IZTOK SITAR – Pizza, adolescent girls, beer, the communist party, and a ping-pong match

Iztok Sitar (Slovenia) – interview, Stripburger 53, May 2010


What do these things have in common? In Slovenian, they all start with the same letter. However, at the same time, they define the world of our recent interviewee, the most controversial Slovene comic artist, Iztok Sitar (1962). The title ‘most controversial’ was given to him by himself in his Zgodovina slovenskega stripa 1927-2007 (The History of Slovene Comics 1927 – 2007). Iztok is definitely among those authors that are well known among the entire Slovenian comic reading audience, and are known to the wider public as well. He earned his reputation with his own diligence; ever since his debut Sperm and Blood, he is steadily gathering his comic-making mileage by publishing a new album almost yearly. In the following interview, we forced him to confess his obsessions, already mentioned in the title. The only thing we couldn’t get him to talk about was ping pong. This can be subscribed to interviewers’ disliking of social sports competitions. Iztok has a lot of virtues and qualities, but he is also a proud owner of the title of vice-champion in ping pong, in the competition of Slovene comic artists and comics aficionados. Other obsessions will be revealed in the following lines, as promised. Sitar was annoyed by JK and GR.

Let’s start with your latest album, Dnevnik Ane Tank (Diary of Ana Tank). Album’s theme is youth (teens), one of your recurring themes in your body of works. Where does this fascination with teenage girls and their lives stem from? What was your inspiration for this comic album?
As the introduction says, Ana Tank is the protagonist, based on a real life person I met at a party in some mountain gorge in Blegoš. We got close and talked a lot and in a few short flashes, I learned everything about her life. I was fascinated by the fact how much she went through despite her tender 17 years and a methadone therapy. What’s more logical than to make a teen comic about a girl that looks as if she came from a comic?

We took notice that among your female characters there is a dominant type: a young, adolescent girl who looks a bit ‘plastic’ … Did you play with Barbie dolls much when you were a child?
Ha, there was no Barbie dolls when I was a child. Not that I remember seeing one anyway (but there were other, more chubby dolls around). My little sister had many teddy bears (another hallmark of my children’s and teen comics), rabbits and other stuffed animals, though. I preferred to play with Koloys miniature cowboys and Indians made of plastic (which later did not influence my comics, because I made almost no western-themed comics, apart from a couple of them in high school). Besides, I always liked to read and one of my favorite books of my childhood was a thick tome, bound in red leather with the title Holy Bible written in gold on its covers. It was full of kitschy illustrations that I found appealing at the time. This book probably influenced me a lot, as I continued to draw quite a few religious themed comics that peaked in the comic album Zgodba o bogu (The Story of God).

Every comic creator has his own type of woman, and if they can draw men in thousand different ways, the woman will always be drawn in same manner. For example, Crepax draws them long-legged, thin, almost anorexic models that are emotionally cold, whereas Manara who enjoys drawing passionate and hot headed beauties that live the most improbable erotic adventures due to their naivety; then there’s Corben, who gave his heroines tremendous tits and bodybuilder’s bodies; and Eleuter, who pumps all his women with silicone. That’s just to count a few of them. In the so-called independent comics, practiced mainly by Stripburger in Slovenia, things are completely the same, although not as obvious. In short: As many as there are comic creators, that’s how many types of women’s drawing styles there is.

