Years ago, when the glorious magazine Il Grifo brought Danijel Zezelj’s comics to Italy, it was clear to everybody that he was a great artist with great potentialities, a man with much to tell and with a graphic style innovative for its use of expressionism. We’ve found him and he has been kind enougenough to answer our questions.
It has happened to everybody at least once in our life to throw the sums of our existence (perhaps hypnotized by the swirl formed by the teaspoon in a cup of coffee or by the incessant roar of the rain through the window). Considering your many experiences and all the events that have conditioned your life, how would you define the current Danijel Zezelj?
This sounds like a question one asks himself at the very last moment of his life, a second before dying. I don’t have an answer yet.
In Italy, if we consider the works published by “Il Grifo” and the short period in which you worked with Ade Capone’s “Liberty” , you created powerful and intimate comics. How do you remember that period?
Italy and time I spent there was very important. It was the first time that my works were published internationally and also the first time that they were published and printed in a decent, proper way (inside Il Grifo magazine). Personally it was also a very turbulent time, the war was going on in Croatia, I didn’t have any sense of security or future or prospective, lots of things that I believed in simply disappeared, fell apart. I was fortunate to find good people in Montepulciano, who helped me, accepted me. We are still friends today and I left piece of my heart with them, forever.
In a page, enclosed in “Pagliacci” (Liberty – 1996), is written “The dream is mightier than the gravity” and, often in your comics, especially in the old ones, it happens to see events that break the limited rules of reality. Is drawing comics your way of dreaming?
That question sounds very romantic, but I don’t think that my work is way of dreaming – it is way of figuring out who I am where I am, what I want – on a very specific, practical everyday level. Dreams are projections of our desires or reflections of our defeats, fears, etc. When we are awake we have to deal with those desires, defeats, hopes, frustrations. We have to face them, fight with them, accept them etc… It’s much more harsh, physical and brutal then dreaming.
In your production there are very weak characters, like for example the protagonists of “L’Amore” (Edizioni Di – 1999), but also very strong characters, like the cop in “Rex” (Edizioni Di – 2000) whose story is almost superhero-like. In both cases it is the sense of innocence and delicacy, which serves as background to the souls of your characters, that strikes the reader’s attention. Do you believe people are intimately good, even if their actions can be brutal?
It’s a religious question (if people are fundamentally good or not); I wouldn’t try to answer it. I can only say that I’m interested in people and characters that are fundamentally good. Because when this goodness gets challenged, (by outside circumstances, necessities, influences…) then you have the drama, you have the beauty, the grace, the tragedy.
I mentioned the superheroes and I have read the short story you drew Batman (in Black and White N 3 – Play Press – 2003). Which is your relationship with this genre of comics?
Superheroes are very limited form of comic art. Those limits are also a reason of their success. They are simple, banal and often plain stupid. They can be exciting or funny sometimes, always very artificial and superficial. They are fantasy, a daydreaming. It’s pointless to try to turn them in something better, deeper or more complex than that. They are little slices of the big sugary entertainment cake.
I totally agree with your answer regarding the superheroes, but what do you think about the work of some authors -I’m thinking about people like Alan Moore, Bendis, Busiek, only to name few- which are trying to do something new with that genre?
The people you mention are great at what they do. Their work is using the space of the genre, by twisting it or playing with it but it still remains within the genre. I’m not judging them or their work or superheroes. I’m just personally not interested in that genre.
As we talked about superheroes I must ask your opinion regarding the work you made for the US majors, also because it’s a work sometimes far away from your favourite themes.
What I said about superheroes (in the previous answer) is what I think about them now. At the time when I was working on various serials for Marvel or DC Comics, it was challenging to try to create something within that genre. I was definitely learning new things, and that process was creative up to a certain point. After the period of learning and exploration, the space of work becomes limited and it cannot get any wider or more open because it would mean crossing the limits of the genre and breaking the rules. At that point that work started losing sense for me.
We find often animals in your stories, even in “human” situations. Is there any special reason for that?
There is no particular reason. Sometimes animals can be used as symbols. Also, since I’m not able to figure them out rationally, they carry certain mythical, symbolic quality to me. They operate and communicate on a level that, for the most part, is inaccessible to me, so I like to think about them as supreme beings, as if they know and feel more than we humans do.
You have drawn many silent stories, maybe to point out that often words are nothing but noise and that it would be enough if we were able to understand what is before our eyes. Where does this particular way of telling come from?
Words are just one of the elements of expressive language of comics, as well as of expressive language in general. As Artaud has written somewhere, It has not been proven that words are the best way of communication. Some ideas, thoughts, emotions, cannot be explained or expressed by words; you have to use other means. Sometimes absence of words can tell more than their presence.
The creation of “Stazione Topolo’” (Grifo Edizioni – 2002) is quite odd and romantic. Is it true that you have drawn inspired only by your instinct, without talking with the author about the story first?
Short stories that make “Stazione Topolo” were written by Moreno Miorelli, they are true stories, his notes on events connected to the very small town of Topolo, where he lives now (and also organizes an art festival every summer). I knew Moreno, and received his stories by email. They were beautiful in their simplicity and honesty. I never told Moreno I will try to illustrate them. I also did it without ever being to Topolo, without ever seeing the actual place. I went to Topolo for the first time after the stories were finished and the book published.
Regarding “Stazione Topolo’”, does it happen often to you to draw starting from something that you have read just inspired by your instinct, I mean without programming it?
The projects are often starting from random ideas or for irrational reasons or needs. There are no specific rules, but the strong feeling and desire to follow certain story. The necessity to express something is probably the most important.
You do not want to be called poet. Although every Zezelj’s works, specially those of which you’re the author, are extremely poetic and melancholy. So how do you define yourself?
