Regards from Serbia

Regards from Serbia

Regards from Serbia

by Aleksandar Zograf

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The messy Balkan conflicts of the ’90s have elicited a mass of literature proportional to their complexity. Those conflicts have proved so ripe for chronicle and analysis, in fact, that the resulting works have spilled beyond the confines of the traditional non-fiction section of the library; now even the growing genre of graphic journalism includes at least two respectable eyewitness accounts from the region.

The first of these was Joe Sacco’s fairly renowned Safe Area Gorazde, an account of the civil wars in Yugoslavia, Bosnia in particular, published in 2001 by Fantagraphics. Sacco first rose to prominence in the 1990s with Palestine, his award-winning serialized account of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and his bespectacled, buck-toothed comic alter ego helped to establish graphic journalism as a medium with its own unique merits, one that was up to the task of hard reportage from global hotspots. (Here I feel obliged to mention Art Spiegelman’s Maus as the genre’s seminal work, but fans and pedants will note that Maus is secondhand memoir and not firsthand reportage.) Aleksandar Zograf’s recently published Regards from Serbia, an amalgamation of serial strips and e-mails, complements Sacco’s coverage and should help to further graphic journalism’s reputation as a “serious” medium.

Regards from Serbia differs from Safe Area Gorazde in several ways, the most obvious being the matter of geography. Whereas during the strife Sacco made several trips to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian capital of Sarajevo and Gorazde, a city nearer to the Serbian border, Zograf was a Serbian national living in Pancevo, a city in northern-central Serbia close to the capital Belgrade. This in turn led to their diverging accounts of the war, with Sacco documenting primarily the grim consequences of the failure of the UN peacekeeping mission (the impotence of the soldiers in blue helmets exposed the city to a Serbian assault that left nearly 700 dead), and Zograf concentrating instead on the counterproductive economic sanctions, the equally counterproductive NATO bombing of his home country, and the complete political and economic collapse that followed. That isn’t to say one account is more accurate than the other; they are just two of many possible vantages on the same situation.

This matter of perspective is an important element of graphic journalism, since the medium itself is such a peculiar mix of subjective and objective experience. Though the events are clearly filtered through the eyes (and later the pen) of the visual artist, who usually incorporates himself in the panels as a MacGuffin-type figure, graphic journalism does indeed strive for the factual accuracy as well as the emotional honesty that readers ought to expect from more conventional article- or book-length accounts such as Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. In Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco managed to keep himself at one remove, presenting statistics and depicting events with as much reticence as the grand tragedy would allow. Zograf, on the other hand, is much more of a character in his own anecdotes, and he has fewer reservations about sharing his own introspection and insight to make sense of the situation rather than simply offering images and quoted dialogue to the reader.

Via speech balloons, Zograf’s illustrated proxy spells out his philosophy in the early sections of Regards from Serbia entitled “Life Under Sanctions” and “All Against Each Other and God Against All.” “I draw comics so that you can see things through my eyes,” he says. “The civil war in Yugoslavia… it is a fruit of confusion, violence born from a chaos of ideas. Well, maybe things would seem clearer if I put them onto paper, transform them in the little drawings. By the way, I will show myself as a hero [sic; a native speaker would probably have written “protagonist” or “guide”] of this very comic strip… I have some messages to jabber in your face.” This to me is the fundamental difference between Sacco and Zograf as artists, and why both books can comfortably occupy a place in what’s currently a literary niche.

Some pages later, Zograf renders a conversation — one that seems part real, part imagined — in which he’s asked why he feels compelled to document the socio-political situation in cartoons. “But my stuff is not strictly ‘documentary’,” the author protests. “It is some kind of fantastic realism, in a good Russian tradition. I think that the whole situation could be properly described by pointing at some peripheral details. In our life, we are always watching just fragments. We have to use our imagination if we want to grasp the whole picture.” This, too, is another striking contrast to Sacco, who takes a more directly representational approach, and it’s reflected in Zograf’s drawing style, which is reminiscent of the rubbery surrealism you find in vintage Mad magazines. He is keen to depict the psychology of his characters, whether it be through convoluted Celtic-looking symbols in thought bubbles to reflect confusion and frustration, or shadows that morph into ghouls and dance around their heads. This approach is ideally suited to Zograf’s subject, since the effects of economic sanctions on the general public can often best be depicted through their mental and emotional toll and not just the endless queues and scarcity of goods. In one strip from June 1999, when rumors of a peace treaty were passing from mouth to ear, Zograf takes the time to mourn the victims of the NATO bombings. “According to the latest information from the Yugoslav government and UNICEF, about 2000 civilians were killed so far, about 800 of them children,” he writes. To illustrate the figure, he fills a panel with the faces of 800 children — laughing, jostling, fighting, crying.

Though sympathetic to the suffering of his fellow Serbs, Zograf is no Serbian apologist. He is understandably critical of Slobodan Milosevic, “Turbo-folk” pop singers (such as Ceca, wife of the infamous Zeljko Raznatovic, aka “Arkan”) who exacerbate ethnic tensions, arrogant playboy sons of the Serbian business elite, and the cruel paramilitaries who carried out genocide in the name of nationalism. But he nevertheless tries to understand their perverse motivations. “Maybe it is connected with the barbaric elements in the very soul of the Slavic people,” he theorizes in “All Against Each Other and God Against All,” the book’s strongest and longest continuous section, and he goes on to identify both a healthy unwillingness to be constrained by the conformist trappings of contemporary capitalist society and a savage desire for retribution and unquestioning clan loyalty. Even in his least effective drawings, Zograf is usually attuned to the subtle paradoxes of the situation and never descends into self-righteous anger. If he succumbs to one emotion more than any other, it’s exasperation, such as when the bombs are falling on what seem to be arbitrary targets (according to Zograf’s sources, NATO bombers were encouraged to dump their payload even if no legitimate target was available), or when the Milosevic regime uses the “national security threat” (my quotes, not his) of the NATO campaign to crack down on oppositional voices.

For a work of graphic journalism, however, it’s odd to find the central section is devoid of either. Pages 91 to 165 — a full quarter of the book — are transcriptions of Zograf’s mass e-mails between March 24, 1999 and March 31, 2000, the most intense period of the bombing campaign. But this extended break from form doesn’t seem like superfluous padding, and in some ways is a real benefit. The conversational tone of the e-mails makes for easy reading, they help us better understand Zograf as our visual guide, and they offer some context for his drawings from the same period, which are also included in Regards from Serbia. It helps, too, that Monty Python vet Terry Jones has written a bitingly sarcastic foreword to Zograf’s one-sided correspondence.

To close with another apt quote from the “All Against Each Other” section, the author writes, “Everything [during the civil wars] was distorted and strangely warped. Maybe the whole nation was entering a different state of consciousness, or some kind of a state of a collective trance.” By virtue of Zograf’s drawing style and his refreshingly off-center yet evenhanded perspective, he captures the distortion and warping of that period especially well. Regards from Serbia isn’t in any way a definitive account of the breakup of Yugoslavia or even the strife in Serbia alone, but it does expand the picture of a very complex period in an equally complex region, and beyond that, it raises necessary questions about the efficacy of the foreign and domestic policy decisions of other nations. The lessons of the Balkans could quite easily have been applied to America’s post-9/11 “collective trance” as well as the failed invasion of Iraq.

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