Country Focus: Serbia (Srbija in Serbian)
Regards from Serbia: A Cartoonist’s Diary of a Crisis in Serbia
By Aleksandar Zograf (a pseudonym of Sasa Rakezic)
Originally published in Great Britain as Bulletins from Serbia: E-mails and Cartoon Strips from Beyond the Front Line by Slab-O-Concrete, 1999.
My edition: Top Shelf, 2007.
Genre: Memoir/Graphic Novel
Time period: 1991-2006
To make a long story short: In the 1990s, Aleksandar Zograf earned his living as a cartoonist in the Slobodon Milošević-ruled Republic of Serbia. As Milošević’s extreme actions against ethnic Albanians drew international disfavor and media attention, Zograf began to relay his experiences in brooding and unsettling pen and ink comics.
Zograf splits Regards from Serbia into four chapters. The first consists of a medley of comics about life under economic sanctions, from the worthless currency (one billion dinars equaled one American dollar), to the sudden disappearance of Mickey and Donald (the Walt Disney company stopped licensing its characters to Serbian companies), to how it feels when the world media brands your country and its citizens as the “the bad guy.”
The second chapter is fronted by Monty Python member Terry Jones’s darkly funny article “NATO Bombing for Beginners” and is followed by a-day-in-the-life-of string of emails that Zograf sent to friends during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign.
Zograf’s black and white comics reappear in the third segment. These strips are reprints of the weekly comic “Regards from Serbia” that Zograf illustrated from 1999-2001.
The final chapter is a brief, text-only recap of the March 12, 2003 assassination of Serbia’s Prime Minister and the following State of Emergency that lasted until April 22, 2003. The book concludes with a strip from 2006 that touches on the ramifications of Slobodon Milošević’s early death.
Today, while speaking to my parents, they told me a strange thing – during the first NATO bombing of the power lines, when they used some special weapon, never used before, to produce a blackout on the major territory of Serbia, my mother was in front of my parents’ house (they got a small fruit tree garden). She saw something that appeared like light balls moving on the power lines and rolling on the fields around… The power station is just a couple of 100s of meters from my parents’ home and they would often look in the direction of it – as they feared that it’s going to be bombed, but this time there were no detonations at all. It seems that what my mother have seen were the “soft bombs”, a new product made in the NATO laboratories… It seemed so funny to think about my parents witnessing the world premiere use of a new weapon…
The armchair travel experience: Zograf bears witness to what happens to the average Joe when the international community decides to punish a country for the crimes of its politicians. Ironically, these troubles and indignities reinforced the beleaguered population’s support for Milošević. Zograf’s ground-eye view is tempered his by trips to other countries and his close connections with comic book artists around the world. Despite all that he’s witnessed in his troubled homeland, he’s able to be shocked by the sight of homeless people sleeping on New York City’s sidewalks: “I’ve never seen anything like it even in that rotten old Serbia!” How’s that for a surprising perspective?
The author’s relationship to Serbia:
Sasa Rakezic, who writes under the pen name Aleksandar Zograf, is a Serbian cartoonist. He lives in the town of Pančevo. During the 1999 NATO bombings, he “saw the actual moment the red mushroom cloud spread over my home town.”
My opinion: I chose Regards from Serbia to see if I could get past my initial distaste for Zograf’s style of illustration. I didn’t (and still don’t) care for his bizarre, R. Crumb-influenced sketches, nor for his habit of incorporating his dreamworld into the panels. It wasn’t until I reached Chapter 2′s mood-lightening Terry Jones article and Zograf’s personable emails that I began to feel safe with this strange cartoonist as my Serbian guide. By the time I arrived at the next chapter of comics, I felt less intimidated by Zograf’s artistic style and could better absorb and appreciate his work.