Your albums can be divided into four categories: Bučmanovi (The Bučmans; well, this series is probably over by now), Svobodna Slovenija (Free Slovenia)Teens and Erotika (Erotica). It seems that borders between these categories are still somehow blurred; this goes especially for the last two, Teens and Erotika. What are the subtle details that decide which comic album will land in any of these categories?
As far as Bučmanovi goes, there’s still enough material to fill another album and then this category will be finished. It will definitely be published in color (I still need to color it, of course). The first two collections, Bučmanovi and Svobodna Slovenija are the most profiled of all four. Bučmanovi describes the little world of small and never changing characters and Svobodna Slovenija shows the social/religious/political deviations in the wider world through the eyes of different protagonists. The other two collections, Teens and Erotika (which I almost titled Najst (Teen in Slovenian), but then found out that a collection with such a title already exists at the Mladinska Knjiga publishing house) are in my opinion quite profiled. It is true though that the teen collection itself is very wide as far as themes go and there’s also a discrepancy in drawing style. Matilda and Tisa (who still waits for her debut in albums) are similar in theme and style, both are humorous one-pagers, drawn in a very cartoony manner; Matilda is a contemporary story and Tisa is set in prehistoric time. Both comics are intended for young readers that are too old for Bučmanovi and too young for Ana Tank andMavrica*. They both deal with same themes, but in more subtle way. The logical sequel to teenage collection is of course Erotika where sex takes charge, a theme that’s important in other albums as well, but still is a second-class theme, as our president Türk would say. This sexual theme can be found in Svobodna Slovenija also, which is a logical move forward, from erotica to pornography (politics), for an old Slovene saying goes: Politics is a whore. My comics can be read by all generations, actually.

Before Ana Tank, you collaborated as an artist in the project Temna stran mavrice (Dark Side of the Rainbow) that also deals with the problem of drug addiction among teenage population. If the mentioned album has its didactical qualities, your Ana Tank does not expose drugs as the absolute root of all evil. At least so it seems. What’s your opinion on this matter?
Dark side of the rainbow was the first album I made using somebody else’s scenario. It was in fact a joint project (quite the American way) by the producer Ciril Horjak, screenwriter Iztok Lovrić, colorist Jelena Bertoncelj and me. The theme was to my taste exactly and I also found it interesting to make a comic based on outside story. In my own projects, I always create scenario as I go. The beginning and the end are there, the basic guidelines are set, but the dialogues are created along the way. This certainly isn’t the best way to create comics, but this is how I got used to doing it. With full-length comics (albums), I happen to digress from the storyline or, even worse, I completely lose direction and the story takes a completely different turn than it was conceived. With the Rainbow project I set a personal record, namely I drew it in measly two months (my first album, Sperma in kri (Sperm and Blood) which is about the same length, took me two years!) I hope this doesn’t show on quality. Mavrica is also comic that saw the highest number of printed copies in the history of Slovene comics, 40.000 copies. At the same time, it is very sought after publication among comic collectors. The comic was freely distributed between older pupils in elementary schools, so it wasn’t available in stands. We all know what happens with free papers. They end up in dumpsters.

My relationship to drugs is such that I support legal drugs more, drugs like alcohol and nicotine. But I tried the illegal ones in high school too. With Ana Tank it can be clearly seen that the situations taken from my life (first encounters with alcohol and cigarettes, weed and LSD) are described much more vividly than the ones including heroine, with which I have no experience, and I had to seek help of my friend or copied from different, mostly technical books (Vito Flaker’s book To Live with Heroin was a big help; it was written on the basis of research and interviews with addicted persons).

Let’s stay with drugs for a while and talk about another one, opium. The one for the masses. Quite a few of your albums and short stories criticize the Catholic Church more or less severely. What is the source of this conflict? Are there some kinds of personal traumas from your childhood involved?
Ha, in contrast to Svetlana Makarovič who described her traumas from her childhood several times in her interviews, I luckily never experienced such problems. Frankly, I don’t hold anything against religion itself, as long as it remains personal thing of each individual. As far as I’m concerned, everybody should be able to believe in whatever they want, the Christ, Allah, or the holy Chicken Claw. I do have a lot against the Church as an institution that has no place in the secular and atheist society, however. I’m a bit tired from fighting the wind mills, Don Quixote style. I realize that by writing critically about the Church I will accomplish nothing, for what can I, the common mortal, achieve against the Church that is eternal? Eternal like the human stupidity. Once this is eliminated, the Church will perish too. Catholic or any other.

