It’s time for thermonuclear nostalgia bomb: “Funky Koval“ series of comic books, issued in 1980′s and 1990′s in Poland by “Fantastyka“ SF/F magazine. “Funky Koval“ that is widely considered as a best comic ever made in Poland in the last 30 years, mainly due the fabulous art by Bogusław Polch. Lets dive in into the mists of the past to explore the seminal product of the Polish comic book scene of the late 20th century…
The story, by Parowski and Jacek Rodek, is basically a fast paced action-adventure story set in the “future” year 2082, where the eponymous hero, “space detective” Funky Koval and his partners from the private security company “Universe” are solving various cases, and uncover conspiracy involving corrupted politicians, rival company “Stellar Fox”, alien race called Drolls and relics of ancient space civilization, that are used to build a horrific weapon.
I was serialized first in black-and white in the “Fantastyka“ magazine in the years 1982-83, gaining huge popularity among readers of the magazine, that had encouraged creators for sequels and coloured editions.
Mr. Parowski told me personally that in its beginning main protagonist was called “Punky Rock” and the strip was supposed to be a pastiche of various genres. So for example in one issue Punky Rock would be a cowboy in western setting, in another a warrior in heroic fantasy etc.
But that idea was scrapped, and the only thing that remained was “music” inspiration of his name. And hence Funky Koval had been born, a space detective and former soldier of the space force, whose adventures apparently had been done first in a way of throwing anything on the wall and examining what sticks the best (some of the early stories are ridiculous, like Drolls manipulating time and space to shift zodiac signs of people to create mayhem on Earth). The proper plot starts when “Universe” is investigating DB4 planet in star system Denebola (Beta Leonis) where spaceships are disappearing, uncovering huge conspiracy with it roots on Earth and “Stellar Fox” corporation.
Assorted covers of the first edition of three volumes.
Second instalment of the Funky Koval’s adventures, titled “Alone against everyone“ (”Sam przeciw wszystkim”) was again serialized BW in “Fantastyka” and published in colour in “Komiks Fantastyka” quarterly in the spring of 1988.
The story is a direct continuation of the main story arc from the first album, “Without rest“ (”Bez oddechu”).
This is IMHO the best, and darkest album in the series; Funky Koval barely escapes assassination attempt and is hunted down by the police under fabricated charges, and his partner, Brenda Lear, is critically wounded. Political ally, Senator Bober, is considered dead, and Universe agency (which CEO had been summary assassinated at beginning of the second book) is on the brink of bankruptcy.
The plot is more focused, and have a vibe of the 1980’s action film, which is great nostalgia factor by itself. It is quite enjoyable read, because it is very satisfying to see Koval and other characters at the low point, and later regaining control over situation.
In order to understand why it became cult classic, you must keep in mind, that the Funky Koval’s adventures were first published during the Martial Law in Poland of 1981-1983.
In these times when riot police was beating and shooting workers on strike in factories, when government had been controlling the media and dissidents were jailed, and people were queuing for hours for basic foodstuffs, this comic book, where the main hero is uncovering corrupted politician’s conspiracies, and is even punching corrupted police officers in their faces by himself, was quite enjoyable and needed escapistic fantasy from bleak reality.
For obvious reasons Parowski, Rodek i Polch could not directly satirize Communist government, so they played it safe and used subtle allusions, giving the comic unusual vibe. For example, the Polch had drawn “character assassin” journalist, who is openly slandering Funky, in the way that he looks similar to real life government spokesperson, Mr. Jerzy Urban (and even his name was similar: George Fanner).
In the year 1992 the long awaited third part of Funky Koval comic series, titled “Against oneself” (”Wbrew sobie”) had been released by “Komiks Fantastyka“. Like before, It was first serialized in “Nowa Fantastyka“ magazine in B/W and later printed as an album in colour.
