Danijel Žeželj (Croatia) – interview, Stripburger 64, november 2014
Ever since I’ve started reading comics, I knew I liked them because of the cool drawings. Being a well-read bookworm at that time, I was able to experience better stories elsewhere, mind you, so it was the visuals in the comics that gave them a distinct advantage over literature. The choice of comics wasn’t as wide as it is today, so we grew accustomed and attached to the conventional ink drawings in comics: characters and everything else was made of lines, not plots of black or white. My taste in comics remained more or less the same, but the artists’ styles and currents in contemporary comics moved on. Suddenly I had to learn to read new kinds of comics, comics visually quite different to those I was used to. One of those were comics (one could say visual narratives as well) by Danijel Žeželj.
And I was lucky to have started precisely with Danijel, as his works were the only ones within my reach that actually helped me understand this branch of modern comics. They were mostly mute, with rare or inexistent dialogues, but nonetheless they were loaded with content, emotions and atmosphere, they spoke volumes to me with their sheer power of expression. Finding myself in a whole new area, many questions quickly arose, so I took the opportunity to find the answers to them by directly asking the artist. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Let’s start at the beginning. There are no artists that operate in a creative vacuum; everyone has been somehow influenced by someone before them. What are the artistic forms (movies, music, visual arts…) and artists that have had the most influence on you and your decision to make art? Who helped create Danijel Žeželj?
There have been lots of influences and there still are. Silent movies from the 1920s were a huge influence on me, aesthetically, narrative-wise and content-wise, as well as movies in general up to this day, classical and modern paintings; actually all visual art forms since the Renaissance through the Baroque all the way to the Abstract Expressionism.
My biggest discovery regarding comics was José Muñoz, then the Italian comics scene from the early ’80s, the circles of artists around the Frigidaire magazine (Liberatore, Tamburini, Pazienza…), then Alberto Breccia, Bill Sienkiewicz, Sergio Toppi, Moebius and the recently discovered Emmanuel Larcenet. I was also influenced by music: punk, jazz improvisation, urban noise, all forms of street culture: graffiti, posters, fanzines and such as well. Creative spaces where people construct their own languages and send them out to the world through their own channels have always inspired me as they stood for symbols of positive action and energy.
Your academic education is actually in painting, which, seeing your works, is quite obvious. While comics are generally characterized by drawing (lines etc.), you use surfaces and the exchange of light and darkness. The result is unconventional, one could almost say artistic comics. Is it a conscious decision to distance yourself from conventional comics or is it an effort to enhance the classical act of painting using narrative? To sum it up: do you consider yourself a storytelling painter or a comics artist who paints?
I think this division is not very relevant. I’ve learned drawing, graphic art and painting skills at the School of Applied Arts and after that at the Academy of Fine Arts, and I really wanted to master all these techniques. To quote the Fugazi: “you need an instrument to make a measurement”. I have huge respect for the old-fashioned idea of mastering a craft, of working with hands, of conquering the craftsmanship and the use of tools. I use the methods and techniques I’ve learned at the Academy to make comics, since comics have always interested me more than mere painting because they have a narrative and because they address the audience that is closer to me. I consider myself neither a painter nor a comic artist; I create visual narratives using techniques, media and formats that I find appropriate and suitable.
What is, in your opinion, the role of the comics art and its relation to other art forms? What is so special and interesting about comics for you?
Comics have the ability to visually narrate by means of montage and sequencing of images, using a form that is unique to the language of comics. Narration and storytelling are the elements that have attracted me to the comics. When I was studying Renaissance and Baroque masters I was fascinated by their way of telling stories through images. The history of Western painting is the history of visual narration; all the paintings have had a purpose to visualize (and directly communicate and interpret) biblical, and later everyday themes as well as social and political themes, depending on the time and place. This function of the art of painting is partly lost today, it’s been transferred to design, movies, Internet, etc.
