Zátopek has a pacing problem. This deft graphic autobiography by Jan Novák and Jaromír 99 bounds through the life of the acclaimed Czechoslovakian long-distance runner; recounting his overcrowded childhood home (Emil Zátopek having six siblings) where he was discouraged from athletics, to his teenage job at Bata’s shoe-factory in Zlín, where a company competition ignited his interest in professional sports. This is paralleled with Czechoslovakia’s tumultuous 20th century history, as the Nazis occupy the country in 1939 only to be replaced by Stalinist Communists in 1945. Yet although it provides an intriguing introduction to this historical figure, by Zátopek steadily leaping through the landmarks of its central character, such history doesn’t leave much impact.
The motion problems exist on a more fundamental level, namely that the still-art of comics cannot show movement. Therefore, the speed and endurance of Zátopek gets reduced into freeze-frames, imprinted via Jaromír 99’s linocut art-style. Sequential artwork can conjure the illusion of movement in more agile artwork, but Zátopek intentionally mimics the bulky boldness of Soviet agit-prop posters. The thick lines and vibrant colours of Zátopek provide a unique stylisation, reminding readers of the political conditions that surrounded the runner. Ones he stubbornly refused to let constrain him, twisting his celebrity self-image around to pave his (and others) own path. Sometimes, entire pages will resemble political posters where Zátopek’s achievements have overtaken the anonymous Soviet everyman. It’s clever political commentary within the comics form, but it has the side-effect of making Zátopek’s narrative feel leaden and stiff.
This would be less of an issue if Zátopek focused on Zátopek as a “Czech National Myth,” but the book appears more invested in a personable exploration, complete with details of his home-life and an inner-monologue while running. Such scenes are fairly convincing, with Jan Novák expressing Zátopek’s warmth and determination. Yet I cannot help but feel Jaromír 99’s art – which in itself is fine and functions well in the “Big Brother” styled Zlín factory sequences – is mismatched for most of this book. Take the playful relationship between Zátopek and his eventual wife, Olympian javelinist Dana Zátopková. Despite being filled with flirtatious banter and singing, the wooden expressions make them feel incredibly cold.
Zátopek is by no means a bad biography. It neatly outlines the key events of his career and idiosyncrasies, such as his intensive training regimes or tendency to grimace whilst running (to which he’d reply that running is “not figure skating”). It serves as a solid introduction to the internationally renowned figure. But it feels incomplete. Literally, since it concludes at the 1952 Olympics (where he won three gold medals), giving no mention of how Zátopek’s democratic sympathies caused his expulsion following the Prague Spring. Perhaps this is because, ultimately, Zátopek wishes to be a feel-good read about a man who pulled himself up from nothing, and trained himself to become the best in the world. It would rather bask in his glory days than face the bleak retirement of the “Czech Locomotive”. That’s not unreasonable, I think, and there’s room for such “inspirational” stories. But as a complex portrait about the entanglement of sports, fame and politics, which shows even the purity of Zátopek’s athletics must be bound by some nationalist structures, Zátopek does not quite hit the mark.
Jan Novák (W), Jaromír 99 (A) • SelfMadeHero, £14.99
Review by Bruno Savill de Jong