Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Aleksandar Zograf "the Second hand world"

Pancevo-based, Sasa Rakezic Zograf is the most accomplished Serbian underground cartoonist. Patiently working at his signature style in a career that is almost two decades long, he has achieved worldwide recognition. And while "Regards from Serbia", his cartoon diary detailing the days of NATO bombing probably stands as his most famous work, Zograf's regular output can since be found primarily in the pages of "Vreme", the Serbian weekly modeled on US' "Times"' format.

Zograf's regular contribution consists of two colored pages usually standing on their own, as the reminder of author's signature wit and world view. So far, the first several years of the feature have been collected in Croatia and Serbia, in both circumstances by well known traditional book publishers, "V.B.Z." and "Sluzhbeni glasnik". Most of "Vreme"'s online archive is available online, although Zograf's contributions are left in Serbian, as hand lettered by the artist.

Zograf as he is today is a remarkably consistent creator, and most of his current output is easily divided into several categories. Thorough all of his strips, a particular intellectual personality shines through, one that is both playful and educational, at the same time. And while his cartoon self seems immune to age, nowadays the writer behind him thinks as a man that though he is approaching middle age, still tries to keep his sense of wonder as his strongest inspiration. "Vreme" shows Rakezicj as someone who has long since stopped being a Kafka-inspired up and coming cartoonist, having become a frequent guest of comics festivals the world over. More so, as he is today, Zograf seems almost consciously distant from traditional European culture landmarks, having entered a phase where he almost takes them for granted. Effectively, reading through his current output seems as if looking at the ways that he tries to find amusement in an all too familiar world, by always looking for something strange and new.

This is most apparent in Zograf's many travels, that he dutifully retells during his strips. Accompanied by his wife Gordana, the artist frequently pays short visits, usually to European cities, where he stays just long enough form a concrete impression. In his narration, he makes the obligatory mention of a comics festival that brought him there, but the bulk of his recollections are based on walking the city streets and encountering varios paraphilias. Zograf's art style is loose and cartoonish, but fluid enough to incorporate likenesses. This helps to carry over the atmosphere of his travels, along with a rare conversation. Typically, most of his travelogues consist of little panel to panel continuity, basically being a set of stills narrated by Zograf in captions. His characteristic humor still comes through, but by and large, most of these vignettes serve to introduce the reader to foreign culture, and are perhaps the most educational parts of his current output.

Of course, Zograf travels through Serbia as well, contrasting many of the local customs with life in the past, or more commonly, in contemporary bigger cities. Once again, he is drawn to local celebrities and curiosities, which are seldom known outside of their immediate area and make for very interesting reading. When it comes to Belgrade and Panchevo, Sasa's interest paradoxically seems almost entirely to consists of rummaging through the flea markets. It is amazing how many of his strips actively revolve around a curio he bought for a few nickels, usually a rare, long forgotten book. Zograf usually proceeds to recount the tale, and seems quite taken to present the excesses of their authors, next to anonymous writers living in Serbia before World War 2.

Not only do these strange books speak of the day to day life that only the oldest still remember, but several of them even try to predict the far away future of late XXth century. Zograf typically positively revels in these flights of fancy, yet he exhibits a somewhat more sombre style when it comes to dealings with the communist everyday and it's particularities. By recounting the memoirs of much-loved Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, and the widespread fame of TV comedians such as Miodrag Petrovic Ckalja, the author achieves a high mark of presenting the way of life that is both nostalgic and representative of the region.

Very rarely does Sasa even mention comics, so engrossed he is in presenting the information that does not pander to a particular reader mindset, which must have been what made the political "Vreme" magazine to present his recollections and opinions. Typically, every once in a while, Zograf devoted his two pages to a hero of his, spotlighting personalities as diverse as avantgard poet Branko Ve Poljanski, and inventor Mihailo Petrovic "Mika Alas". Other times, it functions as a regular column, albeit illustrated, featuring Zograf interviewing his friends, usually local artists, but also comics legends such as Will Eisner, Kim Deitch and Rick Veitch.

Interestingly, a large portion of Zograf's strips features little to no art, being content to providing scans of decades old greeting cards and family photos of unknown people. That impression, of an author positively obsessed by flea markets is one that is even embraced by the cover of "the Second hand world" collecting roughly two years of his strips. Zograf seems endlessly amused by cheap toys and bootlegged versions of popular Disney characters, that most seem happy to ignore. Once again, this is no simple ridicule, as even then he endeavours to educate, and by highlighting the memorabilia save it from being forgotten about, by reminding the reader of the particular context in which it existed. On the other hand, he is critical of the modern world as well, going so far to illustrate some of the strangest foreign novelty catalogues.

A lot of the times, there just seems to be no end to Zograf's creativity, as he illustrates a rare dream, an over the top "Battle of Stalingrad" communist propaganda poem, and even a particularly shoddy written synopsis to a western. All along, the reader gets the tidbits of the creator's musical taste, with the interest in oddball bands such as "the Residents" and "Bonzo dog band", but very little personal information. For an author that seems completely devoted to autobiographical comics, Zograf is almost enigmatic in how little of his personal life carries over in his comics. Contrary to his supremely rich inner life, the reader is almost kept at a distance when it comes to any kind of concrete information, aside from the essentials.

This is nowhere as apparent as in the "Vreme" strip detailing how Zograf and his wife spent the New Year's eve. By circling through Pancevo's countryside, the creator is happy to get a peek at everyone's festivities, while leaving himself to the side, as the observer. Never claiming objectivity, Zograf remains a columnist that presents his opinions sharply and personally, yet always at the distance from the traditional intimacy of auto-bio comix.

When it comes to the availability of his current work, little of it has been translated in English, although French's "L'Association" has so far published two volumes of his previous work, unrelated to "Regards from Serbia". Seeing as he continues to work for "Vreme" on a regular basis, we can hope that it is only a matter of time that the wider audiences can be introduced to his comics, and the universal wit behind them.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Rocketeer 1988-1995 "Cliff's New York adventure"

"The Rocketeer" was first published in 1981, debuting as a back-up strip in the First Comics' "Starslayer". Meticulously researched and pulpy in all the entertaining ways, the talented Dave Stevens' comic should have by all rights been a commercial success. Yet, published as it was at the onset of the wave of creator-owned genre material, it remained a cult phenomenon, which was enough to attract the "Walt Disney Pictures" to the property. Despite the fact that Stevens worked as a storyboard artist on hugely successful "Raiders of the lost arc", the 1991 movie adaptation of his own comic, failed to attract the same audiences. By 1995, even the notoriously slow production schedule of "the Rocketeer" in it's native sequential form was finally brought to a halt. Dave Stevens has passed away on March 10, 2008, and it is only now that IDW publishing has brought out what amounts to be a definitive of his "Rocketeer" material.


In 1988 Dave Stevens first launched a continuing series starring his most famous creation, "the Rocketeer adventure magazine". Picking up immediately from the first story starring the character, the new storyline was nonetheless a concentrated effort to reconfigure the character for the broader comics audience. Still, despite the lack of commercial success in his designated industry, while working on the follow-up, Stevens had managed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney pictures, which had a lot of bearing upon the series' eventual fate.

By switching the Chaplin airport with a Long Island airstrip, Dave Stevens had a very particular vision of how to position Cliff Secord. Basically, the New York adventure was designed to completely overhaul the creative concept, to such an extent that Secord's Rocketeer persona features mainly in the tale's finale. The book is much more concerned with his civilian identity, going so far as to reveal his childhood and tie it into the overall mystery.

As such, Betty remains the only previous character to feature in the new arc, albeit her role is relegated to the subplot framing the new events. In many ways, this belies the story's ambiguous nature as both a new status quo and an episode in Cliff's life. Looking at both of the published "Rocketeer" stories, it's apparent that their relationship was to be revisited at another time. Despite this, she is still such a strong presence that her scenes completely overpower the book, and give it a much needed emotional resonance.

Meanwhile, Stevens has decided to elaborate on the book's mythology by adding the character of "Goose" Gander, an autogyro pilot and Cliff's old friend. "Goose" quickly assumes the role of Secord's good natured sidekick, who nonetheless directs him to his new employer. Unfortunately, this development is at the core of the "Cliff's New York adventure"'s problems, for a simple fact that it is none other than a direct homage to the pulp icon the Shadow who becomes to start steering the Rocketeer's career.

Contrary to Doc Savage's depiction in the previous "Rocketeer" adventure, the Shadow's appearance not only lacks subtlety but also serves to upstage the book's formula, as it serves to rob the title character of his authenticity, relegating him to no more than another of the masked man's agents. Basically, the plot centers around a serial killer that is in some way connected to Cliff's circus past. Once again, the tone clashes with the previous bright-eyed depiction of the Rocketeer, which Stevens presumably decided on in order to better separate the two stories.

The New York atmosphere that the artist depicts is that of constant, oppressive
darkness, hiding all manner of gangsters and wrong doings. It is fictionalized urban dystopia as depicted in "the Shadow" magazine, pretty much divorced from the realistic 1938 setting, except for the most superficial qualities. Gone are the looming threat of the Nazis and the chase sequences, replaced by the threat of a Golden Age villain, that would be completely at home in the pages of "Dick Tracy".

Interestingly, the scenery changes for the finale, featuring the Atlantic City. The carnival atmosphere therein, really speaks to the book's themes, and seemingly inspires Stevens much more than the dourness of New York. This time around, the reader is treated to his depiction of a magician's performance, as well as a theme park, where the final showdown takes place.

It is unfortunate then, that the contributions of Stevens' fellow creators become so apparent in the books' closing pages. "The Rocketeer"'s creator lists Mike Kaluta with providing some of the second issue's page breakdowns, as well as the movie adaptation's screenwriters Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson as the co-scripters. The third issue, published no less than five years later adds Art Adams and Sandy Plunkett's assistance with pencilling some of the pages, which is readily apparent in the closing pages of "Cliff's New York adventure".

Judging from the page count, it might be that the second "Rocketeer" story simply needed more space to provide the distinctive mix of action sequences and the more intimate moments. Stevens' pages certainly give off a much more fluid approach, that took up so much time to produce that in the end the artist called in his colleagues to help with finishing the story. It's certainly unfortunate that the audiences at large never grasped "the Rocketeer"'s charm, as the creator's enthusiasm for the era never seemed to dim.

Ultimately though, the closing pages of the last issue of "the Rocketeer adventure magazine" offer a quick look back at the book's Los Angeles supporting characters. It's almost as if their creator bids them goodbye, before reconfiguring his career, which is nowhere as clear as in the very last page, showing a pin-up of Betty. Taken as an end point to a cult series, it offers little resolution, but it is very indicative of Stevens' later work that was centered on illustrations and commissions.

The issue ends with a gallery of images, featuring the depictions of the Rocketeer by Sandy Plunkett, Jackson "Butch" Guice and Mike Mignolla. This again seems indicative of the original plan with Stevens' then publisher, Dark Horse, to have "the Rocketeer" continue by different creative teams. Considering that no such projects ever materialized beyond the movie adaptation, the reader is forced to accept the creator's version of the character as the definitive, as is appropriate, given the care and the effort that has gone into it. In the end, the Rocketeer's lack of success in the direct market can probably be understood by the audiences' lack of familiarity with the newspaper strips that inspired it.

Rocketeer 1981-1985 "Chapters 1-5"

"The Rocketeer" was first published in 1981, debuting as a back-up strip in the First Comics' "Starslayer". Meticulously researched and pulpy in all the entertaining ways, the talented Dave Stevens' comic should have by all rights been a commercial success. Yet, published as it was at the onset of the wave of creator-owned genre material, it remained a cult phenomenon, which was enough to attract the "Walt Disney Pictures" to the property. Despite the fact that Stevens worked as a storyboard artist on hugely successful "Raiders of the lost arc", the 1991 movie adaptation of his own comic, failed to attract the same audiences. By 1995, even the notoriously slow production schedule of "the Rocketeer" in it's native sequential form was finally brought to a halt. Dave Stevens has passed away on March 10, 2008, and it is only now that IDW publishing has brought out what amounts to be a definite edition of his "Rocketeer" material.


"The Rocketeer" starts of as a period piece, set in 1938 Los Angeles, but the artist is quick to establish the tone of the piece. The everyday of pilot Cliff Secord is namely, filtered through Stevens' major inspirations, the pulps and film serials of the day. It is in this interesting mix that the comic finds it's identity, which is nowhere as clear as in the initial five-parter.

The tone struck by the "Rocketeer" is that of a light-hearted story, seemingly centered on bridging the action sequences. It is as if the arrival of the bullet-shaped engine in Secord's world sends waves everywhere, alerting spies, gangsters, police and the army to it's existence. Likewise, every possible misunderstanding is seemingly exploited to make way for another car chase or the book's signature aerial dogfight. Yet, the forced anonymity of the pulps is nowhere to be found in the comic's pages, as Dave Stevens' knowing influence is felt in every facet of it.

