By Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf

Until recently, it was taken for granted that history of comics equals the history of the form in US and Western Europe – it took decades for the common readers and comics theoreticians of the West to even become aware of such a huge scene as Japanese manga, for example.

In the present, places such as Eastern Europe are considered to be terra incognita comics wise. The reasons for this are obvious – the crucial years of development of the comics industry in Western Europe were the post-war years, when most of the Eastern European countries became part of the Eastern Block. Because of the ideological boundaries, or even due to a simple lack of focus on popular media of this type, Eastern Europe was cut away from the developments in the comics literature which was blooming in the West.

Still, to say that there were no comics at all in Eastern Europe is erroneous, if not utterly ignorant. Actually, careful research would bring to light many surprises.

It has to be said, though, that Eastern Europe is much larger and more diverse than Western Europe, with different developments and different cultural influences taking places in particular areas. For the history of the pre-modern comics/picture stories, it is important to note the existence of the popular graphic print editions called lubki ( lubok in singular), in Russia, emerging as early as 17 th Century. Lubki were widely distributed hand colored prints, which combined (bright colored) pictures and words, sometimes in a sequential order, not unlike present day comics, with topics ranging from satirical to educational, etc.

Another specific form of folk art that resembles modern comics are Slovenian painted panels which used to be positioned on the bee-hives, in order to make bees be able to recognize their hives! These paintings, created from 18 th until early 20 th Century, sometimes used several pictures in order to “make a story”. The reason to mention these examples is simply to show that creation of picture stories is not connected strictly to the traditions that are inherent to the West.

Of course, if today we use the term “comics”, we consider the sequential stories with speech balloons, a form which boomed in the American newspapers at the very end of 19 Century, and gradually developed on European soil, while conquering the publications of various kinds, and reaching a pretty wide scope in the 1930s. It reflected in Eastern Europe as well – since the mid 30s, some of the major American newspaper comics were reprinted in Politika, the most respected daily to come out in Belgrade, which was a Capital of (what then used to be called) Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It should be noted that a number of Serbian publications during the 19th Century (including a widely popular children’s magazine Neven, which ran from 1880 to 1891, and from 1898 to 1908) published proto-comics (sequential stories with no speech balloons), both reprinted from abroad, and created by local artists. Anyway, in the mid 30s, comics exploded in Belgrade – there were plenty of local artists (Djordje Lobacev, Sergej Solovjev, Nikola Navolev, Vladimir Zedrinski, Djuka Jankovic, Ivan Sensin are just a few of the names), and they published both in the illustrated magazines of the time, and specialized comic magazines and books. Some of the comics magazines were printed once or even twice every week, with titles including Strip, Mikijeve novine, Paja Patak, Crtani Film, Politikin Zabavnik, etc (the last one was founded in 1939, and is still in circulation). The peculiar thing is that many of the cartoonists operating in Belgrade were actually Russian immigrants, who escaped after the Communist Revolution, and had to take just any job in the new surroundings, including comics – which were considered a low-profile art, despite the popularity of the form. This generation of artists produced a wide range of authentic comics, from adventure (including those featuring masked heroes!), to humorous, SF, folk-tale inspired, “Disneyesque” (including the stories where the Disney characters were borrowed by the local artists), based on classical literature, etc. The Belgrade comics scene, which until the present remained basically unknown outside the region (even though some of the authors were reprinted in France and Italy), was probably an example of fairly advanced comics production existing in Eastern Europe. But it had just a few years to develop and evolve – with the beginning of WW2, in April 1941, the country was facing such a dramatic circumstances, that few cartoonists were able to carry on with their activities during the war, or after the new government was established in 1944.

Despite the troubles, there were new generations of cartoonists in Serbia (and other ex-Yugoslav countries) forming until the present day. Croatia and Slovenia are also good example in this field – Croatia had a few great cartoonists who established themselves already in the 30s and the 40s, including Andrija Maurovic (with quite original adventure comics style), and Valter and Norbert Nojgebauer (with more Disney-like approach). Subsequently, the Croatian comics scene in the 70s and 80s was refreshed by a more modern approach, when a group of cartoonists who called themselves Novi kvadrat came on the scene. So it should not be a surprise that some of the Croatian cartoonists made international careers once they moved abroad – Igor Kordej became known for his works for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse; Danijel Zezelj was publishing his graphic novels in Italy, and easily made his way to major projects with Marvel and DC in US as well. Yet, there are examples of artists who stayed home and publishing abroad, such as Darko Macan from Croatia (working on big time series such as Grendel Tales and Star Wars), and Slovenian Tomaz Lavric alias TBC, who became known for his albums with Glenat in France and Magic Press in Italy.

Speaking of Slovenia, during the 1990s, it became home of the comics magazine named Stripburger, which made a link between the contemporary alternative comics scene in Slovenia and ex-Yugoslavia, and the rest of the world. The prize that they were given for the best comics fanzine in the world at the Angouleme festival in 2001 is a true reflection of the respect that they were gaining on the global scale – among their activities are two pioneering collections of the Eastern European comics in English, titled Stripburek.

All this shows that comics scenes of East and West of the Continent have crossed their paths at many points. Sometimes in a less expected way – for example, I remember seeing works by Igor Baranko,from Kiev, on the pages of Stripburger magazine, which were proud of their discovery of somebody creating comics in Ukraine, country with no huge comics tradition. Incidentally, in 1999, Baranko won the American “Lottery Immigration” ticket, which enabled him to move to US! Eventually, in the country where myriads of cartoonists are dwelling, he succeed to publish several graphic novels with established publishers, and to contribute his works to high-profile editions such as Big Book of Bart Simpson, with Baranko’s name figuring right next to Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons)!

I would have no doubts that those creators who are not overstuffed by too many influences and comics traditions in their countries often have the ability to express themselves in a fairly freewheeling and relaxed way, which could be appreciated even in the highly sophisticated market. Another example is Bulgarian cartoonist Rumen Petkov, who did comics for the very few magazines (Daga and Chuden Sviat), which in the 70s and the 80s published such material in that country. After moving to the US, Petkov became co-creator of some of the major Cartoon Nework features such as Johny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory.

But it’s important to stress that even though general cultural orientation during the “Eastern Block” days was not very favorable towards comics, there were still comics editions and albums, diverse in their approach and style (again, since 1948 and President Tito’s clash with Stalin, Yugoslavia was away from this group of countries, which allowed the existence of a more open scene, with numerous comics magazines and editions including American and European titles). In Poland, and in (then) Czechoslovakia, it was possible to find comics produced by local artists, even though there was hardly any specialized market to lean on. In Poland, some of the titles were quite popular, such as Kajko i Kokosz (Asterix-like stories about Ancient Slavic people) by Janusz Christa, or more bizarre kids’ comics such as Tytus, Romek i A'tomek (by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski), about a Boy Scout gang accompanied by a chimpanzee! Among these interesting efforts was certainly a comics magazine titled Relax, published between 1976 and 1981, which gathered some of the best Polish cartoonists – the print run of this magazine reached 200 000 copies!

In Czechoslovakia, there were not only fine kids’ comics (such as Rychle sipy by Jaroslav Foglar), but also the work of Kaja Sudek, who did his own original comics somewhat inspired by the heritage of American superhero comics. At the comics convention held in Prague in 2004, it was said that, during the “Iron Curtain”in Czechoslovakia, there were about “15 comics series in over 40 years”.

One more interesting thing is that almost at any time you’ll find someone creating comics, even in the countries where you will not find official comic books and publications. In the mid 90s, in Bari, Italy, I met Shpend Bengu, an artist from Tirana – he was a winner of the comics competition proposed to Albanian artists, by an Italian organization which wanted to initiate production of comics in Albania. In order to make this competition happen, the organizers first had to explain what comics were– simply because there was no word for comics in the Albanian language! And yet, among the artists who sent their work (most of it were the first comics that they have ever produced) was Shpend Bengu, author of really expressive, thought-provoking stories.

Still, whatever the local situation was, the comic scene in Eastern Europe is facing changes - the big turning point occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened up the market for the new production, and enabled the flow of the comics from abroad. It resulted in more colorful local production, with no ideological restrictions; comics conventions, exhibitions and festivals became quite common (who would have imagined some years ago that the biggest convention in Slovakia (Comics Salon) would be subtitled as Festival of Japanese Culture, Manga, Anime, Comics, Games, SF, Fantasy and Horror).

Of course, the new circumstances have brought new limitations as well – financially, it’s very difficult to retain the production of comics (especially in the countries without the trained readership for literature of this kind), and many editions flopped. And yet, some nice surprises could be met, such as the comics by Balazs Grof, which were (since the year 2000) published in a Budapest city guide Pesti Est, with the print run of 500 000 copies every month! Also, countries such as Poland are potentially big markets for all kinds of literature, considering the number of inhabitants. According to the annual festivals such as KomMissiya, held in Moscow’s Center of Contmporary Art, one can assume that there are ever fewer obstacles to comics being taken as an art form, which wasn’t so in the past, and not only in the East.

One of the growing scenes in Eastern Europe is connected with self-publishing, small editions and fanzines which are being spread all over the place. This is understandable, because this production is not limited by finances. It’s cheap, and it could involve a wide range of artists and enthusiasts. Even places such as Serbia, a country which was troubled by wars, sanctions and overall decline in the 90s, was home to a lively underground scene – authors such as Wostok was producing 100s of issues of his dark-humored zine called Krpelj, Sasa Mihajlovic, Maja Veselinovic, Vuk Palibrk and others are producing an amount of work which met an enthusiastic response in country and abroad. The recent emergence of Romanian magazines such as the ones published by Hard Comics, was a bit of refreshment, and so are the Paper Movies produced in Sofia, original photo-comics which are speaking about the dark side of life in the post-Communist Bulgaria. Paper Movies instalments are distributed for free at the clubs and public spaces. Another good introduction to a “different” production is Aargh, a magazine made in Czech Republic…

Finally, it is to be said that comics are becoming a world culture – to be fully aware of this, means to inevitably open for the production based in what now is perceived as “exotic” part of the world…