Aleksandar Zograf

The Interview

In High Hat #6, we were fortunate to be able to feature a cartoon by the Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf — a pictorial kiss-off to the recently deceased Slobodan Milosevic. That cartoon was only the latest in over a decade of strips and comic books Zograf has made about the breakup of Yugoslavia and its aftermath. Despite the elements of reportage in his work — which touches on the civil war, the effect of economic sanctions, the NATO bombing of Serbia (his hometown of Pancevo was a target, and he watched several waves of air strikes on the refineries from his apartment window), the overthrow of Milosevic, and beyond — he has never considered himself a “comics journalist” in the mold of Joe Sacco. His perspective on these historical events is too introverted and subjective; the news gets entwined with strange dreams and offhand musings, so that his stories are less a series of events than a shifting dialogue of emotions and images. It’s history as it’s lived, not history as it’s written. His tone can be at times bemused, mournful, ironic, angry; most often he seems like someone who can hardly believe what he’s seeing, and thinks it essential to get that vision down on paper.

Much of this work has been collected in a new book, Regards From Serbia: A Cartoonist’s Diary of A Crisis in Serbia, published by Top Shelf Productions. I’ve known Zograf for several years, having hosted him in San Francisco for an exhibit of his work at the Cartoon Art Museum, and visited him on his home turf as a guest of the GRRR! Comics Festival in Pancevo, which he organized.

THE HIGH HAT: One of the things that makes your work stand out is your ability to take rather abstract concepts — for example, dealing with the “mass hallucinations“ of a nationalist state, or dealing with the insanity of “ethnic purity” — and creating strange beings or images to represent them. Can you talk about your decision to approach these subjects by making icons out of them, and perhaps talk about how you go about finding an appropriate “character” (or image) for these ideas?

ALEKSANDAR ZOGRAF: It came out without a plan, actually. At the time I created these images, I was fascinated and (more often then not) disgusted by the ideas which seemed to be projected by entire nations while they were going through a major crisis. I noticed that during wartime or a big turmoil people get obsessed with their collective position in the universe, and the conflict gains mythical proportions, even if it’s just ugly bloodshed that is actually going on. Then all these projections of “leaders” and “enemies” or national symbols suddenly get so vivid because a huge number of people focus on them. I had a feeling that it was something like a dream dreamt en masse, or a hallucination observed by the collective mind. So I tried to reflect that in some of my comics. It simply came out of an effort to present many different aspects of things that are happening in such dramatic points in the life of a nation. Usually all that is left for history are the lists of the battles or the names of the generals and politicians who sign the papers, but behind that there are the strangest developments and formations within the mind of the masses.

HH: While there were many independent or “underground” cartoonists in Serbia who were opposed to Milosevic, they rarely addressed the political situation directly in their comics. You were the main exception to this, along with Zoran Jovic, and I was wondering if you have any idea why other Serbian cartoonists were reluctant or uninterested in making comics specifically about the war. And what made you different? What made you want to confront your times in such a direct way?

AZ: I think that there are many cartoonists who addressed different aspect of the crisis, or who laughed over the political figures of a time, but not many of them used an approach which was “illustrative” enough or even readable to an audience that grew up far from the region, so it was like telling an inside joke, speaking about things which are not really clear to an outside audience. Also, I think that it’s generally difficult to speak about something as complex as political crisis in an art form, any art form. Could you imagine a symphony about the American involvement in Iraq? Or a painting which would be an answer to it? Could even a novel point to all the aspects of such a big topic? How would you find an artistic frame to express all that? You can easily fall into dealing with a series of conclusions and logical constructions, which are not exciting material to be used in order to create art. So this is just part of the answer why there were not more comics in Serbia addressing the wars and the crisis in the area. Even if you take my comics, they are not as “journalistic” in approach as you could expect, even when I speak about the incidents that happened to me or to the other people who were witnessing all the turmoil. I would often drift into speaking about my dreams, or about the little details from everyday reality that are actually not of historical significance. I just believed that it is all part of the testimony of the time.

