by Darko Macan (email@example.com)
In the world of comics there is one continent more than in your everyday geography, and Eastern Europe is its name.
You might have heard of it, either from a drunk sailor who will never recover from his visit to the land of the gray people under the gray skies or from a businessman who traveled the world in his youth wandered off the beaten track by mistake and onto a barely visible path that finally led him to strange latitudes lost in-between past and present civilizations. Or perhaps you were in the cradle still and your mother sang you a scary vowel-lacking lullaby about the deep woods full of scrawny wolves, shaggy bears and pale, naked cartoonists who might be seen only on moonless nights, their scared, bloodshot eyes glittering in the dark like cinders from God's cigarette. You have heard of Eastern Europe and then you killed the knowledge, silently vowed never to venture a step outside of the baedeker-approved routes, opted for safety.
But now, Stripburek is here.
Stripburek, like his cell-donor father STRIPBURGER, is the true face of the gray continent. You might think you are ready for it because you have, after all, faced an occasional East European in your extensive comics reading. Grzegorz Rosinski, Zoran Janjetov, Edvin Biukovic... They have all crawled out of the woods but they already were the nice guys, faces washed and hair combed, which do their best to smile and fit in. The STRIPBUREK girls and guys, mostly, are nothing like them. They have not escaped the clutches of the East on time - like Bilal did while still a child, or Gil Kane - so they had to grow up on the crossroads of Christianity and communism, under the burden of history, facing the fatally wounded future. They do not come politely knocking on your door; they have jumped the fence and are eating your gardenias, touching your pristine comics with their manure-crusted fingers and eyeing your neutered cat with a hunger of undefined sort.
They are here, unapologetically,and they are really straining your self-professed love for comics. Could you love them? I mean, could you really love these half lings, which lack social graces and personal hygiene? Are you ready to accept them, warts and scabs and scars and germs and all?
Are you the Columbus the gray continent needs?
In its prehistory, Eastern Europe was off to a good start. At least three of the country reports I read while nose-diving towards (and past) the deadline for this introduction mentioned Wilhelm Busch's work as the seminal influence on the nascent comics in their respective nations. Busch's legacy has elsewhere - in the United States, for example - resulted in long-lasting favorites such as Rudolf Dirks' “Katzenjammer Kids”, but no such luck here. Perhaps the ground was not fertile enough - the Estonian article voices a familiar “nemo propheta in patria” complaint by stating that the number of people interested in supporting locally produced comics has always been small, generating poor income for the artists, no matter how enthusiastic they were - but perhaps there is another reason, that of the unfortunate position Eastern Europe has in the geopolitical situation.
Set between the empires - the Habsburgs, the Russians, the Third Reich - these lands barely knew peace in the twentieth century. Occupied, liberated, reeducated... these countries were not a good place for the fragile comics industry. Every new system - fascism, or communism or democracy - bulldozed habitually over the remnants of the old, leaving comics, among others, to crawl out from the ruins on their own. The Croatian example is the one I am most familiar with (the Croatian comics were stomped by the advent of the communism, then again when the opening to the West brought cheap imported strips and yet again when the economy collapsed at the tail end of the eighties, bringing war and assorted cataclysms with it), but the motif pops up again and again in the reports I read. Either communism proclaims the comics to be “a product of perverse Western taste” or they prove themselves unfit for the get-rich-quick schemes which are almost the sole way of acquiring the capital in the new Eastern democracies of the nineties. Neither ideologically suitable nor commercially viable, what were comics to do?
Well, they fought. They fought tooth and nail, losing battle after battle and becoming in the process the creatures invading your backyard. Here, let me retell you just one little story so you may understand them better.
Kája Saudek, the so-called “King of Czech comics” was born in 1935 and was able to read Marvel superheroes and European stuff due to the more relaxed government attitude in the sixties. He opted to do comics for adults but did it so Western-like that even the napping censure caught him and stopped many of his comics in mid-step. Undaunted, he started working on a science-fiction epic Muriel (script by Miloš Macourek), clearly inspired by Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella. Two hundred and fifty pages were done, but then the Russian tanks arrived and only the short prologue to this ambitious story has ever been published. Unable to find common language with the foreign publishers, Saudek tried to fit in at home. His historical series about a noble highwayman Lips Tullian was, alas, banned and he agreed to work on propaganda comics, Thirty Cases of Major Zeman, adapted from a TV series. Try as he might, Saudek was apparently incorrigible: Major Zeman did not get the official approval either.
End of the seventies finds Kája Saudek in the underground, publishing his comics inconspicuously on the pages of - funnily enough - Czech Speleology Society's editions. His moment of glory came after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when his speleo-comics were republished in, if we are to believe Tomaš Prokupek's article, “hundreds of thousands of copies”. Soon after, a typical Eastern European situation happened, for the sun is rare here and only the clouds persist. The Czech market proved too small for all the magazines that bloomed, and they folded. Kája Saudek, presumably tired, left comics for the porn industry, that habitual sanctuary of old comics artists who have no rebellion left in them, just a skillful hand and a wish for some peace.
Despite the apparently somber ending, Saudek's story is among the cheerful ones, he at least and last had his day and he kept working for thirty plus years. Stories like this, however, are few and far between. In every report from every country the same story is found: names full of promise appearing, struggling for a couple of years, then disappearing. This is not a story unique to the East - comics are hard work and never paid as much as illustration, or respected as animation (Bulgarian Rumen Petkov, e.g., deflected from his twelve years stint in comics to work on Johnny Bravo cartoons) - but in the West at least the magazines or heroes endure, giving us a semblance of continuity, health and longevity. In Eastern Europe, series rarely last and the magazines have their Golden age well behind them, with the new initiatives being almost stillborn, embittering the remaining readers even further with their sporadic schedule (Lithuanian “Bus Dar”, as a randomly picked example from the dozens, published the first issue, promised the Moon and then disappeared to the chagrin of our Lithuanian correspondent). Surprises are always possible, like the recent resurrection after a decade-long hiatus of the Yugoslavian venerable magazine Stripoteka, which presently chugs happily towards its 1000th issue, and, of course, STRIPBURGER, the only coherent and cohesive magazine that spanned the twilight decade of the last millennium. Exceptions like these are hopeful but rarely make us forget the rule.
And the rule of the day, apparently, is another invasion. The newsstands of the East are besieged by the Scandinavia-based Egmont and Semic concerns, which flood the gray continent with cheap four-color Disney and Marvel reprints. Against this “import-oriented industry” of sameness there stand only black and white pages of fanzines, fueled by the dreams of the dirty and the starved and the young. The sole East European tradition is the lack of tradition, so the grayborn cartoonists hunch over their drawing boards and discover everything anew.
And that picture of the shaggy-haired and thick-glassed youth huddled in the room of his parents' home or freezing in a rented cellar, is the history of the East European comics in a nutshell. Always rising from the ashes, always fighting the impossible odds, cursed to learn from their own mistakes only.
Doomed to be forever young.
The modern media wholeheartedly endorse the cult of the youth, knowing well who has the money to spend, and as the result we tend to forget that the youth - while magnificent - is not all there is, nor necessarily the best.
Undeniably, the new blood is welcome and the new perspective indispensable. The doors into new worlds should be open so the draft may air the musty complacence, the safe warmth of the familiar line and panel and page. If done well, a new voice - being pure, unblemished and idealistic - might tell an ages-old tale with such a spin that it seems fresh again. We all know the thrill, being experienced comics cognoscenti, of cracking open a book by a new author and being blown away by the completeness of it, the understanding of the form and the individuality of the presented world. It happens rarely, but it does.
Yet it also happens, and much more frequently, that in the young pages we see the promise but not much more. The youth is by nature so self-centered that it cannot fathom how others might not share the fascination with its freshly-awaken powers. With the inborn arrogance the young demand attention, cry for a change without pointing out a direction, insist upon the right to speak while having little new to say. While reading STRIPBUREK I have encountered a lot of promise, listened to many a demand, heard very little new.
My biases - at 35 I am getting old by comic-world standards - are probably showing. I have built a nice backyard and I am not really comfortable watching all these sudden, gray faces squatting behind my bushes or etching crude drawings with their stolen Swiss-knives on my freshly plastered garage walls. I want to like them, but they are not easy to like.
