The magical world of Greek comics

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Comicdom, one of Greece’s biggest comic and cosplay conventions, is heading our way once again this weekend. Across three days, fans of comics and comic culture descended on the streets around the union to talk to comic artists, attend talks, workshops and dress as their favorite comic characters from all over the world. It might well be the only time that you could walk around downtown Athens splattered in (fake) blood and wielding a (styrofoam) axe, and the police won’t bat an eyelid.

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Beyond a fun few hours with like minded people, Comicdom is one of the biggest dates in the Greek comic fan’s calendar. Over the years, it’s become not just a place to dig thrughthe boxes of comics for something obscure for sale. It’s become a showcase for Greek comics and comic artists, a burgeoning niche scene with a unique flavour.

The piece below was written for a Greek outlet, but in the end it was never published. The interviews I have described below took place in 2017, and in the two years since, one thing hasn’t changed – Greek comics have carried on going from strength to strength, the cons have got better, and a new crop of talent has emerged.

I went to my first comic con in Athens to write about it, and ended up becoming a huge fan of both the comics and the astonishingly creative Greek cosplay scene which merits an article of its own.

So this is my story about Greek comics and the magical journeys they can take you on.

Back to the 80s

If you were a Greek fan of comics in the 80s, pursuing your hobby was a somewhat complicated adventure, especially if foreign comics were your thing. If you saw a comic advertised in the pages of a magazine which you wanted sent to you from overseas, you had two options – a legal one and a semi legal one.

The semi legal route involved popping the money in an envelope along with a letter specifying which comic you wanted, then keeping your fingers crossed that it would arrived. The legal route involved going to the tax office to get a special certificate to take to the bank, where you’d be issued with a special receipt to send the money overseas, and then again you’d sit back and hope your comic arrived.

A lot has changed since then, not just because of online ordering, Paypal and a tech savvy generation. While foreign comics still enjoy a dedicated following in Greece, in the interim years, the Greek comic scene has blossomed and risen to gain both domestic and international acclaim.

The International Breakthrough

Alecos Papadatos is one of the people who has been there along almost each step to see how the Greek comic scene was changed and grown. The artist behind two Greek international breakthrough success stories – Logicomix, which made it to number one on the New York Times Bestseller list for paperback graphic books in October 2009, and Democracy – he knows a thing or two about the scene in Greece today.

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“There is a lot of energy, there is a big appetite and the level of talent is very high,” says Papadatos. “What we’re still working on is the plot writing and the themes,” he explains. As he puts it, Greece has a way to go still until it reaches the level of the American, Japanese or French comic scenes. But, there is a confidence in the Greek scene which he feels has real potential. “In France they turn out at least 1,500 new titles each year, and around 3,000 sequels. Comics are over 30% of print output in France. But they’re not exported, their scene is a little insular. Compared to them, we’re doing okay.” he says.

The story of Logicomix was a sort of accidental success. “Apostolos Doxiadis who wrote the story approached me. He showed it to me, I liked the idea and the premise of the idea, of transferring knowledge through a story.”

In the beginning, they didn’t know if anyone would be interested in a graphic novel, but they went ahead, convinced the publishers and the comic’s reputation spread by word of mouth. It’s since been translated into around 25 languages.

American style

“Many Greek comic artists work for the American market, doing lettering, inking, pencilling etc. That’s why a lot of Greek comics are influenced by the American style such as Marvel comics.” says Papadatos. “The big thematic influencer remains America.”

“This type of comic, the American style, has very high standards,” explains Papadatos. Everyone working on those comics does just that – there is no day job. Meanwhile, in Greece, though the level of talent is high and several graphic art courses incorporate a module on comic art, there is still no dedicated art school teaching comic art. “Basically, everyone is self taught.”

“But the level is rising. Logicomix encouraged a lot of people to pursue comics because they saw was a project that could work overseas. There is an indie feel to the Greek comic scene and style. There is a kind of freedom to it. But we’re in a society that hasn’t learnt to read comics. And comics are expensive to produce and expensive as a hobby,” concludes Papadatos.

