Tomaž Lavrič (Slovenia) – interview, Stripburger 54, December 2010
For Slovenian comic book fans, Tomaž Lavrič doesn’t need a special introduction, so we won’t write one. On the other hand, for all Slovenian comic strip newbies as well as our foreign readers, the story of Tomaž Lavrič goes something like this: it all started with a certain Milko Bambič, in the far distant twenties, who invented the Slovenian comic strip. Later, somewhere in the fifties, a certain Miki Mustercreated the first hit in this new established genre. In the late sixties, a certain Kostja Gatnik imported “the underground” into Slovenian comics. Then, for a long while, there was (almost) nothing again, until the eighties, when a certain “failed ALU student” started drawing comic strips. His work was so skilful, so artistically refined, entertaining, provocative, charming, diverse, of such breadth and richness, that he gradually started to gain a comic-strip-god status among Slovenian comic book fans. Even his fellow cartoonists, although proverbially envious in true Slovenian fashion, usually end up admitting, through clenched teeth, that taking all into consideration, this Lavrič character possibly, really could be the best Slovenian cartoonist to date. Even some illustrious foreign publishers could not overlook him; consequently, he became one of the few Slovenian cartoonists to have managed a successful breakthrough into the wider comic book space. His creative path has already crossed with Stripburger on occasion in the past, so it seems rather inappropriate that after all these years we still haven’t interviewed him. What made us finally take action to redress this historical injustice is the imminent publication of an enlarged edition of the Rdeči Alarm (Red Alert), which is widely thought of as being his best comic strip book.
The task was undertaken by Koco and GR.
By way of a warm-up, a more general question. As a comics aficionado and a comic-strip artist myself, I am always interested in the reading habits of my “peers”. Can you share with us which comic book you are reading at the moment (if any)? If not, what was the last comic book you read?
Well, I’ve just finally made my way through your Gemma Bovary. Great drawing, fluent narration, innovative combination of comic-strip and literary text, a beautiful and faultless comic book in every sense, but… it’s not quite my style—it has too much of a flavour of soap operas and “women’s novels”. On the other hand, I read Wilon by Daniel Clowes, a typical coldly cynical, unpleasant, intelligent, mean and grievous commentary on the world, depressive to the core. Just the way I like it. What else? I just got my hands on Sitar’s Striporeki (Striphorisms); an interesting idea and a delightful realisation. Among yours, I liked the Čuha-puha notebook. In general I tend to prefer “original” comics. Classic serials mainly bore me, I don’t read superheroes or manga. Well, to be fair, there are a few exceptional exceptions in every genre which I admire, but the vast majority is, alas, crap. Oh well, that’s not only the case in the field of comic books.
It’s known that you are able to express yourself using various drawing techniques, which you adapt to the content of your comics. Diareja (Diarrhoea) is, for example, highly stylised, almost reduced to symbols, while Ekstremni športi (Extreme sports) is extremely caricatured; for Novi časi, Bosanske basni and Evropa (New Times, Bosnian Tales, and Europe) (as well as some others), you have chosen a more realistic style (although not entirely!), Slepo sonce (The Blind Sun) flirts with abstraction … I would like to know which one of these styles you feel to be most personal, most yours? In other words: when is “Lavrič most Lavrič”?
I am all these things, which is sometimes hard to make people understand. I like different genres, which require different artistic styles. It just so happens that I can draw them in various ways as well. I don’t know why, it seems that my brain is wired (or unwired) that way. Changing artistic styles comes as naturally to me as to a musician who uses the same instrument to amuse himself by playing a bit of Mozart, a bit of Metallica, and a bit of, hmm, Avseniki (Slovenian folk band).
The album where the above-mentioned fusion of styles is most distinctive, is probably Ratman. You created it by taking over the artistic styles of renowned cartoonists and their comic books (Lucky Luke, Alan Ford, Corto Maltese …). But is this ability of yours of “cartoon imitation” really as boundless as it seems? Or are there any authors that are “untouchable” even for you (either because you doubt that you would be able to imitate them convincingly, or because of your immense regard for them)?
