The mischievous Pedenjped, the kind Mojca Pokrajculja and the good-hearted Peter Klepec were brought to life by the illustrator, cartoonist, comic strip artist and animator Marjan Manček. These characters quickly found their ways into the hearts of Slovenian readers. Even after the end of the school year, many of us kept our second-grade Slovenian textbook featuring his illustrations.
Marjan Manček studied English and history. Early on he set out on the path of artistic creation. In secondary school and during his studies, he drew cartoons and comics for Pavliha, the Slovenian humor magazine, and later for many other Slovenian and foreign magazines. He was a teacher for a brief period of time, but later focused on illustration. He independently developed his own signature style. His love is depicting animals, but his illustrations in Slovenian picture books and children’s literature are probably the most famous. The Hillies, a series of comics he created, were published in various youth magazines: Kurirček, Kekec, Ciciban, and Galeb. He also made several animations. He illustrated more than two hundred poetry and prose books for children and an array of educational materials. His work is infused with warm humor and characterized by a non-intrusive educational note.
Bojan Albahari interviewed him in the Trubar House of Literature during the presentation of the Hribci kremeniti series, published in September as part of the Minimundus collection.
Judging by the scope of your opus, you must have started drawing early on.
I loved drawing in elementary school. My teacher didn’t know whether to be happy or sad, because I spent most of the breaks sitting behind my desk drawing. I illustrated my notebooks and particularly enjoyed depicting battles in my history notebook.
Have you held on to those notebooks?
Unfortunately no. However, my father saved some of my other notebooks filled with Indians, cowboys and knights. I found them among his things and I am very grateful to him for keeping them.
You started by drawing caricatures. Would you say that this technique marked your work and your characters?
My illustrations originate from caricatures, but in elementary school I drew comic strips. My arts teacher advised me to focus on linocut, woodcut, and other painting techniques, so I could study at the Academy. I didn’t listen to her and spent the entire summer drawing comics with a couple of friends. They were Boris Bele and Mojmir Belavič who each went on to form a band: Buldožer (Bulldozer) and Sinovi (The Sons). Influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, they crafted their own electric guitars. I wanted to play the drums, but didn’t succeed in making them myself. I pursued illustration, moving from children and adventure comics to caricature. Pavliha published my first works in secondary school.
Your drawing is very clean, without any excess lines or hatching; your characters thus become almost a depiction of a very tangible idea. In this sense, how do you go about developing the character?
In order to produce a character, I start doodling, sometimes make up a word, and then fuse both into a story. The Cicibaba character was inspired by my daughter Mojca, who kept us awake every night until the age of three.
Božo Kos, the editor of Pavliha and later Ciciban, told me: “I won’t ask you to illustrate a poem or a story, because you can make something up all on your own. Here’s a piece of paper, fill this page up for me.” It was a good challenge.
So you prefer drawing characters you invented yourself.
That’s true. Why? Well, after I draw them from different angles and at different stages I have a certain mastery of them. I adopt them and know what to do with them. I decide where to place them, in which scene, who they’ll communicate with and so forth. When illustrating a literary piece, I have to derive from it, keep my client in mind, and do my best to help the reader accept and understand the visual message.
Some of your works were published abroad, some in English. Why do you think the publishers decided to translate them?
I’m not sure, it must have been the characters that persuaded them. The publishing house is responsible for these publications, I am not involved.
As a student, when I travelled across Europe hitchhiking, I was a bit more active. Illustration was a way to pay for my expenses. My characters were not fully developed back then; I drew caricatures without words, which made them comprehensible to Scandinavians, for example. Humor knows no boundaries.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes from your travels?
Several actually. I was about a hundred kilometers from Oslo, hitchhiking with our triangular banner, when a woman pulled over in a Renault 4 with her three children. She recognized the Yugoslav banner and invited me to her home after a conversation. Her husband was an ambassador in Belgrade and her youngest daughter was born there. I stayed with them for four days and drew pictures for her children as a way of thanking her. Jens Stoltenberg, one of her kids, is now Norwegian prime minister. His mother, Karin Stoltenberg, was kind enough to give me the addresses of several Norwegian newspapers to which I later sold some caricatures. She told me she never saw a faster way to earn money.