Your style is characterized by a distinct graphic quality and the absence of colors. Could that mean that you see the world inside this frame of binary oppositions with disregard for different shades and nuances or is it a simplification so that as many readers as possible will be able to comprehend the artist’s intention?
The absence of color is not the absence of layers; quite the opposite. With the elimination of color you eliminate decoration. The contrast between the black and white, between light and darkness, does not exclude nuances, textures and stratification, but instead it emphasizes the expression to highlight a range of emotions. If a multitude of colors could stand for a multitude of messages and content, then the colorfulness of magazines, TV, video and billboards we’re constantly bombarded with would act as a form of sophisticated human communication, while in truth it is a vulgarization and prostitution of any idea and emotion.
Following your opus it seems that the details are becoming increasingly rare while the techniques are becoming more and more simple and direct, converging on abstraction. Is this a result of an accumulation of experience, allowing for the same result with less work, or is it a conscious decision to follow the principle of “less is more”?
This tendency to express more with less does exist. I love Japanese drawing and Hokusai, who is able to represent just about anything with merely three strokes of a brush. On the other hand, the comics art form is conditioned by storytelling as well, so some graphic novels in this later period have been drawn with lots of details. King of Nekropolis has some of the most elaborate drawings, Luna Park (after Kevin Baker’s script) as well, since the script required a precise visualization of a whole range of specific places, characters, architecture, objects etc. It’s not about more or less work and effort. A phase of simplification and abstraction is followed by a phase of extremely elaborate comics, so actually, there is no rule, there are only different cycles that depend on the story and the circumstances.
Many of your comics have no text at all, not even a word, but they’re still fully functional – nothing is missing. This implies a confident grasp of the visual language, which is more or less universal. On the other hand there are no comics without visuals, therefore image in the comics is superior to the text. Why do you think the majority of comics nevertheless make use of text? What does a silent comic have to be like in order to be both good and comprehensible?
Lately, in the last few years I’ve intentionally started creating graphic novels without text (Industrial, Babylon and the yet unpublished Red Hood Redux). This is currently, for me, the most appropriate way to tell the stories I want to tell. Wordless comics are one of the oldest forms of comics; its pioneers were the Belgian Frans Masereel and the American Lynd Ward who (independently from one another) made their stories in the woodcut and linocut technique and printed them as sequences of graphics in the book format. These are early (1920) graphic novels of the highest quality. Images are essential for the comics’ form, because as you said, comics can do without text but never without images. Today (actually starting 20 years ago, since the publication of Spiegelman’s Maus) in art comics there is a tendency of predominance of words above the image, so the visuals are often pushed to the background as accompanying material of low quality. I have nothing against a well-written text, quite the contrary, but I feel that the dominance of text erodes the foundations of comics and succumbs to the conventions established by the literature. Visual narration is more universal and effective than textual. Sequences of images, combination of images and text, montage and the rhythm of images are the basis of the comics art form and it makes no sense for the comic to give up its own identity and language.
You’ve worked for big American publishers (DC/Vertigo and Marvel) and for smaller independent ones like we are, as well. It seems that this distinction in your case is inexistent or that you at least don’t care about it. Is there, after all, a difference in working for one or the other – and if so, how does that influence your creative process?
There are similarities and differences, but often these kinds of work complement each other. The projects for the big publishers are mostly done for scripts I haven’t written myself. I was lucky to have cooperated mainly with great script-writers, so the process was a positive experience and a challenge and I wasn’t forced to make compromises regarding the quality of work. Work for corporate publishers has its own limits, but inside these limits there is always room for creativity. On the other hand, working for oneself has its limitations as well, so these walls and barriers are quite relative. The main difference is that total authorship requires total responsibility.
You’ve established Petikat, which is both a publishing house and a graphic workshop. Is this the result of your work for commercial publishers and an attempt to retain control over the creative process?
