Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives

Authorial Re-imagination in Comics and Picturebooks:

Transformations of The Grey Ear

By Joanna Dybiec-Gajer (Pedagogical University of Cracow, Poland)


The article analyses a comic book as part of an existing multimodal network of related entities, from a book to interlingual translations. It focuses on authorial re-imagination of an already existing work as one of the ways in which comics can be created. Authorial re-imagination is understood as a type of self-translation: a voluntary, creative transformation of the author’s own previous work, which may involve diverse and complex transfers between different media formats, taking place shortly after the creation of the first work or at later points in time, bearing affinities to Jakobson’s intrasemiotic translation. Typically discussed in a bilingual context, self-translations as intralingual multimodal re-writings also constitute, as the article argues, a category deserving of critical engagement. As a case in point, the article investigates an early avant-garde comic Szare Uszko (The Grey Ear, 1975) by Mieczysław Piotrowski, a reworking of his earlier book of the same title (Szare Uszko, 1963). Although created in a constrained context of communist Poland, the comic is an intriguing example of artistic innovation, heralding postmodernist trends in disguise of children’s literature. The analysis shows how the author skilfully and creatively self-translates his previous iconotext into the language of the comic genre and how the re-imagined work reflects the author’s growing anticipation of the postmodern: experimentation with form, plot fragmentation and discontinuity, self-reflexivity and playfulness. Out of the multimodal network around Szare Uszko, it is the comic in its original language which has proved lasting influence.

Keywords: re-imagination, self-translation, creative experimentation, multimodality, intersemiotic translation, Mieczysław Piotrowski, The Grey Ear

©inTRAlinea & Joanna Dybiec-Gajer (2023).
"Authorial Re-imagination in Comics and Picturebooks: Transformations of The Grey Ear"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2631

1. Introduction – comics in multimodal networks

Comics can exist on their own as autonomous entities and one-off pieces, yet more often than not, especially the classics come in series and form part of larger, complex multimodal networks. These networks, or universes, consist of thematically-linked products in various media formats such as novels, films, computer games, theatre performances or other. In some cases, the existence of a multimodal network with accompanying ties-ins around a comic book results from the comic’s commercial success. The comic may thus be the network’s core element, which has initiated other  products or itself may owe its existence to success of a previous entity, for instance a film. In other cases, the existence of a multimodal network related to a comic book may result from the author’s preoccupation with a given theme and/or experimentation with various forms of expression. The latter is the subject of interest of the present article. It investigates how an artist re-imagined his own book after a lapse of over a decade into a full-fledged comic for younger audiences. The case in point is Szare Uszko (The Grey Ear)[1] as a book (1963) and a comic (1975), both by Mieczysław Piotrowski, an eminent yet somewhat unjustly forgotten artist representing the Polish school of illustration.[2]

Multimodal networks with comics as their constituent elements can be multiplied via interlingual translations, leading to the creation of new language versions, adapted to specific cultural environs. On the one hand, there are top-down flows represented by global distributions, be it of traditional printed comics, for instance Belgian export classics or of audiovisual productions such as computer games or films based on Marvel comics, which are available to audiences across the globe. On the other hand, there are bottom-up initiatives, more or less institutionalized, from smaller ambitious trend-setting publishers employing professional translators to crowdsourced fan translations of manga or other comic genres. Both top-down and bottom-up translatorial initiatives are embedded in certain socio-historical conditions which have various implications for translation policies and practices. The translation history of the comic under consideration illustrates a top-down initiative of stimulating foreign language editions. Quickly translated into English and German (The Grey Ear, 1978; Das Grauöhrchen, 1979), the comic was published domestically as part of a socialist state endeavour aimed at promoting and exporting contemporary Polish writing for younger audiences.

In other words, the article analyses the creation of a multimodal network with a comic as one of its elements. It discusses how the comic results from authorial re-imagination of the artist’s previous work and how the multimodal network is extended via interlingual translations. Tracing the developments of the network chronologically, the article shows how a book is re-written and re-illustrated into a comic in an act of self-translation, both inter- and intrasemiotic, and how the language of the comic genre is used to render the senses expressed in the source text both verbally and visually. Further, it focuses on the comic’s multilingual multiplications via translation, investigating a socialist-time institutionalized translation project aimed at making domestic comics available outside the confines of their original language. Applying the concept of re-imagination allows to investigate the comic in a broader context of its multimodal network and highlight the creative dimension of comic creation.

2. Visual literature in socialist Poland

Restraint and ideological struggle are inherent traits of the socio-historical context of comics, as well as of literary production in official distribution published in People’s Poland (1945-1989),[3] of which The Grey Ear is part. As elsewhere in the countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc, the Polish state with varying intensity and success invested considerable effort in trying to control all aspects of the publishing market. This ranged from banning private publishing initiatives and paper rationing to introducing and implementing various forms of censorship. The post-war political reconfigurations including drastic limitations of cultural and economic exchange with the “Western world” trapped the publishing and literary market with its actors – publishers, writers, illustrators, translators – in a socialist bubble behind the Iron Curtain.

Intriguingly, the bubble set-up proved both beneficial and disastrous for Polish visual literature for children: “[p]aradoxically, it was during the Polish People’s Republic, especially after 1956, that visual art for children, considered ideologically harmless, allowed an artistic departure from approved realism or naturalism, and for many became a refuge in the world of omnipresent censorship” (Wądolny-Tatar 2022: 185-186).[4] Drawing on pre-war traditions, the late 1950s to the late 1970s saw the flourishing of experimental, avant-garde books for children when the Polish School of Illustration developed. The state concern with young audiences and its strong and versatile patronage coupled with a proliferation of highly talented artists dedicated to designing creative illustrations, experimenting with modern visual language and novel forms of expression led to the publication of picturebooks that even today can surprise with their originality (Cackowska et al. 2016). Starting at the end of 1950s, numerous Polish artists such as Bohdan Butenko, Olga Siemaszko, Janusz Grabiański and others received awards and distinctions at a number of international book competitions. Mieczysław Piotrowski himself was awarded a silver medal at the International Book Exhibition IBA in Leipzig in 1959. Despite the buzz of awards and their high artistic qualities, Polish picturebooks of the time hardly ever found their way to publishers outside the Soviet bloc countries.