With Zgodba o bogu (The Story of God) you went one step further. If your album Črni možje, bele kosti (Black Men, White Bones) criticizes the Church as institution, then Zgodba o bogu looks almost like an atheistic manifesto. Do you feel that any kind of belief is merely an obstacle in the human advancement, without which humans would conquer the universe as early as prehistoric times (as suggested in one of your comics)?

Despite your reluctance to religion and Church, it is a known fact that you’ve collaborated with right wing media and even publications of the Church. How did the break up occur? Did the ‘black men’ ever decode your alias (Ninel)?
It is known that the political right is intellectually quite weak (I mean in general, not just here), that goes for artistic field too. If we look at the comics medium we can see that from eighty authors, examined in History of Slovene Comics, right wingers are but a few. Interestingly, the first Slovene comic, Little Negro Bu-ci-bu, published in 1927 was a political allegory in which the author, Milko Bambič, prophetically foretold the decline of Mussolini. Similar situation can be observed in political cartoonists who are all, except for Miki Muster (who occasionally draws for Reporter) left wingers. Collaboration with Slovenec (ex right wing daily, t.n.) came to me by sheer coincidence. Their cartoonist Aljana Primožič was stolen in classical Pulitzer-Hearst style by editor Bauer from Slovenske Novice newspaper. Aljana’s original paper didn’t want to make her trouble by insisting on three month contract breaking period, but they did insist she had to find a replacement. She then thought of me, for we once worked together in some packaging company in Škofja Loka, where I worked as a graphic designer, and she worked in Iskra, Kranj, also in packaging. Her work brought her to Škofja Loka. Of course I took the challenge immediately. I quit my job the next day and started drawing cartoons. To tell you the truth, those cartoons were a disaster; I was just learning to draw politician’s faces correctly, as this was my first venture into political caricature. On the content’s side, my cartoons were quite bland, as the editors were constantly telling me, saying I was not harsh enough on Kučan (90’s leftist political leader, t.n.) and the communists, so in the end, nobody was satisfied, but I lasted two years and a half nonetheless, right to the paper’s demise. Well, I enjoyed drawing caricatures anyway and towards the end, I got some politicians right. My very first cartoon had the signature ‘Ninel’ on it. I was thinking, if I’m already drawing for the conservatives, let at least their cartoons be signed in a leftist manner. Lenin’s anagram was deciphered by editors after a year because some angry guy wrote a letter to editor in which he asked, if they would let the cartoonist use Hitler’s anagram, too. But I had no problems because of it, the editor just laughed. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that Ninel was a Russian, or Soviet woman’s name. In 1924, as the leader of the October revolution passed away, and hundreds of newborn boys have gotten the name Lenin, the government did not want for girls to be robbed of a chance to bear leader’s name, so the central committee decided Ninel is the female form of the name Lenin.

We started with your latest album. Let’s go back to your beginnings … Your debutant album, Sperm and Blood is graphically quite different from the ones that came after, experimental even. Later you invented a more simplified style, accessible to a larger circle of readers. Was that turning point planned? Tell us how it occurred.
Well, starting from the very beginning (not counting the works published in school magazines), my first comic was published in the Orwellian year 1984 in the literary magazine Mentor. It was a one pager, done in one sequence only, heavily influenced by Moebius, Who Killed the Comic Artist? Until 1990, many of my one pagers have been published, mainly in local literary magazines. In 1987 I made a comic in the so called woodcut style (as described in a review by Branko Sosić in newspaper Delo) with the title Povratak malog princa (The Return of Little Prince), which was an overture into album Sperm and Blood (those were the times when I still had a job and was drawing only occasionally). At the time (and still, of course) I liked graphical comics by Sergio Toppi and Igor Kordej, that’s why I decided on a distinctive expressive graphical style. After a while I finished Sperm and Blood and offered it to several publishers and newspapers, but nobody wanted to publish a hermetical   type of story like this, so I had to publish it myself. I reckoned I could make some money if I sell most of the 500 copies I printed, but as it turned out, my bad grades in math class were justified: I sold only some ten copies. After this mini-bankruptcy, I realized that I won’t be able to live off making art comics so I decided to take a more commercial approach. Two years later I started to draw the daily strip Bučmanovi for the daily newspaperDnevnik. But that’s another story.