Your comics are generally characterized by simplicity and clarity of expression, an educational note and even philosophy, particularly in Makepeace (orig. Dajnomir). He often ponders about the world and how we perceive it. Are those your characteristics as well?
Maybe I do inquire about the world through my work – this is reflected in the bubbles – but otherwise I don’t present my views intentionally. Ideas seem to come to life subconsciously and gradually when I play around with a drawing.
Your comics are highly educational. A good example is Velike misli malega muca (Big Thoughts of a Small Cat). There you translated into comic form the wise thoughts of important men. Another example is The Hillies. Could this be assigned to your brief teaching career or perhaps something entirely different?
My career as a teacher was short-lived. I was an after-school teacher for only three months and a half. By that time, I had already published a number of caricatures in several newspapers and magazines, which helped me obtain the formal status of an artist. This was also a period in which I read aphorisms by various masters of the written word, which, in turn, probably influenced the educational character of my comics.
You then pursued your educational work through comics?
Yes. Comics can have an important educational value. In elementary school, we were told that comics spoil young people. However, in the mid-nineties, our educational system recognized comics as a valuable teaching tool. Several of my comics were included in elementary school textbooks. In one elementary school, they even photocopied my Dajnomir and Miliboža comics (Makepeace and Sweety-Pie). Fourth-graders used them to practice dialogue.
Your works for children and adults abound in humor. Are you as fun and witty in real life? What role does humor play in your work?
I sometimes make witty remarks about others and myself, but in general, I don’t just pull jokes from my sleeve. I got my sense of humor after my father, who also worked with Pavliha magazine. He brought the humor weekly home and sparked my interest in caricature. My mother gave me a sensibility to put myself in other people’s shoes. I try to give my characters a psychological aspect, so as to make them say something witty and true about us.
You never focused on color. Actually, your wife helped you color several works.
Particularly in the beginning, I had difficulties coloring. By the way, another anecdote. I sold two caricatures to Reader’s Digest in London. The editor liked two out of five, both black-and-white. However, he wanted colored drawings, so he colored the caricatures himself. They sent me the issue and when I opened it, I said to myself: “Oh, colors! Not bad. I’ll give it a try and use them myself.” Nevertheless, my basic expression is a black-and-white drawing, and that’s what I prefer. My wife Marta has helped me a lot. She colored my drawings for the children’s television special Radovedni Taček (Curious Taček), all the animated films, and worked with me on some literary and television projects.
You also took on film animation and created the title sequence for The Curious Taček. You entered the world of animation relatively late, although you admit you were drawn to it early on. You are also tied with the Zagreb school of animation.
Based on my scenario and drawings, the Zagreb Film Studio put together two short animated movies. One was A Winter Wish (Zimska želja), a cartoon about Ljubljana, Father Frost, and ecology. It’s considered the studio’s best-selling cartoon. Two scores were produced for the animation, ‘Jingle Bells’ for foreign audiences, and something more Yugoslav for the home audience. Illustration is about the static figure, the character. In the comic, the character was seen in various poses, so I wanted to bring it to life through animation. I was always interested in film, but we didn’t have a professional studio for animated pictures. Animation was reserved for enthusiasts. If I wanted to do animation, I first had to earn a living through illustration. I used to draw a second or two of movement only in the evenings.
In recent years, my interest in this kind of film creation has been on the backburner, which is not the case for my younger son Mitja, who is now focusing on film animation.
Another typical feature seen in your comics is an almost child-like curiosity of the characters, who live in an unknown world that has yet to be discovered, one that has not been colonized with knowledge and science. The Hillies could be seen as children, thrown into a fresh, virgin world to discover it and give things names.
Would you agree? Is this the reason you put them into that particular era?
I first wanted to name the central characters Adam and Eve. I wanted to know how they would make do on Earth after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Editor Janez Kajzer thought these two names didn’t reflect the title of the magazine – Kurirček (The Courier) – and the publishing house – Borec (Partisan Veteran).
We came to the conclusion that a sort of a pre-Slavic name would be perfect. My wife often said “daj no mir” (i.e. “gimme a break”, hence Makepeace), and so Dajnomir was born. Much like Miliboža (Sweety-Pie), she is much more grounded than me; I tend to live in the clouds.
