CROmics - A HORROR STORY TOLD WITH FONDNESS

By Darko Macan

One of the famous horror/SF movies of the fifties, The Incredible Shrinking Man scripted by Richard Matheson, told the story of a man who - well, obviously - found himself shrinking one day, getting smaller by the hour, becoming a midget, rat-sized, smaller than a spider, tinier still. And my guess is that anyone working or following the Croatian comics scene would find a strong bond with the title character - this is what we are living, after all.

The commonly agreed upon founding stone of the Croatian comics is Vjerenica maca (The Sword's Fiancee) drawn by Andrija Maurovic, adapted by Kresimir Kovacic from the novel by Paul Feval and published in Novosti newspaper in 1935. (We could take a step backwards and argue that Max-und-Moritz-inspired Maks i Maksic, written and drawn by the Russian immigrant Sergije Mironovic Golovcenko since 1925, was the real beginning, or go even further back to some proto-strips from the beginning of the century, but we would be better off sticking to Andrija.) Andrija Maurovic continued to draw a slew of adaptations for various newspapers and emerging comics magazines earning in retrospect the title of the father of Croatian comics - not that he cared about it, it was only a lucrative job for him until his philosophy changed and he turned to apocalyptic paintings, vegetarianism, and running barefoot in the snow.

I said lucrative and I meant it. The newspapers paid well for "novels in pictures" (alternatively called "newspaper movies") so Andrija often boasted how much money he had earned and whittled away in his bohemic early years. They were novelty, the comics were, and they sold well. The magazines whose content was equally split between the comics and other entertaining material (stories, articles, puzzles) multiplied and reached their peak in Zabavnik which was published during the WWII. Zabavnik was edited (and mainly filled up) by the Neugebauer brothers, scriptwriter in verse Norbert and Disney-influenced and prolific artist Walter.

In 1945 the victory of the communist-led Partisans brought an end to Zabavnik - the new order did not want any traces of the old one. Norbert and Walter obediently switched sides and went on drawing strips and animated movies for the new regime - the politics never seemed to interest them and Walter always wanted to be Disney after all, doing comics, one suspects, as a proxy for the movies. The others survived neatly, too (Maurovic having joined the Partisans during the war) but then came 1946.

For whatever reason, the Communist Party decided to slam the comics (all but, of all, Disney's reworkings of the fairy tales) in the official newspaper Borba, branding them as capitalist poison, calling them narcotics, etc. The scared editors promptly revoked all the strips published (even though most of them celebrated the Revolution, the working class, etc.) and for the next five years comics existed under the guise of editorial cartoons and an occasional strip, but the first blow to the continuing popularity and, one hopes, prosperity, was stricken.

In 1950, when it became obvious that the mutual love with Stalin was irrevocably gone (the official breakup was in 1948 but if you read the newspapers there was almost no mention of it until two years later), the atmosphere became a bit more lax and the doors slightly opened to Western influences. The first strips reappeared shyly on the pages of children's magazines and, since no one had jumped to chomp their head, slowly gathered courage, even more boldly occupying the space in the early photo-illustrated magazines of the era. Soon, the magazines which dominantly published strips appeared and the return to the old glory was in sight.

The most enduring weekly magazine, Plavi Vjesnik, was created in 1954 and survived for 19 years, though with varying presence of comics on its pages. However, during its first decade and somewhat longer, Plavi Vjesnik introduced the second generation of Croatian artists and created what we here could call the Silver age of Croatian comics. The Neugebauers were still present, but Walter was soon to leave for Germany, to work for Rolf Kauka and later to form his own animation studio. Andrija was occasionally working throughout the decade, too. But the main emphasis was on the new boys: Julio Radilovic - Jules, Zarko Beker, Borivoj Dovnikovic - Bordo, Vladimir Delac. They did adventure and humor and, while Andrija and the Neugebauers watched movies (the silents in Andrija's case, Disney in Walter's) and created comics by ear, these new guys were brought up on comics, familiar with Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, therefore ending up in the medium not by chance, but by choice.

Plavi Vjesnik, at its best, had the circulation of 170.000 copies and was widely read and enjoyed. They paid its authors well for their weekly installments though some rather insane editorial policies were sometimes displayed - canceling popular series in order to bring in something new. The inept editorializing peaked in the mid-sixties when it was decided that Plavi Vjesnik would change the concept and jump onto the pop-music bandwagon. This move alienated all those who were following the weekly for the comics and did not bring in the expected pop-oriented youth. Plavi Vjesnik never reached the heights of the previous popularity and dwindled to an end in 1973, serializing of all comics only the imported Asterix.

Ineptness of the decision makers went arm in arm with the discovery of cheap imports (Italian and French stuff, syndicated US and UK dailies) so that most of the artists (barring the persistent Jules who has kept working in comics to these days) switched to advertising and cartoons, leaving the pages of comic-magazines (those boomed in the 60s and 70s) to the imports. If someone had thought of exporting the Croatian comics reciprocally at the time, we could have been better off today, but things being what they were, another blow fell onto the struggling Croatian comics scene.

