For years Peter Sis talked himself out of creating a book based on his childhood and coming-of-age in Communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. It was still recent history, he told himself, too raw, too soon to be looked at objectively. But echoes from Sis's childhood came back to him after 9/11, and he was unable to ignore his story any longer. In his graphic memoir, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, Sis's legions of fans will be mesmerized by his deeply personal recollection of the period, from his boyhood to his defection to the U.S., which he renders through a combination of richly complex art and never-before-seen private photos and journal entries.
The creative evolution of The Wall was intense for Peter Sis. He created reams of material reviewing the history, tracing the roots of the Cold War, going back to World War I and the Russian Revolution while also searching for ways to tell the story in pictures. Peter Sis completed several versions, decided not to do the book at least twice, thought he had killed it. But it wouldn't die. From its opening images, The Wall transports readers into a world dominated by military presence, brainwashing, and compulsory public displays of loyalty, in both art and behavior. But the oppressive environment could not thwart Sis's creative life. As a boy, he drew constantly. While he grew up, cracks slowly appeared in the Iron Curtain that allowed glimpses of Western culture: Allen Ginsberg's beat poetry, American blue jeans, long hair for men, Coca-Cola. As an adolescent, Peter Sis embraced rock 'n' roll, hungrily listening to songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. When 1968 dawned and a new head of the Communist government arrived in office, Sis's world slowly began to open up. Censorship was lifted. For the teenage Peter Sis, Prague in the spring of 1968 was full of possibility.
That hopeful moment, however, soon was crushed, brought to an end by the Soviet-led invasion of the city in that same year. In 1984, Peter Sis was allowed to come to California to create an animated film based on Czechoslovakia's participation in the Olympics. But the Soviets boycotted the Olympics, and Peter Sis was ordered to return to Prague. Instead, he stayed in America. "This time I resisted. I was tired of being told what to do, what to think, and what to draw...but after a lifetime of being brainwashed, it was not an easy decision. I was afraid I might never see my family again. I thought the Soviets would be in power forever," Peter Sis says.
Sis's fears were allayed in the coming years. In 1989, he watched from the U.S. as the Berlin Wall came down and the "Velvet Revolution" took place in Czechoslovakia. Its nonviolent protests, seen by the world, succeeded in sounding the death knell for the Communist government there. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The Cold War was over. "Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies," Peter Sis reflects.
For anyone interested in history, memoir, or art, The Wall provides an astonishing fusion of all three. And while in the U.S. debates rage about where the balance between federal authority and civil liberties should fall, The Wall will have readers thinking about just how fine the line between
government intervention and oppression can become.
Peter Sis is an internationally admired artist who has been named a MacArthur Fellow and has twice received Caldecott Honors, for Tibet Through the Red Box and Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei. He lives in the New York City area.