In the autobiographical graphic novel "Marzi," out now from Vertigo Comics, creator and writer Marzena Sowa sets the scene with a short story: it is the 1980s, Poland is under Communist rule, and in neighboring Ukraine the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has suffered a meltdown. Releasing radiation into the atmosphere above her country, Sowa recalls how Polish media questioned what impact Chernobyl would have on the next generation -- Sowa's generation.
"They call us the Chernobyl Generation" Sowa writes. "What life awaits us?"
Equal parts nostalgia and politics, "Marzi," details Sowa (AKA Marzi's) childhood growing up in Communist Poland through a series of short vignettes, all drawn by Sowa's partner and European comic book artist Sylvain Savoia. Speaking with CBR News about the Vertigo release of "Marzi," Sowa began by confessing she is actually a latecomer to the medium of comic books.
"When I lived in Poland I never read comic books," Sowa laughed when asked about the subject. "I think if it wasn't for [Savoia] I would never have made 'Marzi' because it wasn't my purpose, I didn't think it could be an interesting subject and I would have never thought about comic books."
It is a surprising admission coming from the woman whose memoirs have spawned six graphic novels in Europe (Vertigo's "Marzi" collects the first five of her European graphic novels into one volume). However, as Sowa explained, it was Savoia's encouragement that first set her on the road to creating a comic book autobiography.
"When we met I was telling him about my childhood, how it used to be in Poland when I was a little girl; I told him the story about our Polish tradition about the carp, the first story in 'Marzi,' and he just looked at me and said, 'Wow, it's so extraordinary, it seems so exotic but Poland is not that far away from France,'" said Sowa.
As she recalled, Savoia then told her, "'Now that you live in France you will forget everything [about when] you used to live in Poland, so why don't you write it down so you don't forget?'"
At that point Sowa began recording her childhood memories in prose form, sharing them with Savoia who convinced her to turn the short stories into comics.
"He told me that it was very interesting material to share with other people, and it's nice to show another childhood in the social and political context, but also it's universal because even in Communist ruled Poland, even if it was difficult, I could be a happy child," said Sowa.
Labeling her memories her "souvenirs," Sowa pointed to "Marzi's" very rigid and regular layout as mimicking the arrangement of photos in a photo album, a deliberate decision on her and Savoia's parts.
"As you can see in 'Marzi' there's not a lot of action in it, it's not like a normal comic book with different drawings and panels, it's very regular; it almost looks like a photograph album where you can see the photographs and Marzi is commenting on every picture," Sowa said. "It's like a souvenir of my family, of my life in Poland."
While the stories in "Marzi" are the same as Sowa's first five European graphic novels, in translating the book for an American audience there was one huge change: the coloring.
"At first we started to work with a colorist and we started to make the very traditional European comic books [with bright colors]," Sowa explained. However, she and Savoia quickly realized that there was an unforeseen disadvantage to their bright palette.
"We realized that no adults were reading us -- it wasn't a book only for children but we had only children as readers," Sowa said. "So we discussed with our publisher and we decided to try something new, to change the colors and the cover, have it show that it was historically important."
After drawing a new cover, which appears on the Vertigo edition of "Marzi," Sowa and Savoia published a second version of their books that swapped out the bright colors for a darker gray and red palette.
"There were lots of people who discovered us after that," said Sowa. In addition to readers, more international publishers began to take notice of Sowa's work, including Vertigo.
"Vertigo came to us because it seemed more interesting as a book for adults. But we are continuing both of them [in Europe], colors and the gray-ish red-ish version," said Sowa.
While the book is an autobiography, politics are deeply embedded in "Marzi" as cheerful vignettes about Sowa's childhood visits to the countryside juxtapose with short stories of standing in long lines for food and other hardships. However, Sowa told CBR News she did not set out to write a political memoir.
"When I started to write I thought it would be something about my neighbors, only about my childhood -- you are playing with your neighbors, you go to the countryside, you see your grandfather, you pick up strawberries, etc. But it surprised me as an adult that I was so concerned by the politics," Sowa said. "I didn't think about it like this before and I realized it was very important."
Written from Sowa's perspective as a child, the political events surrounding Poland's oppressive Communist party and her country's liberation at the hands of the Solidarity trade union movement are filtered through Sowa's memories, something the writer admitted with a laugh can create a skewed sense of importance.
"I was following the news on television with my father, the news of what was happening, who was Lech Wałęsa [Solidarity founder], was he a nice person or not? Now it's strange to speak in this way, who is nice and who is not nice, but because I was a child it was a very simple way to understand the world!" laughed Sowa.