Unlike picturebooks, comics went a somewhat separate and more bumpy road. Officially dismissed and condemned as a medium of hostile, imperialist US propaganda, catering to unrefined tastes and contributing to illiteracy, comics began to appear more often with the liberalization brought about by the Polish thaw of 1956. Over the period of People’s Poland, dozens of titles representing a variety of genres were published, many of them becoming successful, pop-cultural icons.[5] Some were indeed used instrumentally as socialist propaganda, especially war (cf. Lichtblau 2015) and crime comics, such as a popular series stylizing a militia officer as a socialist super hero (Kapitan Żbik, lit. Captain Wildcat). Others sought to provide care-free entertainment with little or no ideological content. Characteristically, political or underground comics did not develop. The majority of titles were created for young audiences and as a result not taken seriously by literary and art critics of the time.

The attitude of distrust towards the comic genre in People’s Poland was reflected in naming practices. In order to avoid the impression of emulating American conventions, the terms “kolorowe zeszyty” (lit. color notebooks) or “historyjki obrazkowe” (lit. picture stories) were preferred. In this context, the naming strategy of the analysed comic becomes relevant. Although Szare Uszko does not provide any difficulty in generic categorization, as without doubt it belongs to the comic genre, the cover features a speech balloon with a looming, rhetoric question, “Czy to jest opowieść obrazkowa?” (Is this a picture story?).

3. The author – Mieczysław Piotrowski

The artist behind the multimodal network is Mieczysław Piotrowski (1910–1977), a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and graphic artist, associated with the Polish School of Illustration. Born in Lwów (now Lviv), he addressed his work primarily at adult audiences. As a keen observer of reality with a penchant for humor, he created satirical drawings and caricatures for a number of magazines, newspapers and journals. As his biographer notes, “his lyrical talent combined with a satirical sense made his artistic vision delicate and poetic”(Zakrzewska 1981). Piotrowski also cooperated as a book illustrator with large, established state publishing houses such as Czytelnik and Nasza Księgarnia. After the Second World War, in addition to his visual projects, he also started to write prose, publishing, among others, four full-length novels as well as theatre plays.

As a versatile artist, Piotrowski also created illustrations for children. He cooperated with a renowned children’s magazine Świerszczyk and illustrated a variety of books from fairy tales to poetry (e.g. by Jerzy Ficowski, Jan Brzechwa, Ludwik Górski). Apart from illustrating other writers’ texts, he wrote and illustrated three books of his own: Szare Uszko (The Grey Ear) (1963), Ballada o dentyście (The Ballad of the Dentist) (1966) and Grzyby galopują na koniach (Mushrooms Galloping on Horseback) (1976). In fact, the critic Krystyna Zabawa perceives Piotrowski’s self-illustrated texts for children as all-ages literature of a universal dimension that can be read beyond the time of its creation (2015: 75).

During his lifetime Piotrowski belonged to the official artistic establishment.[6] He frequently presented his work during exhibitions, both domestic and international (from East and West Germany to Austria, France, Switzerland and China) and enjoyed a share of recognition, receiving a number of distinctions and awards in Poland and abroad. His biographer stresses that „he was one of most outstanding individuals in the field of illustration” (Zakrzewska 1981). Although highly praised by critics, his work, both graphic and literary, did not fully get across to a wider audience nor reach the public consciousness. Despite his achievements and activity as both a man of letters and of drawings, he seems to remain in the shadow of other illustrious representatives of the Polish School of Illustration. This may be changing with the painstaking artistic reedition of the comic The Grey Ear, published in 2018 by an aspiring independent publishing house Wolno, specializing in innovative picturebooks for children and adults.

4. Authorial re-imagination and self-translation

Authorial re-imagination is understood here as a voluntary, creative transformation of the author’s own previous work, which may involve diverse and complex transfers between different media formats, taking place shortly after the creation of the first work or at later points in time. Studying authorial re-imagination can reveal the evolution of the author’s artistic style, worldviews and opinions, approach to the audience, changed external, cultural and societal circumstances and the like.

Authorial reimagination can have considerable affinities with the process of intersemiotic and intrasemiotic translation. In Jakobson’s definition, intersemiotic translation involves transfer between two different sign systems, with one of them linguistic in nature: a “transmutation or interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems” (Jakobson 2000 [1959]: 114). With proliferation of new media formats, Jakobson’s notion has been frequently interpreted in a broader sense, including a number of various signs systems, also without a verbal element, and processes (cf. Aguiar, Atã and Queiroz 2015). Here, the classical understanding of intersemiotic translation is followed. In re-writing and re-illustrating his own book into a comic, the author interpreted his earlier textual material anew, replacing some elements of the linguistic code with the visual one but also entirely re-drawing the illustrations, i.e. introducing transformation within the same visual code. The semantic proximity of both the book and the comic, which both follow the same plot, allows us to classify this case of authorial-re-imagination not so much as an adaptation but as an interplay of intersemiotic and intra-semiotic self-translation.

Research on self-translation, defined in basic terms as “the translation of an original work into another language by the author himself ” (Popovič 1976: 19), has problematized a number of theory-relevant factors concerning such auctorial activity. These involve (1) the ontological and generic status of self-translations and whether they can be categorized as translations proper, (2) the status of the authors-translators and their relationship with the source text (fidelity, loyalty, ethics) and (3) the status of the source and target texts as (in)dependent entities. Among discussed notions, auctoriality and authority have become objects of academic scrutiny. Self-translating writers have been perceived as doubly privileged, having access to authorial intentions and interpretations, as well as less restrained in their translatorial decisions, rewriting their own and not somebody else’s work. The complexities in conceptual positioning of self-translation led Shread to observe that it “reveals something about the nature of all translation and that it is theoretically productive precisely because of its problematic status in relation to the binary categories by which translation is often defined: original/translation; author/translator; source text/target text (Shread 2009: 51).”

