Because of the dramatic events that took place in the ex-Yugoslav republics, this territory was very often in the news during the last decade of the 20th Century. And still, it's very hard to say how accurate the picture is, that the Western public has about those countries and their culture.
It's hard to blame the average TV viewer in the rich Western countries for feeling bored or overloaded by the images from the Balkans, and wondering if the people from the South-East of the European continent, so mercilessly fighting each other, are even capable of producing any "culture".
But yes, even during the peaks of the crisis in the 90's, some cultural scene existed over there - and one of the most lively and free-wheeling was the production of comics. This might come as no surprise, since comics were very popular medium in ex-Yugoslavia, ever since the 30's, when not only reprints of American and European comics started to be frequently published, but also when the local scenes, consisting of authors from Belgrade and Zagreb have been formed. Even during the 2nd World War, comics were published both in the magazines which were controlled by the communists, and those which were loyal to the Nazi occupation army. During Tito's reign, especially from the mid 60's to late 80's, there existed a number of comics magazines which were in the European rank.
In the beginning of the 90's, as the war which would lead to decomposition of the country had started, most of the popular magazines that were publishing comics had to cease functioning, or face the diminishing markets in the separated republics. But yet, it was the time for the new generation of cartoonists and publishers to come on the scene: they were not aiming their work for commercial consumption, and they started with almost no money in their pockets, so they had nothing to lose in the unfavorable economic conditions. These people were working in the tradition of the American underground comics, by exploring the form ,and searching new freedom of self-expression, even though (especially at the beginning) they had nothing but vague information about the American scene, present or past.
In the early 90's, as the war broke up, I started to publish my own self-produced mini comics, in English, and after printing cheap Xeroxes in the local copy shops, I sold and traded them on the alternative network all over the world. Soon I started to publish my work abroad ,and, while still living in the little Serbian town of Pancevo, I began to collaborate with major American publishers of alternative comics, like Fantagraphics Books and Kitchen Sink Press. I realized, at the same time, that there were other cartoonists in Serbia, creating comics which were (more or less ) similar in mood and style to what I tried to achieve. One of them lived in the neighboring town, and was born in 1963 just like me, and he was also using a
pseudonym. That guy called himself Wostok, and we worked separately and without knowing about each other, but it was obvious that our comics shared a dark atmosphere and strange humor. We were inspired by the phantasmagoric
reality of everyday life in Serbia, and we explored the strange, anarchic vitality of our crazy Balkan people. When we met (and it was almost by a chance), we wondered if there were other authors producing something similar in Serbia. In the mid 90's, we noticed a whole scene of little magazines and fanzines emerging around, and even though the crisis in our country was becoming stronger each year, there were new artists popping up out of nowhere.
>From the very start, the activities of cartoonists like Wostok and I were noticed and supported by the group of enthusiasts from Slovenia, another ex-Yugoslav republic. They were gravitating around a magazine called Stripburger, and willing to both present the ex-Yugoslav alternative scene to the readers abroad, and to work on introducing the international scene to the domestic readers. As a result, a lot of Serbian authors were published in Stripburger. Some of the young Slovenian authors, like Jakob Klemencic alias Obscurator, were as well into underground aesthetics, so we understand each other very well , even though the official institutions and administrations of our countries were hardly having any contacts at all, after Slovenia declared its independence in 1991.
For years, Stripburger provided a space for "different" comics, and its editors were travelling to the conventions all around Europe and North America, slowly and methodically building their fame as being one of the most interesting alternative comics magazines in Europe in the 90's. It proved that even if you are living in a small country, your activity could break many barriers, and get attention in the "big" world, if you use your energy in a right way.
After publishing an English language anthology of East-European comics called Stripburek, in 1997, the Stripburger crew did an important and widely noticed work on premier presentation of this little known and yet very interesting scene.
WAR AND PEACE is an exhibition aiming not only to introduce the alternative
comics from Serbia and Slovenia, it is also an example of collaboration of authors and editors from two ex-Yugoslav republics, which continued even during the most turbulent times. Slovenia is the most successful ex-Yugoslav state, and probably is very close to joining the European Union, while Serbia is in continuing turmoil,a country involved in all those undeclared wars for 10 years, and nobody knows if even the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 was really the last chapter, or just the beginning of some new crisis. But it didn't stop the authors and editors from two countries from maintaining friendly relations, and continuing their collaboration and exchange of ideas until the present day.
This exhibition should point out, as well ,that it takes nothing but a good will, common sense and a little bit of humor to jump over the fences built by the National Bureaucracies in any country - that's why the material presented should be understandable to anyone interested, including the comics admirers in Germany.
Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf