Hypanogically Yours: An interview with Alexsandar Zograf
by Anna Battista
The lovely notes of what superficially sounds a happy melody diffuse around in my room: I'm listening to "End of the Surrey People" by Vic Godard. As the music permeates the air, I remember that the lyrics hide a darker meaning. When an interviewer asked Godard what the song was about, he answered that it came from "a bizarre dream" he had, "at the time the trouble in Yugoslavia started off with Slovenia and Croatia breaking away". Apparently, the singer wondered "what it would be like if that kind of thing happened in Surrey". See everything often starts from a dream. From dreams. From bizarre dreams.
Two or three years before war broke in ex-Yugoslavia, the Serbian Sasa Rakezic woke up in a semi-oneiric state having the impression that a bomb had just exploded outside his flat. Little did he expect that something like that would have really happened in a by-then distant future, exactly from the early '90s on, when the world would have watched the ex-Yugoslavia going in pieces ripped by an ethnic war that most of us followed on TV, while special editions of the news bounced back on our screens bringing in our houses the contrite faces of the journalists.
An omen of bad things hung over the Balkans and on the Adriatic sea for years and, often, we Italians living on the Adriatic coast in peace felt rather inadequate. Inadequate is the right word. While there was the war there, we selfishly kept on living our lives, we went to the beach, we swam, we played, we sunburnt, we joked, we stared at the line in front of us as if we should have been able to see the bombs exploding on the other coast. In those years, the Adriatic Sea enclosed the great oxymoron that lived on its coasts: on one coast the freedom, on the other the violence of an abominable war. The links between one coast and the other were cut off when war started, but there was somebody who kept links opened even during the war, I'm talking about comic writer Sasa Rakezic, also known under his pseudonym, Aleksandar Zograf.
Before turning into a comic writer Sasa had started his career as a writer. as he remembers, "In the 80's I was mostly concentrated on writing - I started to write for national magazines when I was only 17. I didn't believe that people would be interested to read my comics - the stories that I created were deeply personal, and didn't have anything to do with popular adventure or fantasy comics, which were really selling in Yugoslavia, or anywhere else. Now I see that it was erroneous - it's important to trust yourself, and your creative impulse. When the series of wars in ex-Yugoslavia started, in early 90's, I was in a deep crisis, and I questioned my life and my creativity. That is when I decided that, despite all, I should try to keep on creating comics." In the past Sasa had also been a music journalist, a path he abandoned to pursue his career in comics, a choice he doesn't seem to regret, "I don't regret not being active as a music journalist at all", he admits, continuing "I think that comics scene is much more interesting nowadays than the music scene (even though there is ALWAYS something good going on in just any field). The problem is that music is largely over-commercialised, and rock music is not as 'revolutionary' as it used to be in the past. Today's popular music is pretty tamed. Comics are on the border, especially the kind of the comics that I do - but it's not bad, it simply allows you more freedom, you don't have to 'please' masses, or to restrict yourself to the market demands, to work in a way that some manager or editor will ask of you. I like different music. I listened a lot to The Residents, but also old Bonzo Dog Band, Jonathan Richman, Velvet Underground, Suicide, and many quite obscure bands."
Since 1986 Sasa worked for many independent magazines, and in 1991 he started creating the minicomic Alas!: the first issue was a view of everyday life during the war, the second was entitled "The Dream of War Issue"; the third was about the planned bombing of Pancevo, while the fourth, "The Yugoslav Experience" was based on the stories of a group of artists, the cartoonist Wostok, the leader of a punk band Nandor Ljubanovic, the singer of a reggae band Jovan Matic, the fashion designer Natasa Saric, the hat designer Ljudmila Stratimirovic, the painter Stevan Markus and the painter and actor Uros Duric and showed how their lives changed during the war. Still, Alas! wasn't his first comic, apparently Sasa has always been particularly keen on comics and drawing: "As far as my memory go, I was drawing. My love for drawing was very close to my affinity towards animated cartoons and comics. Even before I went to school, I tried to think up my own characters, instead of just copying things that I saw on TV or in the magazines. In fact, I was more impressed by the act of CREATING characters, than I was into telling stories. I have 'invented' countless characters, I filled in many notebooks just by drawing imaginary characters, and creating concepts rather than finished strips. It does not means that I haven't done 'stories' - there were hundreds of pages of comics that I did when I was 8 or 9 years old. I would usually draw a story, and give it to anybody who asked for it. I wander if some of the kids from my class (who are now grown-ups, and deeply involved in existential problems) still have those comics somewhere in their attic."
Sasa attended Belgrade's art school, but he has his own views on education "I went to the art school in Belgrade, and I was always rebelling against the traditional system of education. I never went to college. I never believed in the education that is imposed to you by the so-called 'authorities', even if it's the art you are studying. I believe that Western civilisation is very stiff, pretentious and deeply conservative, it does not appreciate JOY OF PLAY. Just look at our schools: they look to me like army barracks for the children! Education should be something that you can enjoy, something creative, something that you can take or leave." If education must be something creative and free, then also Sasa's model must be original and not really inspired to a particular super-hero "I mostly draw comics about myself and my experiences - I speak of what I know. It is not because I think that me or my life are particularly important, but because I think that it is fairly honest to speak for yourself and to express yourself through autobiography. Sometimes it's Gordana Basta, my wife, who writes the scripts for some of the stories, but she is so much part of my life, that it's almost like another aspect of autobiography. Other than that, I'm very much influenced by the works of the other cartoonists - I always loved the art from the first part of 20th Century, when everything looked so dramatic, so interesting from the visual point of view, especially comics, of course."
The self-produced comic Alas! allowed Sasa to reach the States and to be published by Seattle's Fantagraphics Books. His first works Life Under Sanctions and Psychonaut 1 and Psychonaut 2 were published by Fantagraphics as well as Flock of Dreamers, an anthology about dream inspired comics. Sasa presents in this anthology what he calls his "hypnagogic visions", sentences, words or images which appear in the eye of the mind between sleeping and being awake. The hypnagogic state seems to be a great source of inspiration for Sasa and some of them take the semblance of Walt Disney characters, why does this happen according to him? "I don't know... I guess that it's because I always had fascination with the popular culture imaginary characters. I believe that Mickey Mouse, for example, is some sort of a totem, or transcendental figure in a way - this character had such a wide appeal, and influence, that it is now part of the sub-consciousness of our race, so are the other characters, like Popeye or Donald Duck."
The hypnagogic visions earned Sasa the surname of "Dream Watcher" from Chief Piercing Eyes of the Pan-American Indian Association. As Zograf explains in Life Under Sanctions (Fantagraphics Books, 1994), "Yugoslavians see the struggle of the American Indians for their cultural identity as symbolic of ourselves. They represent the destiny of every 'different' culture in the world. For one reason or another they all lost their original dream, and know there is no turning back ... Some of these nations could even try to exhaust themselves in meaningless wars as Yugoslavia is presently doing". But when is it that he got interested in American Indians? "Very early in my life. I remember reading articles about the Native Americans when I was 7 or 8 years old. Their culture seemed like something beautiful and free, and their destiny was so sad. I think that what our civilisation is teaching us is NOT to honestly be sensitive to the different cultures. This was maybe a necessity, because we are heading towards a unified, global market world... and it is a noble goal, after all the thousands of years of wars and lunacy. But we are not THAT smart, and even though we think about ourselves as 'liberated' and 'technically advanced', we are basically a culture designed by the cunning salesman, and therefore we are pretty dull and boastful by nature."
The hypnagogic visions aren't the only "weird" things that happen to Sasa: he also seems to have other kind of visions or dreams "My first dream in a 21st Century was about how I met Milosevic in a bus in Belgrade. You know, you just never meet people like Milosevic in a public transport. That's a weird dream, isn't it?" In one of his strips in Psychonaut (Fantagraphics Books, 1996), Sasa recalls how after coming back from a trip to Italy, he fell asleep and dreamt of being Italian, of living in Italy and of being able to speak Italian. When he woke up he looked around and couldn't recognise the things that surrounded him. I wonder if this happened also with other nationalities "No, it happened only in Italy!!! There is something about Italy that I like very much, and I think about that country as a second home in a way, even though I can't speak the language quite well, and even though I don't really believe in 'countries' and 'borders'. In 1999, I have visited US for the first time, and I was lodged in New York in an apartment owned by a very fine black artist, Robbie McCauley. I remember that one night I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and when I switched on the bathroom light, for a moment I was struck by an interesting sensation: I had a physical feeling that my skin was black! I can't explain it, of course, but in some way it was a different physical sensation compared to being white-skinned, not better or worse, just different. Anyway, for a moment I was aware of what it was like to be a black man, and it happened in the semi-waken state of the mind, of course."
