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A Short Interview With Aleksandar Zograf
posted January 7, 2007
 

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The Serbian cartoonist Sasa Rakezic, working as Aleksandar Zograf, has created some of the most compelling comics of the last 15 years. His war stories about the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, heartbreaking dissections of the cartoonist's inner and outer life as his world fell to pieces all around him, are as fine a group of testimonials as exists concerning the emotional and physical disruptions caused by proximity to death and destruction. The other clearly defined subject in his comics is "hypnagogic imagery," or dream comics that focus on the visuals that appear to us between sleeping and waking. Both groups of Zograf's comics arrived in readers' hands in multiple platforms: mini-comics, series, trades and on-line. Because of his commiseration with cartoonists in North America and England and the fact he was published frequently there, including releases from Fantagraphics, Slab-O-Concrete and Kitchen Sink, Zograf was in some ways like another cartoonist living near downtown Seattle, albeit one with some amazing stories to tell.

Zograf's newest collection, Regards From Serbia: A Cartoonist's Diary of A Crisis in Serbia, released this Winter from Top Shelf, puts a a number of his comics about the war in one place, where they belong. He talks about the various reasons to republish this material in the following discussion. It's great to have him as a presence on the bookshelves again.

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TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask what led to your doing this specific iteration of your war-related comics?

ALEKSANDAR ZOGRAF: Even though I started to publish my comics in the US in the early '90s, my attention turned towards publishing in Europe in the late '90s and onward. Still, I never quit collaborating with different magazines and anthologies in the US, including this web venture, TheComicStore.com, which posted my Regards from Serbia weekly installments -- starting with NATO bombing of 1999 until the early 2000s. They never paid for all this work, though, and I was just one of the people that they owed money, but anyway... The material never saw release on paper in English, even though it was originally written in English.

imageCollections of Regards from Serbia strips already came out in France, Italy and Spain, and as Top Shelf wanted to put out a selection of my stuff related to the crisis in my country, it was a perfect occasion to finally put it all together, from the stories published by Fantagraphics, through the e-mail messages posted during the NATO bombing campaign, to the Regards from Serbia weekly comics... Concluding with a page titled "Addio Milosevic," which was created in 2006, after Milosevic died in his cell placed inside the War Crime tribunal in The Hague. I did that for the Italian national magazine Internazionale.

I would say that Milosevic's death seemed like the ending of an era, even though he went out of power in the year 2000. I wanted to say "farewell" to it all, even though Serbia is still not prosperous or stable or (as we like to say) a "boring" country (meaning all its problems resolved). This book, first, came out of my personal wish to put down on paper 15 years that marked the life of myself and many people that I know in this country. When the wars (in what used to be called Yugoslavia) started in 1991, I was 28 years old. In 2006, when the book was concluded, I was 43. Under normal circumstances, you would call it the focus of the lifetime of a man, but (just like so many people here) I spent these years hiding from the draft, trying to make ends meet, watching the worst political option developing, the worst scum coming to power, then my town being a target of the awful bombing campaign, and so on. I even saw the last revolution of the 20th Century, the one against Milosevic, and I saw its rise and fall. I'm not trying to complain -- actually, I'm not sorry for anything anymore. It was my life, and God knows I laughed a lot over myself and over the deeds of the others, so it was fun in a way, you know!

The second reason why I want to do this book is to point out the problematic aspects of interventionist politics, as led by the US and their satellites in the EU during the past few decades... You can say that NATO intervention in Serbia brought some resolution, but it also multiplied problems on the spot. In Iraq, nowadays, the failure of intervention is much more evident: it stopped Saddam but didn't make Iraq a country that functions in a normal way. By the number of the people dying every day in that country you can say that things only went worse. And it's obvious that the common reader in the US or Western Europe should hear about the implications of these actions. However, I'm not even close to trying to present an "objective" picture. My comics are a sort of psychological diary, inspired by the events which were happening around me... It's just a deeply personal view of the small town guy. You should yourself imagine the larger frame of events, or should I say the "big picture"...

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SPURGEON: A lot of the work you've done you've published almost immediately, on-line and in mini-comics form. What did it feel like working with these comics a second or third time? Is there anything that's changed in your perception of them, anything you see in them now you didn't before?

ZOGRAF: Regards from Serbia is a book that includes the early material such as Life Under Sanctions, which now looks frightening to me, because my drawings seem distorted by the misery that I was overwhelmed by. I don't like to be reminded of it all and the things that I went through (and which are not all described in the story), but I guess that it's a document of its kind. The book provoked a fair amount of reaction when it was originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 1994. Before that, there was not too much information about how this crisis in ex-Yugoslavia was reflected in the everyday reality of the people, especially not in Serbia, which was considered to be the "bad side."