Inside the mind of Tomek

Tomek Giovanis is another long-standing star of the Greek comic scene. We meet in the Athens Comic library in Psyrri,  in the basement of Impact Hub Athens. The library came about as a co-collaboration between Comicdom Press and Impact Hub Athens as a place for people to continue enjoying comics without breaking the bank.

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A large part of the comic collection was donated by other comic fans, but the backbone of the entire collection came as part of a donation from the brother of a lifelong comic fan who didn’t know what to do with his enormous comic collection when his brother passed away and so donated it in its entirety to the comic library.

Born and raised in Poland, which has a stronger graphic design and local comic scene, Tomek has a whackier style of illustrating and confesses that many of his drawings act as ways for him to release all the creative noise inside his head – one illustration shows a character quite literally gathering up his scattered thoughts after bumping into someone else. He shows me an original drawing on a piece of A4 from his Koulouri series of comics – it’s mindbogglingly detailed.

“I remember in the 80’s you couldn’t find Greek comics at the kiosks, everything was foreign. Especially outside big cities, you had to really look.” says Tomek, explaining how much easier it is now for comic fans, and more importantly how the number of Greek comics by Greek comic artists in their original language (and not translated) has grown over the decades.robo-kopo_image1_tomek_m75i352.jpg

“I can’t say that Greek comics have as yet created a recognizable identity for themselves outside of Greece, like Japanese comics or Marvel. We don’t have a long history with comics,” says Tomek when asked about the uniqueness of Greek comics. “We’re influenced by other styles, but there is also an independent style which includes Greek stories and issues within it,” he says. “Slowly, I think on its own Greek comics will come to be recognized as something different.”

Jemma Press

Both Papadatos and Tomek told me if there was one publishing house I would speak to about Greek comics, it should be Jemma Press. And so I ventured to Piraeus, where, along a narrow street lined with blossoming orange trees, I found the magical world of Jemma Books.

Memorabilia, original art, collector’s items, merchandise and comics both foreign and Greek lined every space in this humble store which is a powerhouse of the Greek comic scene. There is one large section dedicated just to Greek comics, and a mural by Tomek and another Greek comic artist dominates one wall. Neither artist knew the concept of the other, and yet somehow when their mural met in the middle, it worked.

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This November (2017), Jemma Books will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Its publishing arm launched in 2003 and the black and green logo of the store is instantly recognizable at their sprawling kiosk at every Comicdom event.

Owner and founder Leftheris Stavrianos was preparing for the convention when we spoke and told me that the interest in comics hasn’t dropped because of the crisis, even if people can’t afford to buy comics as readily any more. “The Greek comic scene isn’t that big. Comicdom seems to be the catalyst that brings everyone together. There is a hype around comics, people dress up, they decorate their houses with merchandise, but it doesn’t mean that they read the comics they’re fans of.” he says.

“It used to always bother me that people would say “Huh, for a Greek comic it’s alright.’ That’s not the case now. We have comics that stand their ground in the foreign market.” explains Leftheris. “It’s a niche market which is becoming more targeted. There are comics for everyone now. You can find comedy, politics, adventure.”

In fact, over the last few years Leftheris says the submissions they receive as a publishing house are growing in both volume and quality, and in the end that thing that might not only save the Greek comic scene but help it take off is the same ingredient which makes Comicdom happen every year – the undying passion of comic fans.

“You have to remember that the people behind Comicdom are all volunteers. None of them make any money from it, and every year for years now they have put on a truly admirable convention which attracts a lot of people,” explains Leftheris. The comics, memorabilia, workshops, talks and the chance to meet comic artists face to face are for some a gateway into the comic scene, and for others, encouragement to develop their own passion.

Before I leave, he shows me one of Jemma Press’ bestselling Greek comics. It’s by Petros Christoulias and tells the tale of a retsina-drinking, rembetika-loving Greek Batman doppelganger set in 1950s Piraeus and his doomed efforts to win the heart of the singer at the taverna he frequents.

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It is classically, quintessentially, adorably Greek, and it’s not the only one. It’s the embodiment of the quiet confidence which Greek comic artists are starting to express more freely in their work as they find their niche and break away from copying the American or Japanese style of comics, and it’s this sort of thing which will keep the crowds coming back to Greek comic cons again and again.

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