 The key figure at the heart of self-translation research has been the bilingual writer, engaging in intralingual and intercultural transfer in a variety of contexts. Studies have focused on individual, famous authors (Beckett, Nabokov), writers emerging from linguistic minorities as well as exiled or migrated subjects (Montini 2010: 307). Less attention has been paid to single-language settings where authors rewrite their texts for the same – or similar – audiences. The present research addresses the case of monolingual but multimodal self-translation. It argues that such a configuration offers the author the possibility of creative experimentation, the scrutiny of which can be noteworthy because it shows the development of the author’s artistic forms of expression, larger trends in literary and visual productions as well as gives insights into mechanisms of comic creation that build upon re-imagining an earlier text. Further, it contributes to expanding knowledge about the comic genre beyond the mainstreams of comic exporting countries.

5. From a book to a comic

For a variety of reasons, artists re-illustrate texts for which they themselves previously created illustrations. Sometimes they may have a special tenderness for a theme or motif, which they rework in a number of formats.[7] This is the case with Mieczysław Piotrowski’s protagonist, an unimposing grey hare. It saw light in 1963, when Piotrowski published his first children’s book, Szare Uszko (The Grey Ear). It is an emotional, first-person prose narrative, addressed at both children and adults, telling an apparently simple yet surrealistic story of a small hare leaving his village for a city, where, after a series of adventures, including a dangerous pursuit by evil hunters, he attends a school for animals and becomes an astronaut. As such, he has an opportunity to take revenge at his persecutors which he declines, because this would hurt his dignity and honour.

Abundantly illustrated, the 1963 publication can be conveniently and broadly classified as visual literature. The taxonomical considerations become more challenging if a more specific distinction is to be made between an illustrated narrative and a picturebook. An analysis of text-image relationships shows the proximity of the verbal and the visual. Although in prose, the verbal is prosodically marked and rhythmical, at points carefully arranged to resemble poetry, with images sometimes put in places of textual stanzas (cf. Zabawa 2015: 75). This creates an impression that “the text is also treated visually as an element of a page graphic design” (Zabawa 2015: 75). Despite the graphic intertwining of the textual and the visual, they do not seem semantically inseparable, as the text on its own would still be comprehensible and the story complete, even if somewhat impoverished. Szare Uszko of 1963 may be thus characterized as a developmental stage, or “an »ancestor« of the contemporary expansive picturebook genre” (Zabawa 2015: 79), in other words – a proto-picturebook.

To understand the author’s prolonged involvement with the theme of the grey hare, it is relevant to bear in mind Piotrowski’s philosophical leaning and focus on the protagonist’s meaningful name. Consisting of an adjective, ‘szary’, it denotes not only color (grey), but also something ordinary, run-of-the mill, bringing to mind the idiom ‘szary człowiek’ (grey man), a person who does not stand out. It also connotes the noun ‘szarak’, which can mean both the animal, a hare, but also an ordinary person. Thus, on an abstract level, the text may be read as a metaphor for the life of the common person, a generic human character, exposed to numerous anxieties, fears and challenges. It seems to be a distant, modern echo of morality plays which put everyman or jedermann center stage. The generic and allegorical quality of the story is communicated via unconventional capitalization of selected nouns and adjectives (‘Myśliwy’ – Hunter, ‘Groźne Zwierzę’ – Dangerous Animal, ‘Prawdziwy’ – True, Authentic). Yet, unlike in morality plays, the protagonist himself does not change in moral terms, neither temptation and fall nor redemption are part of the story. However, he learns self-confidence and courage while attending the school. Thus the book may also be interpreted as a universal, positivist metaphor for social advancement made possible by education and the development of science. Such readings are corroborated by the artist’s archival notes:

The protagonist is a szarak  –  allusion: a grey, ordinary man – exposed to every danger. Every situation hunts him down. He is the object of constant manhunt – until a point: naive, uneducated, defenceless – afraid of everything. A gathering of hunters – allusion: armaments. Institute of Flight – allusion: use of technology for peaceful, scientific purposes. Fear, panic, superstition – fleeing to the city – science – smile: what once caused panic is now directed by man himself. Even a szarak finds his place. He returns to his village and impresses the other hare. (in: Borowiec 2018, no pagination)

The artist’s preoccupation with the theme and experimentation with the form was reflected in his later work. Piotrowski collaborated on a short animated movie based on the book (Borowiec 2018), which appeared in the well-known film production company Se-ma-for under the title Zajączek (The Little Hare) in the same year as the book. Piotrowski also seems to have been inspired by The Grey Ear when illustrating another children’s book with a hare as the protagonist, Ludwik Górski’s O zajączku, który nie umiał zliczyć do dwóch (About a hare who could not count to two) (1967). Over a decade after the publication of his first book for children, a re-imagined story of the grey hare was published as a full-fledged comic. The plot was kept, with quantitatively small to minimal, yet telling, alterations, whereas the visual layer was entirely re-drawn and re-expressed in the language of the comic genre.


Fig. 1a and 1b: (1a) Piotrowski’s The Grey Ear as a book –  cover (1963); (1b) Piotrowski’s The Grey Ear as a comic – cover (1975)
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate




Publication year


1975 (1st edition)

1978 (2nd edition)


72 pages

60 pages

Size in cm (width x height)

20 x 20

21 x 18,5

Print run

30 250

40 000   (1st ed)

100 000 (2nd ed)

Table 1: The Grey Ear as a book and a comic – an overview of technical data

5.1. Strategy of trusting the audience – “you must think a little”

The analysis of the book and the comic shows the author’s strategic approach to the intended child audience as well as its evolution in the way the audience is conceptualized and addressed. The authorial strategy behind both of the analysed pieces of visual literature seems to be explicitly expressed in the protagonist’s direct address to the reader. The significance of the excerpt at hand, and its two alternative versions, is confirmed by its presence in both the main body of the book and the subsequent comic at the beginning of the narrative (as noted above, only the comic book was translated into English as part of a socialist state endeavour aimed at exporting contemporary Polish writing for younger readers).