In my uneasiness, I study the intruders.
This second STRIPBUREK, I find, is repetition rather than progression. Of course, some new names are here (a couple of rather good Yugoslavians, a solitary but interesting Romanian...) and some countries appear for the first time (Kazakhstan, for example, with a rather good strip), and this is good. The visuals are strong and the art styles are as individual as you can get, so this is good also. The prevalence of the ex-Yugoslav nationals against the rest of the East (34:20, even leaving the sole Hungarian representative (Krstic) to Hungary despite Kálmán Rubovszky's claim in Fall 2000 issue of IJOCA that Krstic “has nothing in common with the Hungarian tradition”) is less good although understandable, as is the absence of some more popular works (Estonian newspaper strips) whose creators felt little need to submit their work for approval to such a low-profile publication as STRIPBUREK. Thematically, however, the included strips are where they were four years ago - fluctuating between angry satire, easy cynicism, simple parables, unrelenting depression and vivisections of the everyday banalities. These themes, these approaches would not bother me so much if they were not constantly presented with a lack of sympathy - in itself a symptom of youth.
Youth has no patience. Youth sees the world, is embittered by the prospects the world offers, and strikes back without mercy. In order to do so, youth has to see nothing good about the world. The system is rotten - it must be! - the government crooked, the family weak, people are beasts. Barely a shred of depicted decency I remember from the pages of this STRIPBUREK, barely a character who is a person and not a cipher, a symbol. I remember fear, I remember anger and desolation and humorless baring of the teeth in the crude parody of laughter.
No humor. Black comedy, yes. Satire, yes, that invitation to laugh at the others, hiding our own laughable traits behind the armor of arrogance. Absurdity, too. But very little humor. Humor (with a few gentle Czech exceptions) does not flourish very well under the gray skies.
I welcomed - because of my bias? - the familiar faces who straddle the fence between the mainstream and the alternative comics. Tomaz Lavric, Danijel Zezelj and that Serbian guru of the underground, Aleksandar Zograf, stand above the crowd because of their - dare I say it - experience that comes with age. Their comics are clear, their stories have characters, their thoughts or preaching are put forward effortlessly. Other old acquaintances reappeared (Milorad Krstic, Igor Baranko), although curiously unchanged by the passage of time, as if the last STRIPBUREK appeared a mere month ago. Wostok & Grabowski even submitted a six-years old strip to this anthology of the new stuff. If not for some brave souls - like the Albanian Shpend Bengu who hails from “the country that has no word for comics” and yet toils in solitude and improves - I would conclude that the time itself acts funnily in Eastern Europe.
That the time itself is standing still.
With fertile patches of ground few and far between, this package of seeds that is STRIPBUREK is likely to go to waste. The children will grow up, their voices will grow coarser, their hearts will grow cold and gray, and they would leave the childish things behind them. There will be new children saddled with the same old anger and despair, chanting the same demands for change, slashing with split-tipped pens at the uncaring whiteness of the imported paper, hoping to tear a gateway into a better world. And there would be another STRIPBUREK, the same as the ones before.
You are the Columbus, my friend, and likely the better man than I am. Where I watch the uninvited guests from the safety of my kitchen's curtains, hoping they will not mud my pool too much and encouraging them silently to go over to the neighbor's place and rape his dachshund, you may open the door and offer them the snacks. Where I contemplate the strange growth they left in my flowerbed with a spade in one hand and a defoliant in the other, you may water it and make sure it has enough sun.
You may foster a miracle.
Eastern Europe is a lost subcontinent rich in history, talent and suffering - the perfect ingredients to make an artist. Yet, this is not enough. Rare artists thrive just on adversity forever; to mature they need a gentle shower of appreciation, a ray of success, the rich ground of love. And that is why STRIPBUREK has jumped your fence. The cartoonists assembled herein want love but they are too timid or proud to ask. It is up to you, Christopher, to step out, crack open a beer and welcome them into your garden, inside your house.
Into your heart.
(And, please, do not mind when they clog your arteries while relieving themselves in the wrong places for the first couple of months.)
(*) With the help from a legion of
brave correspondents, too many to mention, without whom this introduction
would be much worse, although shorter.