By Thomas Quillfeldt
Ultra-violent (yet somehow lighthearted) first-person shooter Shadow Warrior 2 is out this week on PC via Steam, GOG and Humble. To celebrate the game’s goofiness, 80’s legend Stan Bush—he of The Touch and Transformers: The Movie fame—has played his part with new single Warrior.
The limited edition vinyl of The Warrior EP features exclusive artwork from legendary Polish artist Michał "Śledziu" Śledziński. We caught up with Śledziu to find out how he got his start in comics, about the hard-fought recognition that Polish comic and graphic novel authors now enjoy and his tips for aspiring artists.
Laced: How did you get your start in comic book art? Was there an artist or comic series that inspired you?
Śledziu: It all started with a simple desire to tell stories. As a kid I was drawing comics before I even knew the word “comics”. It was just one panel to a page but the story (mostly about medieval Polish battles) had a natural continuity.
When I was six years old, still learning how to write and read, I discovered an issue of the classic Polish comic series Kapitan Żbik. I still remember my shock when it dawned on me that I could include more drawings (panels) on a page than just one. It all started from there.
You have to remember that this all happened in the early 80's—Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain—so my perception of western pop culture was very limited. From when I was a young teenager up until the early 90's, when US superhero comics and some French-language series started to be published in Poland, my inspiration came from classic Polish comic books by Tadeusz Baranowski, Jerzy Wróblewski, Janusz Christa, Papcio Chmiel and Bogusław Polch—and many others from that golden era of Polish comics.
Laced: Do you see comics and graphic novels becoming more respected as time passes?
Śledziu: Frankly, I was shocked when I discovered that geek culture was considered a niche in the West. During my teenage years, I had this naive image that comics were huge all over the planet (again, thank you Iron Curtain).
In Poland, the situation around comics—as with everything in my country—was complicated. On the one hand thanks to superhero series that were just starting to be published, comics were perceived as childish, stupid medium for illiterates, even though big titles from the likes of Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore were still years ahead of Polish readers and journalists/critics.
On the other hand, the past had seen a string of classic series that were essentially communism propaganda (e.g. stories about “our Soviet brothers helping Poles during World War II) and there was no political or sociological acquiescence for anything that was connected to communism era.
Comics became the whipping boy of cultural discourse in Poland for almost a decade. The Polish comics scene, comprised of writers, artist, publishers (mostly young people in their late teens or 20's), went underground for almost the whole of the 90's. Then something wonderful happened: the rise of the fanzine and self-publishing scene (it's still a big thing in our community). Without borders, without mainstream readers, artist became truly independent and started to create comics based on everyday life (dramas, comedies, satire) and on everything that was pissing them off.
That's when I became a part of the scene with my Azbest (Asbestos) zine (1997-1998) and its spiritual successor—Produkt magazine. I became the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, probably the youngest in Polish press history. For many critics, the publishing date of the first edition of Produkt (December ‘99) marks the end of the Polish comics scene's crisis. With a circulation of around 7,000-10,000 per issue and with young, talented and pissed off artists and writers, Produkt became a part of a wider pop culture movement alongside the hip-hop and video games scenes.
Azbest and Produkt
After that, comics became much more interesting to mainstream critics and journos. First, it started in the cultural columns of magazines and newspapers; now it's nothing unusual to find reviews, interviews and whole articles in the mainstream press about the newest books by Polish or international comic authors.
It took the hard work of hundreds of people (some of them retired, some of them no longer with us) over 15 or so years but comics are now a full-fledged part of Polish culture and the cultural discourse.
Laced: Now that geek culture has become mainstream, has this helped you and the comics community? Or is there a danger of homogenisation?
It helped a lot, especially in Poland. With superhero movies in cinemas, people around my age started to revisit superhero comics from the 90's (we’re in a retro era right now which I find funny) and looking in shops for new stories. Our publishers weren’t sleeping—there’s now a whole bunch of new superhero books to buy every month. The same thing happened with younger people—they are searching for old and new titles. Some of them even started to buy books not related to superheroes (thanks guys!) For me, the most significant change is the emergence of the superhero genre amongst younger artists and writers. We’re seeing the first green shoots of a local superhero universe. These stories aren't very sophisticated in either their art or their writing (except Biały Orzeł – "White Eagle", [pictured]). There's still a lot to learn for this generation of young creators but they are drawing and publishing a lot, in cooperation with some new, smaller publishers. Since our renowned local artists have firmly established themselves in this market—as described above, a hard-won battle—I don't think that the superhero genre will overshadow the whole medium. There's still a place for everybody on our growing market.
Laced: What is your favourite art style? e.g. noir, fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic?
Śledziu: I’ve worked across all of these genres and beyond—from Loony Toons-esque to dark realism. Since I write most of my comics alone, I get to pick the corresponding art style. My classical art education helps a lot but my favourite genre is the present day/everyday drama and/or comedy. My best-known comics—Osiedle Swoboda (“Liberty Estate”, first published in Produkt) or Na szybko spisane (“Swiftly Drawn”). Both were published by Kultura Gniewu (“Culture of Anger”) and are mostly autobiographical.
Laced: How did you come to work on the Shadow Warrior project? How did you approach it?