Ah, Ratman, that’s already so far away. Yes, in it I played around with the authors that I liked, partly out of fun and partly for practice. I somehow feel that, in order to truly sense the work of an author, you have to “take it through your fingers”. In the old days, copying drawings from the originals painted by old masters was considered a standard part of artistic education. Imitating anyone on a page or two really isn’t any kind of problem, since it is not necessary to imitate them perfectly, it’s more about feeling their strokes, getting their “measure”, and precisely those masters that you most admire are worth the effort—I couldn’t be bothered with the rest. But there are quite a few left that I could work on like that. Enough for one more album, perhaps.
Parallel to your interchanging drawing styles, you also experiment with different (comic strip) genres: satire (Diareja, Sokol in golobica), humour (Ekstremni športi), detective story (Evropa), “slice of life” (Rdeči alarm), parody (Ratman, Slovenski klasiki), science fiction (Slepo sonce, Lomm) … What is the element, in your opinion, that links your comic strips in spite of this variety of styles? Do you see a thematic (or other) linking thread running through them?
Hmm. Quality, perhaps? No, I can see the link in both content and form very clearly, even with some overlaps, even though the comics really do form a very wide spectrum of genres. For example, I try to include a pinch of humour even in the most serious of dramas, and I hope that even through the wackiest humour the readers can draw out an element of human drama.
Which comic book, author or event influenced you so fatally as to make you “convert” into a professional cartoonist?
Hmm, in fact there was nothing “fatal”, no revelations of any kind. I’ve always drawn, since I was a kid. I can’t do anything else. It is true, though, that there came a point in my life when I said to myself: Ok, face it. You are not a painter. You are not a designer. You are a cartoonist. So be a good cartoonist.
After more than ten years, you are returning to one of your key works, supposedly also the most personal of them all, Rdeči alarm. What was the thing that (ultimately) forced you to expand the original story? Did the sequel just appear in your mind on its own (until you could no longer ignore it and had to put it on paper), or did you submit to the pressure of your fans, who were insistently cheering for that to happen?
Both. This comic book has a truly cult status—that is, a small, but faithful audience, who have been hassling me for years for a reprint. Besides, I’ve always thought myself that the story wasn’t quite finished and that it would be fun to continue it at some point, in real time, from a new life-perspective. But it’s quite sad to realise that the time perspective in the comic book (events from the 1980s—narrated fifteen years later—and the second part, another fifteen years later, therefore now 2010) is also the author’s own time perspective, showing how quickly a man goes, in a few leaps, from youth through adult to old man. Brrr…
It is widely thought that Rdeči Alarm contains a rather large amount of autobiographical elements. Can you confirm that?
Yes, of course, that was my time, my world, my generation. And yet it is a fictional story—a biographical novel, let’s say.
And now a sub-question: have you ever seriously considered creating a completely autobiographical comic book, as is already being done by some renowned cartoonists, mostly belonging to a more alternative background (Joe Matt, Chester Brown, David B., Harvey Pekar …)?
Even though I quite like the autobiographical comic strip, especially when it is really painfully honest, I am not the right man for this genre—first of all, because I am a rather boring guy and nothing really happens in my life, but also because I don’t feel any particular need to subject myself to such exposure and detailed scrutiny by curious strangers. I feel that I can express everything I wish as efficiently and honestly through fictional stories, but in a manner that is more attractive and comprehensible to the reader.
The protagonist of Rdeči alarm, Jure Krt, ventures again and again on a nostalgic journey to his “punk” youth. He did that in the first Rdeči alarm and he does it in the sequel, which is about a decade or more later … Do you consider yourself a nostalgic as well?
