Animation History
August 6, 2014 posted by Gene Deitch

Gene Deitch’s Lost “Small World” Comic Strip

Editor’s Note: Academy Award winning animator Gene Deitch celebrates his 90th birthday on Friday August 8th. To commemorate this event Gene has decided to give us all a present – the first reprinting anywhere (save for two examples in his outstanding autobiography For The Love Of Prague) of his long lost comic strip “Small World” (Maly Svet). If you love Gene’s art and wit, you’ll appreciate these as much as I do. Gene has personally recounted the story behind this strip – which only lasted 12 installments before being pulled – in his introduction below. Unseen in 52 years, I’m proud to present this material on my humble website. Thank you Gene – and Happy Birthday! – Jerry Beck

Gene's "Small World" as originally published (click to enlarge)

Gene’s “Small World” as originally published (click to enlarge)

In early 2014, the publishers of a highly specialized Czech graphics magazine came across a series of comic strips I did in 1962 and wanted to do a feature on it for an upcoming issue. They sent scans to me from the half-century old, badly printed and faded 1962 issues of a magazine named “Kvety,” (Blossoms). I had forgotten about it, and of course that magazine was wiped out after the 1989 democratic revolution.

The basic joke of the series is specific to the communist era of this country, and may not appear to be anything so special or understandable to Americans today, yet it could have gotten me thrown out of this country in my earliest years here. This lightweight satire seems like nothing so poisonous, but you must understand that in 1962, no kidding whatever of the idiocies of the system was allowed to be printed. Yet, through an amazing fluke which I didn’t really understand at the time, this seemingly innocent kiddie cartoon panel appeared for 10 weeks in the official Communist Party weekly magazine, until the Editor in Chief finally caught on to what is was about. and it it was quickly zapped! So this is the rarest thing I’ve ever sent you, and so far to no one else.

I’m delighted to share these with your readers.

Here is the story:

In a mad mix of frayed nerves and desperate doings, I had some confrontations with the communist reality in my early days in Prague. By 1962, just two years’ working in Czechoslovakia, in a crazed mid-winter attempt to urge them to turn on the heat. I had stormed into our apartment house builder’s office, and tossed an empty milk bottle smashing through their closed window. (They had electric heaters in their office, and were cozy, while we tenants froze.) I confounded other brain-deadened desk-jockeys of that era with protests the local citizens rarely risked. My actions terrified Zdenka. Of course I didn’t want to risk being thrown out of the country before we could get married. But I assumed that my doing animation here that brought them dollars, would protect me.

Anyway, as busy as I was with my films, I simply couldn’t pass up this chance to see what I could get away with in one of the hardest of hardline communist press, even with a gentle satire and drawing directly with Ebony pencils I’d brought from New York. I didn’t have time for inking, and I couldn’t use a Czech assistant, who might suffer if involved in this spoof. So the drawing was really crude, and fast to do.

With two years of witnessing so-called “socialist” living, I already had the gags in my head, from the wide-range of the madness of everyday life I’d already witnessed here in those times. I saw what tourists and short-term visitors were rarely confronted with, and which were never reported in the official media.

Even today, I’m not sure you will get the references of these little panels. It’s now ancient history a half-century later.

Amazingly, I was allowed freedom to do these things, as long as I did not go around shouting “Communism Sucks!” from Prague’s gothic rooftops. Anyway, I could only manage a few garbled words of Czech in those days, so Zdenka’s assistant, Lulka Kopečná, discreetly translated my complaints to the bureaucrats.

Most amazing was in 1962, when an editor of the official Communist Party news media asked me to draw a comic strip for their weekly family magazine, “Květy,” (Blossoms). What were they thinking???

It came about because Zdenka’s branch of the animation studio had been installed in the same building as the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, and various official magazines. I supposed we were put in that building so it would be easy for them to keep an eye on me. Having an American working right in their Communist Party publishing building surely must have raised their Red eyebrows.

Sure enough, the features editor of the Květy weekly came down, and asked if I would draw an American style comic strip for them, and said they would pay me 500 Czech crowns (about $15) for each episode. I jumped at the chance. I would have paid them if they would give me an uncensored slot in their mag!

