Aleksandar Zograf (a pseudonym of Sasa Rakezic) is a Serbian cartoonist, the author of such works as Life Under Sanctions, Psychonaut, Dream Watcher and Bulletins from Serbia. Zograf has been active on the international scene since the early '90s when his work started to appear in U.S. comics anthologies such as Weirdo and Zero Zero and when Seattle's Fantagraphics Books published a few of his titles. Works by Zograf have been translated and published in many European magazines, and his solo titles have been issued by publishers L'Association in France, PuntoZero in Italy, Jochen Enterprises in Germany, Under Comics in Spain, etc.
DREAMTIME/WARTIME - The Comics of Aleksandar Zograf - by Chris Lanier.
As featured in the catalogue of Aleksandar Zograf's comics exhibition at Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, 2002.

Aleksandar Zograf (pen name of the Serbian Sasa Rakezic) would have become an interesting cartoonist even if Yugoslavia had never self-destructed. Comics are arguably the medium most naturally suited to capturing the dislocating texture of dreams, simply because of the ease with which the fantastic can be made visible. The history of comics is threaded with artists who have drawn up memorable work from the well of dreams, from Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland" to present-day artists such as Rick Veitch, David B., and Jesse Reklaw. Regardless of anything else, Zograf would have found himself grouped with this company, with his eye for off-kilter psychic states, and the custodianship of his corner of specialization, the "hypnagogic state" - the distinct "twilight zone" between wakefulness and sleep - where, for Zograf, the continuous cinematic stream of dream-images slows down to a series of static "slides," paralyzed for capture in the sketchbooks he keeps by his bed. Zograf is an expert dream-horticulturalist, carefully tending the black loam of the unconscious, coaxing from it its bloom of strange images. His work in this area is full of the magical shock produced by the shape of "somethingness" that appears out of nothingness.

But Yugoslavia did self-destruct, and Zograf had a subject unwillingly thrust upon him. Other artists have used comics as a form of reportage - including Joe Sacco, Seth Tobocman, Keiji Nakazawa, and Art Spiegelman - though at the time he began his strips on the break-up of Yugoslavia, Zograf was only familiar with the work of Spiegelman. He was compelled to make a record of what was happening - to bring creation not just out of nothingness, but out of active destruction.

What makes Zograf's reportage unique, giving his work its own peculiar texture, is his continued fascination with dreams and dream-imagery. It's an arresting pairing of subject-matter and sensibility. The political disaster is, in Zograf's comics, populated with distorted allegorical figures, and articulated through a collection of small absurdist details; the death-throes of a nation are laid out as a kind of obscure, mystical psychoanalysis. It turns out to be a fruitful way of looking at things. There are several points at which a regime fueled by ethnic hatred and propagandistic lies naturally meets up with the inverted logic of a sleeping mind, exhausted by troubled dreams. There is the quality to many of Zograf's strips (most of them published outside his country, in the US and Europe) of someone explaining the details of a nightmare that has just shocked them awake - as if by putting that nightmare into words, they can discharge some of its oppressive force.

During the NATO bombing of Serbia, Zograf's home town, Pancevo, was a frequent target; he saw the industrial zone in Pancevo razed several times over, from the "comfort" of his apartment window. He began sending emails to a long list of friends and fellow-cartoonists (including myself), spread out over Europe and North America; and then, at the suggestion of the cartoonist Chris Ware, he began drawing a weekly strip about his wartime experiences, "Regards from Serbia." It was sent out electronically and published in a smattering of alternative weeklies and magazines, as well as being serialized on the website, sometimes seeing print the same week it was drawn. This was probably a historical first - a comic strip shuttled across the frontlines to be published in the country of "the enemy," while the bombs were still coming down.

In Zograf's email dispatches (later collected in a book titled "Bulletins from Serbia," published by Slab-O-Concrete), you could see the same eye for the ridiculous or poetic detail he employed in his strips. He talked about the images on Serbian TV, which mixed together old Yugoslavian war movies, Disney films, and news footage of gypsies taking scrap metal from a downed F-117 NATO plane. He mentioned the email battle of insults which took place after some Italians got hold of the email addresses of American bomber pilots, and forwarded them to Serbian friends living in towns that were slated for attack. He told how a refinery near his home was bombed, and released a cloud of steam that engulfed the area. He and his wife looked out the window of their flat, and "we saw just white fog, as if the whole world had disappeared..."

As I read these dispatches, I could see new comic strips being assembled in Aleksandar's mind. In a kind of vision, I watched these ghost-impressions of new comics; and over them all hovered the threat of Aleksandar's extinction, like a bomb hidden in a cloud. Seeing Aleksandar's comics in this way, drawn on a tissue of sympathetic imagination, made what was already obvious even more tangible: that Aleksandar's marvelous comics on the war are a kind of retrospective debris-sifting, never worth the human cost they represent.

