By Arni Beck Gunnarson
"Comics are like cockroaches, you cannot kill them."
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danijel Zezelj for the Danish webmagazin Metronaut.dk. The interview came about since the magazine was looking to delve into the Danish nerd culture and the editor I spoke with had already talked with Mr. Zezelj about an interview for the site.
Being a big fan of his art work and his work on Desolation Jones, DMZ, Northlanders and of course his then recently released Starve, also with Brian Wood, I jumped at the chance.
The interview went on for quite some time, only a few questions and then some follow-ups before moving on, but that also meant that a lot of interesting things happened in the background, such as Zezelj's continued work on Starve and a comics festival in my adopted hometown of Copenhagen.
ABG: How did you get started out in Zagreb?
DZ: I went to School of Applied Arts for two years and later to the Academy of Fine Arts for four years, so my training is in classical painting and printmaking. During the Academy I also stared working in graphic design, studying fonts, poster making, etc. I have always been interested in visual narration and for me the history of western art, from cave paintings through renaissance to modern times, is history of visual storytelling and comics and graphic novels are just a logical extension of that same evolution. I started making first comics when I was about ten years old but it took me a long time before I was able to draw and create anything decent and good enough for publishing.
ABG: What's the Croatian and Balkan comics scene like?
DZ: Since I spent most of my life and working career in Italy and USA I'm not the right person to talk about Croatian comics scene, except for information I pick here and there. For sure there are many great artists and some good writers and many artists made careers and make living by drawing comics for mayor world publishers, Italian, French, American. Most of those comics are commercial superhero serials. There is also an underground scene, a lot of it focused around Komikaze magazine and website. There are many comic artists but I'm not sure if there is a real "comic scene". Croatia still lacks writers who write well about comics, it misses a decent comics festival and comics exhibitions, it lacks magazines or webzines. I believe it's important for comics to connect and communicate with other forms of visual narration like graffiti, animation, video art, or even performance art.
ABG: Do you feel that this is because comics are not generally considered a legitimate medium by the majority of literary academia in Croatia and the Balkans? Because it seems to me, like there is a rich and vibrant literary scene there, and as you said, there are those who have made careers outside of Croatia.
DZ: Comics are definitely not considered a legitimate medium by the official academia, although that is slowly changing. But I think that many comic artists as well as part of the audience prefer seeing comics as a medium that belongs to the margins, to the periphery, to the back alleys. I prefer not belonging to the mainstream. What might be lacking is the will to recognize comics, especially so called alternative and independent comics, as an authentic and relevant creative voice. But again, that is changing.
ABG: You also stated that you worked mostly in Italy and the US, and obviously quite a few of the people you cite as influences worked in Italian comics. Unfortunately, it's not something that's all too familiar to me, aside from Dylan Dog, Frezzato and his Keepers of the Maser trilogy and obviously Hugo Pratt and to some extent Milo Manara, as well as some of the Italian artists working in the US today, such as Andrea Mutti and Riccardo Burchielli. How would you describe the Italian comics tradition as opposed to both US and French/Belgian comics?
DZ: When I mentioned Italian comics scene I primarily meant the authors and writers who emerged in late 70ties mainly in Bologna and around the Frigidaire magazine, (Pazienza, Liberatore, Tamburini, Mattioli, etc). In Italy punk was channeled through comics more than music, and it was the energy, subversiveness, political courage and creative power of those authors that I found truly inspiring.
ABG: What were your major influences when you got started?
DZ: My major influence was the art of Jose Munoz and his work with writer Carlos Sampayo. I was completely blown away the first time I saw Munoz's work and it still amazes me today. It never gets old. I'm also huge fan of the whole South American scene, with Breccia brothers, or work of Carlos Nine. Later I discovered Bill Sienkiewicz, Liberatore, Tardi, Raul, Topi, and many other artists. In terms of storytelling my favorite is Andrea Pazienza, italian writer and illustrator almost completely unknown outside of Italy. I was also strongly influenced by movies, especially black and white silent movies from the first half of last century, (Russian Avanguard, German Expressionism, French Surrealism). Painting had a great influence as well, especially baroque paintings.
ABG: (Turning now to a letter format)
Dear Danijel, life and comics keep taking our time. Recovering from a wonderful 2 day festival here in Copenhagen, which blew me away in terms of new and exciting Danish talents.
It was also interesting to see, that many of the things we've discussed in terms of recognition for the medium, were quite apparent, and I would venture, that quite a few people showed up, who didn't read comics before, or alternately, that the amount of people who read comics on a regular basis has grown. There was also what appeared to be a growing academic interest, but with Art Spiegelmann presenting MAUS and discussing how he worked on it, that shouldn't come as a surprise.
Back to the matter at hand, I find it quite interesting that comics drove the Italian punk scene but with few exceptions, that's not something we've seen so much of here. But there's a growing market for older publications in Denmark, so maybe there's someone willing to look at those, perhaps as a matter of academia.
I was first introduced to your work with CABALLO, which I would describe as something uniquely your style. You both wrote and drew it, inspired by writers and poets in some of the stories, but despite the different subject matters of the stories and the different styles you employed, they are all obviously you.
For those who haven't read your creator-owned work, how would you describe it, and where would you suggest people start?
I'm glad you had fun at the Festival and it's great that a new generation of comics artists steps in.
Comics are like cockroaches, you cannot kill them.
Caballo is a collection of short comics and although I tried to find a stylistic and narrative connection between all different pieces, as a book it slightly lacks consistency. Which is the case with most compilations. For someone who have not read any of my work I would recommend complete graphic novels, like King of Nekropolis, Small Hands, Babylon (which is wordless) or the most recent one entitled Forest (also wordless). I think that every book is a creature on it's own, with it's own mind and body, and I see all my books very different one from another.