They said they were intrigued by the American style of cartooning, with dialog in “balloons” over the characters’ heads. (They mainly used captions for dialog).

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

The money of course was a joke, and I was busy with my animation projects, but I couldn’t miss this chance, so I quickly whipped up a very simple, not-quite PEANUTS knock-off, which I titled “MALÝ SVĚT“ (Small World). I wanted to do an absolutely innocent-looking series of domestic kiddie gags, easy to draw, with a non-threatening look, that could sneak in some light-weight spoofs on the communist society. In their official press tghe humor was blunt, and only about the foibles of American style capitalism. Even the most gentle gags about socialism were non-existant in the then Communist controlled press.

I did not want to risk involving a Czech cartoonist to ink my pencil drawings, which in worst case scenario would put him or her into the deep-doodoo, so i just quickly did them with Ebony pencils I brought with me from New York.
I gave the 15 bucks from each panel to Lulka, to pay her for translating my dialog into Czech.

She wasn’t worried about communist punishment. She had already been thrown out of her job with Czechoslovak Filmexport and been banished to the „harmless? cartoon studio! But I got all the fun, with each gag a thinly veiled swat at the communist world. Anyway, it was strictly legal; my tiny feature was ordered from the official magazine!

My pin-prick jokes were extremely gentle, but you have to understand that in the early 1960s nothing less than 100% positive gung-ho for socialism was ever printed. Either the editors didn’t get what I was doing, or they did get it, but hoped the senior editor wouldn’t. However, after 12 weeks he did get it, and my strip was zapped. I was gently told, that food shortages and other flaws of socialism were “serious problems,“ and not to be joked about!

I don’t know what happened to the feature editor who allowed me onto his pages, but apparently no staff member wanted to expose their lapse to higher ups in the propaganda food chain, so nothing happened to me, The magazines were badly printed in just two colors, and way off-register, but good enough for me to scan, restore my original English dialog, clean up the printing defects and show to you now, 52 years later, the rarest material I’ve ever shown you, lost for over a half century – completely inaccessible until publishers of a highly specialized graphics magazine came across it, noticed my signature on the published art, and sent me rough scans by Dropbox.


Notes:

1. All of my Maly Svet cartoons were published in just two colors, black & red (out of register!) and in one case (“MUD PIES”) in a kind of mustard color. I think the editor saw that one as about sand pies, but there’s no ocean and no sand beach in this country.

2. The one full-color example here – No. 2 (RR CROSSING) (below) – was just my present-day musing as to how I might have done them if 4-color printing had been available to the popular press here in 1962.

3. In the example of No. 1 PEACE, I’ve included the original, un-restored version with the yellowed paper, and off-register color, exactly as scanned from the page in a copy of the old Kvety magazine (above), and also my restored version (below), exactly according to my original intention.

4. Though I did 12 Maly Svet cartoons before I was asked to stop – only eleven have turned up. One additional strip was produced, and if I can find it I will have Jerry add it to this post in the future.

For now, I hope you will enjoy what remains of my “Small World”.

Click on strips below to enlarge

1962 Maly Svet 1 PEACE1962 Maly Svet 21962 Maly svet 31962 Maly svet 4
1962 Maly Svet 51962 MALY SVET 81962 Maly Svet 71962 Maly Svet 101962 Maly Svet 11Maly Svet 12

10 Comments

  • Gene:
    Very interesting and very topical (for 1962)I’ve been a fan of yours for quite a while and I wasn’t aware of your foray into the comics page per se until recently. Happy 90th birthday! May you have at least 90 more!

  • Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Gene and Jerry!

  • Thank you, Gene, for sharing this. These strips are delightful.

  • Gene, thank you so much for sharing them! They’re great! I hope you can find the last one.

    Also, congratulations on turning 90, and I hope you have a very Happy Birthday! (My mom just turned 90 last week, too!)

  • Awesome. I love these. Great story behind them too.

    Thanks so much for posting.

  • Congrats Gene on your long and distinguished (and ongoing, too) career in animation!

  • Wonderful!

  • A wonderful strip! Great that you were able to locate and translate it into English half a century later.

  • Nice comic.

  • Oh… my… goodness! Thank you very much, Mr. Deitch, and happy 90th! I wish you well.

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