What follows is an interview I conducted with Zograf; the questions have been eliminated, to let his responses flow without interruption.

I was always amazed by the art produced in long-gone times,because artifacts from the past are ideas from the past, which are still alive and still filled with energy. The area where I'm living is rich with archeological remains, and it was a center of some neolithic civilization. We don't know who these people were, we don't know their language and can't say much about their religion, but sometimes I think that I can feel the radiation from underground, some kind of energy made of their smiles, their loves and hates, their beliefs, their life force. When you look carefully at art objects from the past, you can see how close they are to elementary feelings, to mystery, to a natural expression of being. You can very often see drawings of pottery in my comics - I found ancient pottery fascinating, because it is a very old medium where drawings are shown. Some of the ancient Greek vases have caricatured drawings on them, in a style surprisingly similar to modern comics.

Personally, I feel I am continuing an old line of art which has its roots in the Balkan peninsula, and which is connected to prehistoric and ancient Greek culture. Even my pseudonym (Aleksandar Zograf) shows it - Zograf is an old term, used in the circle of Greek orthodox civilization (where Serbia also belongs), and its meaning is simply "painter" (or, literally, "the one who makes things alive by drawings"). All of the authors of icons and fresco paintings were adding the word "Zograf" to their first name.

I have always felt like somebody who isn't completely adjusted to the modern world. I like it to some extent, but deep inside me there has always been that unspeakable revolt against the world of machines, and the world of institutions with their mechanical way of thinking. I felt it even as a kid, and I don't know how or where I picked it up, because it was something that was not an intellectual concept for me - you don't create such concepts when you are 8 years old - I just used to feel an animosity against the modern world. I was even scared of machines, because I wasn't able to comprehend the systematic way of thinking which brought them to life. As a teenager I was obsessed with the idea that "the end is near" and that this civilization is bound to destroy itself. Of course, I went too far with these apocalyptic fears, and in later years I realized that my reactions were exaggerated. I mean, machines are not devils, as I used to see them. That's too simplistic. Too romantic. Machines are no angels either, but they are part of the spiritual surroundings of our time, there's no use running away from them, just as there is no use to run away from reality. You have to face it!

I started to create autobiographical comics in the second part of the 80s, which was before I was introduced to the works of other autobiographical cartoonists. I was simply taken by the wish to start to speak about my own musings in the form of comics, and - at the same time - I was willing to start to experiment with the comics medium. Because even though I instantly loved popular comics when I was a child, I simply wasn't aware of international "alternative" comics production until my late 20s.

This is probably because I had started a kind of "career" in writing very early; I published my first fanzine when I was 16, and was already writing for a national magazine when I was 17. So I was mostly into writing, and I met people from those circles, without paying much attention to cartooning. I found journalism interesting and dynamic, and had plans to write more ambitious literary pieces. In fact, I wasn't sure about what to do with my life, or what kind of expression would fit me best. So I did a lot of different things. In parallel with my journalistic work, I started to draw comics, and to get involved in animation. At this time I got a job with the animation studio in Belgrade, and I worked as a (poor and confused) in-betweener.

I was experimenting with writing and art. I came to the conclusion that some of my short literature pieces could work as comics stories. Then I saw a few books by R. Crumb, and came across works by the other cartoonists who did autobiographical stories. Gradually, I was simply reaching the conclusion that I felt comfortable with communicating deeply personal observations in the form of comics. In a way it seemed part of the process of trying to find my own voice and level of expression.

At the same time, as I lived in a country which was facing a deep, catastrophic crisis, I felt a big shock from what was going around me, all the wars and madness, and it seemed natural that I would start to describe the circumstances and my feelings about it in my comics.

It was the beginning of the 90s, and my comics were getting published abroad, at first mostly in the alternative magazines in US and Canada. When I published my story in a comics anthology or a magazine, I would get the contributor copies, and it was also a good way to get more information about the comic scene outside Yugoslavia... I started to correspond with the foreign artists and editors, who helped me to get more information about what was going on in the world of comics. Basically, my idea was to jump over the boundaries - I lived in a country facing all these difficulties, and, moreover, I was broke, without steady job, and without any savings. Everything seemed pretty dark. But instead of being depressed, which was the easiest thing to do (and sometimes irresistible), I wished to do something more constructive. Drawing comics was the obvious choice, but most of the magazines that I used to collaborate with in Yugoslavia flopped when the war began. So I had to jump the geographical and cultural gap, and publish my work in countries that I had never even visited before. So, there I was - a confused little guy in the middle of the Balkans, who was mailing his stuff to the publishers in US, and sometimes getting published out there, in the world where they ride these big cars and have their refrigerators full to the top.