If we look closely, there is another album that can be compared to Sperm and Blood in its experimental or formalist nature: Zgodba o bogu (The Story of God), which we already mentioned. Can you tell us how did you decide to make such a conceptual album?
My printer who printed my first nine albums and I were drinking in the pub one day and in the moment of drunken generosity he promised me he would print my tenth album for free. These promises usually vanish into thin air as soon as the hangover is gone, so I had to act swiftly and quickly. A few days later, I provided him with the cover and one single page with six empty panels that was supposed to be printed on 60 inner pages. The hung-over printer stared at the materials I brought in, puffy eyes blinking in disbelief. Then he started to cry like a girl how thirty pages would be more than enough, so he wouldn’t waste so much paper. I responded that with comic book of this kind, one should not be too petty, to which he eventually agreed, and that’s how The Story of God was created.

This is the official urban legend about creation of this album, and even though I planned it long before, it was this particular situation that helped me to pull it through. I just wanted to express what Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion needed 416 fully typed pages to say: that god simply does not exist.

As long as we are talking about style: it seems as if you’re trying to conserve the noble tradition of a brave brush stroke in your drawing. Which authors, comic makers and others are your biggest inspiration in this aspect?
The brush really suits me well, although my early high school comics were done with a pen, to which I never developed a kind of friendship, so the results were quite poor. Then I switched pen with fountain pen, which I used for the complete Sperm and Blood. I only used the brush in filling out the larger black areas, but later I began using it regularly. I already mentioned Toppi whom I read in my high school days (along with Moebius, Crepax, Corben, Bilal, and Pichard) in Italian magazines and albums that were besides the standard Italian jeans an obligatory purchase in our shopping trips to Gorizia we made a few times a year. But the biggest influence on me (and a whole generation of comic artist that were attending the design school with me (we didn’t socialize though, we were of different age), artists like Jure Kalan, Romeo Štrakl, Srečko Bajda, Zoran Smiljanić, Tomaž Lavrič and Dušan Kastelic) was Zagreb based magazine Kvadratwith Igor Kordej and Mirko Ilić. The magazine promoted a different, fresh, and innovative approach to comic medium. Of course, many other artists had influenced us, but the list is too long to count here. However, I should mention Milazzo with his fantastic sketchy drawings, Bernet, master of black and white artistic correspondence, and a brush wielding virtuoso Baudoin. I hope Baudoin will be published by Stripburger in the next edition of the Ambasada Stripcollection.

