by Zlatko Milenkovic
What can you say about the Yugoslav comic art scene since the previous Stripburek in 1997? Since it seemed to be in a state of deep – if restless – sleep for the better part of the last decade, we might call this latest period an awakening.
The situation really was bad. In fact, I can't write a single thing about 1997 or 1998. I am a great fan of everything to do with comic strip and yet I can't write a single thing about those two years! There simply weren't any comics published, or if they were only a few copies were printed. The media were disinclined to print comics, especially state controlled ones, since it was quite obvious that comic authors weren't prepared to support the absolutist and undemocratic regime that had repressed Serbia and what was left of Yugoslavia for the past decade. You could even say that Milosevic's regime did more harm to comic art in Yugoslavia than the Communist Party in its 45 years of rule. The only form of comic art that existed throughout this period – and even boomed – was not accessible to the general reading public. These were fanzines, which, with their limited public, could not draw enough readers to maintain publishing continuity. They managed nevertheless, to prevent the total destruction of the comic art scene and just as importantly, to bring up a brand new generation of authors with an new and distinctive sensibility. The Slovenian Stripburger represented one of the main influences in the formation of these new authors who, in time, would find their way into foreign publishing houses. An authentic fanzine scene was created.
What will grow on these foundations remains to be seen in the coming years, when the major publishing houses wake up and start publishing the new generation. Only then will we be able to evaluate the actual impact of these young underground comic authors and what they can offer the general public. Or see if they even decide to go out there, to the ordinary reader.
The endurance of the comic scene in
these parts was also due to the self organising of authors,meeting in numerous
clubs and schools for comics. Vlada Vesovic was of particular importance
here, providing many of the sparks that ignited the energy and motivation
to set up scools for comics. These small flames from all directions eventually
culminated in a blaze of fire. Through the smoke and over the debris of
the October 5th storming of the Yugoslav Parliament and Slobodan's regime,
the young cavaliers rode in. As kids they would secretly read their comics
during class and quote their favourite heros with nonchalance. Their arrival
caused a dramatic change of attitudes in the media culture and opened many
new doors for comic art. Of course, this didn't mean that all our problems
were solved. The misery and economic devestation of the country mean, among
other things, that people can't afford to buy comics. Yugoslavian comics
will need a couple of more years to return to their former glory.
My own lack of information and hunger for texts on comics motivated me to start Strip Vesti (Comic Strip News), an e-mail newsletter that offers up to date news and information on comic strip events in Yugorslavia and also its former republics. I launched the project on January 1st 1999, so from that point on I can tell you just about anything you might want to know about comics in Yugoslavia. With the possibility of spreading information about the latest comic developments it became obvious that there really was quite a lot to write about: exhibitions, happenings, promotions, meetings, fanzines, albums… So much, in fact, that I will have to pace myself not to make this text much too long and tedious.
The 99'-01' period was marked by a reversal in trends. I am talking of course about mainstream and undergroung comics. Something quite unique happened: Undergroung comics took the lead in our comic scene. Clasical, mainstream authors found themselves in the position where they can experience all the setbacks and advantages of the alternative scene and stand shamefaced while their underground colleguaes tell of their publications and succeses. As it turned out once again: What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Mainstream authors went into publishing for themselves and learned a couple of valuable lessons in the years of hardship. Since there aren't any major publications of Yugoslavian comics it is still hard to tell which school will eventualy have the most influence or even prevail. The fanzines and magazines sold in our bookshops give the impression that there is virtually no difference between the underground and the mainstream. They all started the new millenium from the same position – basically from square one. The battle follows – let it burst of good comics.
The 1998 'XER meeting of comics and fanzine authors from the whole of ex-Yugoslavia got its epilogue in July of 1999 with the publication of the comic anthology 'XER FILES. The promotion events took place in Cinema REX, which used to play an important part in our comic scene until the previous regime confiscated its property. After that they moved into cyberspace – www.cyberrex.org. The promotion for the anthology »Novi autorski strip v Srbiji« (New Comic Strip in Serbia) was also done through the Net, at the same time Projekat Rastko (Project Rastko) did an extremely interesting segment on comix. Many comic authors took advantage of the Internet to find their way to a wider, world audience. It is no exaggeration to say that the internet technologies represented the most important form of communication for Yugoslavian comic artists in the last couple of years. Cyberrex's site also provides its visitors with a list of links to other Yugoslavian web sites dedicated to comic art.