Still, I don't believe that it would have been possible without my commitment to do such a thing. In fact, I remember the dream that made me realize this possibility. It was a simple, fragmentary, not very dramatic dream that I had maybe a year or so before the war began, and before I had started to publish my comics abroad. In this dream, I saw some British newspaper, and when I opened it, there was an article written by me published inside.

And that's all. This seemed quite ridiculous at that time to me, especially because I was such an introverted nerd, I couldn't fit in my own little town, so how could I communicate to some media in foreign surroundings?... But I believe that in that dream I had this subtle moment of realization, which probably lead me to the idea that I was ready and willing to submit my work (comics) to publishers abroad. Even though it seemed like such a silly concept to my waking mind, that I didn't even remember this dream until I really started to publish abroad.

I knew about Art Spiegelman's "Maus," before I started to do my own war inspired comics... But mainly, I was inspired by my own everyday experiences, I was pushed by circumstances, when I started to reflect on the situation in the Balkans.

I don't really feel comfortable with label "comics journalism," because I believe that my stories more resemble poems inspired by real events. My truth is an emotional one, even when I'm reflecting on the political situation. I'm personal, even when I depict the social climate.

To top it all, I like to concentrate on the absurd and the humorous, and therefore I'm probably not as objective as a journalist is supposed to be. Not to mention my obsession with dreams and visions. I'm deeply moved, I'm shocked by reality - just like anyone else living in Serbia in the past decade or so.

I was always amused by the idea of letting dream-consciousness create products of art.

I concentrated on the so-called "hypnagogic state" - it is a state we enter just before falling asleep, or when we wake up, and that's when we see quick visual sensations which are different from the dreams during the REM period. Some theoreticians call this state a "twilight zone" - our consciousness sees something that is more like "slides," as opposed to the "films" we experience in full dreams.

I must note that some of my hypnagogic hallucinations are not visual at all - sometimes they are tactile or audio sensations, and on some occasions they are more like short movie sequences, something more extended than "slides." I also remember having hypnagogic hallucinations that were like ideas or concepts that suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere in my mind. I used some of these as scripts for my comics. I have a collection of hundreds of cartoons based on these visions. Now my wife is not surprised anymore when she see me suddenly waking up from my slumber, grabbing a notebook and drawing a sketch based on the semi-dream hallucination that I saw just a moment before.

Sometimes I can see short comics while in the hypnagogic state, and they are mostly 2 or 3 panel strips, sometimes even full page material, strange little comics which are mysterious even to me.

When experiencing hypnagogic flashes, they appear out of some inner empty space, out of silence. Very often I feel that my conscious mind is trying to reject these visions, as if they are something which is not worth remembering at all. I have to use an effort to force myself to grab a notebook, and then make the sketch.

I am usually surprised when I capture the vision in my mind, because it seems very strange, just as if it's coming from some unknown source within myself.

I noticed that, when I started to concentrate on these visions, they became more frequent. For me these visions are part of my everyday routine. At the same time, besides a few artists and psychologists, I noticed that most people are not even aware of the existence of something called the "hypnagogic state." I think that it's because there is no social structure for noticing these semi-dream images... I can imagine a society where taking notice of hypnagogic visions would become part of social habit, though.

I was also able to frequently enter the state of lucid dreaming during one period of my life. I learned the technique of looking at my hands while dreaming, which served as a trigger, to remind myself that I'm in a dream. This leads to retaining a critical mind while in the deep dream state. These lucid dream experiences expanded my comprehension of the possibilities of being in the state of dreaming.

It has all made me believe that there are other dream states that we aren't aware of yet. I believe that humanity will focus on other dream states in the future, which will change our definition and understanding of dreams.

In the past, we explored our physical surroundings, we made maps of all the continents of our planet. And in the future we will have to explore the landscape of our mind, of our inner world.

I believe that dreams are a dimension of our being, equally "real" and equally mysterious as any other. If somebody asks you what dreams are, your answer should be told in the form of a poem, or a joke, because anything else would sound pretentious.

I believe that my work is telling the most simple truth, with the sophistication of a cave-man. Which means, no sophistication at all.