Unfortunately, that was the point, when the whole series had gone really downhill; the Polch’s art had become more sloppy and more cartoony than hyperrealistic, like before, and the story was a bit confusing and lacked resolution.
Moreover, the plot itself become more overtly politicized than before, and story was a cynical direct satire on murky and disappointing politics of the socio-political-economical transition of the years 1988-1992 in Poland.
It didn’t fared well, after all that was supposed to be the action-adventure comic, not an political editorial! First books, issued in more restrictive times, are still enjoyable and entertaining, the latter ones are a bit irritating, mainly because in the 1991, after restoration of democracy and capitalism, everything could be said openly, and thus any subtlety had been lost.
The biggest irony here is that censorship’s constrains, that forced writers to satirise communist dictatorship by depicting the capitalistic corruption, had made the story of the first instalments more timeless, than direct satire on politics of the young democracy in latter ones.
The fourth instalment of the series was in the production hell for nearly 20 years (!) due the creative differences in the team (and when it was finally released, in the 2013, it had been huge disappointment). In the meantime Polch, together with Parowski, had worked on comic adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s “The Witcher“.
So much time had passed, so creators tried to do something different yet familiar to the audience.
And it shows.
Which is very unfortunate.
The art style of Mr. Bogusław Polch is more similar to the first ones but the writing is hardly better. In fact the story is messy, and creators desperately clearly tried to update the lore and characters from 1980’s to the realities of the 21st century, but the result is mixed at best. The plot begins during another tour of Funky’s examination and is an excuse for exploration of his mind with some sort of inception going on (like, who is the real Koval, and who is the clone?). Elements of thriller are still there, but they feel watered down.
Its sort of embarrassing seeing how masters of Polish comics are struggling to make their creation relevant in the second decade of the century, trying to introduce elements of cyberpunk (like computer hacking and VR) into the lore. And even Mr. Polch as an artist is running in circles, quoting his own works (like book covers he had made over the years) in few panels.
The younger audience had seen Western and Japanese popculture without any inhibition, contrary to old-timers who were starving to see glimpses of the West in closing years of dying Communist dictatorship. So here we have significant problem: for the first group of potential audience the comic series is irrelevant at worst, and focusing for the latter means relying on nostalgia instead of fresh ideas.
Time passes, Funky got a son who need to be protected, and everyone is getting older, tired and so on… In meta perspective the ageing of characters looks like a statement about passage of time in real world. I think that Funky Koval is now suffering fate similar to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”: a franchise from 1980’s badly trying to be again relevant after decades of absence, with disappointing results.
My closure on this is that time marches on, and sometimes the best thing you could do to your beloved creation is to let it slowly and gracefully fade away in dignity, instead of putting it forcefully on life support indefinitely…
The first book colours have a warm, yellowish dominant, the second’ palette is more varied, but later in become more and more dominated by big flat areas of colour, mostly yellow or blue. For me it is very unpalatable and even depressing for some reasons…
There are many small visual in-jokes and references.
The art of Bogusław Polch features insane level of attention to details, and puts him in the same league of draftsmanship as Katsuhiro Otomo, Moebius or Jack Kirby. I already mentioned the issues with changes in Polch’s style over the years, and its a very ominous thing to say, but sometimes artists should gave up doing same thing in different style, because it will harem the work.
Interviews with creators, early sketches at the beginning of each book and some behind-the-scenes material. I can only complain about lack of full-page reproduction of original covers. Which is a pity, because the first three volumes of the first runs had been graced by one of the finest cover illustrations I ever saw. For example, look at the cover of the second volume; personally, I really like the design of this cover, it is very simple and yet it is says exactly what kind of story is being told inside: “By dawn’s early light the protagonists is going to settle the score with the villains“. Its just brilliant both in execution and simplicity of the idea.
Book 1: Art: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Writing: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Book 2: Art: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Writing: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Book 3: Art: ⭐⭐⭐ Writing: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Book 4: Art:⭐⭐⭐ Writing: ⭐⭐⭐