I never tried to abolish Serbian politics; I found it a complete disaster, even criminal. But it was not only Milosevic who lived here; there were other miserable creatures like myself, who tried to do their stupid comics or something. When I look at the products that I left behind, I can say that these are the comics which are honestly speaking about the reality of a time and how it reflected through the mind of a dreamy and half-witted person such as myself.

SPURGEON: Were you tempted to re-work some of the comics, or is this work as originally presented?

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ZOGRAF: All the stories were reprinted without any intervention, just the way they are created. Some of the stuff was originally published in now hard-to-find mini-comics or in Dream Watcher, which is the book that came out in UK in 1998, by the now defunct Slab-O-Concrete, and was distributed in US as well. Most of this material is now hard to find. The complete run of Regards from Serbia was originally posted on the 'net, until thecomicstore.com was dissolved, several years ago. So this will be the first time to present it in a book in English.

SPURGEON: One thing that marks your work from the 1990s in my mind is this background feeling of apocalyptic dread, which was certainly understandable given the situation facing Pancevo and the general tenor of the times. Has your outlook changed in the last five to ten years? Has this had an effect on your work at all?

ZOGRAF: Well, the situation is definitely different now, and my comics have changed. When I started to publish in the US in the early 1990s, there were very few independent comics in Europe. But in the second part of the '90s things changed, so I did a lot of comics for different magazines, anthologies and collections produced in different European countries, including Serbia. There were many small things going on, which is actually very nice... One of the last, for example, was a first edition of an independent comics festival, held in Viterbo, in Italy. The topic of the festival was rather unusual, marked by the motto: "Poor Is The Country That Needs a Rescue By The Superheroes." Subsequently, a nicely bound, big-format anthology was produced, dealing exclusively with this topic!

Plus, I was invited to a festival which was happening at this fantastic place, in the middle of one of the best preserved medieval Italian towns. It was quite an experience even if it was the first edition of the festival, and the things were not operating that smoothly... Another great thing is that we were lodged in the Hotel owned by the nuns (because it's cheaper, of course)! Ha ha, it was fun to see all these alternative comics freaks who all had to meet the nuns behind the reception; it was fantastic. I like the fact that these small or middle scale events and publications are scattered all over the place, and I enjoy the immediate nature of the happenings of this kind. There's always somebody around coming up with a new idea.

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SPURGEON: When the war hit your country, you engaged the barrage of images that the media brought to people, from those directly related to those outright unrelated to what was going on -- war footage, newscasts, Disney movies, archival film. What was your impression of the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in terms of the imagery?

ZOGRAF: Well, it's like -- never say never. When I was 20 years old, I was spoiled enough not to believe that something as horrible as civil war could ever occur in the peaceful and sleepy country such as Yugoslavia. Then, in the early '90s, when the civil war broke out in what used to be called Yugoslavia, I guess that most of the people in US watched it on TV, as if it were happening in some faraway reality, and they never ever dreamed that they could be attacked in their own mainland, even in such places as New York or the Pentagon! When it happened, you could see that people stuck together and acted in a funny way. It's maybe not quite correct, but it should be expected. For example, a lot of people who were against Milosevic were also against the NATO bombings of the towns in Serbia, and they would stick out the flags and stuff, because that was a natural reaction to the view of their town being exposed to the fire of the most powerful missiles. The same happened in the US -- it used to be so uncool and old-fashioned to wave the American flag in downtown Manhattan, but after the 9/11 attacks, people came out with these giant flags and hyperpatriotism...

SPURGEON: You were one of the few international cartoonists that in the '90s enjoyed a profile that was more like an American cartoonist, because of how and where you published. Do you still feel connected to American comics in that way?

ZOGRAF: Of course! A lot of feedback that I got even now is from the US. I was one of the first Europeans to publish his premium comics om the American scene, with the independent publishers in US. That is a rather funny situation, because all of the time I stayed in Serbia, and visited US for the first time in 1999 -- only few months after the NATO bombing of my homeland! At that time I had several books by the American publishers. The fact that these two countries were supposed to be "enemies" makes it even more funny, and I belonged to both Serbian and American scene... Well, who cares! My feeling is that people should not be determined exclusively by the country and the space they live. They should be free to spread their ideas and exchange their thoughts with any free spirit living anywhere in this world.

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SPURGEON: Are you still doing the dream comics? Other than you and Rick Veitch, I'm not sure there's as many people exploring that landscape as there might have been ten years ago.

