War torn

Aleksandar Zograf's comics offer a bleak, hilarious, haunted perspective on life in Serbia.

Published October 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

During the NATO bombings last spring, one of the most lucid voices available to us from the former Yugoslavia belonged to a Serbian cartoonist who uses the pen name Aleksandar Zograf. His e-mail dispatches over the Internet provided chilling and startlingly immediate accounts of the war. But Zograf's real brilliance is in his comics, and many of the best have now been collected in a paperback titled "Dream Watcher." Reading it won't untangle the knot of history and nationalist mythology that perplexes so many Americans -- Zograf himself is confused by the situation, and the dominant mood of the collection is bewildered despair. But the book gives an excellent picture of the day-to-day experiences and psychic stresses in a country that has lately appeared intent upon cannibalizing itself.

The first and longest story in the collection, "All Against Each Other and God Against All," provides an overview of the civil war in Yugoslavia in a mosaic of absurdist details. As nationalist feelings grow, army uniforms become part of the local fashion scene, and young men who haven't been mobilized dress in fatigues anyway, "just to impress." On television, a famous actress becomes a diviner of mystical codes that relate to the war: "She found that tiny signs printed on pencils made in Croatia represented the number of the beast." As inflation makes the dinar worthless, strange ads appear in the newspaper, such as an offer to trade a couch for some potatoes. New games appear among children, such as Black Market Money Dealer (which treats the worthless dinar notes as Monopoly money) and Cigarette Smugglers vs. Policemen.

As the above details (which are drawn from reality) suggest, Zograf is not interested in realism per se. He has a longstanding interest in the images and logic of dreams -- he keeps a sketchbook next to his bed to record them -- and his drawings have a dreamlike slipperiness. One of his stories, "Ostoja's Astral Adventures," is like an oneiric photocopy of his mental life. It follows the exploits of Ostoja -- a kind of dwarfish, long-armed version of himself (or at least, of his self-portraits) -- as he dodges mechanized dictators, murderous lawyers and doctors, and freakish archaeologists. Ostoja is finally hanged, and his spirit shoots upward: "I looped across the starry sky. In the distance, I was able to see the lawyers and the doctors tearing apart my body. I thought they were funny."

The recently published Psychonaut No. 3 is the third issue of the comic book Zograf has devoted to his dream excavations. Many of these images are inexplicably humorous, such as one of a large muscle-bound rabbit standing at the head of a classroom, haranguing the students. (I laugh every time I look at it -- I have no idea why.) The political situation in Serbia is still present in this work, but here it exists mainly as backdrop for his phantasmagorical acrobatics.

Zograf currently lives in Pancevo, a Serbian town that was the target of several waves of NATO bombings. He has long been involved in his local peace movement, and he was never a supporter of the Milosevic regime -- a circumstance that made him wary about distributing his work during the early days of the bombing campaign. But the fact that he was making comics provided him something of a buffer. "If you write about my politics, make sure it is in context of my art," he told me over the phone at the time. "The regime doesn't care about art."

His weekly strip about his experiences during and since the bombings, "Regards From Serbia," has been running in various alternative weeklies, among them the Stranger in Seattle and New City in Chicago. Two European comics publishers, L'Association in France and PuntoZero in Italy, have brought out collections of his e-mail dispatches, and an English edition, titled "Bulletins From Serbia," will be available through Slab-O-Concrete Publications in September. More information is available at the Aleksandar Zograf Home Page, which includes an interview with the artist that originally ran in the Comics Journal. (The Serbian Comics Homepage offers an overview of the comics scene in Serbia in amusingly fractured English.)

The war marked a subtle change in Zograf's outlook. As bombs fell on residential areas, as the refugees from Kosovo were bottlenecked at various borders, as opposition radio stations in Serbia were shut down by the government, a note of weariness and nihilism crept into Zograf's e-mail reports. It hasn't disappeared.

By Chris Lanier

Chris Lanier is a San Francisco writer and cartoonist.

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