HH: When I got a little window into the Serbian comics scene, back in 2001 with the GRRR! Comics Festival that you organized, there wasn’t any real infrastructure for the artists to present their work — which was a reflection of the destroyed infrastructure in Serbia at the time (you, of course, circumvented that, since most of your work was published abroad). Has this changed at all in the years since then? What does the comics scene in Serbia look like now?

AZ: There is a little bit more book production, but generally it’s still a rather chaotic environment; there are no specialized comic book shops, and most of the books are distributed in the regular book shops. Then, if you are a publisher, you have to be very careful to find a book shop which will pay you once that they sell your book! Of course, it’s better if you are a cartoonist who is lucky enough to publish comics in a magazine or a paper, but there are only few people who do so. Still, a lot of the things are happening in small press circles, and at exhibitions and small festivals, I think it’s not that bad, because people who do fanzines are always moving in new directions. Serbia is a country where, despite all the dramatic things that were happening every other decade or so, there were always people producing comics; it’s been like that ever since the great comic boom that happened in Belgrade in the ’30s.

HH: Do you ever imagine what your work would have been like if Yugoslavia hadn’t fallen into civil war? You don’t strike me as the sort of person who would be drawn to making stories about war, violence, politics — it seems like these subjects were thrust upon you. Do you carry a doppelganger of yourself in your mind, the “you” that would have existed if you had been left to your own devices?

AZ: Yes, I believe that I would not care about creating war stories under “normal” circumstances. I can imagine my doppelganger, who didn’t experience the Yugoslav war of the ’90s, as being more introspective and more obsessed with imagination and inner visions. I think that the reality of life in crisis actually made me learn to observe outside reality, the world with all its complications. And I needed this lesson, just to put me in balance with this inner quest, because I believe that we should be aware of both what’s happening inside and outside our mind frame.

HH: When you started doing your comics about the war, there were very few examples of people doing work like yours — comics about a political situation with strong elements of autobiography. Now, in addition to Art Spiegelman, there is Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, and Seth Tobocman. Do you have any thoughts to share on the work of these other “political memoirists” (for lack of a better term)? Is there anything you’ve learned or applied to your own approach as more examples of these types of comics have appeared?

AZ: It’s all part of the development of the comics as an art form — we had autobiographical comics in the past, or semi-autobiographical comics, but we live in times when different artists are exploring a way to connect it with the larger social frame. They try to reflect on movements within society,and political or cultural situations, as observed by the mind and life of the comics creator. Sometimes, the approach is almost journalistic, sometimes allegorical, but it should be the key to the larger picture of the times.

I was curious to learn about the experiences of other cartoonists, of course, and read a lot of books which belong to this genre; it made me change my own approach as well, even though I wasn’t that aware of most of it when I started to publish. It’s hard to pin down all these multitudes of influences, but I guess I was just one of the millions who said, after reading Spiegelman’s Maus, “Wow! So comics could speak about such big issue! ” But generally I guess that my work was more influenced by autobiographical material, such as Robert Crumb’s comics. He speaks about himself in these comics, but if you read it carefully enough, you understand that he speaks more about the position of an individual (in this case, the colorful personality of the author himself) within society, within the universe if you like, It’s anything but shallow self-obsession! It’s fucking honest-to-the-bone material!

I also liked a mixture of autobiography and fantasy, such as Julie Doucet’s work, or the dream comics by Rick Veitch and Jim Woodring. I think that all this was influential, but it was an emotional influence — if you see a great art, you feel that you are changed forever! But I’m not sure if it changed the way that I conceived my comics, the structure or the topic of the stories, or anything technical at all. Also, the things I wanted to speak about in my comics overwhelmed me, because of the immediacy of the experiences — be it a war or a dream.

HH: I wonder if putting together this most recent book, which collects work from a long span of years and from a number of former publications, feels like putting up a tombstone to that era. On the one hand, many of the major personalities of that era are dead or in hiding; but of course, the repercussions of the Yugoslavian civil war have hardly faded away into history.

