“It’s Very Easy To Fail At Adapting A Great Work Of Literature”: An Interview with Rafał Mikołajczyk

Rafał Mikołajczyk is a graphic designer, painter, screen printer, illustrator and comic book artist. Born in 1977 in Jastrzębie-Zdrój, educated at the Public Art School in Bielsko Biała, then at the Strzemiński Academy of Art in Łódź, Faculty of Graphics and Painting, he graduated from the Screen Printing Section under professor Andrzej Smoczyński. After graduation he worked for advertising agencies as a graphic designer and set up his own graphic design studio a few years ago. The Invincible, his adaptation of Stanislaw Lem, is his comics debut, as well as the first book published by his own publishing house Booka, which he runs together with his partner.

Michał Chudolińsk: Who is Stanisław Lem for you?

Rafał Mikołajczyk: A man of small stature and great imagination. A writer, a futurologist, a visionary. For me he was the first writer and he remains the most important one, he showed me that science fiction can be engaging, complex and stimulating, as well as realistic and full of emotion.

How do you think Lem influenced popular culture?

For sure, I think he’s been very influential – particularly in recent years – in literature, cinema, video games. There are a lot of philosophical and existential themes in his novels. The role that man plays with regards to nature, the universe, what man can and cannot do, whether a machine or a robot can be more perfect than a man, whether an artificial intelligence that lives on another planet and may potentially pose a threat to mankind should be destroyed. Whether an alien culture that has its own world, morality, and laws, should be changed, subdued, “civilized” if it’s different from ours.

Lem frequently confronts his protagonists with advanced technology, and consequently it turns out that despite his intellectual and emotional superiority, man loses because it’s the machines or robots who are more humanitarian, more empathetic; they are more human than the man. I don’t want to philosophize, but I think there is a lot of themes in Lem’s writings that to a greater or lesser degree, consciously or not, could have served as an inspiration for various books and movies. They have definitely influenced the development of science fiction in Poland and worldwide.

What inspired you to create Niezwyciężony (“The Invincible”)?

The beginnings were fairly mundane. I was eleven or twelve, and one day walking past a second-hand bookstore I decided to go in and get a comic or a book. There were no comics, but I came upon the novel The Invincible. What fascinated me then was the confrontation of a man and an alien being living on the planet Regis III. I was also intrigued by the mystery plot, as well as the tension, the uncertainty of what they were facing and why. And of course the novel was full of splendid, detailed hard science fiction, which fascinated me since I was a child. I think that was the first time I saw aliens depicted in a different way, not as green men from Mars, or robots, but as… well, I won’t spoil the novel. It’s much better if you just read it.

How long did it take you to draw this album?

About three years. Of course, it wasn’t three years of just doing the album, it’s not that comfortable in Poland, at least for beginning comics artists. You can only draw after hours, on weekends, at night, etc.

What was the process like?

First there was the script: pulling dialogues, monologues, descriptions and bits of narration that interested me from the book. Then I laid out the panels and speech bubbles on the page. Then drawing: a sheet of paper, a pencil and eraser, then fineliners, felt-tip pens, ink, scanning, processing, coloring and finally typesetting – pasting in the text and preparing for printing. Which also takes a lot of time. That’s basically how the process looked like.

What were the biggest challenges in adapting Lem for the comics medium?

Not to screw it up was the first and most important challenge. It’s very easy to fail at adapting a great work of literature into another medium, such as comics or film, that works according to its own laws. I have read and watched a lot of adaptations and I’ve got to say, not many artists have succeeded at the process. Some strayed too far from the main theme, others focused on an insignificant aspect or cut out the most interesting plots or elements. That was the biggest challenge at the start. What to include, how to transpose it, how much to leave out. My goal was to tell this story in the most faithful way possible and since the novel itself is virtually a ready-made script, I saw no reason to change or cut out or add anything. I focused on transferring the essence of the novel as fully as possible, while condensing the text to suit the comics medium, of course.

I also introduced a small change in that I combined two chapters into one, but it didn’t affect the plot in any way. According to one commenter on an internet forum, it was more interesting structurally than in the original novel.

Another issue was the transfer of language – or style, to be more precise. Those who have read some of Lem’s work know that his style is not the lightest. So the question became: should I leave that style as is or update it to be more approachable, more comic book-y, more slang-like, and so on. I wanted to preserve Lem’s original style, so I conducted a small poll among my friends: leave it as is or make it more comic book-y. Nine out of ten people told me to maintain the original style, so that’s what I did.

And then there was the matter of the archaic technology depicted in the novel. I wondered whether I should keep that or make it more futuristic. But why modernize it? So that it’s prettier? More up-to-date? With cell phones, drones, VR goggles and so on? The old-timey-ness of the tech creates a specific, inimitable atmosphere. The weight and shape of those machines amplifies the feelings of isolation, claustrophobia, alienation, dread, being lost. And even aside from that it would interfere too much with the novel, I thought. I remember that when I first read The Invincible I didn’t feel the tech was obsolete, maybe because there were no cell phones, and the personal computers that were there were Ataris and Commodores, which very few people owned. Working on concept art was a lot of fun. I had to use my imagination to design and construct the machines, the ship, or clothing because Lem didn’t describe how everything looked and worked in a very detailed way. I reworked some of those elements to make the vibe more pronounced, such as the angled machines or the ship instead of a classic rocket – mainly to contrast them with the spiky, rocky, rusty red planet. There were also more practical considerations: I changed the breathing instruments into transparent helmets to depict the facial expressions and emotions of the characters more clearly.