The source text of

the proto-picturebook

(1963: [3])


of the source text

The source text of

the comic book

(1975: [3])

Translation of

the comic book

(1978: [3])

A teraz patrzcie na obrazki

i czytajcie z obrazków o tym,

co się ze mną dalej działo.

Gdy nie będziecie mogli

czasem czegoś zrozumieć,

to Wam podpowiem.

Ale nie za dużo.

Bo musicie być domyślni.

A dlaczego?

Dlatego, że ja także

przez cały czas

musiałem dużo myśleć.

Chociaż jestem tylko

Małym Zajączkiem.

Now look at the pictures

and read from the pictures about

what happened to me later.

When you can’t understand

something sometimes,

I will tell you.

But not too much.

Because you will have to be guessing.

And why?

Because I also

had to think a lot

the whole time.

Even though I am only

Little Hare.

A teraz patrzcie na obrazki

i czytajcie z obrazków o tym,

co się ze mną dalej działo.





Musicie być domyślni.

A dlaczego?

Dlatego, że ja także

przez cały czas

musiałem dużo myśleć.

Chociaż jestem tylko

Małym Zajączkiem.

Now look at the drawings

and read from them

what happened to me later.





You must think a little.


Because I, too,

throughout my story

had to do a lot of thinking

although I am but

a Little Hare.


Transl. Jerzy Brodzki

Both passages likewise stress the importance of the visual in understanding the narrative and encourage the reader to become intellectually involved, to deduce meaning from illustrations, to think, to be smart. They differ however in the narratorial stance. Bearing in mind the young readers’ cognitive abilities, the book narrator (in the above passage in bold) tactfully and provisionally offers the child audience guidance in understanding the story – only a little of it and only if the need arises:

When you can’t understand

something sometimes,

I will tell you.

But not too much.

Although the comic may seem potentially more challenging to follow in view of its increased verbal-visual dynamics and greater conciseness as compared to the book’s more traditional, linear text structure and descriptive, cohesive narrative, the comic narrator no longer offers assistance since the above passage is not part of the narrative. This may be indicative of the author’s increased trust in children’s capacities and a wish to empower the audience. 

The introduced change may be approached from yet a different perspective. Perhaps it is the book’s miniature illustrations which in fact may prove more difficult to comprehend than the comic’s larger and clearer drawings. The difference, however, is much more complex than size and visibility. The book’s delicate and apparently innocent visual layer at points contrasts with its surreal and abstract character, reflected in the ways objects are conceptualized and configured in space. In the book, the animals at a space school fly anthropomorphic vehicles, which in the comic are redrawn and normalized into easily recognizable shapes of space shuttles and airplanes.

Most puzzling is the book’s narrating persona, especially its visual depictions. Pointing to a number of unsettling drawings with philosophical undertones, Krystyna Zabawa raises questions about the narrator’s role and identity, probing to what extent the book Szare Uszko is a universal, fairy-tale-like narrative or “a parable on the essence of life and the mystery of the world (evil)” (Zabawa 2015: 76-77). None of the surreal visual characteristics mentioned, including the mysterious narrator, are recreated in the comic. It might be for this reason that its narrator no longer offers extra help to guide the reader through what he perceives a simpler comic universe with more self-explanatory drawings.  

More than the comic, the book stresses the duality of the adult and the urban on the one hand and the innocence and the rural on the other. On the whole, despite its surrealistic undertones and visual ambiguities, it presents an affirmative view of life, where good wins over evil and education can only be positive. The comic follows a subtly more appreciative approach towards the child audience and the main protagonist. This can be aptly illustrated by a conversation between Grey Ear and Mouse, considerably shortened and reworked in the comic. Talking about his experiences in the city, the hare puts on a different voice “to appear more adult” and then apologizes for possibly scaring the interlocutor (Piotrowski 1963). The passage (below) with a didactic overtone where the characters formally, and thus perhaps humorously, address each other (as pan/pani) is entirely omitted in the comic:

  The source text of the proto-picturebook (1963: [43]) Backtranslation of the source text
Hare:    “Lecz przyznam się Pani, że już się znudziłem.” “But I confess to you, Ma’m, that I’ve already got bored.”
Mouse: “To bardzo dobrze – odpowiedziała Myszka – jeżeli pan się znudził, to na nudę najlepsza jest Nauka.” “That's very good, replied the Mouse, if you are bored, the best thing for boredom is Education.”
Hare:      „Owszem – odpowiedziałem – wiem o tym. A jeżeli Panią przed chwilą przestraszyłem – dodałem grzecznie – to bardzo panią przepraszam.” “Yes, I know that,  I replied. And if I have just frightened you – I added politely – then I’m very sorry.”

5.2. Experimenting with form

Increased trust in the capacities of the audience seems to be reflected in experiments with form, which characterize various levels of the comic design from covers to the main body. Characteristically, unlike the book, the comic is devoid of endsheets as well as front and back matter. Minimalistic in scope, it consists only of covers and the body, without even a title page. Turning the cover, the reader without any further ado meets the main protagonists (Fig. 2b). Interestingly, in the recent re-edition of the comic (2018), its structure was normalized by adding title pages.


Fig. 2a and 2b: (2a) Introductory page (book) - (“I am Grey Ear, the Hare, I’ll tell you a strange tale.”); (2b) Introductory page (comic)[8]
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

The ending of the story was moved in the comic to an untypical location on the back cover. Moreover, it was shortened and did not include the rather formulaic phrases of politeness:

The source text of the proto-picturebook (1963: [43]) Backtranslation of the source text

Bardzo Wam dziękuję za chwilę uwagi,

Żegnam Was i pozdrawiam.

