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On Danijel Zezelj
posted June 23, 2006


Someone passed me an article about Warren Ellis the other day, where I learned that Danijel Zezelj will be taking over the art chores on the series Desolation Jones (which, in all honesty, is a comic book series that I've never heard of). In discussing Zezelj, the article included this incredible sentence: "Croatian born cartoonist Danijel Zezelj is relatively unknown in American comics circles." I say 'incredible', because if this is indeed true (and it probably is), then it is a tragedy.

imageWhat's worse, I get the sense from the interview that Ellis doesn't really understand who he's working with in Zezelj. Ellis says: "His work appears very intense because he switches between hard close-ups and long shots, but there are very few instances I've seen where he's been given space to work in a landscape situation and really compose a master shot. That's where a lot of artists really find new ground. Bryan Hitch just burst out of his skin when he was given the space to work the mid-distance, reduce the size of the figures and emphasize the environment and the composition."

He's absolutely right that much of the power of Zezelj's art comes from the tension created by shifting from extreme close-ups to longer shots. But even a quick glance at Zezelj's most recent books, Caballo and Small Hands (both published in Croatia in 2004 by Petikat), demonstrates no lack of landscape images and master shots. Where these elements are less present is in Zezelj's American work (El Diablo, The Corinthian), which has always seemed to me to be a watered-down version of his style. I've never discussed this with Danijel but I'm guessing this is to please narrow-minded American editors looking for artists who, while "out there", can adapt their style to conform to the expectations of genre. If Ellis's desire to help Zezelj "find new ground" pushes the writer to open up more space for the artist to be himself, Desolation Jones may well succeed in ways that Zezelj's Vertigo work did not. If, on the other hand, he hopes to turn him into a new Bryan Hitch, well, that would be another tragedy.

imageThe problem with the relationship as it is laid out in the Newsarama interview is that Zezelj is simply a much more important artist than is Warren Ellis. Yes, Ellis outsells Zezelj a million to one. And, yes, I'm sure Zezelj is happy to have such a high-exposure gig. And just in case anyone accuses me of being a Euro-elitist (a charge I get quite frequently), I'll say upfront that I'm very glad to see American editors hire artists like Zezelj. But the fact remains, when all is said and done, the contribution made by each of these men to the evolution and development of the comics form will vastly favor Zezelj. He is not only a great visual stylist, but a tremendous storyteller as well. Ellis has the sales and the blogosphere, but Zezelj is the one with the massive talent. Reading each man's work, I get the same feeling one gets imagining Britney Spears telling Patti Smith to "rock harder."

Take, for example, Small Hands. This graphic novel about the life of a marginalized mute black youth with a talent for the piano and a dream life over-determined by rage and despair is a haunting meditation on the subject of alienation. The story here is slight and fragmentary. Characters are sketched in the briefest of moments, but the symbolic language mobilized by Zezelj is highly freighted. Much more is communicated by the repetition of visual motifs (punching bag, basketball, piano keyboard) than through any amount of witty Ellis-ian exposition. When Zezelj opens a chapter with the phrase "Symphonies in black and white..." you feel it in your gut because his hyper-stylized renderings have laid the foundation for what follows. There is a smartness here that stems from the tight integration of word and image, a collaboration that I've never witnessed in an Ellis comic.

imageIn a different manner, Caballo, a collection of short-stories, balances the artist's traditional approach with a series of works that draw upon a complex personal symbology that, sadly, probably has little place in a work-for-hire comic called Desolation Jones.

Most of Zezelj's European-published comics have poor distribution in the United States, despite the fact that they are written in English and could easily find an audience. These are gorgeous works, with strong, personal storytelling -- exactly the type of thing that is so rare in the contemporary scene. That they will be read by a mere fraction of the audience for Desolation Jones is disheartening.


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