AZ: Yes — and mind you, some of the actors in the crisis are in war crime tribunal cells too, but the majority of the people who created or participated in the conflict are now free, safe in their homes, some of them are even rich. It’s a by-product of every historical turmoil, such an old story — wars producing the men who profit from the misery of others — and we have to be aware of this, and prevent somehow the situations that are leading to it. It’s an ever ongoing project, but, of course considering my own work, I would be happy to put an end to the era and explore some other exciting things in life. I would hate to spend my entire life speaking about the crisis in the Balkans. I hoped that the death of Milosevic was a symbolic end of the circle, even if it’s not a definitive end of the crises or its effects. That series of wars and economic catastrophes and bombings of the infrastructure of the country (as during the NATO intervention in Serbia) is enough trouble to affect the lives of generations of people; and honestly, I firmly believe that it’s a challenge to take it all with humor, and not desperation. I really had a good laugh over the absurdity created by my own countrymen, and by myself who was pathetically trying to observe it all and make clever conclusions. Please laugh at me!

HH: You’ve been investigating dreams and dream-states for a long time. I know this is a different sort of investigation than a scientific investigation, but I was curious if your prolonged scrutiny of the world of dreams has changed or deepened your understanding of them; have you come to any conclusions about what dreams actually “are,” or the sorts of functions they have in human psychology?

AZ: Just before the series of wars in the ex-Yugoslavia erupted, I was, for a couple of years, practicing a technique of lucid dreaming. And all the while I was taking notes of “hypnagogic images,” which are observed by our mind’s eye during the time when we are fall asleep or waking up. For years, I tried to explore dream experiences and their relation to creative expression, such as comics. I think that there are no definitive conclusions about what dreams are — the more you explore it, the more you discover, and the more you are puzzled. I think that my observation on the reality of dreams is an intuitive one, and I feel like I know better than before what is it all about, but I’m not sure if could express this knowledge in a meaningful way.

I will give you just one recent example. In the book titled Dream Watcher that came out in 1998 with British publisher Slab-O-Concrete, I included some of the hypnagogic images that I recorded. One was dated November 17, 1997. It’s a strip seen in a hypnagogic state, presenting a really bizarre creature, not paralleled with anything that I’d seen before. Then, 10 years after I saw this half-dream image, in early 2007, I received a gift that you sent, The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (edited by Blackbeard and Williams), a second printing of a book that came out in 1977. Inside this volume I found a reproduction of a page from Johnny Gruelle’s strip “Mr. Twee Deedle, ” dating from 1914. In the strip, we find a character named Moon Man while he is meeting phantasmagorical “Mirage Moodles, ” which look very much like the being seen in my hypnagogic hallucination! I am pretty sure that I had never seen this strip before, and can’t remember if I had even heard of Johnny Gruelle. So how was it possible that this image popped out in my head in the first place? Is it really in any connection with the creation born in the imagination of another artist many years before I was even born? This really raises questions, even if it’s nothing but a coincidence, because it’s not less interesting to explore the similarities of artists’ dreams in different times and places.

HH: I don’t know if I ever told you this directly, but when I got to visit your apartment in Pancevo during the GRRR! Festival, I was really charmed by the atmosphere you and your wife Gordana created there. The apartment building itself, from the outside, is a bit forbidding — one of those typical communist-era concrete blocks — but your apartment itself was very warm and welcoming. An essential part of that was the curtains. I remember them very distinctly: yellow, with images from your cartoons embroidered on them. The embroidery was done by Gordana, and I understand you two recently had a collaborative exhibit in Vienna. Could you describe the exhibit, and talk a little about how you and Gordana work together on these pieces?

AZ: We created our own universe within the apartment building that we live — maybe just to prove it that it doesn’t really matter where you live, you can always have your own center of the universe, so to speak. Gordana has been creating embroideries based on my drawings for some years now, and the last exhibition happened in a bar that hosts comics events called Cofix, in Thessaloniki, Greece, in January 2007, where her embroideries were exposed next to the originals of my comics. Embroideries are just a way to expand the medium — to put the cartoons on textile, which could be a new and quite colorful thing to do. Before Thessaloniki, the embroideries were on display in Munich, Belgrade, Rome, Lodi, Vienna, and many other places.