ZOGRAF: It was in 2005 that Rick Veitch and I were invited to curate an exhibition of dream comics for the Amadora comics festival in Portugal. It was a large exhibition that paid a lot of attention to this phenomenon. It is true, however, that it was 10 years ago (or so) when most of the material for this exhibition was created. How to explain this? There was a moment when cartoonists in different parts of the world felt like exploring this idea of transposing their dream experiences in a form of comics. I really feel like it's not so vibrant a thing any more, but I still occasionally do dream comics, and take note of my hypnagogic imagery. It also depends on the inner life processes, on my own feelings and thoughts. I guess that our culture is still not focused on dreams, and maybe when this happens, dream comics will come to the surface again? It'll just depend if the comics scene develops this interest in self-introspection, I guess -- a lot of autobiographical comics have spoiled this by simply being dull.

imageMind you that dreams are among the earliest topics to be presented in comics (Winsor McCay is just one example), and dreams are definitely part of the exploration of creative process and our nature in general, and I still very often meet (in different parts of the world) people who are expressing their dreams in the form of comics...

SPURGEON: I have to admit, it's been some time since I've seen new work from you. Can you catch us up on what you've been doing the last few years comics-wise?

ZOGRAF: The big change for me occurred in 2003, when I was invited by Vreme, which is an independent political weekly from Belgrade, to start creating weekly comics. Since then, I am producing two pages of comics in color, every week!

Another big change is that, while my older comics were all written in English, and had to be translated when published in my own country, now I write my comics in Serbian. The topics of these comics varies every week, but it's not much connected with stuff that the magazine writes about -- usually, I find some forgotten book or a magazine from the '20s or the '30s, and try to illustrate it. My usual resources are flea markets, where I find marginal publications (mostly Serbia-originated, but universal in appeal), and even private notebooks and manuscripts. Or I do an interview in a form of comics (Kim Deitch, Peter Blegvad and Jonathan Richman are just few of the people that I interviewed and did a comic about it). Then, as I often travel all around Europe with my work, I like to do a story about the places that I visit. So it's a lot of material, that needs a lot of research, and it takes a plenty of time to complete it every week... Collections of the Vreme comics were published in Italy and Croatia, and L'Association is preparing a big book of French translations for the fall of 2007. I hope to translate it into English at some point, too.

SPURGEON: How much time do you currently spend in a day, or a week, on your comics? Do certain comics take up a certain amount of your time?

ZOGRAF: Work on the weekly comics absorbs about five or six days of my week! Then, I do a lot of side projects, for magazines and books in different countries... I barely have time to do the translation of my comics any more, so that's another problem, but generally I am busier then ever.

SPURGEON: How does your professional time break down? I take it from your last answer you don't have a day job.

ZOGRAF: I've been freelancing all my life, but since January 2006 I have steady employment at Vreme. They are a quite respected publication in this part of the world, but due to their courageous editorial policy, and their critical political observations, they never became rich. So I get peanuts for what I do, but I am free to do just about anything I want! So what the hell. At first it was an unusual feature to have comics in a political weekly, especially because my comics are not strictly political, but after few years it brought something new on the local scene, or I love to think of it that way.

SPURGEON: Finally, given some of the values you've explored with your work, I'd be interested in hearing you talk about what your artistic goals are, because unlike some people I don't think, for example, refining your craft might be as important a goal when it comes to capturing the kinds of things you want to capture.

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ZOGRAF: I started to draw comics as a child, and produced fanzines when I was about 16. I went to art school, but was a bitter opponent of the art world mainstream in general. So I never developed a "grandiose," artsy style, and even more so in the turbulent '90s there was this need to capture the momentum, or my dream reality, while I was in the midst of the darkest despair, so rather then to concentrate on the technical side I tried to concentrate on expression. So my style came out of all these factors.

SPURGEON: What do you consider your best work and why?

ZOGRAF: It'll be difficult for me to pick my own best work -- I like the freedom of the dream-related material, but also I believe that the comics that were speaking about my personality captured in the harsh Balkan reality can provoke some thoughts, too. I would also say that the weekly comics that I do for Vreme are exploring a wide range of things, and enable me to experiment every week.

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* the new cover
* from "Addio Milosevic"
* tier from the new work's compelling epilogue
* cover to Dream Watcher
* full page from the new work's epilogue
* dream imagery
* cover to a dream-related mini
* I believe this is a self-portrait

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Aleksandar Zograf Web Site
Top Shelf Page For New Book

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Regards From Serbia, Aleksandar Zograf, Top Shelf, 288 pages, 1891830422 (ISBN), NOV063909 (DCD), January 2007, $19.95.

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