Did the adaptation process lead you to uncover something new or made you see some aspect of the novel in a different way?

After my first reading I remembered mostly a detective story, the ship’s crew facing against an alien life form. But during the adaptation process I discovered the philosophical themes hidden in subtext. Lem excelled at weaving his own philosophical and existential musings into the story, his thoughts on the role of man in the universe, his attitude towards nature, the known and the unknown. Who or what does a man become when he comes into contact with powers beyond his understanding, ones that he cannot overcome physically or psychologically. It’s not just The Invincible that contains such themes, but most of his work.

What was the reception like?

Working on this comic, I mostly wanted to reach the younger audience, to interest them in science fiction and its grandmaster Lem, to get them to read books. Whereas I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I also managed to reach older people who were familiar with Lem, and get them to read comics. People who have never read comic books before were delighted to encounter his work in that medium.

Reading your comic, I got the sense that it was your statement on man’s greed towards his surroundings, the environment, the cosmos… Were there any other issues relating to the current state of the world that you wanted to highlight?

That was partly my intention, yeah, and I think it was Lem’s as well. What’s incredible about his oeuvre is that it works on so many levels. There is always another layer to most of his books that I’ve read. There are always messages, insights, philosophical musings about history or the situation the world was in at the time of writing. They are present in The Invincible, too. One of those topics is the one you mentioned, man’s drive to possess the world, nature, cosmos.

Aside from that I wanted to portray something just as important that man does since the dawn of time, namely fighting that which he doesn’t understand. If there is anything that is contradictory or just different to the way man thinks, it has to be neutralized and destroyed. That’s another problem depicted in the novel.

There is also man’s faith in technology, in its perfection, infallibility, its power. Man has put his safety, his existence, his life, into the hands of the machine, becoming dependent on it, without it he’s as defenseless as a child. You can see that in particular in the clash between Earth’s technology and the necrosphere. I don’t want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the novel, but when it comes into contact with the simplest, most primitive alien technology, even the most technologically advanced machine can be destroyed or turned against the people themselves.

What comics do you like to read?

What comics do I like to read? The good ones, mostly. And more seriously, I don’t have a favorite genre, because I read science fiction, historical, crime, and realist comics. I do discriminate aesthetically: if the visual style of a comic doesn’t appeal to me, I’m unlikely to read it. I know the majority of comics readers would say in response that the art style is not everything or that what counts is the story, but that’s how it works for me and I can’t help it. Thankfully, there are a lot of comics on the market that do appeal to me, that I’ve read or intend to read. The artists that appeal to me the most are Sergio Toppi, Mike Mignola, Gipi, Alberto Varanda, Marvano, [Branko] Jelinek, [Wojciech] Stefaniec, [Hubert] Czajkowski, [Grzegorz] Rosiński – although that might be mostly due to childhood sentiment – and a few others.

Your style resembles the work of Jeff Lemire… do you like his comics?

I have been compared to Mike Mignola, Eduardo Risso or Frank Miller, but Jeff Lemire? That’s new. I know Lemire’s work, though I haven’t read all of his comics. He has his own distinctive style and I can appreciate that.

As a young Polish comics creator… How would you describe the conditions to create comics in Poland?

Well, I’m not that young anymore. I think the conditions depend on the shape of the comics market in a given country. In Poland the medium is not as popular as it is in Western Europe, not to speak of the US, where it’s equal to books, movies, etc. Thankfully, it changes for the better, I think, in that more comics get published by Polish and foreign creators alike. Thanks to conventions and comic book fairs the awareness of the comics medium increases, it’s more talked about, people realize that comics are not worse than literature. I myself remember the saying that comics are for people who are too lazy to read a book. But it’s better now. It’s still not on the level of the Western markets, because the print runs are much smaller, but it’s much better than it used to be. And I hope the situation improves even further, so that more young people get drawn to reading comics.

What stories would you like to tell in the future?

I have a few ideas but they’re all in preliminary stages. I’ve been considering doing another Lem adaptation, though I won’t say which book. Ever since my high school and college days I’ve been interested in Slavic culture, beliefs, mythology. The relationship between the people and pagan deities or demons, and what influence they had over people. I have a concept related to this topic and maybe I’ll do something with it, although I don’t yet know when or what exactly. There’s still some work to be done on The Invincible, we’re going to try to publish it in Western Europe, then maybe over in the States. We’ll see how it goes.

Useful links:
 (A New Take on Classics by Stanisław Lem by MIT

Interviews with Stanislaw Lem: 1, 2, 3.