In comic books, that’s a necessity—it represents the linking thread of the story. As for myself, hmm… I am nostalgic to a certain extent. Not for the good old days, since it wasn’t all so rosy, in fact, it felt pretty horrid at the time. But from a sufficient time distance everything seems nicer. Above all, it makes me feel a bit sad when I think of how much creative energy we had then and how much of it we wasted over nothing … Some wasted it all. But I guess it has to be that way; one sacrifices a few fruitful years on the altar of youth. As a matter of fact, we waste as much time now, lazing idly on the sofa, watching TV.
By writing Rdeči alarm, you made a kind of “comic-strip homage” to the Slovenian punk scene of the 80s … But has your view and evaluation of that scene changed in any way in all these years between the original and the sequel?
No, it hasn’t changed much. I think I’ve always had a pretty objective attitude towards that era—that punk played an important role in my life, as well as for my generation, and our society in general; important, but not crucial.
That’s how I feel about that historic moment: we happened to grow up in a time when the grey wall around us seemed fixed there forever, while we would vent our anger by kicking it and pissing on it. But after a while it slowly started to crumble and shake, until everything finally collapsed in ruins. Of course it wasn’t because of us—but it was that as well.
Perhaps not entirely by chance, a whole new idea was born simultaneously; a new style, with new music, new fashion; a catalyst for the accumulated frustration and rage of a hopeless generation (or rather, part of a generation—the majority was boogying in disco clubs); a raw energy that gushed from the West, managed to claim its place even under communism and bred some first-rate bands and tunes even at home. The kind of tunes that you heard for the first time and they already changed your life, the kind that made you go—wow, that’s it, that’s exactly what I’m feeling! Powerful thing.
Besides that, don’t forget we were only youths—racing hormones, school drama, first loves, and rebellion. All that is the eighties to me.
How do you tackle comic strip creation? Do you follow a specific personal procedure (in the sense of script, storyboard, pencil, ink, …), or do you adapt the procedure to each new project? How, for example, did you tackle the writing/drawing of the “new” Rdeči alarm?
When I’m starting off, I have a few key elements, I have a rough “skeleton” of the story, and I have a set framework (format, number of pages) and then I adjust these parameters. I find it helpful to draw the pages, reduced in size so that they all fit on an A3 paper, and then I mark down where approximately, and for how long, an action takes place. I later refine them, change them if necessary, add more and more details, and when the thing is more or less “standing”, I take it down to separate scenes or to a more reasonable number of pages, to which I later devote more detailed attention. This means having a separate sketch for every column of the comic strip, in which you solve all questions regarding settings and dialogues … When I feel generally confident about the whole thing, I start on the actual drawings and inking of the comic. I know it’s not by the book, but I usually race through more columns at a time and draw the key scenes first, or the ones that I feel particularly inclined to, and leave all the unpleasant stuff for later, when I can’t be bothered or when I really can’t avoid it any longer. I still change a detail or two or add something. I polish the dialogues till the end. And finally, all the pieces seem to somehow find their own way to forming a whole. Magic.
I would like to know, what is your “safety-valve” when you get fed up with drawing?
I used to have a pretty effective method: I set myself the task of working from inspiration—but regularly—every day. If I woke up full of ideas, I wrote scripts; if not, I went on to drawing the things I enjoyed drawing. If I felt particularly virtuous, I tackled the unpleasant things, the ones I normally couldn’t be bothered with, and when I really didn’t feel like doing anything creative, I rolled up my sleeves and at least tidied and rubbed out what I’d already done, so that the day wasn’t wasted. Such a division of work felt diverse and things progressed quickly, without boring me to death. I recommend it.
These days, on the other hand, having become old and lazy, I just stop drawing and do nothing. I’m in neutral.
The albums you draw for foreign (especially French) publishers, represent a part of your creative work less known to the Slovenian public. If I am not mistaken, the last one of them is Appoline, which you created in collaboration with the scenarist Jean-David Morvan. Could you give us a little introduction to it?
It is just about to be published in Slovenia by Vojko Volavšek (another Don Quixote on the domestic scene). It’s a, hmm, thriller-drama. A kidnapper, a beautiful young woman, a stoical detective. Morvan is, after all, known as a pop-star scenarist. But … I won’t say anything. (See following answer.)
