. There are people making their creator-owned work. I’m afraid that if they focus just on Poland, though, they may be limited. Outside our sad little country, they can actually achieve something. I used to run workshops for teenagers and adults. They would ask me about finding a publisher or entering some kind of contest and I would always tell them ‘just do it yourself. That’s the best way. Then you won’t be fucked over by anyone.’ Contests are still important in Polish comics. The problem is that in the format we have here, contests are the easiest way to gain a lot of material almost for free. People are losing their shit over contests and awards like it’s some sports league or like it’s really worth something. It’s not, in many cases.

You are doing the Rumia festival this year, right?

We did it. Despite the microscopic budget (“side-effect” of you-know-what19), Rumia Comic Con 4 was success. It’s a small / medium-size, single-day, all-ages event with free entry and various attractions. Workshops, panels, publishers and artists’ tables. Not only comics, also role playing games, screenings and retro video games. A few hundred people attended and we’ve already set a date for next year;  March 12th. I actually have a studio in the same place we do the festival; the local library, which is built on the ashes of an old stinking train station. The library is a co-organizer, I have full support, but I can call it creator-owned festival.

One thing I want to mention about Rumia Comic Con is that we don’t have any volunteers. This is one of the few conventions in Poland with a “no volunteer” policy. I gain something by organizing this. I get a studio space in the library in return for my work, so I don’t have a right to ask people, especially young people, to help out with this convention on a volunteer basis. The biggest conventions in the world do this, and I think this is wrong. Even if you are not organized by a full commercial company, if you do some kind of event as a part of your work with, for example, for some kind of cultural organization... if you are paid in any way, you shouldn’t search for volunteers. I am willing to die on this hill. It is very troubling to see young people volunteering their labor for someone else’s gain. Also, when you have so many volunteers, half of them don’t know what’s going on. Some of them are doing absolutely nothing. There’s no organization among them. These people should come to the convention and have fun, spend their time playing games, buying books, meeting their favorite artists. The only thing they learn by volunteering in this way is that when they do their own convention they’ll also search for volunteers, so it builds on itself.

Frankenrocker & The JailBait Punks cover.