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Interview with the acclaimed Serbian graphic journalist, guest of the Komikazen Festival

by Francesca Rolandi e Christian Elia


In these days (exhibitions will be visible in different parts of the city until the 7th of November), Ravenna is playing host to the sixth edition of Komokazen, the international reality cartoon festival. This initiative, organised by the Mirada Association, grows year by year in terms of numbers of participants and quality of guest authors invited from all over the world. This year, among other guests, it features Aleksandar Zograf (pseudonym of Saša Rakezic, born in Serbia in the city of Pančevo in 1963). Rock music journalist and cartoon author, his stories have been published all over the world. During the NATO bombardments of Serbia in 1999, Zograf achieved global fame by publishing a diary in comic strip form, focussing on the events of the war. His books have been published around the world, and in Italy ‘Greetings from Serbia’ andLetters from Serbia’ have both been printed. PeaceReporter interviewed him.


Many people consider Zograf one of the fathers of graphic journalism. How healthy do you think this way of describing the world is, just at the moment?

Before, comic strips used to focus on the fantastic, today they also describe reality and social issues. I think it’s a positive period, because there are a lot of magazines open to graphic journalism… and for me as well, in Serbia, where every week I can publish two pages of cartoon strip on different subjects, in the political weekly magazine Vreme. Also, you know, these days, lots of groups of young people in many cities – and not only in Western Europe – are doing the same kind of thing, and that’s a good sign for the future.


Saša Rakevic is a journalist, Alexander Zograf a cartoon author. What’s the relation between the two?

They’re two sides of the same person. Saša Rakezic uses words, and tries to communicate his truths through them, while Aleksandar Zograf does the same thing through drawings, but each one is a mirror-image of the other. Sometimes I find myself facing rather weird identity-situations, like when I go to a festival and I don’t know whether my room is under the name of Saša Rakezic or Aleksandar Zograf. I’m used to living my life on two planes, one visual and one verbal. I try to reconcile each with the other, especially since my cartoons are strongly linked with words and stories, while my journalism always tries to incorporate images. So in my case, these two sides of me get on pretty well with each other.


In Serbia, and throughout the ex-Yugoslavian area, are there many interesting young authors?

Yugoslavia always had a strong tradition of cartoon authors. Even in the 1930s there were cartoon strips, especially in Belgrade, but also in other major cities. The wars of the 1990s caused the disappearance of many publications. When Yugoslavia broke up, each separate republic became a much smaller market. Where before you could publish a comic magazine with twenty million potential buyers, after the war the market was fragmented. That was when lots of small magazines were set up directly by cartoon authors determined to publish their own work, without being linked to bid publishing companies, but also without submitting to censorship bodies. In itself this meant a certain kind of freedom, and during the ‘nineties authors focused a lot on the social situation around them. It was a bit like what happened in the United States in the late 1960s, when a whole underground movement of strip cartoonists focused on the Vietnam war: likewise the 1990s wars and crisis in Yugoslavia saw the birth of lots of small magazines produced by young artists, caring more about their own ideas than about the market.  So something good came out of those difficult times, as often happens in life.


Is there such a thing as a Yugoslavian or post-Yugoslavian style?

If we look back to the past, we can see how Yugoslavia from the 1950s to the ‘80s was a fortunate place for cartoon artists. There were lots of European comic strips around… Italian, French, Spanish, English. And American too. But also – even if to a lesser extent – there were cartoons in translation from Eastern Europe, from Hungary and Poland, even some stuff from China. So there was a broad range of influences, even broader than in Western Europe. This was due to the fact that Yugoslavia was on the border between the two worlds, neither Eastern nor Western, but a mixture of the two. So if there ever was a Yugoslavian style, it was certainly very varied, with some authors doing completely different things for different situations, like some commercial and some avant-garde work. The coexistence of influences from different countries was reflected in art as well. And today too, there is no one style, but many different special styles.


How much contact is there between cartoon artists from different ex-Yugoslavian republics?

A lot. There’s still a kind of “brotherhood”, and sometimes they collaborate and do cartoon jam sessions, where different authors all draw together. It’s quite common. But cartoon festivals, unlike Western Europe, are not very commercial, because the market is much weaker.


Recently there has been a lot of talk in Italy about Kragujevac, because of Fiat, Italy and Serbia, and employment. How would you tell this story of memory, labour and capitalism?

There’s a long-running link between Fiat and Serbia, so it came as no surprise when Fiat reappeared in Kragujevac. I never thought about it before, but it would be worth trying to tell the story of the relation between Kragujevac and Turin in a cartoon strip. In a country as deep in crisis as ours, where foreign investment is practically non-existent, the arrival of Fiat is like a dream come true. Of course, it’s all a matter of economic logic: Fiat has returned to Serbia because labour is cheaper. Anyway, at the moment people here see this as a positive development, even though that may change in the future… when, for example, Fiat finds even cheaper labour somewhere else, and moves there instead. But for the moment, things are fine.


5 October 2000 – 5 October 2010: ten years have gone by since the fall of Milosevic. On that day, ten years ago, was this the Serbia you thought awaited you?

The general feeling today, among those who took part in the protests on 5 October 2000, is that what was hoped for is not what has happened. In reality it hasn’t all gone as smoothly as people expected, and a lot of problems have still not been resolved. I’d say that to some extent hopes have been betrayed, and to some extent it’s a matter of reality reasserting itself. By 2000 Serbia had been in deep crisis for ten years, and the previous year much of its infrastructures had been bombarded by Nato… a gigantic catastrophe that we weren’t even able to admit to ourselves. When that crisis came to end, all the problems that had accumulated in the previous ten years came out into the open. The fact is, it takes more than ten years to get over a crisis that profound. Twenty years have gone by since the Yugoslavian crisis began, and in a way it’s still continuing. We’re still waiting for the day when we can say that it’s all over and now we can live our lives tranquilly in peace and calm. Actually, I’m not astonished that the 5th of October didn’t usher in as many changes as we expected, because at the time our expectations just weren’t realistic.