The term poetic is often used for something vague, nice and non-specific and that’s why I’m avoiding it. I don’t think my work is vague or nice – it can be described in very simple, basic, clear, precise words.
Your graphic style has, in my opinion, changed enough towards a greater expressiveness and against the likelihood. Also the use of grey tonalities -in which you are a Master- is slightly abandoned. Is this search of essentialism a need or is it just a natural evolution?
I don’t know if it’s an evolution. It was not a conscious decision, but it is definitely a way towards more essential graphic language. I wish I can get rid of all the decoration and ornaments – left only with the most simple, necessary elements. And still be able to communicate.
Again talking about your graphic style, in the former stories and the pages published in Italy in “Il Grifo” you also used a peculiar style of colouring. Now, on the contrary, your stories are in B/W or coloured by somebody else. Is there a precise expressive choice at the base of this evolution or are there other reasons, like the process rhythms?
Black and white was always my first choice, I don’t think about colours except as the make up and secondary addition to my drawings. I colored the stories because I was asked to do it, because publishers thought that colours would make my stories more accessible etc. I always thought such calculations are nonsense – but sometimes had no choice, that was the only way to get stories published.
Again talking about your latest works, in particular with regards to “Nero Boliviano” (Petikat – 2002), I think you changed the style a lot. It seems like now your first goal has become the search of Expressionism instead of the style itself. Where does this experimental need come from?
“Nero Boliviano” and “Reflex” (Petikat – 2003 n.d.i.) are two books without narration in a traditional sense. Those books are both following line of unorganized, emotional reflections, in the form of drawings, and captured on everyday basis. It is like free improvising with ink on paper. I don’t know how much these two books communicate to others, but they meant a lot to me as I was working on them, they were my graphic diary in black and white.
Do you prefer to draw something already written by somebody else or do you prefer to be author of everything?
I prefer working on my own stories. I worked on stories written by others when I was asked to do it and if I liked the scripts. But I still didn’t work with the script (written by someone else) that I could identify with one hundred percent. But I would like to.
You have often worked with artists (Moreno Miorelli, Jessica Lurie, Greiner & Kropilak) coming from different artistic fields as poetry, theatre or music. What contributions have your comics obtained from these collaborations?
In every art form there are elements of other art forms; comics are combination of many different forms and languages. In that sense working with other artists means expanding the vocabulary, learning, searching. It is travelling through unknown territories. It also brings you in touch with people that you would never meet otherwise and helps breaking the isolation that painters and graphic artists can spend a lots of time in. Because painting and drawing are solitary works. In that sense I’m also experimenting with performances that combine live music with live painting.
Having taken part to advertising production and internet web sites creation as well, is it something just linked to having experience or making comics does it deal with experiences itself?
It depends, sometimes those are jobs that bring bread to the table, and sometimes they can be very creative and challenging, sometimes not.
Your works are published in many Countries, among which Italy, France, and USA (just to name few). How does the response of the audience change in the different Countries?
I think there was a similar question already – I don’t know much about the response of the audience, I don’t follow or research the numbers and cultural differences, and I rarely go to comic festivals etc. I don’t have an answer to this question. When talking directly to people who are reading my comics, I often discover that they see things in my work that I didn’t think exist there. This means that my opinion is just as subjective and valuable as opinion of any of the readers. In that sense it is hard to talk generally about the “response of the audience”.
We cannot talk with Zezelj without speaking about Croatia. In an interview you said you feel like being only an escaping immigrant. I am an emigrant too, not escaping, and I know the feeling of homesickness. Do you miss your roots?
We are all missing our origins because we cannot go back in time. The question is how you live without the missing part. I never had a strong feeling of belonging to the certain culture or country etc. Those are vague ideas. But I do miss specific streets, playgrounds, places where I grew up and lived, friends that are far away. It is natural, we all need home.
In Zagreb you have established a publishing house. What is the situation with the comics in Croatia today? What has really changed since you were there?
I don’t know precisely what the situation with the comics in Croatia is. Some comic artists are working for American publishers, DC and Marvel; few people are doing more experimental stuff. Whoever is trying to survive by making comics is oriented towards the US or France. Croatia is a small country and very few people read comics. But there are possibilities – one great example is comic magazine Stripburger, which is published in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Slovenia is even smaller than Croatia with fewer comic readers but Stripburger is well connected with alternative comic scene in Europe and well distributed all over the Europe and US. They are very active in organizing exhibitions and presentations attending to specific festivals where they can reach the right audience for the work they publish. It is an inspiring example of breaking the borders and it is completely based on enthusiasm and hard work of a small group of dedicated people.
In Zagreb, in 2001, a group of friends and I have founded a graphic workshop and publishing house Petikat. It is space for working and creating within the field of graphic design and comics but also with intention to expand that work towards the wider community, to connect with the environment. It’s an experiment in living creating and communicating within the reality of life in Croatia today. Since I live in Brooklyn and work for people in US and Europe, the idea is also to have work that flows in and out of borders of Croatia. We are struggling right now, but the will is strong.
The war has conditioned your life and today you discover yourself living in a Country that promotes the preventive war as the world problems solution. How do you live this situation?
It seems that some kind of war is constantly going on, everywhere, in one form or another. There is war at home, a war in the office, war on the street, and then there are politics and big wars. These wars are connected by the similar impulse. That if you trace them back all the way down to the source you will have to look inside yourself – at your own destructive and violent impulses, your own fears… There is an old saying “The lie of one man can destroy the world…”, but you have to understand that this “one man” is you.
We would like to thank Daniel Zezelj for his kindness and patience and we are all looking forward to seeing him in Italy very soon. A special thanks to Angela for her linguistic help.