We know that, alongside drawing comics, you dedicate a share of your creative energy to comics’ theory and criticism … Why do you find important to take part in Slovenian comics’ history not only as its active creator, but also as its chronicler and interpreter? Your work in this field has culminated in the monumental History of Slovene Comics. It seems that your first step towards this achievement was an extensive article you wrote for the Strip Bumerang magazine. Did you plan on writing such a revision of Slovene comic history?
Everything started when some five years ago a Serbian website with an unpronounceable name UPPS (an association for comics’ promotion and production) asked me to participate in creating comics lexicon of Yugoslav artists. I took the offer of course, because comics’ theory interested me since high school, when I started collecting articles, reviews, and artists’ biographies, published in different magazines and newspapers across Yugoslavia. I ended up writing chronologically about ten Slovene artists from Milko Bambič to Kostja Gatnik and then I realized that I’m actually writing a history of Slovene comics through biographies. My mind was made when the second exhibition of Slovene comics took place in Celje in 2006. The exhibition was conceived poorly (although its predecessor from 1996 was accompanied by an excellent study by Irena Čerčnik); the articles were superficial and subjective and even some important artist got left out. To make things worse, they invited animators that have absolutely nothing to do with comics. In good six months I finished an extensive review of Slovene comics, although there is not a lot of theoretic works available inSlovenia. A big help was my collection of articles, the aforementioned text by Irena Čerčnik, articles written by Ivo Antič and Ciril Gale in the magazine Srp and Ivo Štandeker’s book 20th Century. Initially I wanted to publish it as a column in some daily newspaper (at the time I was already talking to one of them), but then Strip Bumerang magazine and its founder Vojko Volavšek appeared out of nowhere. Vojko suggested that I should publish the article in Strip Bumerang in one piece, which was exactly what happened in May issue. The article was well received among the experts, Max Modic from Mladina magazine, who was especially impressed with it, contacted Samo Rugelj of Umco publishing house. Rugelj and I immediately hit it off (he and Zoran Smiljanić wrote a book on comic heroes on film some years before; Umco also publishes Smiljanić’s Meksikajnarji). So in the next few months I extended the article and added more text, added lists of works from the authors and scanned comics for the pictorial part of the book. I had many problems with scanning old newspaper comics, the ones I couldn’t get originals for scanning. There were times I was spending entire days on a single page and I was cursing the day I started writing this book. Well, the book was published in the end and despite some errors and imperfections I still believe that this is the most thorough and objective review of Slovenian comics’ history.

It would be a disillusion to say that this kind of work could be well received by everybody. The first doubts were expressed at the sight of the cover, which may seem as a detail of less importance. Why did you choose Serbian artist Vladan Nikolić to be the illustrator of the front cover? Does the choice have something to do with you being a notorious balcanophile?
It’s true; I’ve heard many complaints about the cover. Actually, it appealed to no one; colleagues, critics, or buyers all disliked it. At first, I wanted to use a mixture of nine best known comic characters, from Bu-ci-bu to Zvitorepec, Kavboj Pipec to Diareja, in nine squares. But I didn’t like how it turned out. Then I tried to use one of Lavrič’s caricatures from Mladina magazine, something that deals with comics in some way (I didn’t want to expose no particular characters), but couldn’t find any that would suit the contents. Then I stumbled upon a great illustration by Nikolić  in one of the old issues of Stripburger that showed an old man with a walking stick in his hand and the stick just started to grow leaves. This seemed a perfect metaphor for the rebirth of Slovene comics, so I immediately chose it for the cover image. Of course, most people complained about author’s nationality, which doesn’t surprise me at all, considering the Slovene backwardness. And with all the proverbial Slovene envy, I can only imagine the complaints, had I chosen one of the Slovene artists!

The above book opens a surprising fact: it is an evidence that our comic book history is much more colorful than it seems. You’ve collected an impressive number of authors that have ever been active in comics (by the way, how many, exactly?). In your opinion, why don’t comics in Slovenia get more spotlights?
As I started writing the article on eighty years of Slovene comics, I felt it was logical to write about eighty artists, although I doubted I would even find so many of them. After browsing my own archives and old newspapers, I gathered over hundred names. That number exceeded my expectations and I had to make a selection. The only criteria was the quality; artist had to have at least one multiple-paged comic published in order to make it into my book (I allowed myself to be positively discriminating in women, so they only needed one paged comic). In the book there are some artists with a small, but quality opus, whereas some of those with extensive body of work were eliminated due to the lower quality of their works. The index however mentions everybody that have debuted in Slovenia, so the final number stops at 110. If I was writing today, I’d change the selection and some of the descriptions, but I guess you always get ideas for improvement after the book is finished. In the near future I intend to write another, extended book, instead of just reissue (the book was sold out in only six months). In the new book, some of the authors that were left out (because they haven’t made anything up to that point) and some of the older artists that were concealed (because I lacked information about them) will be included. Moreover, the new book will be in full color.

As for the second part of the question, I think comics in Slovenia have recently gotten more attention everywhere, except in newspapers, where they should be present. We’ve gotten a comics’ shop, Strip.art.nica Buch, where a lot of comics related events and new release presentations take place; we now have a popular web forum Striparna where a verbal war took place a few years ago because of different opinions on financing and publishing – which I take is another proof that we were born as a true comics nation. We have occasional comics’ bazaars, TV shows about comics and things that surround them, a large numbers of articles, reviews and critiques in newspapers; a monthly magazine devoted to classical comics, Strip Bumerang, that could only be dreamed about a few years ago and even some of our more developed neighbors in comics’ sense can only imagine having. We have also translated some of the greatest titles of world comics, like Safe Area Goražde, Blankets, Maus, Persepolis, Gemma Bovery, Stigmates, Epileptic, Ghost World and here I have to mention an exceptional theoretical work How to Read Donald Duck. Then there’s albums by domestic authors, like Lavrić, Smiljanić, Bertoncelj, Kociper, Horjak, Kocjan, Lunaček and others. We must not forget Mladina and Stripburger, fighters for comics from the front lines that deserve a soldier’s pension. Besides, comics are no enfant terrible in the highest national cultural circles anymore. Some years ago, Lavrič was nominated for the prestigious Prešeren’s award (unfortunately he didn’t get it), this year however it was awarded to Kostja Gatnik (they never mentioned his legendary comic Magna Purga at the ceremony, though). I can say that comics never had it that good in Slovenia (but not the authors, considering the low pay they get for their work). If more comics would end up in newspapers, the picture would be perfect.

Comic creators are known for their introvert nature and preference for solitudeYou make sure that, at least once a year, the comics scene gets to socialize. When (and how) did you start with this tradition?
In 2002, Lavrič and I were invited to Balkan Comics festival in Thessalonica. On the plane, we met Croatian delegation (we all were flying from the Vienna airport) with Darko Macan, Štef Bartolić and Dušan Gačić and we immediately hit it off. Once Štefan and I discovered the joint love for cold beer (that started on the plane and continued the whole weekend in Thessalonica), we all became inseparable.

We were joined by Zograf and the Serbian party in the hotel (we Yugoslavians became peas and carrots there). We spent three unforgettable party days (and mostly nights) there. So, to repeat this, we decided upon homecoming that we should do this again next year (at that time comics festivals were scarce; now every village has one) on a barbecue party at my house in May. Serbs could understandably not join us, but the Croatian delegation came in full number. This, as it turned out, was the very beginning of a traditional comics picnic that took place on the former day of youth. The old veterans from Thessalonica (as we jokingly named ourselves) were joined by other artists from Slovenia and Croatia. The only problem was the place and a large number of participants is unfortunately out of the question. Lately, the initiative for organizing such events was taken over by Sandi Buh who organizes a yearly get together for all of his clients, comic book lovers, collectors and friends in Kozarje, suburbs of Ljubljana. He usually throws a big barbecue party that even people in Leskovac wouldn’t decline having. Further more, Darko Tomić, head of the Stripoholik society, organizes another picnic in July for his members and sympathizers in Kamna Gorica. If Slovenia has no comics’ festival, we certainly have many comics’ picnics.

You’ve never dedicated an album to one of your greatest passions. When can we expect an album about pizzas and your love for this culinary specialty?
Ha, ha, pizza was main character in quite some comic strips in the Bučmanovi series. But pizza appears on the side in almost all my albums, in the comic 4000, pizza is even the reason why main character comes into the fateful Tavčar’s year, so if there wasn’t for pizza, there wouldn’t be a story. Besides, I like eating pizza better than drawing it. True pizza always has an egg on it. A pizza without an egg is like a fish without bicycle. And there has to be a dead cold beer on the side!

P.S.: I’d like to apologize to readers, and especially to linguistic clergymen, if they happen to read this, for having the word ‘pizza’ in nearly each one of the above sentences, and the word ‘comics’ in all others; but that’s just how it is when you talk about pizzas and comics.


*  Temna stran mavrice