If I feel that something is wrong, I will try to express it, no matter how marginal the medium I'm using... But then, I guess that the way to communicate these things in art is different from political debate, for example. It would seem cheap to do a comic with the message: DOWN WITH MILOSEVIC! THIS GUY IS A MURDERER! HE DID EVERYTHING WRONG! - even though I probably said it many times to my wife, or screamed those words at the demonstrations... For some reason, I haven't found it very challenging to make a comic strip built around such obvious conclusions. Instead, I made comics which speak about a specific time in my country, and I made a psychological picture of what it was like to be a small guy living in a suburbs of a small town during Milosevic's "reign." It means that my work was not enough of a "pamphlet" to inspire a censorship action, and - at the same time - if you wanted, by reading these comics, you were able to get to the conclusions...

Mind you, I was also disgusted by the Western involvement in this crisis. They did most things wrong - to name but a few examples, with the means of economic embargo they enabled Milosevic's regime to grow stronger, and to gain more control, while everybody else who was against the regime had to take the consequences... Not to mention the bombing campaign in Serbia, which killed the innocent, damaged the civil infrastructure and the economy of the country, and only changed the problems in the Balkans, instead of solving them. Of course, I discussed this by depicting my own experiences... It's only comics, a kind of semi-autobiographical comics, you know.

Anyway, I think that, if you tell the story in a simple way, by reflecting on basic human conditions, nobody can censor you. My favorite example is an Italian writer, Kurzio Malaparte. He wrote his reports from Europe during World War 2 - he just noted his observations, without ideological statements, but it obviously showed the absurdity and stupidity of war. And he did it during the time of Mussolini! Which now seems like something impossible. By a coincidence, Malaparte was in my town, in Pancevo, during the German bombing of Serbia in April 1941. He came to Belgrade, which was in rubble, together with the first occupation army unit - and he described a city in ruins, the sight of a local bus full of dead people... Basically, you don't even have to comment on these things.

Of course, also, nobody takes comics seriously. I think that's one of the advantages of comics - cartoonists seem to be free to take a critical, ironic, even mega-cynical stand towards society.

During the crisis in this part of the world, when you think that it's just too hard to carry on, you can always turn around and see people who are in a much worse situation than you are, so why whine? After all, I proved (to myself at least) that it is possible to do something creative and constructive even when the conditions are very unfavorable. Sometimes it is more exciting than making the big bucks.

I managed to get by from simply getting together the modest sums that I received from publishing my comics in independent magazines...

Crisis also teaches you to use your money and your resources in a most economical way. I had a problem obtaining art paper in the years 1992 - 1995, but I found that wall calendars could be used for this purpose too, so many of my comics from that time were created on the back sides of calendars... Friends knew that I needed wall calendars, so they brought me their old supplies. This is not a tragedy, it's actually very funny when you flip some of my comics which speak about life under sanctions or something, and you find a photo of a naked chick on the other side!

I received a lot of encouragement from cartoonists abroad, especially from the US. There is something special about the American comics scene: it is fairly open to authors from the outside. I can say that nobody treated me as a foreigner or an outsider there; in Europe, people are much more closed into their local culture, country or region....

Many cartoonists (Jim Woodring, Mark Martin, Rick Veitch, Robert Crumb - to name but a few) were generous enough to help me and/or give me encouragement to continue submitting my comics to publishers in the US. Also, I was, and still am, in contact with that ever changing, ever moving world of obscure/small press/self-publishing comics production. A lot of interesting material is being multiplied by simple photocopy machines, and distributed by mail...

Sometimes it was very hard to keep up correspondence during the civil war and economic sanctions. Some letters were lost. I heard that whole contingents of mail were obscured in some periods, for various reasons. Many countries imposed weight restrictions on mail which was sent to Serbia during the economic sanctions. But people kept sending me letters and comics, which was really wonderful. I would like to thank them all! I won't forget a package of comics sent by British cartoonist Lee Kennedy. she would write a note to the customs officers on the envelope, and it would say something like -

"Hey, customs officers, these are only comics! Let them pass!"

And sometimes it succeeded in getting through!

As for the NATO bombing, I created a story called "Half Dream Experience" back in 1994... The story was inspired by the proposed (and then dropped) plans of bombing targets in Serbia during the war in Ex-Yugoslavia in 1992. But those musings were initiated by the remembrance of a strange hypnagogic vision I had many years before the war even started, about a hypothetical bombing of Pancevo...

Little did I know that this scenario, exposed half-jokingly, would some years later become reality... From the start of the NATO bombings of Serbia (which began on March 24th 1999), one of the most frequent targets was indeed the town of Pancevo, and I really was able to watch it all from the window in my apartment building... The factory from the Pancevo industrial zone, described in the comic, was methodically bombed for many days, in my actual reality in 1999... The only difference was that I had predicted that they would bomb the plant which is in our immediate surroundings, but in reality they bombed the plants owned by the same company (the Utva Airplane Company) a couple of miles to the North.

Nevertheless, as my wife Gordana and I had decided not to go to the shelter during the raids, I was able to see the bombing from one of the windows in our flat, and by the strangest coincidence, I saw the actual moment the red mushroom cloud spread over my home town... It was a sight that affected me deeply. I believe that the vibrant power of such a bleak experience was foreseen 11 or 12 years ago...

The life under the bombs was as if you lived in a shadow of some evil spirit. That's the best that I can explain - even if I'm using the terms of the caveman, again. Since I am living in Serbia, it's natural that I feel that I'm a part of the Eastern European heritage. But, as most of my recent comics are published in US magazines, I am connected to the tradition of American comics, too. Besides this, I love to construct my own worlds, with their own rules and traditions. As a kid, I spent years making sketches of my imaginary universe.

Anyway, speaking of the Eastern European "flavor" of my work, I think that artists from this part of the world share a sense of absurdity - we are living in a world where things are rather out of hand, and where the overall atmosphere is irrational. It is a far cry from the safe and pompous world of Western Europe, where all of the values and rules have been defined hundreds of years ago.

That irrational atmosphere, in a world full of nonsense, was something that brought me close to the heart of mystery.

Unfortunately, we humans are truly lazy creatures, and we usually need some sort of shock, or stress, to make us think about who we are and where we are living. I think that by living in Serbia I learned not to take anything for granted; our societies, our civilizations, our religions and beliefs are not just grandiose constructions to which we should devote all our faith. As I didn't have nice cities, beautiful buildings and an exciting world of opportunities surrounding me, but rather ignorant people and a gray Serbian town, I had to dive into myself and to search for some "psychological" dimensions within. Yes, the "invisible" world is interwoven with my "waking" reality, and I've had some strange experiences. But it should not be mystified - the simple truth is that our reality is something far more extensive than we think about.

I was very much influenced by some Russian artists - my favorite writer is Alexei M. Remizov; he was really a unique person. Remizov spent most of his life in exile, in Paris, where he went after the Revolution, and he was forgotten and misunderstood by everyone. In his later years he was half blind and poor, writing an enormous quantity of books which were multiplied in just a few copies and given away to friends. Remizov was the author of unusual literary pieces, and in his novels realistic events are suddenly interrupted by the description of dreams, or by descriptions of devils and other fantastic creatures from Slavic mythology, which are shown as part of regular reality.

There is something deeply barbaric in the very nature of nations like Serbs and Russians - they never really adapted to modern civilization, although they are a part of the European cultural heritage. Some of it is reflected in my comics, I guess. my comics are the result of an impulsive work, and I was influenced by prehistoric art just as much as I was influenced by modern-day underground comics.

The fall of Milosevic was a very important event, very dramatic - mind you, Milosevic was overthrown by the massive demonstrations, which came after a general strike. During the final demonstrations in the center of Belgrade, there were something between 500,000 and one million people. They were full of anger; some were very enthusiastic, but I heard from many people that they were ready to die right there on the street that evening. And it was not just a phrase, they had that strange gaze which tells you that they are not joking. Some were armed, too. I have to admit that I was expecting bloodshed, and that people would clash with Milosevic's police units. When the police started to fire the tear gas, Gordana and I were among the people who were running away from the anti-demonstration unit in full gear. Only later we understood that we were running from the unit which was withdrawing, which means that they were chased away by the other protesters who were behind their backs! Eventually the building of the National Assembly was set on fire, but it turned out that everything was finished without anyone being killed, which was of great importance. It was the first revolution in the Balkans executed by non-violent means. But this event is not the absolute end of the turbulent times in the Balkans, so I continued to work under the inspiration of our reality...

I don't really know where the jagged borders and the inserted shapes in my comics come from. I always liked those "insert drawings" that you can find in Herriman's "Krazy Kat," though. It seemed to me like an element which is irrational, not strictly connected with the plot and the story. I like to think that there's something within my work which is not utilitarian - something that is put inside to break the predictability of the form.

Life is full of surprises - you will always be surprised by some element which is tossed inside just to crash your inertia. I guess that the form of my comics is more or less like that.

Tempo de Sonho/Tempo de Guerra
A banda desenhada de ALEKSANDAR ZOGRAF por Chris Lanier
Translation by Pedro Moura
Published in the catalogue Salão Lisboa 2003: Ilustração e Banda Desenhad
(Bedeteca de Lisboa; 2003)

Zograf the Hypnographist - Interview with Zograf filmed by Edgar Pera in Lisbon

Zograf the Hypnographist - Part 2