Rather than downplay her unusual angle on Polish politics, however, Sowa decided to emphasize her point of view. "This is how I try to explain it in 'Marzi,' and because we have very young readers I think it's a good approach for them to see how a small character lives in a big history and how she disappears in it, because she doesn't have a voice; she is living in the adult world," said Sowa. "I think at some point I realized it was very important what I say because I have the responsibility of telling things about my country and I want to be the closest to the truth. I don't want to lie about historical events so I tried to be the most honest I could with me and with my family."
While Sowa stated she did not find the writing process hard, occasionally the stories in "Marzi" brought up painful memories.
"Some political events like the martial law [enforced by the Communist Party from 1981 to 1983] and when my father went to strike were a little bit strange to revisit because, for example, my father is dead now and for me it's painful because it's very personal," Sowa said. "When Sylvain draws my father I think about all the moments I could spend with him and about the life we used to have, and sometimes I'm nostalgic about it."
Pausing a moment to reflect, Sowa then shared one of the stories she found painful to write, an incident with her mother while at the dinner table.
"It was a very personal story; it was when my mother was trying to give me too much food... I didn't want to eat because I wasn't hungry, and she was beating me because she wanted me to eat and I didn't want to because when she started to beat me my stomach was full so it was impossible for me to eat," said Sowa.
The story, which she gave to Savoia to include in "Marzi," proved a difficult one for the artist as well. "I remember when I gave the story to Sylvain to read it he didn't know how to draw it because it was a little bit violent for him to see how an adult can treat a child," Sowa said of her partner's reaction to the story. "He chose to use only the close-ups of the mouth or the hands or the legs and it helped him to be closer to the character of Marzi."
Hindsight, however, has given Sowa a glimpse into the reasons behind her mother's actions, which she had a hard time comprehending as a child.
"In the book you can see the relationship with my mother is a little bit strange and she didn't show a lot of love but she was always forcing me to do things like eating -- eating was always a problem. Now since I'm an adult I can understand her because I know it was so hard to have food. There was nothing in the shops, really nothing, and she was always standing in the line waiting for [food]," said Sowa. "Now I can understand that it was very painful for her to see that I didn't appreciate it."
Despite publishing such intimate family details, Sowa believes writing "Marzi" has made her closer to her family.
"At first I thought that maybe they would be scared, 'What is she saying about us?' Maybe they thought I would lie or something. But in fact I'm not mean to them and they understood it," said Sowa. "Now when they read 'Marzi' they tell me, 'Ah, you could tell this story, you could write this down, do you remember what happened one day?' So it makes us talk a lot about what we used to live."
The writer laughed and added the only complaint came from her mother. "She told us that what she didn't like was that Sylvain draws her too fat! It was the only thing she didn't like, but she was laughing as she said it!" said Sowa.
Beyond the Vertigo collection of "Marzi," Sowa has plans for two other graphic novels, one about Poland's 1944 Warsaw Uprising and other also set in Poland, as well as a seventh European volume of her "Marzi" stories.
"We are going to enter the seventh album and it will still be about childhood. After we think that we will make the Marzi who is [a] teenager, the Marzi who goes to Krakow to study and who comes to France and discovers the world she was dreaming about. I think we will stop there," Sowa said of plans for her comic book counterpart. "That's three periods to approach, to show changes in her life and how she grows."
Looking back on her childhood and work, Sowa spoke again of Poland's "Chernobyl Generation" as a generation in flux, keeping one foot in the past and one in the future.
"I think that for my generation what is interesting and what makes us maybe more rich in experience is we grew up in this very strange period of history and we know it very well because we were small. I was ten when Communist rule collapsed in Europe so I remember those things as I write it in 'Marzi,'" said Sowa. "When I see my parents' generation, the generation of my aunts and uncles, they can hardly adapt to the reality; they don't follow all the changes, they can't always agree with them. We are more open-minded because we remember what happened to our country and we see how it goes now."
While Sowa's memories of Communist Poland are an indelible part of her, so too is fallout, physical and political, of the Power Plant that gives her generation its name.
"We are the Chernobyl Generation because we have [an] invisible enemy in us and we don't know it. Before the USSR, the generation before us had so many problems -- but we could see them, we knew them," Sowa explained. "Now with the Chernobyl Generation it's strange because you just breathed it in, that's all, and you don't know if it's good or not."
"Marzi" is on sale now from Vertigo.