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Grzegorz Rosinski:

Thorgal

How’s this for an Imaginary Story? What if the infant Superman from Krypton had not crash-landed into the Smallville wheatfields of Jonathan and Martha Kent, but had been recovered and raised, apparently without super powers, by seventh-century Viking warriors? This Elseworld concept can only partially sum up the ‘secret origin’ and huge appeal of one of the undisputed modern masterpieces of international fantasy comic heroes, Thorgal. Adopted by the Viking chieftain Leif Haraldson, who names him after the gods Thor and Aegir, Thorgal grows up to be a reluctant warrior who yearns to raise his family in peace, only to discover later that he is the last descendant of the People of the Stars, an ancient race who populated the Earth and possess supernatural powers.

Translated into more than twenty languages, including English through Cinebook, with sales soaring into the multiple millions, the Thorgal series stands as a highly successful and original hybrid of adventure, mythology and science fiction in its own right. The creative duo behind the first twenty-nine volumes are Belgian author Jean Van Hamme, famous for his best-selling XIII and Largo Winch thrillers, and the remarkable illustrator Grzegorz Rosinski.

Born in 1941 in Stalowa Wola in Poland, Rosinski turned seventy this year and remains as passionate as ever about making his art and comics. In the Fifties, from the age of 14 to 18, he studied at prestigious Fine Arts schools in Warsaw. “My first aesthetic revelation was a painting by Rembrandt. I looked all around it and it changed according to my point of view like a hologram! What an image manipulator he was! I got up so close to that it set off the museum’s alarm system, and I still wonder how he did it!” His art teachers had no time for lowly comics, but Rosinski’s enthusiasm for the medium was ignited at the age of ten when he discovered the magazine Vaillant, published in France by the Communist Party. “I’d seen nothing like this big, bright, colourful magazine, which had recently started being distributed on a limited scale in Poland. Of course, I bought it every week but it soon stopped being available, for political reasons. Even so, this contact was enough to infect me with the comics virus.”

The young Grzergorz would pore over the pages of his favourite French artists like rare treasures and immediately set about making his own. A published comic artist from the age of 16 and editor of scouting magazine at the age of 18, Rosinski would become the most popular comic artist in Poland, a country not known for having a thriving comics industry of its own. As well as contributing strips to Polish newspaper and magazines, he illustrated eleven adventures of the comic book series Kapitan Zbik, a captain in his country’s Civic Militia, and three collections of bilingual adaptations of Polish legends.

In 1976, Rosinski became art director of Poland’s first comics magazine, Relax. “I looked after the comics and searched for artists all over Eastern Europe, in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and of course Poland. The publisher wanted to appeal to everyone at once, adults and children. I couldn’t get him to change his mind. I wasn’t so keen to work for adults. I thought that adults in Poland didn’t deserve comics because they had always opposed them. I thought it was more important to make children and teenagers interested in this medium which they hardly knew. Relax started becoming too political for my taste. In the end, it ran for only thirty issues or so, but it built up quite a big print-run, something like 300,000 copies if I remember rightly.”

Another big break came in 1976 when he won a scholarship to Belgium and met Jean Van Hamme, a writer he already admired after discovering a sample page from his mythological erotic album Epoxy from 1967. Together, they devised Thorgal which debuted in 1977. “The choice of a Viking saga was an accident. Van Hamme and I wanted to find a subject with no political connotations or any sex and violence to upset the censors, since at the time van Hamme and I were living on either side of the Berlin Wall. And our stories were to be published in the weekly Tintin magazine.” In those days, a serial was only collected into album format if it proved popular with the readers; the first Thorgal book soon followed in 1980 and have continued to this day, averaging one per year.

Something has kept the series consistently high in the bande dessinée bestseller charts, with each new episode regularly shifting around 230,000 copies over twelve months. “I think it’s because, during all these years, van Hamme and I have always tried to surprise our readers with stories we’ve invented from real mythology. I grew up in Poland at a time of ‘political correctness’, which gave me the idea of relying on pure imagination. Thorgal taps into Franco-Belgian legends and Norse myths while remaining creative, that’s what readers like.” Another key to the series’ popularity is the way Thorgal has aged and changed over time. “The passing years affect his life, unlike those ridiculous American heroes who never change. Thorgal builds a family and knows the responsibilities of being a father. He has no model, he’s not based on a photo of some famous actor. But you can recognise him from his scar, his tousled hair, he’s usually roughly shaven and has slightly square jaws, and that’s enough.”

