COMICS IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA|
The comics situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably the most horrible proof of the idea that each nation has the comic scene that it deserves. Or better, a situation that it deserves because of its attitude towards comics. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this attitude is such that the phrase "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina" can only be read at with derision. The following text will try to determine why an analysis of "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina" is impossible.
What is "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina" supposed to mean?
Above all, the perception of comics as a form of popular culture, a means of artistic expression, a wonderfully subversive medium, a sign of times, as a... -chose any definition of comics and finish the sentence yourself. Sadly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina's broader cultural audience not even the most rudimentary consciousness of comics as an art form existed- comics were treated as the most trivial things under the sun. The few individuals who think in a different way are, of course, prophets, unrecognized in their own land. Ervin Rustemagic, the biggest comics enthusiast that ever lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina founded Strip Art Features (a comics agency representing artists worldwide) in the 1980s, created Strip Art magazine, received the Yellow Kid award, and thus placed Sarajevo on the comics globe. Already, at the beginning he realized that he wouldn't get much support from the local comics-illiterate culture commissars so he turned to the West and became more of a magnet for artists ike Hermann Huppen than for . . . Oops! I almost wrote Bosnian and Herzegovinan creators, but they didn't really exist. There were some attempts locally to do comics, but they mostly represented the prejudice that comics are "literature for the illiterate." I won't say that there were no attempts by people with good intentions, but their impact was imperceptible. So, "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina" didn't even exist on the creation level.
And it hardly existed on the level of theory and criticism. Miljenko Jergovic, Aleksandar Hemon and other young journalists, writers, etc., born in the 1960s were the first to take comics seriously as an unavoidable phenomenon (like film, rock and roll, television, and pornography). Still, even for them it was more a reference than an object of investigation. The only person for whom comics were not only object of investigation, but also of desire, was Karim Zaimovic (1971-1995). It is impossible to overrate his almost enlightening efforts at improving "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina." Unlike the others, who referred to comics when writing about other things, Zaimovic referenced those other things when he wrote about comics. He died after being in coma for a long time, wounded by one of the last grenades that fell on Sarajevo.
Comic fans can mark the end of the siege of Sarajevo with Zaimovic's death; similarly, the beginning of it could be marked with the destruction of Rustemagic's SAF offices by Serbian tanks. Zaimovic compared the destruction of SAF offices and its priceless treasury of original artwork by many of the greatest comic artists with the destruction of the National and University Library and Institute for Oriental Studies, both in Sarajevo. Rustemagic left Bosnia and Herzegovina with his family and now runs his business representing artists from the West, where he is accorded the standards he always deserved, from Slovenia. His family's fate was used by Joe Kubert in Fax from Sarajevo: in it one panel (drawn after a wartime photo) depicts Karim Zaimovic eating a sandwich. Another portrait of Zaimovic can be found at the beginning of Hermann Huppen's Sarajevo Tango, which is actually devoted to him. (A phenomenon of comics directly inspired by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and especially by the siege of Sarajevo is beyond the subject of this text; the best work was done by the Croatian Edvin Biukovic who bested both the above-mentioned giants with just two pages. Joe Sacco also lived in Sarajevo for some time after the war gathering material for his first important post-Palestine project).
Zaimovic's death and SAF's departure from Sarajevo are losses that can't be compensated. Two years after the armistice, there's no distribution network which would make possible even the most commercial comic publications to hit the newsstands, and "comics in Bosnia and Herzegovina" seem even more anemic than ever before. Fortunately, this is only at the first glance, because two new centers of subculture have appeared, and we finally have a real Bosnian and Herzegovinan cartoonist, matured during the war.
The towns of Zenica and Tuzla, which because of Sarajevo's cultural domination were given the role of industrial centers of little cultural importance, are finally starting to develop their own cultural as well as subcultural scenes. While Sarajevo had enough money in the past to afford expensive forms of artistic creation (like the movies directed by Kusturica or Kenovic), subcultural creators in Zenica and Tuzla prefer to use comics as a cheap, direct and subversive form of expression. In Zenica, a group associated with Hijatus Junior magazine show distinct interest in comics, which would be unimaginable in Sarajevo, where everything depends on the personal initiative of rare individuals. Denis Fejzic, a young author from Zenica, is announcing his own version of Dracula to be published by Hijatus Junior soon.
Tuzla is a phenomenon in itself: local enthusiasts show how comics work as a means of social criticism, not merely an object of theorizing. In nearby Lukavac lives Samir Sestan, a grandfather of Bosnian and Herzegovinan subculture. At the moment, he's the Chief Editor of the Polikita newspaper, one of the most important publication that criticizes the government and society in general. He's also responsible for publishing "the first graphic novel in Bosnia and Herzegovina," as he would say with a spark of irony. It is called Rat Strip Art and was done by Miljenko Tunjic who has since left the country. A pity, for he was a promising artist.
Thus, the only mature artist resident in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains Dragan Rokvic. Another enthusiast with whom Sarajevo seemingly tries to compensate for all its ignorance about comics. Before the war, he was just another in a line of noble yet fruitless attempts. With wartime works like The Season with No Devil or Oh No! and a number of unpublished or yet unfinished works he is the authors whose works are most eagerly awaited. The Season with No Devil stands out as the first Bosnia and Herzegovina meta-comic that doesn't end at the bottom of the last page. The story was written in cooperation with Zaimovic (working under the pen-name of Pedro Panama) who died before he could tell Rokvic how the story would end. For a long time, Rokvic refused to continue drawing and finish the story. But two years after Zaimovic's death he started to realize that the Season's script and Zaimovic's death are in fact parts of one story and announced that he might possibly finish the story on the level of Zaimovic's and his "real" life. But even uncompleted, the Season looks like a real discovery for Bosnian comics readers. With characteristic visual expression, an unmistakable sense for storytelling, a distance artiness, and by playing with conventions, he overpowered the local comics scene. "Well, this is some mainstream," said a Croatian comics critic (and underground comics fan) scornfully, not knowing what praise he is giving. Just try to imagine a mainstream in a city without water 24 hours/day and where yesterday it was easier to die than it is to buy comics today!