On the same strip, Sasa remembers that one of the weirdest things he saw in Italy and exactly in Bari was a priest riding a Vespa scooter, while in Alberobello he tried to grasp the spirit of the place in his mind while looking at the weird cone-like houses called "trulli", but Sasa has got some other adventures to tell us about what he saw in Italy "It was astonishing to visit Pompeii. It is really a unique place, it gives you a different perspective on the world that you call your own. It was unforgettable to enter a bar from the time of Roman Empire. Or a toilet. Or a graveyard. Or an ancient whore house. In fact, the only whore house that I visited in my life was in Pompeii (and it wasn't 'active', of course)."
In another of his strips, Sasa states that all the cartoonist are connected one with the other and mentally exchange ideas: is there a particular cartoonist he'd like to exchange ideas with? "I'm sure that creativity is not only self-fulfilling, it also has a communicational value. We are not communicating only on 'surface', everyday-life level, when we meet people or present our work to the others, but also in our dreams, when we are close to our collective sub-consciousness. I think that somewhere all the ideas are merging in a giant pool of the sub-consciousness of human race. It sounds cheap when you speak about it, but it deeply affected my imagination. Whom would I like to exchange ideas with? With anybody whose ideas I will find challenging, no matter if it's a famous cartoonist or some kid..."
In a sense Sasa managed to make more than a simple mental connection with cartoonists all over the world, as he was published by many magazines, from the American Weirdo, Buzzard, Tantalizing stories, the Italian Mano, Germinal and Tattoo Comic, the British Slab Selection and Underground, the Dutch Zone 5300, the French La Pieuvre, the Norwegian Fidus, the Canadian Comix Compendium, the Australian Arena, the Belgian Formaline and the Slovenian Stripburger. As he reminds us "I have solo books published in US, Serbia, Italy, UK, France, Spain, Finland and Germany. But my work was published in many magazines and papers and small press all over the world, and I was translated even in languages like Basque or Galician. I would like to be more present in Latin America. My first Brazilian book should be out in the year 2001. I think that people from Latin America are in some respect similar to us from the Balkans. Even though we are living in a different part of the world, we are some sort of...outsiders, crazy people that nobody can really understand."
Sasa has also been present to quite a few comic fairs all over the world, in Italy, Spain, Australia, Great Britain and Slovenia, but he doesn't feel like saying which one was the best "You know, it's a very difficult question. All the different events were enjoyable to me for different reasons. I don't want to put them in any particular order." Though Sasa can't mention the best comic fair he's been to, he has got a favourite strip of his "There is a three page story called 'My Childhood Days', which was published in some anthologies, but also in books like Dream Watcher in UK, or Psiconauta in Italy. It speaks about who I am, in a very deep way, simply because I'm still that child that I described in the strip."
Comics are often considered a lower form of art and if the comic writer Alan Moore was probably the first who earned the respect of a grown up audience, how does Aleksandar Zograf feels as a comic writer who gives a different message in his strips? "I think that potentials of comics are endless. I'm always surprised to see how wide my audience is. People just have to LEARN to be aware of the comics, most of them don't really DISLIKE comics, they just don't have the habit of reading them. It's also connected with the fact that most of the people don't read anything anymore." Sasa often mentions Tex Avery or '40s American comics, but he likes modern stuff as well "I can feel that there is a lot of good things being produced on the international comics scene nowadays. It's vital that even artists from some small countries are trying to express themselves in the form of comics. It's not really that important anymore if you are from Pancevo, or from Paris, or Palermo maybe. I met a lot of young people not only from my town, but even from the part of the town where I live, who were creating comics. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the overall production gets a wider attention."
One of Sasa's merits stands in the fact that, through his comics, he has managed to made well known to thousands of people what was happening in Serbia during the war, the embargo and the NATO bombings. And Sasa also learnt a lesson from the embargo "It's that things should be questioned. Your life should be always questioned. And your country, and your so-called nation. You should put a big question mark on the world that you are living in. In the times of prosperity, people tend not to ask questions, they are not really critical, they just consume what you put in front of them. Unfortunately, humans are lazy creatures, and they need some sort of stress or a stimuli to really start to observe their own condition. Remember, I don't think that people should suffer to be able to understand some great truth, quite contrary!!! I think that during the crisis I learned to respect and appreciate quiet, simple joys of life."
Historia magistra vitae est, history is life's teacher, Cicero said, but while there was the war we all had the strange feeling that all the past wars never taught anything to those who are at the top of the seats of power. The murder of the Archduke of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 started World War I; Belgrade was occupied by the nazis during World War II and during the '90s an end of millennium war ripped Yugoslavia. History has always been trampled on. In April 1999, while NATO was bombing Serbia, in Italy we had the impression that Europe was just a funny new young continent made out of a patchwork of countries, an unstable puzzle that tended to fall to pieces in the hands of a clumsy party of capricious children who cannot keep it together. Moreover, always in Italy, we had the impression of being treated just like an outpost of NATO: they kept on saying that there weren't risks for our country, still military planes flew everyday from NATO HQs in Italy, 'Hawk' missiles were ready to shoot from Puglia, in the South of Italy, to reach unknown places and unknown people and destroy them and American pilots discharged a few bombs in the Adriatic Sea to alleviate their cargoes. In those months, when Belgrade's radio station, B92 was closed and substituted by the B52s flying from Great Britain, Sasa sent emails to his friends about what was happening in Serbia. Still he never thought of moving out of Pancevo, "No, never. Especially during the moments of crisis, I had a wish to stay here. I don't think that there is a rule that will fit for all situation, but I believe that it's important to actually stay in your own environment and to try to really understand it. Pancevo is not a very beautiful town, but I'm here, and I will stay here."
So, while the world witnessed Prishtina and Belgrade being bombed, the despair of the columns of refugees growing, the dreadful shots of the guns, the terrible explosions of the bombs, the subtle hiss of the missiles and the creepy scary wails of the sirens blasting on our TVs and echoing from far, Sasa never seemed to be abated by a single event "When I was a child, I was sometimes overwhelmed by some sort of melancholic feeling, but for most of the time I was extremely happy to be alive, and everything seemed so exciting. When I grew up, I started to think about the harsh realities of life, and I had a constant, ever-lasting feeling that it's almost impossible to achieve an improvement. But deep inside, behind this cynical facade, I'm pretty much optimistic, and I believe that things can always be changed for the better. There is enormous positive energy bursting out of the heart of everything." And indeed there was some positive energy, even during NATO air strikes: in fact Sasa kept on sending emails which were later collected in the book Bulletins from Serbia (Slab-O-Concrete, 1999). His messages even appeared on a few Italian newspapers: actually he never expected he would have reached so many readers "I'm stupid, so it all came as a total surprise for me. Until the very last moment, when I saw the bombs exploding in my neighbourhood (and it happened on the very first day of the bombing campaign) I didn't want to believe that NATO was really going to bomb the towns in Serbia. Then I started to send messages to our numerous friends all over the world - I didn't have a slightest idea that a few months later they would end up collected in a book or something. Anyway, it was all like some sort of a movie to me, and I was inside that stupid movie, to my bewilderment. At first I didn't even know that even some national daily newspapers were publishing those messages, but when I found out, I continued to write them as if they were meant for our friends. What could I do? It was the only way for me to do it, I would never be able or care to write 'objective' reports like they do in the big media." The emails include a vast range of events: in the message sent on the 24th March, Sasa and Gordana reassure their friends after an air raid; in another Sasa mentions the bombing of the outrageous skyscraper that hosted the headquarter of Milosevic's Socialist party and of his Radio Television Serbia; in another he recalls the bombing of the Novi Sad bridge and the digging for the corpses of the victims of another bombing, while in the message sent on 24th April 1999, he underlines how the victims of the conflicts are always ordinary people, never mind their nationality.
But on 5th October 2000, things changed in Serbia: president Slobodan Milosevic was thrown from power, Sasa never thought this might happen "I just couldn't believe that Milosevic was really going to be thrown away that easy. I thought that we were all going to die and that he (Milosevic) was going to outlive us all. On October 5th I was among the crowd who was clashing with the police, but I couldn't imagine that Milosevic was going to be defeated by the end of the evening, and even without bloodshed. I can't stop looking at life as a bag full of surprises, even though sometimes my sub-consciousness is telling me something different from what I believe. For example, I had a dream about bombs falling on Pancevo years before the war in ex-Yugoslavia even started, but when I saw real bombs years later, it seemed like some sort of a make believe." Sasa was in Belgrade on 5th October and you can read his report "The Last Days of Milosevic (Metaphorically Speaking)", on this site.
Vojislav Kostunica, the actual President, will have lots of work to do now and, politically speaking, things are still rather problematic in Serbia, as Sasa notices "It's very difficult, because things are changing very slowly. After all the years of crisis, now we have to wait for the improvement, which will take some more years of our life. At least, people are now more politically aware, especially because they won a non-violent battle against the Milosevic's semi-dictatorship regime. The whole world was viewing Serbs as mad killers for many years now, so this turn of events was a surprise for the outside world (it was obvious that Milosevic, throughout the 90's, was not so much of a popular politician, but a cunning manipulator, and yet for most of the viewers outside of Serbia it was hard to believe). It was really a brave achievement to overthrow such a regime, without using explicit violence. It does not mean that masses here will not maybe be fooled in the future by some other political figure or a program, but now everything is different, at this stage of the process." The year 2001 has just arrived, so what did Sasa do on New Year's Eve and which are his resolutions for the new year and his hopes for Serbia? "On the New Year's Eve Gordana and I stayed at home. I didn't feel like there was really that much to celebrate. I hope that future will bring a more relaxed pace of living in Serbia, and that we are not going to completely form our new lifestyle after the models imposed by the Western capitalist frame of mind. I know that I'm only a dreamer and I suspected for many years that eventually Serbia is going to become one of the most Americanised countries in the world."
About his future plans Sasa doesn't exclude an adaptation for the screen of his comics "Well, one American cartoonist and animator has a plan about creating an animated film based on one of my comics. Even though the voiceover is already recorded, I believe it's too early to talk about it." So, while waiting for this new and intriguing project, Sasa is working on something else "I'm working on finishing two of my books and one of them is collection of my 'Regards from Serbia' weekly strips. Other than that, I'm trying to remember some interesting dreams lately."
Well, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, "Life, what is but an hypnagogic vision?". Though often Aleksandar "Sasa" Zograf took his inspirations from his oneiric states, he didn't live in a proper dream for quite a few years, as he was entrenched in the nightmare of the war. And yet, Sasa was able to turn his own nightmare and the nightmare of his country into a way to express his ideas and to free his creative impulses, reaching the minds of thousands of people all around the world.
The last notes of "End of the Surrey People" disperse in my room. Let's think about it, what would you do if it happened to you?
Special thanks to Sasa for promptly answering my emails and helping me with the links. See you and Gordana sometimes in Italy!
Alexander Zograf's Links:
-"Regards from Serbia" weekly strips are posted every Saturday on thecomicstore.com, and here's the link to the archive where previous strips are stored.
-There's a link to Regards strips posted on the new and very much recommended Mack White's Worldwide Newslink site
-View From The Inside: A Profile of Sasa Rakezic -- Extended and updated version of an article by Brenna Sanchez, published in the summer issue of Raygun magazine: http://126.96.36.199/Merchant/sasaprofile.htm
-Zograf's American publisher Monsterpants Comicsand to read his "Bulletins from Serbia" go to http://jochenenterprises.de/autoren/zograf/zografnewsapril.html