People from Cerknica like to joke about the hillies. This is what they call people living in villages above Cerknica. I borrowed the expression to give my prehistoric characters a family name.
How did you preserve your curiosity and freshness towards things that adults find so familiar to adults and that have therefore lost their appeal?
I am thrilled when it’s snowing and when I can skate on frozen Lake Cerknica. Or when I ride my bike to a hilltop and witness the beauty of autumn. Dajnomir’s monologues express this view. I am probably still a child at heart and still have a child’s soul. I am still amazed by many things.
How long was The Hillies published?
About ten years. First in Kurirček, which was later renamed Kekec. It was edited by Boris A. Novak, who encouraged me to continue the series. I later made three short cartoons about The Hillies. For Galeb, a children’s magazine for Slovenians abroad published in the Trieste area, I drew The Hillies in color. They were published for a year and another year in Ciciban, also in color. I created these color picture books in parallel with The Hillies animations, so they visually differ from the old black-and-white comics.
Interestingly enough, editors seem to have a large influence on an artist’s career.
Four editors have in fact largely influenced my work. The first was Niko Grafenauer back when he was the editor at Mladinska Knjiga. He was the driving force behind Kozlovska sodba (The Goats’ Judgment), Pedenjped, Mojca Pokrajculja and many other picture books featuring my illustrations. I had the support of Janez Kajzer of Borec publishers, Božo Kos, the editor of Ciciban, and Boris A. Novak of the state-owned publisher DZS.
Kostja Gatnik and I started working with the publishing house Mladinska Knjiga thanks to Aco Mavec. He was an excellent illustrator who took on the caricature approach to youth literature illustration.
You drew four additional stories for the publication of Hribci Kremeniti, which were previously not available to the readers. Why?
I thought I should add something new to the new book, but still present the characters gradually; in the manner they were created. Dajnomir is presented in the first chapter and I devoted four new stories to him. Miliboža joins him in the next chapter, in the third, Milimir is born, and in the final chapter, we meet neighbor Kajtimara.
The majority of your work is for children and the youth; significantly fewer are aimed at adults.
I did make several satirical illustrations for adults. I illustrated several satirical works by Janko Messner addressing the issue of Slovenians living in Carinthia.
In general, I think editors prefer photography when it comes to artwork for adults. Take a look at the daily newspapers; they almost exclusively feature photographs despite a number of interesting and quality young illustrators, Jure Engelsberger for example. Why isn’t there more of this? The weekly Mladina is the only periodical that consistently allocates space to Slovenian comic art and illustrations. The newspaper Delo publishes the Garfield comic strips. I know there is a number of Slovenian comics which could replace them!
The financial aspect is to blame for the lack of Slovenian comics in periodicals. Editors don’t have enough funds at their disposal to support the Slovenian comic art. Buying rights to publish one Garfield strip costs a few euros, whereas paying a Slovenian author for an original strip costs much more. This is a problem newspapers and magazines face today. They try to save money, hence the numerous ‘copy-paste’ articles. In time, this will prove to be a burning issue, because the media will no longer have any young authors at their disposal.
I agree. I remember travelling Europe and offering my caricatures. The Scotsman told me they have their own caricaturist. Some newspapers employed people to draw. In our parts, it was like this: an English magazine published a couple of caricatures and a year later, I noticed the same caricatures in Delo’s weekly ITD. “Where did I publish this?” I thought and paid the editor a visit. “You published two of my caricatures that I already published in London.” He replied: “Yes, but we cut them out of a Rome newspaper!” The caricatures were not paid for by the London newspaper, the Rome one, or the Slovenian one. Thank you very much and goodbye.
Now that you’ve retired, you probably have more free time. Can we expect comics for adults?
Yes, I would like to present the twentieth century. It was a cruel era and the generation before us went through a lot. Sometimes I consider doing it, but I can’t seem to find the time.
Do you have any other plans for the future?
No particular plans. For now, I know that on Monday an excavator is coming to dig behind my house for drainage work – water is penetrating our basement. This is my current insight into the future. (Now that the issue has been published, the work is completed and the basement is dry!)