Petikat was established by Boris Greiner, Boris Cvjetanović, Stanislav Habjan and me. Its idea was to create a space where an author’s work, as well as its presentation and promotion, could be accomplished outside of the channels of established agencies and institutions. The premise was that if you can connect a sufficient number of creative people who think alike, you can form an independent space inside the bounds of the institutionalized system. The idea was full of flaws, of course, and it turned out that we don’t really think that much alike, so Petikat has some issues at this moment, but I hope patience and time will eventually lead to an answer. In any case, Petikat – as well as the idea of the impossible being possible – remains. To me it’s important to believe in the impossible.
In one of the other interviews you said that you’re immensely fascinated by the human body. Does this fascination stem from the ancient Greeks’ love of the body or is it perhaps of a more modern nature?
That was a statement taken out of context, the fascination with the body per se sounds quite fascist. I’m not into body as a classical ideal of beauty and proportions, but into the body and its movement as a mirror of emotion, psychological state, ideology, politics and social status. In visual arts (painting, theatre, movies and video art) the body and movement are media of expression and narration, and it is in this sense that I’m interested in it.
You’ve also been creating in combination with music (multimedia performances and live painting), you’ve even done animation which is already quite distant from comics. Does that mean that the comics form is not enough for you anymore or are you perhaps trying to cross the borders of the genre and push them even further?
I’ve begun doing multimedia performances combining live music and live painting in Seattle since back in 1997. This experimentation is still ongoing and this fusion of media, by which I mean a parallel, synchronized and live creation of images and music, has a unique quality, as it becomes a specific narrative stage form. I think that this form is both necessary and relevant in the times when digitalization and the Internet are increasingly distancing the arts from direct contact with a live and active audience.
As far as animation is concerned, to me it represents a convergence towards the language of movies that has always interested and fascinated me. A common feature in all my works, be it comics, live painting or animation, is the visual narration and storytelling through images. The blending and fusion of different genres is a logical and natural evolution. The classification of genres is a theoretical fabrication, which currently, as the technology is constantly pushing the boundaries and possibilities of a medium, does not make much sense.
What are your projects that you’re most proud of? Which works would you especially highlight or point out? What else can we expect from you in the future?
It’s hard to choose from any project in particular. They all matter to me personally even if sometimes they didn’t turn out well, because the process of creation is always important to me. Maybe I could single out – in terms of complexity and invested time – the multimedia project Brooklyn Babylon (in cooperation with the composer Darcy James Argue and his 17-piece orchestra Secret Society) and the multimedia project Cuore (in cooperation with Jessica Lurie and Marco Molinelli). There are also the last three wordless graphic novels that are of special importance to me: Industrial, Babylon and Red Hood Redux, then the animations Fibonacci Bread and Thousand, as well as the series of 44 graphics for the poetry by Daniil Kharms which is being printed right now.
Danijel Žeželj, born in Zagreb, Croatia, is one of the most internationally prominent artists from our wider region. His works – comics, graphic novels and illustrations – have been translated & published in many publications and anthologies in the USA, Great Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Croatia. Danijel’s comics were featured in Workburger, Honey Talks, Osmoza, Warburger, both Stripbureks and in some regular issues of our magazine. His comic book Luna Park has been nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award in 2010. He co-founded the publishing house and design studio Petikat in 2001.
EXCERPT FROM A VAST BIBLIOGRAPHY
Babylon, Mosquito, France, 2013; Petikat, Croatia, 2013
Des dieux et des hommes (w/ JP. Dionnet), Dargaud, France, 2012
Industrial, Grifo Edizioni, Italy, 2011; Petikat, Croatia, 2011
Luna Park (w/ K. Baker), DC Comics/Vertigo, USA, 2009
Stray Dogs, ISGM/Charta, USA, 2005; Grifo Edizioni, Italy, 2007
Small Hands, Petikat, Croatia, 2004; Grifo Edizioni, Italy, 2005