And how do you experience co-working with other authors (namely, scenarists)? Is it a refreshing change, to have someone else take up the “burden” of story-writing, so that you can devote your energy entirely to drawing? Or do you, on the contrary, prefer holding all the strings in your own hands?
Hmm, I’ve got mixed feelings. Comic books are really hard work, and it is, in a way, just wonderful to get a finished script and half of the work is already done. The burden of responsibility is smaller as well (Lame idea? Lousy story? Low sales? That’s not my problem. I only do the drawing.) On the other hand, it’s very dispiriting when you get a script that sucks (and to an author, anything that is not his own work usually sucks). Sure, you tell yourself that you’re a professional and do your part, but it’s still a pain. And you ask yourself, whether it is worth spending six months doing something you don’t like doing. Yet again, there is the money, the fame and all that goes with this mini-showbusiness. And the funny part is, when a comic strip book like that becomes a hit, and you start wondering, whether the whole world is gone crazy or it’s just you that aren’t quite in the right mind … Bah.
Speaking about your “foreign adventures”, what was the fate of Lomm?
Lomm has been dead and buried for ages. You need to know that the francophone comic book industry starts dozens of serials like that each year, and the vast majority that don’t catch up in a couple of seasons are doomed to be mercilessly put to death. And without any significant means for promotion, one soon gets lost in the crowd. Personally, I think it’s a pity, since I found it an acceptable compromise—a comic that I could have happily kept making for years; commercial enough and generally adequate for the foreign market at the same time. But it turned out that it wasn’t. Oh well.
As opposed to the comics which you create for foreign markets, there are some that can really take up only in Slovenia. An example would be Sokol in golobica (The Hawk and the Dove); in it, you comment on the Slovenian political situation from two years ago through a satirical prism … In fact, you do the same in Diareja; but unlike the latter, Sokol in golobica is constructed and executed on a much larger scale and much more lavishly, in complete accord with the genre of the sentimental romantic novel, of which it is a parody … Have you ever wondered, while drawing, whether it was really worth that kind of effort, since the understanding of its humour depends on the reader’s familiarity with the political scene of that particular time, and, therefore, could be quite out of date in a few years?
Worth it, ha! Of course it’s not worth it. But at the time I thought the idea was so entertaining and provocative to be worth the effort. Even if it was only to be used once. But I would not do that again now, despite all the pleas from people who have no idea how much work such a project entails.
At your recent retrospective exhibition at the Modern Gallery, what really stuck in my mind was the comic strip which has so far not been (entirely) printed … Part of it did, in fact, later become “Mister Hudournik” in Slovenski klasiki, but , as we could see at the exhibition, the story continues … Can you share with us (if it’s not a secret)—what is it about? Is it a kind of project in the making? (And, if it is, are there any more drafts for future comic strips lurking around in your drawers?)
Ah, that is one of the projects “in the making” which have been lying around in my drawers for ages. This one was conceived as rather “arty”, with an emphasis on the artwork, and, at the same time, as quite slow and long, so that I don’t even know where and how it could be published. And it’s hard to start a job seriously, persist on it and finish it, when you already know that it doesn’t stand much of a chance. But one day I will finish it, out of spite! But I do have quite a number of such jobs, started and abandoned, which are now being left to mature and wait for their time.
Do you work on any other artistic projects besides comic books and illustration?
The comic strip is an artistic style that suits me. Any kind of comic strip. I also write humorous songs for Mladina’s Mladinamit, sometimes for other people. That relaxes and entertains me; I like playing with words. I’ll have to write a book someday, as is fitting for any literate Slovenian. I would like to direct a film, if that was possible to do from a distance, from my sofa, without complications, crowds or technology, and with an unlimited budget—so, in other words, I actually want to work on a comic strip that would come to life in front of me.
In the last few years, your comic strips have seen some adaptations into other artistic media. Diareja became a theatre performance, one of the stories from Slepo sonce was made into a film, another one, from Ekstremni športi, an animation. Have you seen those adaptations? What is your opinion of them?