Wasz oddany Zajączek


Thank you very much for your moment of attention

Farewell and with best wishes.

Your faithful Hare



Fig. 3a and 3b: (3a) Back cover (book); (3b) Back cover (comic)
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

While the book consists of a linearly set text of uniform size and font type, the comic employs a dynamic and varied architecture as well as diverse typography. There are no two identical double-spread designs. A geometrical organization of panels dominates, with an array of horizontal and vertical divisions of various sizes, yet it is varied by elements organically moved beyond the panel frames. The book’s first-person narrative is divided in the comic into captions (print) and dialogue (hand-written lettering) in speech bubbles, which gives voice to different protagonists, so far remaining silent. The lettering comes in a variety of sizes and shapes (cf. Figs. 2b and 3b above).

5.3. Conciseness and condensation

Images carry a large meaning-making potential, as expressed in the common saying that a picture speaks a thousand words. Studies show how the visual component in picturebooks or illustrated texts can complement or enhance the verbally expressed meaning by explicitation (Ketola 2021, Dybiec in press). In the analysed comic, we can observe a relegation of meaning-making potential from the verbal to the visual layer, which results in the text becoming more concise and condensed as compared to the book. In other words, the text becomes more implicit while more information needs to be derived from illustrations. This shift seems to be related both to the genre of the comic but also to the evolution of the artist’s individual artistic style, which becomes more concise and laconic. The brevity effect in the comic is also achieved by a slight shortening of the narrative as compared to the source text.

Fig. 4a: Descriptiveness of the book’s verbal layer:
“The Big Giraffe organized help for me and this is how I got over the fence”

Fig. 4b: Explicitness of the comic’s visual layer with a humorous effect added (tickling)
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

Some of the newly-drawn more explicit illustrations were enriched with a humorous effect. In the example below, it was achieved by a play on words: ‘baran’, meaning both an animal (ram), and, an unintelligent person, with the hare-protagonist focused on the literal meaning of the word. In the translation, constrained by the visual presence of an animal behind the wheel, the translator added an adjective (stupid sheep) to the source text element (“Jak jedziesz baranie!” -> lit. How are you driving, you ram/idiot) to communicate the impolite character of the exclamation uttered by an exasperated driver.

Fig. 5: Adding humor to the comic
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

Importantly, the thrive for conciseness and condensation at points impacts the cohesion and coherence of the comic narrative, which becomes most pronounced at the main axis of the plot. Both the book and the comic are narratives of a “Grand Escape” (Zabawa 2015: 75), but only the book specifies its cause. Such incompleteness of the narration as well as other minor disruptions to it sparked some critical voices about the comic’s lack of logic and common sense. The decision to unbalance and fragment the plot in the comic seems to be deliberate, resulting in the artist’s “consistent inconsistency” and as such reflecting his preoccupation and fascination with the idea of incompleteness and defect. Also his other prose works are interpreted as “incomplete by nature” (Krajewski 2015: 67). Krajewski argues, “If something has managed to gain his attention, it probably has a flaw of some kind. For Piotrowski, a flaw is a value. […] A morbidly intelligent mind finds nourishment in what is chaotic or inconspicuous” (Krajewski 2015: 67). The loosening of cohesion and coherence also seems to show the artist’s “anticipation of the postmodern” (Szwarc 2011: 73), that is a tendency to promote “uncertainty and indeterminacy rather than certainty and resolution” (Allan 2018: 201).

5.4. Sequentiality and theatricality

Sequentiality of narrative captured in a series of visual snapshots is considered one of the defining features of the comic genres. Comics belong to “sequential art” (Eisner 1985) and as such show affinities with cinema and theatre. The comic artist and scholar Nick Sousanis (in DeHart 2022) comments on his work in the following way:

I think a lot about my comics now as sort of choreography, orchestrating a series of movements ­­that I want you to experience, and how I want you to experience them is part of the spatial way they move and decisions about what I need to leave in.

The analysed comic offers much more than a simple intersemiotic translation of descriptive passages into a sequence of images. It also involves intrasemiotic translation of illustration into a new set of visuals, most of which are entirely re-imagined and differently staged. They receive new choreography, which stresses movement in a variety of ways: by introducing sequentiality via divisions into panels, zooming in on moving characters and adding action lines. Thus the comic becomes more dynamic, theatrical and cinematical as compared to a more static book. It is in this respect that Piotrowski’s experience in screenwriting resonates in the comic. Although The Little Hare film (1963) used illustrations that are part of the book, it provided him with insights into the visual language of the screen and created a backdrop of experience on which he was able to rely.

As an example of adding theatricality let us consider metafictive comments on the constructed character of the illustrations and the narrative. The narrator points to the difference of perception between the artist (as a grown up) and the hare (or a child) and thus highlights the relativity of the sign-thing relationship. In the comic, the textual-visual metafictional commentary receives double the space as in the book by extension to a series of panels and is additionally set apart from the main narrative by means of contrastive colors.

Fig. 6: Metafictive comments in the comic (double spread)
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

The  foregrounding of the narrator’s self-reflexivity in the comic points to an evolution of the artist’s style toward the postmodern tendencies of playing with the conventional sign systems of the visual grammars and making the production process and materiality of the book more explicit.

5.5. Increased clarity, emotions and dramatic effect

Mieczysław Piotrowski’s visual signature is a combination of subtle lyricism with a refined sense of humor (Szwarc 2012). His illustrations for children make use of delicate lines and soft, subdued spots of watercolor, creating a calm, dream-like atmosphere. In many contexts they seem to embody the gentleness and sentimentality of the Polish style of illustrating for children, which Piotrowski characterizes in the following terms:

individual, direct and pleasing to the eye, sentimental rather than serious, angelic rather than shiver-inducing or haunted by evil powers. If devils have strayed into Polish illustration at all, it is rather into the humorous area and they have always remained in good relationships with children (...) the general picture of Polish graphic art is inherently optimistic and cheerful. (after Wincencjusz-Patyna 2009: 12)

The analysed book (1963) seems emblematic for Piotrowski’s artistic style, with gentle, toned-down natural colors and an air of serenity. The sense of safety and cosiness is enhanced by illustrations resembling refined miniatures: small in size with quite a number of intricate details. A closer analysis reveals the surreal dimension, as the visual representation of the hare-narrator shows. The comic is similar in color scheme, with a touch of more intensity, but much different in composition. The size of the publication remained almost the same, yet miniaturization gave way to illustrations of increased size, painted with sweeping brushstrokes, which enhanced the visibility of the world presented in the pictures. Protagonists’ faces became larger and more expressive, showing their emotions. Using the language of the comic genre – speech bubbles, lettering of varied size and shapes as well as onomatopoeia added not only variety, movement, dynamism, as discussed above, but also dramatic effect.

Fig. 7: Dramatic effect in the comic book
© Mieczyslaw Piotrowski's estate

Thus the visual world of the comic on the one hand became more clearly visible and expressive, on the other, harsher and more dramatic. In the comic, Piotrowski’s visual artistic style clearly steers away from the “sentimental” and “angelical”. The analysis of the comic’s visual layer seems to corroborate Łukasz Krajewski’s opinion that “a lack of diabolical element” in Polish children’s literature was in Piotrowski’s understanding “a shortcoming” (2015: 72) for which he tried to compensate in his own writing for younger audiences.

5.6. Ideological struggle

In the history of the genre, comics have been frequently the target of censorship, from explicit, external and institutional censorship to authorial self-restraint (Zanettin 2008: 3). As a popular genre of mass-appeal, they have also been frequently used as a tool for exerting political influence.

Although tempting and legitimized by the cultural context of the comic creation, it is difficult to find in it traces of ideological bias. The Grey Ear handles a rather universal motif presented against a quasi-contemporary backdrop and shows little cultural specificity. As such, given the circumstances, its topic is a safe one.[9] The comic is also open to a simple reading in line with the state’s official stance of increasing educational opportunities for peasant families’ children, whom the hare as a simple villager may represent. A tentative example of changes introduced in the comic as compared to the book which might be ideologically motivated concerns the scene which seems to reflect the simple conditions of the hare’s life.  The protagonist reports meeting with the school director in the following words:

The source text of the proto-picturebook (1963: [43]) Backtranslation of the source text

[P]rosił, żebym usiadł w fotelu.

Po raz pierwszy w życiu widziałem fotel.


Poczęstował mnie pomarańczami.

Po raz pierwszy w życiu jadłem pomarańcze. (Piotrowski 1963, book)


[He asked me to sit in an armchair.

It was the first time in my life I had ever seen an armchair.

I sat down.

He offered me oranges.

It was the first time in my life I had eaten oranges.]


In this context it is relevant to stress the inefficiency of the shortage-ridden socialist economy, which was officially not admitted. Oranges were a rarity, associated with Christmas as a gift from communist Cuba, and contemporary serve as one of “propos of everyday life” in cultural memory of generations born in People’s Poland (Cobel-Tokarska 2015: 130).[10] The orange-armchair scene was preserved in the comic’s visual layer, yet the quoted passage was omitted. This might reflect the artist’s ideological sensitivity but may be likewise motivated by his changed, empowering approach to the main protagonist who, in the comic, becomes less insecure and apologetic and more worldly.

6. Multilingual extensions – The Grey Ear as an export translation

The high artistic quality of the comic Szare Uszko combined with the universality of its message and a lack of ideological bias as well as the author’s established position might have been the reasons why it was chosen for a domestically arranged translation project. The comic was quite swiftly printed in English (The Grey Ear, [1978]) and German (Grauöhrchen, [1979]).[11] More than the translations, rather careful and faithful renditions of the original, the project itself in its socio-historical context seems more noteworthy and deserving of critical scrutiny.

In her typology of literary transfer from communist countries to France during the Cold War, Iona Popa distinguishes the export channel, comprising translations published domestically to be distributed abroad by publishing houses specially established for this purpose (2002: 55–69). Translations of The Grey Ear meet some criteria of this literary transfer type. They were published in Poland, however the publisher, the state-owned company KAW (Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza) had a versatile portfolio and was not set up with the view of exporting literary production. In the 1970s KAW published a number of contemporary children’s books in translation, mainly in English, German and French. Created primarily by established contemporary writers and illustrators, the texts selected for interlingual translations represented a variety of genres, tackled universal topics, and, characteristically, involved short literary forms. Analysing the background of the person behind most of the English renditions throws light on the roles and loyalties of translators in politically and ideologically constrained conditions. The Grey Ear was translated by Jerzy Brodzki, who parallel to his official professional career of a journalist remained an unofficial collaborator of the state security service, regularly reporting on the activities of the journalistic milieu in Poland.[12]

A very limited availability of foreign-language editions published by KAW in the 1970s raises questions about the goal of the translations, their target audience as well as distribution channels. The project may have originated as a pilot initiative to send Polish children’s books on a transnational trajectory, and, additionally, as a recognition of the artists belonging to the literary establishment. Despite the quality and the originality of the translated children’s books, they did not get across to wider audiences. For this reason, they may be termed phantom translations, which never fully made it neither to foreign nor domestic readers and remain an intriguing attempt at getting Polish children’s books out of the socialist bubble.

7. Conclusions

The article has discussed authorial re-imagination of an already existing work as one of modalities in which comics can be created. It has shown how the process of re-imagination, likened here to intersemiotic translation, allowed the author to use the language and architecture of the comic genre to express the senses of the source text. By introducing sequentiality, dynamic choreography, speech balloons, onomatopoeias and varied lettering, the intrasemiotic translation of a picturebook into a comic led to the creation of a new, concise target text of increased clarity, greater dynamics, theatricality and emotionality as well as humour and playfulness. The case in point is a comic book from the socialist bloc, Mieczysław Piotrowski’s 1975 re-imagination of his earlier proto-picturebook, Szare Uszko (1963). The comic shows the artist’s evolution in style, moving towards the postmodern, reflected in  introducing discontinuities to the plot and highlighting the metafictive commentary questioning the conventional spatial relations. The subtle visual surrealities of the book – e.g. the figure of the mysterious hare-narrator – were to some extent normalized in the comic’s drawings yet compensated for by the more fragmented plot construction.

The comic was also investigated as a product of the times when comics were officially mistrusted and created under ideological pressure. The analysis has shown that both the book and comic as products show no convincing traces of ideological manipulation or conformity. It has been argued that the comic’s creative form, a story arc of a general appeal and a lack of ideological zeal combined with the author’s belonging to the literary establishment led to its inclusion in the translation programme of the state-owned publishing house KAW and subsequent renditions into English and German. The translation programme involved internal commissioning and production of foreign-language editions of domestic children’s literature to export translations as part of the state cultural policy.

The analysed comic book exists as part of a multimodal network, consisting also of a proto-picturebook, animated film and two interlingual translations. Out of these elements, for a variety of text internal (quality) and external reasons (related to the distribution and availability of the network’s elements to the public), the comic in its original version has proved most successful. It was published twice in Polish People’s Republic and for the third time as a rediscovered vintage edition in 2018.

The adopted approach of investigating visual literature as part of a multimodal network by focusing on auctorial re-imagination, linking intersemiotic operations and self-translation, has proved fruitful for gaining insights into the complexities and dynamics of developing and designing a comic. It has shown the creative dependencies of the comic in question on other media formats: a proto-picturebook and an animated film. Investigating the comic as a re-imagination of the author’s own work has made it possible to trace his artistic evolution and the dimensions of his creative experimentation as well as to more fully capture the senses of the comic. In the light of the analysis, it proves to be a fine example of a deliberately post-modern enterprise. In a broader historical context, the investigation expands our knowledge about early avant-garde comics for children created off the beaten tracks of international comic flows.


Primary sources

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (1963) Szare Uszko, Warszawa, Czytelnik.

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (1975) Szare Uszko, Warszawa, Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza.

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (2018) Szare Uszko, Lusowo, Wolno.

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (1978) The Grey Ear, trans. Jerzy Brodzki, Warszawa, Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza.

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (1979)  Das Grauöhrchen, trans. Małgorzata Bester, Warszawa: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza.

Secondary sources

Aguiar Daniella, Pedro Atã and João Queiroz (2015)  “Intersemiotic translation and transformational creativity,” Punctum 1, no. 2: 11–21.

Allan, Cherrie (2018) “Postmodern picturebooks” in The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), London/New York, Routledge: 201–208.

Borodo, Michał (2018) “Translation, localization and foreignization: The metamorphoses of a comic book about a girl from the socialist bloc”, Across Languages and Cultures 19, no. 1: 99–120.

Borowiec, Jarosław (2018) “Mieczysław Piotrowski” in Szare Uszko, Mieczysław Piotrowski, Lusowo, Wolno.

Cackowska, Małgorzata, Wincencjusz-Patyna, Anita (2016) Look! Polish Picturebook!, Gdańsk, The Baltic Sea Cultural Centre in Gdańsk.

Cobel-Tokarska, Marta (2015) “Ostatnie pokolenie PRL: pamięć »trzydziestolatków«” in Socjologia czasu, kultury i ubóstwa, Katarzyna Górniak, Tatiana Kanasz, Barbara Pasamonik and Joanna Zalewska (eds), Warszawa, APS: 126–144.

DeHart, Jason D. (2022) “Talking Comics with Nick Sousanis”, Study and Scrutiny: Research in Young Adult Literature V, no. 2: 1–19.

Dybiec-Gajer, Joanna (2020) “Fan communities as mediators of cultural diversity. Local comics go English” in Kulturelle Diversität in der Kinder- und Jugendliteratur, Beate Sommerfeld, Eliza Pieciul-Karmińska, Michael Düring (eds), Berlin, Peter Lang: 95–107.

Dybiec-Gajer, Joanna (in press) “Tropes of visual language: Exploring the picturebook as an intersemiotic translation” in Mediation in Multimodal Literature, Education, and Translation: Picturebooks and Graphic Narratives, Sandie Mourão and Karen Bennett (eds.), Routledge.

Eisner, Will (1985) Comics as sequential art, Tamarac, Florida, Poorhouse Press.

Jakobson, Roman (2000 [1959]) “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” in The Translation Studies Reader, Venuti Lawrence (ed.), London, Routledge: 113–118.

Ketola, Anne (2021) “Visual explicitation in intersemiotic translation”, STRIDON: Studies in Translation and Interpreting 1, no. 1: 103–122.

Koziarski Daniel, Wojciech Obremski (2021) Od Nerwosolka do Yansa, Gdynia, Novae Res.

Krajewski, Łukasz (2015) “Hojne źrenice nędzarza. Kilka uwag o twórczości Mieczysława Piotrowskiego”, Elewator. Kwartalnik literacko-kulturalny 3: 67–73.

Krzanicki, Marcin (2011) Komiks w PRL, PRL w komiksie, Rzeszów, IPN.

Laskowska, Irena (2015) “Opowiada”, Elewator 3: 60–63.

Lichtblau, Krzysztof (2015) “Polski komiks wojenny z czasów PRL-u”, Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis. Studia Historicolitteraria XV: 80–89.

Luca, Ioanna (2022) “Transnationalizing Memories of Post/Socialism: Diasporic Graphic Lives”, Comparative Literature Studies 59, no. 3: 568–589.

Montini, Chiara (2010) “Self-translation” in Handbook of Translation Studies, Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer (eds), Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins: 306–308.

Popa, Iona (2006) “Translation channels: A primer on politicized literary transfer”,  Target 18, no. 2: 205–228.

Popovič, Anton (1976) A Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation, Edmonton, University of Alberta.

Piotrowski, Mieczysław (n.d.) “Biogram”, https://polskidramat.pl/autorzy/seria/mieczyslaw-piotrowski/ (accessed 10 September 2022).

Rybicka-Tomala, Karolina (2020) “Translating Tenniel: Discovering the Traces of Tenniel’s Wonderland in Olga Siemaszko’s Vision of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in Translating and Transmediating Children’s Literature, Anna Kérchy and Björn Sundmark (eds), Cham, Palgrave Macmillan: 189–209.

Shread, Carolyn (2009) “Redefining Translation through Self-Translation: The Case of Nancy Houston”, French Literature Series 36: 51–66.

Szwarc, Szymon (2011) “Mieczysław Piotrowski: rysopis artysty”, Didaskalia: gazeta teatralna 101: 71–73.

Szwarc, Szymon (2012) “Nadwyraziście”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 8 October, https://www.tygodnikpowszechny.pl/autor/szymon-szwarc-947 (accessed 24 may 2022).

Wądolny-Tatar, Katarzyna (2022) “Czytanie jako patrzenie. Wielka księga polskiej literatury dla dzieci”, Litteraria Copernicana 1, no. 41: 185–190.

Wincencjusz-Patyna, Aneta (2009) “U źródeł światowych sukcesów Polskiej Szkoły Ilustracji”, Quart. Kwartalnik Instytutu Historii Sztuki Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego 1, no. 11: 3–29.

Zabawa, Krystyna (2015) “Ruch, rytm, radość rysowania (opowiadania) różności. O książkach dziecięcych Mieczysława Piotrowskiego”, Elewator 3: 74–79.

Zakrzewska, Maria (1981) “Mieczysław Tadeusz Piotrowski”, in Internetowy Polski Słownik Biograficzny, https://www.ipsb.nina.gov.pl/a/biografia/mieczyslaw-tadeusz-piotrowski (accessed 24 August 2022).

Zanettin, Federico (ed.) (2008) Comics in Translation, Manchester, St Jerome Publishing.


[1] To facilitate reading, the book under consideration, Szare Uszko, will be further referenced in the text as The Grey Ear.

[2] The author and publisher gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to reproduce the copyright material in this article.

[3] The name People’s Poland is used in the article to refer to the country’s existence as a communist state from 1945 to 1989. During that time the official name of Poland was first the Republic of Poland which in 1952 was changed to the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL). After the political changes of 1989, the Republic of Poland  was reinstated.

[4] All quotations from Polish are in my translation, JDG, unless otherwise noted.

[5] For a history of comics during the Polish People’s Republic see: Komiks w PRL, PRL w komiksie (Krzanicki 2011) and Od Nerwosolka do Yansa (Koziarski, Obremski 2021).

[6] As the memoirs of the artist's wife suggest (Laskowska 2015), in Warsaw Mieczysław Piotrowski lived a comfortable, somewhat bohemian life, free of everyday concerns such as housing, meals or children, which allowed him, without disturbances, to devote time to his passion of writing. He socialized with many representatives of the artistic establishment, including the illustrator Olga Siemaszko and the writer and illustrator Tadeusz Konwicki.

[7] Piotrowski’s friend, the graphic artist and “the first lady of Polish illustration”, Olga Siemaszko, illustrated various elements of a multimodal network around Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (from translations to postcards) at least four times (for a discussion see Rybicka-Tomala 2020). Not without bearing might have been financial concerns, which motivated the artists to accept commissions to re-illustrate the material with which they had already made themselves familiar.

[8] For the sake of clarity and accessibility, examples from the comic book are taken from its 1978 English-language edition.

[9] It was not uncommon for writers at the time to opt for thematic niches that would allow them to keep distance to the official ideology of Polish People’s Republic. For instance, this was one of the reasons why a highly popular comic series for young readers, Kajko i Kokosz, started in 1972, was intentionally set in medieval times (Dybiec-Gajer 2020: 98)

[10] Everyday life in People’s Poland in retrospect has become subject of Marzena Sowa’s autobiographical comic series Marzi (the first album published originally in French), offering an “afterli[f]e of European state socialisms in global contexts” (Luca 2022). For a discussion of the comic’s intralingual translation see Borodo (2018).

[11] A few years earlier, another book with Piotrowski’s illustrations had likewise been translated and published by KAW (Der Fünffache Kater, Magda Leja, [1975]).

[12] During his career Brodzki worked as a correspondent for a local sports newspaper and later for the American Associated Press in Warsaw, where he received promotion to the head of the Polish branch. Archival evidence shows that his collaboration with the security service was of prolonged and intense character, spanning the period from 1958 to Brodzki’s death in 1981 (Institute of National Rememberance, IPN BU 00191/9, volumes 1-6).

About the author(s)

Joanna Dybiec-Gajer currently works at the Pedagogical University in Kraków, Poland. She holds a PhD in American literature from the University of Paderborn, Germany, where she studied at the Graduate School of Travel Writing and Cultural Anthropology. Her research interests include travel literature, in particular travel writing and translation, translation theory and practice, translator education and teaching Polish as a foreign language. She has published Guidebook Gazes: Poland in German and American Travel Guides (1945-2002) (2004) and cooperated on the textbook Polnisch Aktiv (2006) and co-authored Verba Volant, Scripta Manent. How to write an M.A. thesis in Translation Studies (2012). Her latest book Zmierzyć przekład? Z metodologii oceniania w dydaktyce przekładu pisemnego [Measuring Translation? Towards an Assessment Methodology in Translator Education] (2013) discusses the problem of translation quality assessment in a translator training context.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Joanna Dybiec-Gajer (2023).
"Authorial Re-imagination in Comics and Picturebooks: Transformations of The Grey Ear"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2631

Go to top of page