Starting in 1980, Rosinski found time to collaborate with another Belgian author, André-Paul Duchâteau on the science-fiction series Hans, which he eventually handed over to Kas alias Zbigniew Kasprzak. To escape the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, he moved to Belgium and after a few years his wife and three children joined him. Acquiring Belgian citizenship, Rosinski was increasingly in demand, diversifying his writers, publishers and artistic approaches beyond Thorgal. In The Great Power Of The Chninkel, for example, he adopted a textural black-line style for an ambitious, extended graphic novel of satirical religion-inspired fantasy conceived by Van Hamme in 1987 for the adult literary comics monthly, A suivre. Later in 2001, Van Hamme and Rosinski switched genres again in an extra-length drama entitled simply Western. Rosinski introduced nuances of sepia and pale blues and greys to give his matured artwork a gritty period flavour and reflect the landscapes, setting and the torn emotions of the protagonists. He interrupted the rhythm of his comics pages periodically with impressive full-colour, full-bleed paintings. Translated by Cinebook, Western stands tall in the saddle as a compelling, one-shot by a writer and artist in their mature prime.

Out of this developed Rosinski’s fully-painted historical trilogy The Vengeance Of Count Skarbek, from 2004 to 2008, written by Yves Sente. An old-school classicist who avoids digital tools, Rosinski prefers to draw everything by hand, panel by panel, and paint with direct colour. “I don’t understand artists who work on computer but of course I am a dinosaur. I’m too fond of what you can make with your fingers. The hand is the finest, most fundamental tool of all. It has a real sensitivity to it. From one splash of paint you can bring something to life that never existed before, out of organic matter. You have to get your hands dirty in the magma of creation.” These striking pages are composed of suites of large-scale panels assembled onto a large sheet. “It’s easier for me to work on a big scale. I only worked for a long time in a small format because I wanted to work like other people did. Once I’d mastered that technique, I changed back to what suited me better.”

Skarbek co-creator Yves Sente would also take over the writing chores on Thorgal. “Van Hamme and I ended up finding it a bit monotonous having to bring out a new album each year, no matter what. Jean ran out of new ideas and so logically wished to end the series in 2007 with the 29th album.” So Rosinski inherited the character and now continues the series with Sente, last year completing his 32nd Thorgal album, The Battle Of Asgard, concluding the cycle about Thorgal’s son, Jolan.

Rosinski was also heavily involved in 2010 in the project with Sente and their publishers Lombard to create spin-off albums under the banner The Worlds of Thorgal using a pool of creators. “Jean Van Hamme left me the character and I don’t have the right to deprive the public of him. I think there are still discoveries to be made about him and his worlds. Some famous artists were proposed and I was happy to see them, but I wasn’t satisfied. Some were too perfect. Some wouldn’t let me illustrate the covers. Others had no grasp of what is essential about Thorgal, emotions and human passions.” One artist who was selected by Rosinski was the Italian Giuilo de Vita: “It’s working out really well with Giulio, he has the hand of God! He and Sente have brilliantly invented the back-story of the deadly female archer, Kriss of Valnor.” The Worlds of Thorgal is being expanded further with stories devoted to Louve, the daughter of Thorgal, written by Yann and drawn by a gifted young Siberian artist named Roman Surzhenko.

For a time after his wife passed away, Rosinski thought he would never draw comics again and returned to painting. “But since then, my desire to make comics came back to me and now with my three children I am pursuing my career and continuing Thorgal.” Living almost like a hermit in Mollens, near Sierre in Switzerland, he is back at work in his basement studio, surrounded by his canvases and brushes, painting fresh visions through the night. “As my son put it so well, I have no limits now, only the size of my paper.”

Posted: January 1, 2012

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