Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Aleksandar Zograf "the Second hand world"

Pancevo-based, Sasa Rakezic Zograf is the most accomplished Serbian underground cartoonist. Patiently working at his signature style in a career that is almost two decades long, he has achieved worldwide recognition. And while "Regards from Serbia", his cartoon diary detailing the days of NATO bombing probably stands as his most famous work, Zograf's regular output can since be found primarily in the pages of "Vreme", the Serbian weekly modeled on US' "Times"' format.

Zograf's regular contribution consists of two colored pages usually standing on their own, as the reminder of author's signature wit and world view. So far, the first several years of the feature have been collected in Croatia and Serbia, in both circumstances by well known traditional book publishers, "V.B.Z." and "Sluzhbeni glasnik". Most of "Vreme"'s online archive is available online, although Zograf's contributions are left in Serbian, as hand lettered by the artist.

Zograf as he is today is a remarkably consistent creator, and most of his current output is easily divided into several categories. Thorough all of his strips, a particular intellectual personality shines through, one that is both playful and educational, at the same time. And while his cartoon self seems immune to age, nowadays the writer behind him thinks as a man that though he is approaching middle age, still tries to keep his sense of wonder as his strongest inspiration. "Vreme" shows Rakezicj as someone who has long since stopped being a Kafka-inspired up and coming cartoonist, having become a frequent guest of comics festivals the world over. More so, as he is today, Zograf seems almost consciously distant from traditional European culture landmarks, having entered a phase where he almost takes them for granted. Effectively, reading through his current output seems as if looking at the ways that he tries to find amusement in an all too familiar world, by always looking for something strange and new.

This is most apparent in Zograf's many travels, that he dutifully retells during his strips. Accompanied by his wife Gordana, the artist frequently pays short visits, usually to European cities, where he stays just long enough form a concrete impression. In his narration, he makes the obligatory mention of a comics festival that brought him there, but the bulk of his recollections are based on walking the city streets and encountering varios paraphilias. Zograf's art style is loose and cartoonish, but fluid enough to incorporate likenesses. This helps to carry over the atmosphere of his travels, along with a rare conversation. Typically, most of his travelogues consist of little panel to panel continuity, basically being a set of stills narrated by Zograf in captions. His characteristic humor still comes through, but by and large, most of these vignettes serve to introduce the reader to foreign culture, and are perhaps the most educational parts of his current output.

Of course, Zograf travels through Serbia as well, contrasting many of the local customs with life in the past, or more commonly, in contemporary bigger cities. Once again, he is drawn to local celebrities and curiosities, which are seldom known outside of their immediate area and make for very interesting reading. When it comes to Belgrade and Panchevo, Sasa's interest paradoxically seems almost entirely to consists of rummaging through the flea markets. It is amazing how many of his strips actively revolve around a curio he bought for a few nickels, usually a rare, long forgotten book. Zograf usually proceeds to recount the tale, and seems quite taken to present the excesses of their authors, next to anonymous writers living in Serbia before World War 2.

Not only do these strange books speak of the day to day life that only the oldest still remember, but several of them even try to predict the far away future of late XXth century. Zograf typically positively revels in these flights of fancy, yet he exhibits a somewhat more sombre style when it comes to dealings with the communist everyday and it's particularities. By recounting the memoirs of much-loved Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, and the widespread fame of TV comedians such as Miodrag Petrovic Ckalja, the author achieves a high mark of presenting the way of life that is both nostalgic and representative of the region.

Very rarely does Sasa even mention comics, so engrossed he is in presenting the information that does not pander to a particular reader mindset, which must have been what made the political "Vreme" magazine to present his recollections and opinions. Typically, every once in a while, Zograf devoted his two pages to a hero of his, spotlighting personalities as diverse as avantgard poet Branko Ve Poljanski, and inventor Mihailo Petrovic "Mika Alas". Other times, it functions as a regular column, albeit illustrated, featuring Zograf interviewing his friends, usually local artists, but also comics legends such as Will Eisner, Kim Deitch and Rick Veitch.

Interestingly, a large portion of Zograf's strips features little to no art, being content to providing scans of decades old greeting cards and family photos of unknown people. That impression, of an author positively obsessed by flea markets is one that is even embraced by the cover of "the Second hand world" collecting roughly two years of his strips. Zograf seems endlessly amused by cheap toys and bootlegged versions of popular Disney characters, that most seem happy to ignore. Once again, this is no simple ridicule, as even then he endeavours to educate, and by highlighting the memorabilia save it from being forgotten about, by reminding the reader of the particular context in which it existed. On the other hand, he is critical of the modern world as well, going so far to illustrate some of the strangest foreign novelty catalogues.

A lot of the times, there just seems to be no end to Zograf's creativity, as he illustrates a rare dream, an over the top "Battle of Stalingrad" communist propaganda poem, and even a particularly shoddy written synopsis to a western. All along, the reader gets the tidbits of the creator's musical taste, with the interest in oddball bands such as "the Residents" and "Bonzo dog band", but very little personal information. For an author that seems completely devoted to autobiographical comics, Zograf is almost enigmatic in how little of his personal life carries over in his comics. Contrary to his supremely rich inner life, the reader is almost kept at a distance when it comes to any kind of concrete information, aside from the essentials.

This is nowhere as apparent as in the "Vreme" strip detailing how Zograf and his wife spent the New Year's eve. By circling through Pancevo's countryside, the creator is happy to get a peek at everyone's festivities, while leaving himself to the side, as the observer. Never claiming objectivity, Zograf remains a columnist that presents his opinions sharply and personally, yet always at the distance from the traditional intimacy of auto-bio comix.

When it comes to the availability of his current work, little of it has been translated in English, although French's "L'Association" has so far published two volumes of his previous work, unrelated to "Regards from Serbia". Seeing as he continues to work for "Vreme" on a regular basis, we can hope that it is only a matter of time that the wider audiences can be introduced to his comics, and the universal wit behind them.

1 comment:

niffiwan said...

Thanks for the review. I love "Regards from Serbia" and hope that some of his other work will be translated eventually.