Lovec oblakov (The Cloud Hunter), the film based on Slepo sonce, is visually fascinating, but the director, Miha Knific, digressed so much from the template (comic strip) that I can’t quite consider it as mine. (Except when it receives awards.)
The animation Zid vzdihljajev (Wall of Sighs), based on Ekstremni športi, is excellent—the characters and the plot are very faithful to the comic strip—practically brought to life. Dušan Kastelic, Igor Šinkovec, and team, well done one more time! It’s just such a pity my jokes are so filthy that not even fluffy puppies can get them a place in the regular TV schedule.
Diareja was performed by the group Dejmo stisn’t teater (Let’s Shrink the Theatre) in two different shows already—which were, apparently, rather successful, even if such current-affairs newspaper humour is very hard to translate into another form. But the real-life, actual “Diarejčki” in white overalls with different hats were, in fact, awfully funny.
Bosanske basni might also become a film someday. And Slepo sonce a feature-length animation. It is always a joy and pleasure to see my work getting a new life, regardless of the result. Oh well, of course it’s even more so when the result is actually good.
A retrospective exhibition in the Modern Gallery, a nomination for the Prešeren Award … It looks as if, against all expectations, even the motherland has “remembered you” in your own lifetime. Is your famous statement, “I might even become famous at home someday” becoming true?
I’ve been around for too long and I’m too good to be entirely ignored, but they still don’t quite know what to do with me. There is no special compartment for comic strip in our cultural politics, you can’t just shoehorn it in under literature or visual art. And, to be fair, it’s largely my own fault as well. The more I’m wanted, the more I hide. And in these times, when even astrophysicists, philosophers, and popes have to advertise themselves…
Diareja – “A smo se za to borili?!” (Diarrhea – “Have we been fighting for this?!”), Fabrika 13, 1988
Diareja – “2. zvezek” (Diarrhea – “2. notebook”), Fabrika 13, 1988
Diareja – “Najboljši so že padli” (Diarrhea – “The best have already fallen”), Fabrika 13, Inferno 1990
Rdeči alarm – črni dnevi (Red Allert – Black Days), self-published, collection Cult Comics, 1996
Ratman, self-published, collection Cult Comics, 1997
Bosanske basni (Bosnian Fables) self-published, collection Cult Comics, 1997; (published also in France, Spain (Glénat), Italy (Magic Press) and Croatia (Fibra))
Le Cavale de Lézard (Larvae on the Run), Glénat, 1999; (published also in Italy (Magic Press) and Croatia (Fibra))
Temps Nouveaux (The New Times), Glénat, 2001; (published also in SLovenia (Stripburger / Forum Ljubljana and Mladina, 2010)
Le Décalogue – Le Serment, Glénat, 2001; published also in Belgium (Glénat Benelux, 2001), Italy (Panini comics, 2002) and Germany
Le Décalogue – Le Xieme Commendement, Glénat, 2009
Lomm 1–3, Vents d’Ouest, 2002, 2003, 2004
Evropa 1–3 (Europe 1–3), Glénat, 2003, 2004, 2009; published also in Spain (Glénat, 2005) and Croatia (Fibra, 2009)
Ekstremni športi 1-2 (Extreme Sports 1-2), Mladina 2001, 2009; published also in Spain (La Cupula, 2003) and Croatia (Mentor, 2005)
Diareja 1988 – 2002 (Diarrhea 1988–2002), Mladina, 2002
Slepo sonce (The Blind Sun), Stripburger / Forum Ljubljana and Mladina, 2004
Sokol in golobica (The Falcon and the Dove), Mladina, 2008
Slovenski klasiki v stripu! (Slovenian Classics as comics! (various artists), Stripburger / Forum Ljubljana and Mladina, 2009
Appoline, Casterman, 2009
Rdeči alarm – druga dopolnjena izdaja (Red Allert – 2nd upgraded edition), Stripburger / Forum Ljubljana, 2010