Regards from Serbia by Aleksandar Zograf
Reviewed by Eric Lorberer
It's becoming better understood that the comics medium has strengths particularly conducive to good journalism; artists as diverse as Joe Sacco, Ted Rall, and Marjane Satrapi have examined current political situations from the point of view of the witness to loud and justified acclaim, conveying with immediacy how ordinary people survive war, repressive regimes, and other internecine conflicts. Add to their number the Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf, whose Regards from Serbia offers riveting first-hand reportage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and subsequent NATO bombing in the 1990s.
While packed with information -- if only our news reporters were as comprehensive or as canny -- Zograf's stories and strips are more concerned with conveying the personal side of living under siege. His expressive art marries the boldness of the woodcut and poster art traditions with the fine and quirky detail of cartooning masters like R. Crumb. "Some of the drawings seemed somehow distorted by my own rage and misery," he writes in an introduction to one of the book's four sections, perhaps understating the case -- distortion is Zograf's forte, and the psychic ramifications of war his subject. He often works dreams and hallucinations into his work overtly, or depicts strange, wraithlike figures in counterpoint to his straight-man texts; "Everybody was involved in some kind of confrontation, while the overall conditions were bad for all," he may write, but the panel image brings the message home: we see angry phantoms foaming at the mouth while butting heads, hovering over a crowd behaving in kind. Are these phantoms the paradigm or the ensuing plague of violence, the cause or the effect?
After an initial series of mostly long-form comics, the book's second section intriguingly abandons the graphic element all together, comprising transcripts of emails the cartoonist sent to friends and fellow practitioners around the world during the NATO bombing of 1999. While some readers may be put off by all this prose, its presence is certainly warranted, as the combination of anecdote, reflection, and the tics of the communication medium ("I got to try to send this while we still have power") deepen the book's overall theme of the immediate reality of war. To add to the charm, Zograf never becomes a generic correspondent but maintains his identity as a cartoonist -- as when he rejoices in finally having received a copy of the anthology MAD About the Fifties, "ordered before this madness began," and sums up: "It is a great literature to read under the light of the candle during the blackouts..."
The next section of single-page weekly strips, created concurrently with the e-mails, provides a fascinating lesson in the difference between plain language and crafted art. Both of Zograf's mediated messages contain similar statements of fact; for example, you'd be hard-pressed to guess as to whether this quotation is from the emails or from a cartoon: "About 200,000 Serbs have already left Kosovo; the province is full of mass graves of Albanians killed by Serbs, and Serbs and Gypsies killed by Albanians..." But it's the image beneath the text box -- a cutaway view of decomposing bodies beneath the ground where a girl sits under a tree while a man strolls by -- that makes this cartoon panel resonate beyond the statistics it communicates. What we allow to happen, how we live with it, that we live with it, are for Zograf the real issues. Perhaps his very next panel alludes to this hidden conversation: "I don't remember ever in my life a time when I was so much tuned to what was happening outside," he writes, but the image depicts the cartoonist seated rigidly in a chair and sweating while his omnipresent demons wreak an unspecified angry havoc.
Zograf penned the final installment of his weekly "Regards from Serbia" on January 1st, 2001, although he continued an irregular cartoon diary of sorts; but as he says later that year, "in early fall something important happened outside of the Balkans," irrevocably changing the focus of international politics. He ends the book with a well-worded essay on the post-Milosevic "State of Emergency in Serbia" that will likely surprise many an American reader, and serve as a reminder to all that complex political situations never have tidy endings. Meanwhile one hopes that a cartoonist of Zograf's ability and intensity will continue to find subject matter that demands his attention. After all, the phantoms are everywhere, and we desperately need help to see them.
Books mentioned in this post