Ten years after the Plavi Vjesnik's editorial mindstorming, in 1975, a new kind of comics started to emerge. As a reaction to the overwhelming middlebrow sameness of the mainstream offerings, student newspapers began to publish young authors who had something to say. After a few crudely drawn comics at first, the artistically schooled youngsters jumped on the opportunity and the group named Novi Kvadrat was formed (the literal translation would be "A New Square" but "A New Panel" is a more fitting one), and in three years of its existence, 1977-79, it changed the face of Croatian comics. Firstly limited to one page stories by the format of the newspapers and looking at the pictures produced by Les Humanoides without being able to read them, Novi Kvadrat guys were forced to reinvent the medium - their topics were contemporary, satirical, philosophical and critical, their art was great, their layouts and approach were something else. The heady times of the previous decade still echoed strongly and Novi Kvadrat was the product of its times. They were read and talked about and they influenced countless imitators who never understood the point, copying but the form.

Some members of Novi Kvadrat disappeared after the disbanding of the group, some pursued other creative outlets. Some, like Radovan Devlic or Igor Kordej, followed their muses towards doing longer comics, while another one set out to reshape the Croatian comics in his own image.

An author (in the 'auteur' sense of the word) of both good comics and animated movies, Kresimir Zimonic set a goal for himself to elevate the comics to the respected position of Art. He initiated the biennial Comics Salon in Vinkovci (the first one held in 1984), the formation of the Croatian Society of Strip Authors in 1985, and the strip magazine Patak (The Drake) which he edited over ten years and 22 issues.

Patak, along with other Zimonic's initiatives, was faced with some internal and some external problems - the economic crisis of the late 80s and the war during the 90s being the most notable of the latter - caused Patak's circulation to drop from 10000 to 1500 copies and finally lead to Patak going on hiatus. Being a good idea in the beginning and introducing a few worthwhile creators (Dubravko Matakovic, Dusan Gacic, Magda Dulcic and a slew of youngsters), Patak suffered from the inability to pay its contributors and became essentially only a showcase for the new kids who usually quickly disappeared disillusioned by the lack of prospects. The audience consequently thinned, finding less and less to read and thus we spiraled down another notch, not at all helped by Zimonic's autocratic stance admitting no vision save his own.

If you looked at the Croatian comics now, you would find them almost completely separated from the audience (except in one important segment that I will come to in a minute) - the newsstands offer lots of Bonelli's products, some Disney, Marvel and DC while the artists either found work for hire outside the Croatian borders (Danijel Zezelj, Igor Kordej, Edvin Biukovic, Darko Macan) or retreated into the fanzines. The one important segment where the creators and the audience still remain in contact are the children magazines (distributed through schools) like Modra lasta or Smib where a dozen of authors (Ivica Bednjanec, Zimonic, Stef Bartolic, Goran Sudzuka) earn their daily bread.

Close to a dozen different fanzines appeared during the last five years though we will mention only three here, those which stand out by their quality or at least determination to make ripples. The three in question are Endem (inclined towards mainstream, humor and media references), Stripoholic (undergrounders, fascinated by feces and weed), and Variete Radikale (a kind of l'art pour l'art orientation). Chiefly self-distributed (with help from More Comics, the only comics store in Croatia), their circulation varies. Endem sells 150-200, Stripoholic passed 200 and is aiming for more, while Variete Radikale does not reveal its circulation but is more famous, at least it seems so to my biased eyes, due to the manifest nature of their comics rather than for their actual readability.

Two things yet remain to be said. The first one is Kvadrat, a magazine for comics criticism in the country without a magazine that would publish exclusively comics, selling more copies than any of the fanzines and surviving on pure enthusiasm of its editor Vjeko Djanis. The other thing is the best contemporary Croatian author, Dubravko Matakovic, whose weekly topical pages are widely read and enjoyed. Being of the underground origins (usually quotes Reiser as an influence), Matakovic produces unique, original and pretty much untranslatable comics. With a few other newspaper strips in evidence, Dubravko Matakovic easily represents the last bastion of comics in the world of adults.

Matakovic aside, a look at the numbers quoted above will easily show why I invoked the Shrinking Man at the beginning: from the 30's into Plavi Vjesnik into Novi Kvadrat into Patak into the fanzines, the circulation tailspined from hundreds of thousands towards mere hundreds. The only thing that comforts me at the moment is that by the end of the movie the Shrinking Man crosses the subatomic barrier and finds himself to be a giant in a whole new universe. However, I must admit I await the sight of this new universe, in which Croatian comics will be a gigantic presence, with a trepidation which almost equals my hope.

Darko Macan


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