Babylon and Forest are wordless books, which is something I love, as the storytelling reaches a different level. How different is that challenge art and story wise, telling it wordlessly?
DZ: There is a great unused potential in wordless graphic novels. Wordless storytelling already has a long and rich tradition (even if we focus only on printed materials from past 100 years) with beautiful work by Frans Masereel (Sun, The City, etc) or Lynd Ward. I consider the entire art history of the Western world as a history of visual wordless storytelling (beginning with prehistoric cave paintings). Telling a story only through images comes quite naturally to me, I think and memorize visually, and visual symbolism always fascinates me. Exclusion of words takes away one layer of narration but simultaneously adds another because sequencing and composition of pure images changes immensely the perception of time and rhythm. Reader is forced to pay more attention to every single frame, as well as the space and relationship in between frames. I'm also a big fan of silent movies, and one could learn a great deal from their use of gestures, body language, facial expressions and mise en scène.
ABG: I'd now like to fast forward several years, to your work DMZ and Northlanders. The reason for that is quite simple, that I don't read any superhero comics, but loved your short run on Desolation Jones.
Obviously, both were written by Brian Wood, and both are extremely political in nature, despite the different settings in time. As someone who's lived in New York for many years, what's your take on DMZ?
DZ: Brian skillfully turned a simple and plausible hypothesis (especially plausible after September 11th), into foundation of a great serial. Historically, New York was built on violent clashes of ambition, greed and dreams, and in many ways those clashes are persisting force behind its drive today. DMZ is a successful mix od reality and utopia, facts and fiction, present and future, shaped into conceivable reality. To me New York City is a symbolic reflection of western civilization, where growing contrasts of positives and negatives, destruction and construction, create constant friction, tension and blasts of energy. It is fascinating place which should have already collapsed and disappeared multiple times in the past but it always revives itself for one last dance.
ABG: I don't wish to turn this into a political debate, but it's hard to avoid thoughts of the many tragic events that have taken place within the US for quite a few years now, would you say that the scenario presented by DMZ is an increasingly realistic one?
It's also interesting to note, that Northlanders and DMZ, as well as the new series REBELS, all written by Brian, are nation building stories, albeit set in different times. One might even argue that he's trying to persuade the reader, that we should be beyond those kinds of conflicts now, yet they remain ever-present.
You yourself drew the last part of the Iceland Trilogy in Northlanders, which centers on conflict ridden families on their path to becoming dynasties, which again could be considered highly topical in modern American politics.
DZ: The facts of everyday living in the US have little to do with the general picture that people worldwide have about US. This general picture, manufactured through Hollywood industry, pop culture and media, rarely captures the wilderness and extremes of american reality: racism and inequality, absence of gun control, police brutality, everyday violence, poverty, lack of knowledge and education, lack of health care, outdated and crumbling infrastructure, segregated school system, obscene affluence of few, pollution, etc.
And all that within one extremely beautiful and rich continent conquered and inhabited through ambition, courage, desperation of many individuals, some of them extremely brave, smart and capable, and some not. Even today, fresh blood is constantly pouring in, keeping the absurdity of American Dream alive. So stories like DMZ are logical reflection on what is going on, and they represent plausible scenario matching the everyday reality. And I would agree with you that Brian is trying not to just reflect this reality in his stories, but also to show the possible way of dealing with it and trying to do good and stay active and positive despite the harsh and merciless environment. To be positive and creative in America (or anywhere else in the World today) involves constant questioning of your own position as an artist and person, aesthetically and ethically.
Regarding the families becoming dynasties, America is again a very obvious example of longevity, efficiency and enormous concentration of power of such dynasties (Ford, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush), which completely undermines the idea of US as a pillar of democracy.
ABG: You also did an arch with Brian on The Massive, which reminded me a lot of the Mad Max movie in terms of the overall commentary, which is interesting, because it came out a lot earlier. Effectively, this means that you've worked with Brian on arcs in all of his most recent ongoing work, but now you're the man in charge with your work on Starve.
I've had the pleasure of reading issue 1, same as all the fans out there, and it seems to me, that Brian is continuing the social commentary that he began with Channel Zero and continued with DMZ and The Massive, but focusing on our consumer food culture through our need for reality TV.
It's quite different from what I've read of your work with other writers, but seems to me, like it's a lot closer to the work that you produce when you're working by yourself.
DZ: Exactly, Starve is closer to my heart. Brian had few proposals for a serial, but the one about the chef and cooking show was the most appealing to me (and I believe to both of us), and for few reasons: a social and political commentary, reflection on current reality-shows popularity, urban setup, depiction of the power of media and fabrication of fame. Starve also tries to be funny and entertaining rather than preachy and didactic. Gavin, the main character, is unorthodox, witty and edgy, a conflicting and contradictory person.
ABG: So far, I've only had the pleasure of reading issue one (now 1-3), in which Gavin returns to the show he started and we get a bit of background, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of the run. It may seem odd, but the thought of you and Bri doing a complete book together was a no brainer for me.
However, if someone is currently on the edge as to whether or not they should pick up this series, what would you say to sway their minds?
DZ: This is hard for me to answer, I'm really not good at selling anything to anyone, and especially not my own work.
I would prefer if people try Starve on their own and make their own opinion, like it or not like it for their own reasons.
I'm hesitant and suspicious about anything that is "recommended", so I would rather not preach about Starve.
ABG: That is only fair. But I do hope that many will pick up Starve and see it as an introduction to your work and go looking for what has come before.
On that note, the interview was at an end and if you haven't picked up Starve or any other of Danijel Zezelj's works, you can read a review of the former right here on Bleeding Cool and check your local store for the latter.
You can find out more about Danijel Zezelj's work at his website, right here.