Śledziu: In a way, I invited myself onto the project. During the Pixel Heaven retro games event in Warsaw (organised by the Pixel magazine crew, for whom I publish monthly comics) I met the guys from [Shadow Warrior 2 developer] Flying Wild Hog: Artur Maksara and Tadeusz Zielinski. I’ve known Tadeusz since the the 90's (we both worked on video games magazines as teenagers—there's a documentary called Thank You For Playing about this crazy time in Poland).
I knew that they were working on a Shadow Warrior sequel I was desperate to go and visit the studio but we couldn’t make it work, as they were flying around the world promoting the game and I was busy working at Human Ark on the Kacperiada (“Casperade”) TV animation (layout, design, animatics, storyboarding and I directed two episodes of the first season). Then one evening I decided to remind them I existed and posted some Shadow Warrior 2 fanart online. Tadeusz went mental about this drawing, he loved it and so it become part of the premium, boxed PC edition of Shadow Warrior 2 as a poster (available only in Poland).
Then it was just a small step to creating the cover art for The Warrior EP. But this time, I went all-in because it was a Stan Bush song: Transformers: The Movie, featuring his song The Touch, was one of the first movies I'd seen on VHS and as a kid I watched it compulsively, at least a few times a day.
Laced: Have you ever designed for vinyl before?
Śledziu: No, although I did some CD covers and booklets for friends’ bands. I’ve never before had the pleasure of working on a vinyl release.
Laced: How did you approach the vinyl etching process?
Śledziu: Since I’ve worked on magazines a lot and created several myself, there was no problem with the technical aspects of the project. The only thing to be worry about of was the quality of the drawing and fitting in the work. My work on Kacperiada went into the final crunch stages around then, so I literally had to spend every free moment on this piece.
Thanks to the previous fanart I’d produced, the color scheme and the drawing tools (Photoshop inking brush set Inkbox by Kyle T. Webster) were already established. It was a lot of fun, despite being nerve wracking!
Strange Years: Autumn by Sledziu and Artur Kurasinski
Laced: Have you worked on video games before?
Śledziu: Only on small mobile titles like Suspect in Sight from Katowice-based Jujubee S.A.. Maybe it's because in our community, I'm better known for my cartoons published in video games magazines (from 1995 onwards) whilst my more realistic, darker works like Strange Years: Autumn, created with Artur Kurasinski, probably flew below game developers’ radar. Since most of the games developed in Poland are realistic and dark, they don't need a cartoonist like me to come in and mess around (although cartoons aren’t the only thing I can do!)
Laced: What are your favourite video games?
Śledziu: I always have a handheld console in my backpack to kill time on buses or trams—I’m a big fan of Monster Hunter since the second game on PlayStation 2. I'm pretty sure I've spent a good 5,000-6,000 hours playing those games.
During the golden age of the Xbox 360, I was playing Gears of War and Halo games a lot online (I was pretty motherfucking awesome at Gears of War and Gears of War 2!). At the moment I'm chilling with Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 on PlayStation 4—I’m more into JRPGs but The Witcher 3 is the first western RPG that is worth my time thanks to the script and world. One or two times a month, my friends and I will hold Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. tournaments on Wii U. Thanks to vodka and [other means of relaxation], everyone has an equal chance of winning.
Laced: Are there any artists or graphic novels/comics that you think deserve more recognition?
Śledziu: I think the whole Polish comics scene deserves more recognition.
We have Grzegorz Rosiński who is an international star because of the Thorgal series (written by Jean Van Hamme and others); his pal Zbigniew Kasprzak (Hans) and Tadeusz Baranowski, whose book Antresolka Profesorka Nerwosolka (“The Mezzanine of Professor Nerwosolek”—at Human Ark, we’re working on feature-length animation based on his works), was included by international critics in the book 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.
From my generation, Piotr Kowalski has been working on both sides of the ocean (French-speaking and US markets) but there's still so, so much to discover. To name a few: Karol Kalinowski, Łukasz Kowalczuk, Jacek Świdziński, Mateusz Skutnik, Filip Myszkowski, Tomasz Samojlik and Przemysław Truściński (whose books are jaw-dropping). They are all great authors (writers and artists at the same time)—just google them!
Laced: What advice would you give to someone young who wants to become an artist?
Śledziu: You have to draw a lot. It seems obvious but you have to constantly analyze what you mucked up—why this shadow sucks, are these lines really necessary here or they are making a mess? You have to ask yourself questions like this with every drawing.
Sometimes a simple thing like changing a tool (e.g. from a fineliner to a brush pen, even if it's digital work) can have a massive impact on your style. So change your favourite tools from time to time. It's also better when you are working with a good quality tools. It's going to be expensive but it's worth the effort (that reminds me—I need to upgrade my currently crappy PC!)
And learn how to draw really, really fast—using muscle memory without over-thinking things. Let your hand be an extension of your mind.
The Warrior EP by Stan Bush featuring exclusive artwork and vinyl etchings by Śledziu is available to pre-order via LacedRecords.com (comes with a Steam code for Shadow Warrior 2: Deluxe Edition on PC, including the game, digital artwork book and full in-game OST).