This blog post is not meant to come off as a defense or an apology. And actually, no one has complained yet about the smoking in the comic. But I wanted to put some thoughts down so that my position was clear, in case anyone was curious or interested in a discussion.
Smoking in comics has a smack of scandal to it. Especially in a culture that assumes (incorrectly) that comics are a medium meant for and marketed only to children. So why do the characters in Rudek and the Bear smoke? The comic is certainly meant to have a broad appeal, but if it were aimed primarily at children, I would handle the smoking differently. Although my characters are drawn in a style that evokes Disney movies, as they evolve I think they will certainly appeal more to older readers. Especially in the graphic novel Żużel and the Fox, which will have a much darker tone than the webcomic.
I like to think of Rudek and the Bear as rated “PG,” despite the smoking and the not-so-subtle hints about Nina and Szpadel’s sexual relationship. But the more I research how films and other content are rated, I’m not so sure. Recently a film was rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “historical smoking.” Which could be a label for the smoking that occurs in my webcomic. Rudek and Malutki probably would not smoke, were the story set in the modern day.
Sometimes I worry especially that Rudek makes smoking look appealing. But it seems to me an important part of his characterization: for better or worse (worse, really), smoking has cultural associations with brooding intelligence, a devil-may-care outlook, an easy sociability. These are all aspects of Rudek’s personality I’ve tried to signal in various ways, smoking included. (See this webpage for an in-depth discussion on the semantics of smoking in fiction.)
The tradition of semantic, or meaning-laden, smoking has long been a part of comics and film. Probably because it’s a kind of visual shorthand–a convenient way to package information about a character without having to spend words on it. And that matters in a compact graphic form of storytelling. So, with my scruples in hand, I went ahead and decided to have tobacco be a significant part of Rudek’s world.
If there is any moral position on smoking in the webcomic, I believe readers will discover it over time. We already see Rudek’s position becoming quite morally gray as he exploits the bears and confiscates their smuggled tobacco for his own use. Tobacco may turn out to be Rudek’s weakness in more than one way. And again, these are narrative turns that I could not explore if I were to “censor” smoking out of this historically set story.