HH: Your major comics output lately has been the strips you do for Vreme magazine — more or less Serbia’s Time or Newsweek. These strips haven’t been translated into English, so I was wondering if you could describe one of your favorite strips for Vreme, to give a picture of what that work is like.

I create 2 pages in color every week — it’s a different topic in every installment, not necessarily connected with “politics,” even if published in a political weekly. It’s often referring to local material, but with a universal approach, so it could be read internationally (collections of these comics came out in Croatia and Italy, and L’Association is preparing a French edition too). I have many favorites, but I’ll describe just the last one I did, published few days ago It’s a story based on an article published in 1925’s issue of Zena i svet (Woman and World), a women’s magazine from Belgrade. There was a poll among intellectuals (of both sexes) based around the topic of the Perfect Woman. Nobody expected that it would cause so much stir — some people expressed chauvinist clich
s (which sound funny, too!), then a poet wrote a provocative and intellectually challenging piece, while some were so offended (such as one female writer) that she wrote an angry reply stating that they could have her picture (for the illustration of the article) only when she drops dead! All concerned, it was much more interesting and picturesque then similar polls today (I can imagine how boring such an article would be in a slick women’s magazine nowadays), and it was fun to research this and create an illustration in a form of a comic strip.

HH: You’ve had a book of your Vreme strips published in Croatia. Could you talk a bit about how that came about, and what the reaction to your work in Croatia has been?

AZ: It was a strange circumstance — Miljenko Jergovic, who is one of the most noted Croatian writers of the younger generation, was editing an edition of books; I didn’t know him personally, but he just called and asked if I would be interested in having a selection of comics from Vreme in this edition. I agreed, of course, so it came out as the only comic book published by VBZ, the biggest publishing house in the country. As they hadn’t published comics before, they really didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that reviews were numerous and really favorable! Mind you that relations between Serbia and Croatia are better then before, but since the decomposition of Yugoslavia, I can’t think of any other Serbian author whose book had its premier edition published in Croatia first (I still don’t have the collection of Vreme strips published in a book form in Serbia!).

HH: Could you talk about the fate of some of your original artwork reprinted in your new book? I remember, when I was in touch with you for the exhibit of your work at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, there were some pages I wanted to show, but you didn’t have them because a publisher had never returned them to you. Was a lot of this work re-scanned from previous books?

AZ: Yes, some of the originals were lost for good, and some stories had to be re-scanned from good quality copies. Originals of “Life Under Sanctions” were sent to an exhibition in Spain, and were lost some 10 years ago. Oh well — who cares? It ain’t no Mona Lisa! During the crisis, I used to draw some of these artworks on the backs of old calendars — I didn’t have money to buy art paper.

HH: Sometimes when I go back over work I’ve done a long time ago — particularly work that has an element of autobiography — I find I’m surprised by some of the attitudes or opinions expressed in the old work. The “me” who wrote and drew those things is often different than my mental picture of my past self; if I didn’t have the evidence of what I’d written in front of me, I’d be able to have a few more comfortable self-delusions, I think. Did you find any surprises in revisiting some of your older work, in preparation for the book? Were there discrepancies between what you remembered in your mind, and the events as they were transcribed on the page? Or, alternately, were you struck by things you left off the page, but which nonetheless seem to be essential memories of that time?

AZ: Sure! I hadn’t re-read the material in quite a while, so I was really intrigued when I started to look at it again. My first impression was that we really went through a lot of turmoil here. It was a really dramatic 15 years described in the stories included in Top Shelf’s Regards from Serbia book, too much history — wars, sanctions, hyperinflation, bombings of towns by NATO, dictators, nationalist propaganda, revolutions, whatnot. When you think of it, it’s a surprise that anyone remained sane after all that happened. But my actual memory was concentrated around some nice moments in life. I hardly remember bombs or hiding from the draft or how poor I was. I am not sure what it proves — I guess that I am an optimist, no matter how melancholic I appear to be in my life and comics.