Aleksandar Zograf organized numerous events and activities and turned the little town of Pancevo into an oasis of undergroung comics. He organized the comics workshop Kuhinja (Kitchen) and published, together with his »co-belligerents«, two issues of the fanzine under the same title. Zograf himself also made many comics and his works were published all over the world. Through his reflections on life in Serbia under sanctions and his informing the rest of the world through comics and e-mails about the situation in Yugoslavia during the bombing campaign, he succeded in conquering seemingly unconquerable newspapers in Canada, America, England, Spain and Italy. Reprints of his works are widening his audience every day. His work also brought many foreign publishers and scouts into Pancevo.
Striper, edited and published by Radovan Popovic is our oldest domestic comic magazine, focused mainly on the younger generation of authors. They model their publication of »extreme comix« on the Slovenian Stripburger, with experimental and modern comics testing the limits of the art and setting new standards.
Zoran Penevski is the man behind Graficka Zavera (Graphic Conspiracy), a magazine featuring high quality contemporary comics. With four theme issues Zoran has created quite an exceptional publication, offering an attractive selection of works by a large number of remarkable artists. Zavera is issued periodically and hopes to become accessible to a wide readership with regular issues.
Patagonija's tehme issues have managed to higlight the passions and sensibilities of domestic authors. The main problem with Patagonia is its unsteady issueing and the eternal question: if and when will we see the next issue. Luckily it usualy reappears just when we start to lose faith.
Fanzines, as I mentioned earier, played a major part in our domestic comics production in the 90's. At first, needles to say, they were created by young enthusiasts with an urge to experiment and test the limits of their medium. Later, realising fanzines to be the most promising path to take – which was made most obvious by the fact that Alexander Zograf's world fame was achieved precisely through his fanzine work – many mainstream authors started doing fanzine work aswell, in the dark age of the 90's. These fanzine featured artists like Aleksandar Zograf, Saša Mihajlovic, Wostok, Grabovski, Nikola Vitkovic, Tihomir Celanovic, Uroš Begovic, Mladen Oljaca,The SmOG Group from Bor, a group of authors from Novi Sad and many, many more…
Exhibitions are also an extremely important segment of our domestic comic scene. Some authors even did more exhibitions than publishing of their work. Of course, the most important exhibition for Yugoslavian comics was the one in Angouleme in 2000, where the work from other ex-Yugoslavian countries was also displayed. Just a few weeks later an exhibition of Yugoslavian comics opened in The Yugoslav Cultural Centre in Paris. A major landmark came when a group of Belgrade authors won a comics competition organized by the French publishers Glenat. The success of Drazen Kovacevic, Goran Skrobonja and Vlada Vesovic gave Yugoslavian authors a new dose of self-esteem and also brought them the attention of foreign publishers, scouting for young and talented authors looking for their big break. The big talent hunt began (now we just have to sell ourselves to the best bidder).
As you could have gathered by now, most of the comic scene in Yugoslavia today owes its existence to a few individual enthusiasts who carried most of the load. Behind every project, magazine, workshop there is a name, a person whose dedication and effort helped salvage and contributed to the advance of Yugoslavian comics. A great number of people played an invaluable part in creating the current situation, which gives us a good foundation to quickly return to normal and join in the currents of world comics. So even if our state managed to detach itself from the rest of the world, the comics community tried to keep up as much as possible.
Rereading my text I’m not sure you will have understood why my obsession with local authors not getting published. Some might think: well if they’re not getting published, they probably aren’t any good. But the problem isn’t in the quality of their work: The problem is that licenses for foreign comics are cheap enough to make regular issues of magazines possible, whereas paying such low fees to domestic artists would be humiliating. And meanwhile our best artists are being lured out into the wide world, one by one…
Zoran Janjetov has been with the French publishers Les Humanoides Associes since the middle of the 80’s and has had 9 albums published in France. After Mladost Dzona Difula he is currently working on an incredibly successful series based on Zodorovski’s script Technoperes. Rajko Miloševic Gera is doing three comics for the American Heavy Metal and the French Glenat, Brane Kerac works for Strip Art Features and his works, together with works by Sibin Slavkovic have met with great success in northern Europe. Aleksander Zograf finally published an album in his home country after years of working abroad (he has published his works in more than 10 countries). Sasa Mihajlovic has had his work published in a couple of successful foreign anthologies as well as in umerous magazines and fanzines abroad. Aleksa Gajic works for the French Soleil, Drazen Kovacevic, Goran Skrobonja and Vlado Vesovic are at Glenat. Bojan Redzic is also with Glenat doing a parody on martial arts. Just recently the young, almost anonymous Tiberi Beka signed with a French publishing house. A great number of authors are still waiting to get published, and their successes will be the topic of another essay. Already waiting for the next Stripburek...
Some other links to Yugoslavian comics sites: