erasing clouds

Jamming with Alexander Zograf: Journey Through a Cartoonist's Art and Life

by Anna Battista

A young man in a black suit is walking down the street. He looks bored, nothing seems to be going on around him: there are no cars jamming up the road and the buildings in the background seem derelict. A white dog is trying to cross the street, an old woman is standing still, carrying a basket. "Another boring day in Serbia…", the bored young man says, "…God…I wish I could fly away somewhere…" he adds, and, on the same instant as he pronounces these words, he stops and ponders on the fact that in comics people can fly, so perhaps he should try as well. Maybe it could work. Maybe it will work. The bored young man stretches his arms, imitating a plane, a bird, anything with a pair of wings. Amazingly the trick works and he flies to visit his friends in the States and to live numerous and even more incredible adventures. End of the story? Oh, no, this is just the beginning.

This is indeed how "On the Other Side", the first story in the comic book Jamming with Zograf, a story by Jim Woodring, Bob Kathman and Aleksandar Zograf, starts. To be more precise, the bored young man we were talking about is actually cartoonist Zograf, the mind behind a book of jam comics that includes stories by Sasa Rakezic AKA Aleksandar Zograf in collaboration with Woodring, Kathman, Robert Crumb, Pat Moriarity, Thierry Guitard, Chris Lanier, Charles Alverson, Wostok, Peter Blegvad and Lee Kennedy. "The material for this book was made upon different occasions, during 6 years or so," Zograf remembers. "I was collaborating with all the artists included in the volume on different projects, anthologies and books. I'm still in contact with most of them, keeping in touch through emails, but this book was the first occasion to do a jam comic with so many different artists. They are all friends, so this was an enjoyable experience. I'm a lucky man to have so many friends in different countries…I might be crazy but I'm lucky alright! I collaborated with artists from a few different countries and working with each of them was always a new thing, it was always something different. For example, British cartoonist Lee Kennedy had a dream about her father appearing as a brain and, later, I had a hypnagogic vision, inspired by her dream. This lead to a collaborative comic about this interaction between dream images that happened between two people living in different parts of the continent. But there was also a story that I did together with Pat Moriarity, which was completely conceived during my stay in Seattle in 1999. I remember that Pat and I had great fun while creating the script in his apartment. It was a different type of collaboration which came about from the direct interaction between artists who were sitting in front of a blank piece of paper. Then, in Robert Crumb's case, I filled in half of the paper and sent it to him in France to finish it. So the various collaborations were always based on achieving new things, trying to co-ordinate the work we had to do in different ways. I think that you can learn a lot through interacting with other people. Especially in a field like cartooning, which you are usually supposed to do on your own, hidden behind the walls of your studio. I have just started working on a second volume of the Jamming series and I hope that it will not take me that long to complete it. The creation of a jam comic book is not only a very enjoyable thing, but also an occasion to produce a new combination of ideas and concepts. When you match your ideas with the ideas of other people, results are often something fresh and new, though there are also some really bad jam comics. It's very EASY to do bad and boring jam comics, so to avoid that is truly a challenge."

At a certain point of "On the Other Side", just after landing in the States, Zograf meets his colleague Kathman and together they visit a comics shop. "I met Bob in 2002, when I had an exhibition in San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum," Zograf remembers, "He works for a major computer game design studio, so it's very difficult for him to find time to do comics. It was very difficult for me even to understand what he does in this studio, but he showed me computer files with just skins of the several characters from the video games that he was animating. It was very bizarre to see just the skin of the characters in a flat position and it was even trickier for me to figure out how the hell is he able to make a movement out of it...good old Bob! Together we did an international anthology of dream inspired comics, entitled Flock of Dreamers, for the now defunct Kitchen Sink Press. I wish we can do a volume two of the book. Maybe sometimes in the future."

Zograf is not new to "jam" comics: in July 1998, 'XER, a meeting of comics and fanzine authors from the territory of former Yugoslavia was held in Belgrade in 1997. All the guests participated in the creation of the comic "Man From the Well" printed as a supplement to the exhibition catalogue. "I was just one of the collaborators, not a very important one, on this project," Zograf explains, "It was conceived during this comics convention of cartoonists and it was a jam comic made by several cartoonists who were illustrating a literary work by a guy who is writing unconventional short stories using the pseudonym of Nabor Devolac. His real name is Zoran Cikic and the funny thing is that he is now working as a translator at the war crime tribunal in Hague. He was very active on the underground scene in a town called Vrsac and now he has the opportunity to see Milosevic and other thugs from a close distance...well, life is full of surprises…"

Apart from starting to think about a possible Jamming #2, Aleksandar has been working on a very unique exhibition called the American Effect, which opened at the beginning of July at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The exhibition will close in October 2003, so there are still lots of chances for you all to go and see it. The American Effect includes drawings, photographs, films, installations, paintings, sculptures, videos and Internet art by forty-seven artists from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South and North America. "The curator of the exhibition, Larry Rinder, was in Belgrade sometime ago and he had a recommendation from Chris Ware to try to contact me," Aleksandar explains, "But at that time I was out of town, so it was only later that I started a correspondence with Larry, who eventually asked me to do an eight page comic for a catalogue of that exhibition. This was the first time that this museum dedicated its space to non-American artists only. The idea was to try to present the work by artists from different countries, who would try to show how America influenced their lives and cultures, for better or for worse. Some works are going to be critical and some aren't. I did a story entitled 'How I Met America', based on my feelings before, during and after the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. This bombing was planned mostly by the American administration. I was just one of the millions of people who were stuck between American and Serbian leaders, with Milosevic on top, and there were Albanian leaders, too. Under normal circumstances, you would avoid these people altogether, but there were bombs falling on the towns all over the place, and it was my town, Pancevo, which was one of the most frequent targets of NATO bombers. A few months after the bombing, I had the opportunity to visit a few American cities. In that circumstance I met a bunch of great artists and altogether nice people. For years after I was present with my comic books on the North American comics scene, so my view of America is far from being one-sided or black and white rubbish. My work is the only comic in the entire show, and it is created for the catalogue exclusively. I tried to be personal and honest, I can only hope that people from the fine art circles will not find my story weird or - even worse - too boring. But I think that it's good that such an established venue is not only giving its space to a guy from the pathetic little country of Serbia, but also to a form of comics which is still not taken too seriously after all these years. I haven't seen the works by other artists involved in the project yet and I'm not familiar with their work, so I'll be happy to be introduced to it."

Aleksandar's comics were recently featured in comics festivals in Lisbon and Pancevo. "The exhibition in Lisbon was a very nice experience, it was part of a comics festival and it presented works by several European cartoonists, including Joe Sacco, who is not considered an European artist anymore but it doesn't really matter. It's good to see that contemporary comics are present in almost every corner of the world. I had a feeling that comics are pretty much respected in Portugal, just like in most Mediterranean countries. I remained in Lisbon for a few days and I really loved it. It was good to go to such a distant part of the continent and to find there people who are actually not that different from the people from the country I come from. Despite the troublesome history and the autocratic regime that ruled the country for decades, Portugal is full of vitality, I felt a really good vibe there. For what regards Pancevo, the first edition of the GRRR! Festival happened last fall, and it was received very well, if I can say so myself. Indeed, I was the director of the event and I can say that organising such a festival is hell, especially in a poor country. We had a small budget, but it turned out fine. The idea behind GRRR! is to organise a sort of relaxing festival which does not concentrate so much on book sales or on the commercial aspect in general. We had discussions and exhibitions of international artists, from Italy, the USA, Holland and so on at several locations and it was all made to help the exchange of ideas in the comics field and, generally, to have fun. There were also concerts by underground bands which were taking place in small clubs and everything was connected to the festival. The institution which stands behind the whole project is the Cultural Centre of Pancevo and their Gallery of Contemporary Art which has a very good reputation in this country. We collaborated very well all together and the next GRRR! is going to take place in the fall 2003. There were maybe ten or twenty cartoonists from Serbia in the latest edition of the festival, it's hard to say the exact number because there were also comics collectives, such as Kosmoplovci - Spacefloaters - from Belgrade, which are made of many people who come and go. This edition of the festival mostly concentrated on contemporary comics, underground stuff predominantly, even though we had 'historical' exhibitions too, one dedicated to the 'golden age' of Serbian comics - from 1935 to 1941 - and another in connection to Magnus and Bunker's 'Alan Ford', with early originals produced by the late Magnus. This made-in-Italy comic was a real legend all over ex-Yugoslavia, ever since the early '70s. I should say that Serbia had its own tradition in the field of comics and that today there are a lot of emerging artists, who are mostly producing fanzines and small magazines. As in the past 10 or 12 years this country was exposed to crises of all kinds, the original comics publishing tradition was nearly completely destroyed."

The Serbian comics tradition might have been in danger, but Aleksandar definitely helped it with his own comic books or with collaborations with other local artists. "I collaborate with a lot of them," he enthuses, "Together we did comics jams, exhibitions, fanzines, all kind of things. I was especially interested to give a push to the young and emerging artists. I have started a comics workshop in my own kitchen a few years ago and it worked for a while. Now it's mostly a combination of fanzine and exhibition show presented in many towns all around the country."

The most recent collaboration between Zograf and another Serbian artist is a comic for the "Black is Beautiful" series, a series of books produced by a small publishing house from Marseille. For the occasion Zograf worked with Serbian contemporary writer Vladimir Arsenijevic. "Vladimir wrote a few novels which made him a star within literature circles. Soon he started being translated in other languages," Aleksandar explains, "I would say that his best novel is U potpalublju, translated as In The Hold. Right now he has his own small publishing company, called Rende, that releases a lot of provocative and fresh literature by writers from all around the world. I suggested to work on the 'Black is Beautiful' project with Vladimir, the work is nearly finished, the only problem is that Vladimir is very busy with so many activities, so we still have to do a final and improved version of the short story written for the project. The idea behind 'Black is Beautiful' is to match an artist and a writer: the cartoonist does one panel and then the writer writes a story inspired by that image. When the story, a 'noir' one, is finished, the illustrator does a few more drawings based on it. In the end, their collaboration is printed in a book. The interesting thing is that everything is published in black ink and printed on black paper! It's a very crazy thing. I got along very well with Vladimir, actually we knew each other since we were teenagers, years before I was involved in cartooning and he was involved in writing. When we were kids we were in punk bands and stuff like that, then our paths diverged and we met again in our late 30s, when we were sort of 'established' underground 'figures' in our country…life is strange. Of the other artists involved in the 'Black is Beautiful' project before me I know Thierry Guitard, my cartoonist friend from Paris, and Miriana Mislov, his wife and a writer too. While working on the project, I also met Vladan Radoman, a writer of Serbian origins who now lives in France."

France is not the only place with a connection with Zograf: British magazine Sturgeon White Moss recently called him for a collaboration. "Sturgeon White Moss is a new British alternative comics magazine, the first one launched after several years. For quite a while, I had contacts with British comics-related small press people. But the scene seem to be pretty much exhausted at the moment. Sturgeon White Moss seemed like the freshest thing around, they contacted me and asked to submit something. I did a cover for the first issue and a four-page story about an obscure Serbian writer from the 19th Century who experimented with language much before it became 'normal' or at least 'acceptable' to do it."

Zograf's comics have become international and this is proved by the numerous sites you'll find on the Internet just by typing Sasa's pseudonym in a search engine. One of the latest Internet pages on Zograf is in Esperanto. "It was really strange to see my work being translated even into Esperanto!" he exclaims, "What I do is very personal and honest and sometimes I'm asking myself if even the person next to me will understand it. But I think that my wish at the same time was to step across any border, to overcome barriers. I was happy that my work was translated in many languages. I was surprised and happy at the same time when one of my stories was translated into Basque language, but Esperanto…who would have ever thought of that!?"

Until now we explored Zograf's art in different contexts and in different countries, but, obviously, his home country is still the main source of inspiration for him. In Serbia, Zograf released last year a comic book, Mesec i ognjeno srce. "It came out at the very end of 2002. It's a collection of stories that I published in magazines and anthologies in few countries outside Serbia," he explains, "Most of the material was originally written in English, so I had to translate it into my own first language, which was really funny! I'm proud to say that there were several very favourable reviews in the big press in Serbia, which doesn't happen often here when it comes to comic albums. There was a review in the most important national daily paper, Politika, written by a journalist that I knew personally for quite a while, but we kind of lost contact with each other. He wrote a very personal article, in which he mentioned what I used to talk about and think when I was still a teenager - I'll be 40 years old in August 2003 - so it was really an emotional thing for me."

Another emotional moment in Aleksandar's life happened in March 2003, when Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was killed. "I was at my parents' place when there was an announcement on the TV," he remembers, "I was really disappointed, and so were my parents, because it seemed that every initiative towards the modernisation of the country ends up in blood. But the action of the police was very effective, especially at the beginning. Unfortunately, the consequences of the political assassination - in a country which was already diving in problems - are something that is going to be felt for a while. There was a feeling of disappointment, I think, that turned into anger. There was something unacceptable in the way this murder was executed and planned, even the criminals were feeling it, so there were major changes within the local Mafia afterwards. Some of them had to change their entire way of operating and some of them will just change the tactics and strike again, I think. When the state of emergency was declared right after the murder, I felt like most of the people, I was thinking that these were the necessary measures to stop the Mafia. Of course, these operations are never entirely successful, but at least they can show that it's possible for the rest of the society to oppose to the criminal groups and Mafia, who even wanted to gain political power in the country! The problem is that the resources of Serbia are in a very bad state, so that now there is again a feeling of powerlessness and apathy that could prevail. Normal people were not really bothered much by the state of emergency. There were check points on the roads all around town and police would maybe stop your car and ask for the ID. It does not sounds like much, but various kinds of criminal groups were really in a state of panic."

Among the people arrested after the assassination of the prime minister Djindjic was also turbo-folk diva Svetlana Raznatovic, better known as Ceca, wife of Zeljko Raznatovic, the latter better known as Arkan, a key figure in the Serbian Mafia and a paramilitary leader in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s. Indicted in 1999 for war crimes in Bosnia, Arkan was murdered in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel in 2000. Ceca was arrested because it was believed she hid in her house members of the Zemun Mafia clan, held responsible for Djindjic's murder. "I wrote an article about what was happening during the state of emergency, but I think that the whole story is not finished yet, especially because at the moment the leader of the Zemun Clan, a guy called Legija, is still on the loose," Aleksandar explains, "I wrote the article because shortly after the state of emergency was declared in Serbia, the American-British attack on Iraq started and the attention of the international media turned towards this direction. So, basically, there was not so much media coverage concentrated on the Serbian situation, even though it was pretty dramatic. But I also wanted to let my friends know my personal feelings and views regarding the situation in the country. I think it's always more interesting to hear what people who are personally involved or who are living in the area might be saying about a particular situation." Right when Aleksandar hints at the war in Iraq, I remember he had a dream about bombs falling on Pancevo years before the war in ex-Yugoslavia started. I wonder if he had dreams about the war in Iraq. "Not that I can remember, no," he denies, "I think that this war was really a big mess, we still don't know the consequences of the action led by the American military machine. There's no Saddam any more on the scene, but there are so many other problems left and nobody speaks much about it anymore. My wife Gordana's relatives left Iraq a few years ago with a lot of difficulties. They moved to the Emirates, a far more quiet place than Iraq."

Flying. Flying over the world. Not by plane, just by stretching your arms. Imagine. It would be possible to have a comprehensive view of hundreds of countries, thousands of cities, millions of people. You could see peaceful cities and territories at war, the quietness of peace, the rage of war. Then, if you flew over the southern part of Europe, you might be able to see the unmistakable Italian boot and, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, the Balkans, the territories of ex-Yugoslavia fractured and irregularly shaped, forming new countries. Imagine. Dream about it. Aleksandar's dreams often materialised in his comic strips, his visions were transposed on the paper incarnated in his unmistakable characters delineated by nothing more than black ink and characterised by black humour. Aleksandar's days still start with dreams and visions. "Usually, I wake up and try to remember my dreams and hypnagogic visions, then I listen to the radio in the morning. Last night I had confusing dreams about travels, nothing interesting, that was because I travelled a lot during the past few months and my mind is still obsessed by strolling down the streets and exploring foreign towns. After trying to remember my visions, I drink a coffee and then start to draw comics. I make pauses and answer my mail and in the evening I read books or go to some event or meet friends. This is just a rough description, because each day is different."

And talking about different days, well, a few months ago Aleksandar had an unusual and quite different experience: he was invited to visit and an Italian school. "I presented my slide show to the kids at the high school in Gemona, in Friuli," he recollects, "I talked about my experience as a comics author and about my life in general. It was really a nice experience but I think that it couldn't go wrong if you had to discuss your real life with other people. Everything that I ever did in comics is actually talking about real life, even when I was describing my dreams - I think that dream experiences are definitely part of our most basic experiences. The kids there were a very intelligent audience and recently they created a CD-ROM based on this event. I still haven't seen the product, but I'm very curious. This was supposed to be an introduction to the life in the Balkans, a territory just about in the neighbourhood of Italy."

Aleksandar's visit to the Italian school proves that comics can destroy any kind of barriers between languages and nationalities, especially when they are based on real events. Indeed, more and more graphic novels based on the real life of the author or on real events are being published nowadays: the latest example is Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, recently published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape. Persepolis is the first volume of Satrapi's autobiography. Nowadays, even the more traditional publishers seem to be more interested in releasing graphic novels than proper novels. "Things are changing, even though rather slowly," Zograf points out, "In the past, most of the people were not ready to agree that comics are something 'serious'. There are still a lot of prejudices about comics, but it's different. For example, I exhibit my work in the galleries or in exhibitions in different places and museums, but who would have ever thought that it could have happened with very personal, dark humoured comics? It's becoming very rare to meet somebody who would say: what are comics doing at a fine art exhibition? And still, while creating my work, I never even think that it's something for an 'exhibition', my concern is just to open up my heart and to tell an amusing story. I think that basically, Satrapi's Persepolis is similar to my work, I can feel the similarity which is perhaps coming from our 'outsiderish' position, more or less, in the Western world."

Not many people know that our friend and cartoonist has also been in the past a music journalist with a passion for the band Suicide. Music seems to be constantly with him. "I was at the concert of the French band Fredowitch last year in Poitiers," Aleksandar remembers, "They are honest and very good, even though they are not widely recognised. I did not write a review about them, but I was thinking that today you have to search really hard or be really lucky to see or hear quality stuff, because the production of the popular bands and what you can get through the official media is mostly very boring to me."

And yet, I often think that Aleksandar Zograf will never get bored: he seems to have so many fellow cartoonists, collaborators, ideas and stories that I cannot think about him as somebody who gets bored. Actually, it seems that lately he's been even more active than usual. "I have ALMOST finished the material for a new book that will be released in the States, which will actually be a collection of my war in the Balkans-related works - comics and writings - from several years past," he announces, "It's going to be a comprehensive volume, scheduled to come out next spring, I think. I'm also planning to go to Gamzigrad for work and vacation. It's a place in Eastern Serbia where we have a small cottage. You see, the country is poor, but almost everybody here has a cottage, so that we can go and enjoy our laziness to the fullest extent I guess! There's always something to work on there, sometimes you have to fix this and that, but we use any free moment we have to walk through the wood or swim in a small and cold river. There's an important archaeological site from the Roman time in the neighbourhood where we go every year for a sort of pilgrimage. One of the Roman emperors, Galerius, was actually born in that same village and the funny thing is that the place hasn't changed much since the Roman times, ha ha!. Gordana and I are also preparing an exhibition of textiles: I do drawings on a piece of textile and she does the idle work. We were experimenting with this for years, it's a very slow job, free from a proper 'story', we have mostly produced single panel drawings. The exhibition is going to take place in Kragujevac, a Serbian town where there is the car factory bombed by NATO a few years ago."

A while back I found a weird story on the British broadsheet The Independent: "Croatian Foreign minister Tonino Picula cancelled a visit to Serbia because of attacks of Serbian polo fans on the Croatian embassy in Belgrade," the article announced, adding nothing more. Perhaps Aleksandar can explain to us what happened. "It's another silly story from the Balkans," he explains, "The water polo team of Serbia and Montenegro won the European Championship by winning over the Croatian team in the final match. The match took place in Slovenia, so there were a lot of Croatian fans and jut a small group of fans from Serbia, as they needed a visa to enter Slovenia. Enraged, Croatian fans attacked everybody, even the TV reporters and polo players, the latter were not even able to receive the cup, so the 'ceremony' was held in a hotel a few hours later. After these events, Serbian fans organised a revengeful action: they went to the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade, smashed some windows and burned the Croatian national flag. That was what Croatian Foreign Minister was protesting about. The funniest - or is it funny at all? - thing happened in Novi Sad, a town in the north of Serbia, where fans weren't able to find anything connected with Croatia, so they just went to the centre of their own town and smashed everything! I think it shows that these people do not really care about sport and I would not be surprised if even their 'nationalism' is just an excuse for frustration and rage, especially because water polo is not really a popular sport in Serbia or Croatia, even though the national teams are of top rank. On normal occasions, spectators of a polo match could be counted in dozens at best."

Since we've gone back to talking about Serbia, Aleksandar tells us how he spent the past few months: "I've been searching through old books in Serbian language at the flea market. It's incredible how many great books are forgotten or marginalised. For example, I found a book written by a police prosecutor in Belgrade in the '60s. He described the world of the small criminals in the post World War II Yugoslavia. It's amusing to read it, because it was written by a policemen in his spare time and not by a professional writer, plus, the book is totally forgotten. It's funny to see how the criminals in the poor society were operating - the country was recovering very slowly after the war destruction, in those days even the criminals were poor. But now the country is again recovering from a war and criminals such as members of the Zemun Clan are among the richest people in the country. I did a two-page strip about this for an independent weekly from Belgrade, called Vreme. I actually started writing articles for Vreme in the early '90s. It is the leading national magazine dedicated to political analyses, it was very critical during the reign of Milosevic, a thing that wasn't always easy and without consequences. I used to write for them about comics, art, music and so on. But ten issues ago, an editor asked me to start doing a comic for them. So I do a two-page colour strip each week, always concentrating on different topics, according to my ideas at the moment. It is a nice experiment because people were not used to see comics in a magazine of that profile. Things are changing now and it seems like most people are already used to see comics in this kind of magazines and they even stopped thinking that it's 'strange'."

Things change rapidly, in our life, in other people's lives. Things change fast even in a country which has suffered a war and it's still suffering internal disorders and clan battles. "Serbia is definitely a nation still in a very deep crisis and this makes me sad," Zograf reveals, "It was only during the past few years that it became obvious that the decadence which Serbia and Montenegro went through was something much more serious than we were ready to admit to ourselves. It's because while you are in the midst of a crisis, you are driven by adrenaline and you just keep on running, otherwise your heart will break or you will go nuts. It's just when the most difficult period passes, that you begin to ask yourself many difficult questions and your urge for improvement becomes painfully loud."

Perhaps we will never learn to fly just by stretching our arms, our fingers rigid against the cold air and wind. Never mind, we'll manage all the same. And yet, we can fly in other ways: we can fly in our dreams, we can fly in our visions, in our illusions. Some of us can already do it: painters fly to the universe of their soul and paint with the colours of their heart, writers escape in parallel universes, copies of reality or fantastic and deranged worlds hidden in their minds. Cartoonists are sometimes in two minds between flying with their fantasy to universes of superheroes or sticking to worlds populated by extremely ordinary people. Aleksandar Zograf found his universe in his own home country, captured it on a white page and let it fly away from him, throughout the world. His universe learnt to speak Esperanto, visited Italy, ran to France, clashed with a vibrant Portugal and met a different world in the States. If you open Zograf's comic books you'll still be able to meet it. On you go.

{For further information about "Jamming with Zograf" and Aleksandar Zograf's art, please contact Sasa at}

A few Aleksandar Zograf Links:
- Fantagraphics (publisher of "Life Under Sanctions"):
- Italian readers can click on to read Zograf's "Bulletins from Serbia"
- Also:,

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