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Regards From Serbia

This is new from Top Shelf, released just today. It’s a nice chunky thing for your $19.95, weighing in at 288 pages. And let me tell you, writing about it is a little intimidating, in the way that devoting just a few paragraphs to so much work from such a span of an artist’s life can be. The feeling of inadequacy is inescapable.

Regards From Serbia is an omnibus collection of works from writer/artist Aleksandar Zograf (real name: Sasa Rakezic), though everything in the book pertains to the turbulent times facing the author’s environment. Zograf might be a familiar name to some of you; he was a contributor to Weirdo and Zero Zero, and had a few solo books published by Fantagraphics, like Life Under Sanctions, which is collected here, but I suspect that the impressive temporal scope of the man’s work will only become apparent once you’ve seen everything bunched together, all at once.

The earliest of these comics are dark and hard, slightly chilly with their typewritten lettering, reflecting an early desire to approach the pain for warfare with a barely-controlled calm, as well as a recurring concern with the value of what the artist is doing. As time passes, Zograf’s art grows warmer, more fluid, more assured, and much more prone to exaggeration and caricature, though his approach is always informed by allegorical images in a somewhat similar manner to David B. (just to throw out another recognizable name).

And a lot of time passes. The book is divided into four distinct sections. The first covers The Early Comics, featuring Zograf’s work from the early to mid-’90s. What’s interesting about these works is that many of them overlap in the events they depict, indicating the many different forums across the globe that the artist intended his work for. Zograf is a highly inventive artist, if always direct in his approach - nearly every panel in every one of his comics contains caption-based narration, with the art usually pulsing with slightly enhanced visions of the everyday, dream icons intruding on the waking world, symbols taking the place of reality to provoke a deeper understanding of what couldn’t be fully conveyed through words. Zograf’s panel layouts are often jagged and harsh, sometimes decorative in a manner that reminds me of Mark Beyer’s Amy & Jordan (though never quite as extreme), and always intent on examining the immediate reactions of the artist and those surrounding him to what’s going on.

Zograf is a lovely artist (many samples can also be found in Tom Spurgeon’s interview), but I think what best fuels his work is that immediacy. Almost all of these works, even those that adopt the stance of looking back on history, and utterly inseparable from the mental state of the artist at the time of their composition. Dreams often figure in prominently, and there’s always a distinct uncertainty about what the future might bring, in spite of any premonition or forecast. This feeling becomes all the more potent as the reader hits future sections.

The second section covers The E-Mails, previously published as Bulletins from Serbia by Slab-O-Concrete, and it’s literally a big series of e-mails Zograf sent on en mass to the world cartooning community between March of 1999 and March of 2000, as NATO bombs dropped on his hometown of Pančevo, often targeting an industrial zone visible from his window. This section is complimented by The Weeklies, a series of single-page cartoons created on the suggestion of Chris Ware (who also provides an arch comics-format introduction; Terry Jones also contributes a withering 1999 text 'primer' on the bombings) composed from April 17, 1999 to July 22, 2001, and uploaded to the internet. An epilogue reflects on September 11, 2001, and the final section, The End, concerns a few lingering matters, such as the 2006 death of Slobodan Milošević.

All of these comics are infused by a fast-moving sense of interior/exterior reportage. It is good that Zograf is so interested in dreams, because the events he depicts, civil wars and explosions and little moments of escape, lend themselves nicely to the absurdity and comedy and glassy-eyed hallucination of the dream state; how else can one confront the madness of the ten billion dinar note, and the sight of children playing with the other week's now-outdated currency?. Be aware that there is a good amount of levity in this book, some high spirits, some sweet moments of the mundane; it’s disarming in its straightforward desire to capture fleeting moments in a time of historical moment, a decade (and more) of great change that (like all such times) is lived by people capable of good whimsy and vivid sleep.

It's long, deep reading, the kind of excellent autobiographical comic that genuinely makes the reader feel they've gotten to know the author very well. As a historical document, its value is obvious. But as pure reading, I think it's even more worthwhile for the intimacy it brings to experiences both universal and painfully independent.