‘Marzi’: Graphic memoir charts universal experiences

Oct. 15, 2011 | 7:30 a.m.
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"Marzi: A Memoir" by Marzena Sowa and artist Sylvain Savoia (Vertigo Comics)

In the introduction to Marzena Sowa’s soon-to-be-released graphic memoir, “Marzi,” she describes herself as a “mute and insignificant witness” to life behind the iron curtain while growing up in 1980s communist Poland. Hers is a bleak world – quite literally, as the book is drawn in muted, reddish brown tones — which is “drowning in politics and problems.” But Sowa is anything but mute or insignificant. Her memoir is filled with seemingly banal, everyday vignettes – visiting family in the countryside, scrounging for toilet paper and bread, playing in cramped apartment hallways with neighboring children – that collectively paint a vivid picture of both a country awash in poverty, politics and war, as well as a lonely only child who longs, more than anything, to be heard. Sowa now lives in Paris with her boyfriend, the artist Sylvain Savoia, who drew “Marzi.” He was the one who convinced Sowa to tell her story – and appropriately, the book is shot through with the kind of quiet intimacy of childhood stories one shares with their partner. Yet “Marzi” is also layered with the pain and paranoia of the time, as well as a general sense of hunger – for food, for freedom and for self-discovery. Hero Complex’s Deborah Vankin chatted with Sowa recently about her DC-Vertigo debut.

DV: “Marzi” is as much about the loneliness and alienation of being an only child as it is about growing up behind the Iron Curtain – and there’s this pervasive sense of feeling invisible and insignificant throughout. How much of that is a universal experience, and how much has to do with growing up in 1980s Communist Poland?

MS: As an only child I used to be very attentive to the adult world. I always tried to understand what my parents were whispering between them. I lived in a small city with a big factory which was very active during strikes. My father was working there and used to participate a lot in strikes. He slept in the factory. I was very close to him and these were very hard times for me to know that he wasn’t at home. I didn’t have friends to talk about it, so I had to live it by my own. Seeing my parents frightened and exhausted by the situation in the country was very destabilizing. If parents are not strong and peaceful, what image do they give to their child? I felt what they felt, and maybe even worse, because children can have an extraordinary imagination, and for me the souvenirs of the martial law were not so far away. But as it can be with children, they go from one extreme to another, which is possible thanks to the imagination. I think this is where “Marzi” represents a universal childhood, where you can have fun playing with the elevator, where you can cry because a bee bit you even if you were running in front of her house and you did everything to provoke her, where you have two good friends but being a three friend group is not always very successful…

DV: As Marzi gets older and becomes more aware of her surroundings, politics factors more prominently into the story and art, as does the expression of frustration over being denied certain freedoms. Is this rhythm and pacing purposeful?

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MARZI: A Memoir by Marzena Sowa and artist Sylvain Savoia. (Vertigo Comics)

MS: When I started to write “Marzi,” the first stories concerned my daily life in Poland: I wrote about my family, my neighbors. Then, progressively, political questions started to appear and I realized that the politics had so much space in my childhood life I hadn’t even imagined. Marzi is getting bigger, and her curiosity and will to understand the world is getting bigger too. She feels concerned by the world and she tries to understand it — understand why it doesn’t work correctly. At a certain point she starts to speak, she is not only a mute witness of what is happening in her country. She starts also to claim her own freedom; but for instance she is maybe too small to be heard by her parents, but she won’t give it up.

DV: You’re primarily a writer, not an illustrator. Why did you choose the medium of comics to tell your story?

MS: I studied literature and my dream has always been to write stories. And now I am realizing it as a comic book writer. I chose this medium thanks to Sylvain, my life partner and also the drawer of “Marzi.” He’s been a comic book artist for a long time. He pushed me to write down my story. But at first, it was in order to not forget it. Now I live in France and he thought that maybe old souvenirs are fading away. I started to write, for myself, for him, in that way he could discover more of the world I had come from. He was reading what I was writing and at some point he thought that it might be interesting to share these stories about my childhood with a bigger audience. He wanted to show how a little girl spent her life in Poland, which was living difficult moments, but also show that even if there are problems there is some universality. Sylvain is the person who knows me the best, that is why he can draw my stories. I wouldn’t look for another drawer because “Marzi” somehow is a very intimate story and Sylvain is the closest person to me and he can understand exactly what I mean in my texts. The text in “Marzi” can function without drawings, but drawings bring another dimension to my story; they are like a photo album, they illustrate my words and they maybe also make my universe less gray and they attract very young readers.

See a large version of the preview here

DV: The writer-artist collaboration is unique to every book and its creators. What was the creative process like working with Sylvain? Did the fact that you were in a relationship affect the process, and end result, at all?

MS: Sylvain knows me very well. He knows how I function and how I look in every situation with funny faces and expressions. We live together, we share our daily life. For “Marzi” it is very helpful. He can easily understand my world. “Marzi” couldn’t have been drawn by somebody else. Before each story of “Marzi,” we talked a lot about the details, atmosphere and construction of the story. The trap sometimes is that we talk about work too much.

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MARZI: A Memoir by Marzena Sowa and artist Sylvain Savoia. (Vertigo Comics)

DV: What’s your personal history with comics – were they available to you growing up in Poland or did you start reading them later in life? What books and creators influenced you?

MS: In Poland, comics weren’t very common at the time of the communism and those which existed were always perceived as books for male public. They often had themes which didn’t interest young girls. Even now it’s difficult to be a comic book author in Poland. But fortunately, things are changing, slowly but surely. When I was 13 I read Tarzan. And the next comic book I read it was 10 years after when I was already living in France. It was “Blue Pills” of Frederik Peeters. Since then I became a very regular comic book reader. It all started thanks to Sylvain, who showed me the comics and who introduced me into this environment. Almost in the same time I became a comic book reader and a comic book author.

DV: Growing up in this sparse world of poverty, war, gas rationing, etc., what’s it like now to be an artist living and working freely in France? Does it feel extravagant and indulgent or, because of your past, do you not take things for granted?

MS: Whatever I do I always feel the history of my country. I will never forget the long lines after everything (meat, bread, toilet paper, oranges). Now maybe it seems strange, but for me it is not an old story. I also think that in my parents generation’s minds it is very present and maybe for them there still exists the fear that it could come back. Sometimes when I go to the supermarket I feel dizzy discovering all the things to buy — so many kinds of orange juice — many different marks, with sugar, no sugar, and in Poland right now it is also like this. My mother goes out every day. She doesn’t buy food every day but she told me that she likes to see what’s new, she likes to see that there are plenty of things, that she can have a choice, because before there was no choice — we had to buy what they gave us, we had to eat what was in the shops. In Poland it is always very present to talk using terms — now and before. It helps to appreciate that we can have everything now. I love writing stories. This was my dream and now I am making it real. But while working on “Marzi,” I realized how what I do is important. I share my story with so many people. “Marzi” has been translated in several languages [from the original French to Polish, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Dutch, English and soon Chinese]. I enjoy meeting readers from different countries, to talk to them, they share with me their impressions of the comic book. Writing is not only a pleasure, it is also a responsibility. Twenty years ago, in my so closed country, I would have never imagined to be so free and to have the possibility to travel everywhere I want.

— Deborah Vankin

Twitter.com/@debvankin

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