With the exception of a few experts (such as Disney historian Didier Ghez), the very existence of the comics scene in pre-WW2 Belgrade is still largely unknown in the West. Even though that scene was crudely halted (and by and large, sent to oblivion) by the violent developments of WW2, and the political turmoils that followed in that part of the Balkans, it certainly was lively and picturesque, not far behind the comics production in some more prosperous European countries.
Anyway, when the most respectable daily, Politika, started to publish American newspaper comics in 1934., other dailies (and some weekly magazines) followed by giving space to comics. Soon there were dozens of local artists, who were inspired enough to start drawing their own comics. Kiosks were invaded by comics magazines, coming out once or even twice a week. Many of these magazines had Disney characters in their headers, or their very names were inspired by Disney creations ( including the most popular comic magazine in pre-War Belgrade, named Mika Miš (Mikha Mish), which is the (now archaic) Serbicised name for Mickey Mouse. Definitely, Disney was a symbol of novelty picture stories, even though comics (or “strip” in Serbian/Croatian) meant many different styles and genre.
And yet, comics did not pop out of nowhere in Serbia – since the 19thCentury, there had been both domestically produced and translated proto-comics (with text written beneath the pictures, instead of speech balloons) scattered in different publications. One of the stories that was (technically, at least) a proto-comic, and yet was something new and different, was published in a children’s magazine named Veseli četvrtak (Joyful Thursday). It was serialized in 1932 under the title Doživljaji Mike Miša (Adventures of Mika Miš), written by Božidar Kovačević ( after 11th installment, it was continued by Svetislav B. Lazić), and drawn originally by Ivan Šenšin, then after 34th installment continued by an unknown author, who signed his work with initials "MS“.
The story featured a character named Mika Miš, who travelled all around the world, in search for a country called Nevidiš (Invisible). Eventually, during the visit of the Land of the Magicians, he met a magician who transformed from an ancient statue of a philosopher.The magician pointed him to the entrance of the Invisible Country. Mika Miš found a bunch of dwarfs there , who looked very similar to the dwarfs presented in Disney’s animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which started to be developed in Disney studio 2 years later, in 1934, and was premiered in 1937). The end of the story was Serbian style, though, with the dwarfs playing brass band music in honor of Mika Miš, and preparing a feast that lasted a whole day, with a lot of roasted meat and alcoholic beverages!
An interesting question arises : is Mika Miš actually Mickey Mouse? Is this famous cartoon character borrowed by Serbian authors in their own comic strip? No matter how absurd it may sound, it seems that Mika Miš does look like Mickey Mouse, but he has a character of his own, independent from the Disney creation. In the early 30s, it was a global phenomenon – local artists would borrow a popular culture hero of the time, like Mickey Mouse, for their own purpose, and render it in comics and illustration, toys and crafts production, etc. It was happening everywhere - in Europe, in Japan, even in the United States. Actually, Mika Miš as presented in Veseli četvrtak was surrounded by a set of characters that does not appear in early Disney cartoons – instead of Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, etc, there is a pelican, an ostrich, two black guys,a Japanese soldier (at that time, Cino-Japanese military incidents made world news, first the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and then the short war between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan, in early 1932). Moreover, at several points in a strip, Mika Miš claims that Belgrade is his native town. Finally, in a segment of a strory describing his visit to Washington DC, he is presented curiously looking at the poster of a Mickey Mouse movie, in front of the local cinema! It was obviously another character, of which Mika Miš was some sort of a reflection.
Certainly, it’s not difficult to guess that character introduced as the "Serbian version“ of Mickey Mouse was considered to be quite entertaining to Serbian readers in 1930s. This idea was explored by many local cartoonists, throughout the decade. At the same turn, by adopting the most cherished character of the popular culture of the time, Serbian comics reflected a wish to be part of the modern world, and contemporary trends, in a country where development was always slowed down due to the endless list of crisis and turmoils.
The story from Veseli četvrtak brings Mika Miš to distant countries and exciting situations – he goes to Africa, travels by submarine, reaches the North Pole, then dives to the world on the bottom of the sea, flies carried by a pelican, even joins a circus... When the circus goes bankrupt, Mika Miš continues on to Paris and then Moscow, finally reaching the Chinese battlefields, where he gives medical aid to both Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and washes their wounds with rakija (Serbian brandy). Mika Miš’s altruistic efforts inspire the Japanese Emperor to decorate him with a medal, but soon we find our hero being captured and placed in font of the Chinese soldiers’ firing squad! It’s probably the only time that we see a Mickey Mouse- like character facing guns aimed straight to his head, and ready to be executed, but – miraculously - Mika Miš (and his comrades) survive by pretending that bullets did not miss their target, and that they were shot dead (the only one who was wounded was ostrich!). A Japanese officer offers Mika Miš to join their forces, angry at the Chinese bestiality, but Mika refuses, by replying "Every man is my brother“. He ends up protecting a Chinese Buddhist temple from Japanese devastation, even shooting at the Japanese army with a cannon, but eventually rescuing Japanese soldiers from Chinese revenge... As the story winds up, it seems to be getting even more surrealistic. Mika Miš somehow meets wild Indians, then saves his friends from the attack of a mad elephant, and so on – contemporary readers will probably be disgusted with panels depicting the leading cast of characters using the carcass of the elephant to float on the sea for four days, until reaching... Egypt! In Egypt Mika Miš manages to get a radio and listen to Radio Belgrade's traditional fiddle orchestra music, which awakens the mummy of a Pharaoh, who claims that he is of Serbian origin too! Further on, Mika Miš comes to Washington just to save it from the Indian attack, and gets a medal once more, this time from the American officials! He relaxes by listening to jazz music, plays football (several matches were presented until the end of the story), wins motorcicle races, a boxing match, and horse races too... As the new artist takes the story, he brings Mika Miš to European cities such as Paris, London and Vienna, in the meantime presenting him visiting an amusement park, having a fight with pirates, and befriening a dinosaur in the jungle (the beast acts friendly and offers him a ride on its back), and so on...
Of course, this entire picture story was designed to amaze readers by being exotic and extraordinary. It’s far from being politically correct, but it also reflects the wish to be fair, and to achieve great things, through a straightforward and honest approach. For sure, it lacks the sophistication of the Disney productions, even though they obviously were an inspiration and a starting point. On the other hand, it seems that the Mika Miš authors really enjoyed their freedom to re- render the American original for their own purpose. Drawings are crude but daring, sometimes getting close to the free-wheeling and satirical imagery created in much later times, for example in American underground comics of the 1960s. As time passes, we may just as well be discovering new and new meanings behind this vintage material. Anyway, it’s certainly important to have Doživljaji Mike Miša reprinted in a single volume, for the first time since its instalments were serialised, way back in 1932.