The jet pack powered protagonist thrust in the seemingly ordinary world of late 1930s obviously brings to mind the superhero genre, but even here "the Rocketeer" takes a very unique slant. This is nowhere as indicative as with the secret identity dilemma that follows an origin story, as the book deals with the subject in a way both charming and realistic. In short, the unlikely hero manages to remain unknown to the public at large, while persons who would obviously be privy to his identity manage to find it out in a way that benefits the story.

From the artistic point, it's amazing to see Dave Stevens' range. Like the best of the newspaper strip cartoonists, he seemingly finds a way to be inspired by everything he draws, from people and their clothing, to the all manner of cars and aerial vehicles. Yet, for all the detail rendered in a charmingly cohesive way, the artist never stops making his panels have a clarity of layout and perspective. Employing a fluid grid, that still usually sports no less than seven or eight panels, Stevens' pages are filled with all manner of captions, thought balloons, and lively dialogue, which acts as if it was purposefully inserted to slow down the pacing and have the reader contemplate such a visual story in full.

When it comes to the characters, Dave Stevens opts for a very individualistic approach, chiefly by rendering the principal players after himself, and his circle of friends and idols. The artist is careful not not limit himself by constant photo referencing, making his designs act out all of their bewildering emotion, while relying on his knowledge of figure work to provide for their stylish movements. It is a mark of a true perfectionist to see how much attention he pays to his characters' clothes (with the old fashioned puffy pants being a particular highlight), which are rendered in folds and wrinkles that is rarely depicted as skillfully in the medium. Stevens utilizes every opportunity as a chance to improve his approach to comic book art, thus deciding to go with a more caricatural look for the minor members of the cast.

A special attention must be called to the look of Cliff Secord's girlfriend Betty. By basing her look on the pin-up model Betty Page, Stevens eventually met his long-forgotten real-life inspiration and became good friends with her, leading to her finally cementing her place in the world of pop culture. When it comes to "the Rocketeer", it's impossible to overlook the sheer vitality that Steven endows in his female lead. The panels featuring Betty are literally bursting with sex appeal, that brings a whole other dimension to the story. Through Secord's girlfriend, the reader is treated to see most of the book's realism, as the pin-up model is all too familiar with the jaded world of early Hollywood and hardships of a single girl in such a male domineering environment. Moreover, her relationship with Secord serves to ground the latter, by bringing forward his immaturity and the realities of a happy go lucky lifestyle. In turn, Cliff becomes that much more of a real person, existing beyond the aerial thrills and the practical jokes he's so fond of.

It goes without saying that when it comes to depicting technology, that the action sequences so strongly rely on, Stevens once again excels, in his traditional well researched way. Whether depicting guns of airplanes, the standard that the artist brings to his work is always refreshing to behold. Just like when it came to differentiating his characters, every automobile that Dave Stevens pencils is of a different model, employed with a spare tire and sporting a registration that could be read from every possible angle. The vehicles' physical models posses realistic weight and naturally retain all the dents and damages they're dealt. Once again, by mastering the period details, Stevens makes his additions to the era fit seamlessly with their surroundings, while retaining just enough of the fantastic flair to provide for the spectacle.

Most importantly, the Rocketeer suit works as very iconic representation of the character. Just like Indiana Jones, it's rooted in pulpy inspirations, but nevertheless wholly original to the current reader. The futuristic helmet and the aviator garb rendered in red and golden tones once again fit the mood of the story without tweaking it beyond the realm of somewhat plausible sounding physics.

It is important to note that for all the Secord's fights and near-fatal encounters, the body count is surprisingly low in his initial adventure, thus working off the idealism at the story's heart, and providing for a nice diversion that is at the heart of the most of the period's engaging genre fiction. The realism persists in the cuts and bruises that Cliff accumulates as he wrestles with the idea of using the technology, but the grounding only works in the series' best interest. By establishing his ties with a local mechanic, and a local cafe that the pilot frequents, Stevens makes certain that the larger than life qualities of Secord's occupation and his gorgeous girlfriend really come through. In fact, much of the story revolves around the effect such an extraordinary turn of events plays in his life.

It is to the creators' credit that he manages to work in an extended Doc Savage homage in "the Rocketeer"'s original five chapters. The appearance of the pulp icon and his assistants is cleverly integrated into the proceedings and never presupposes the readers' familiarity with the character. In fact, Secord's inventor friend Peev's incorrect guess at Howard Hughes' involvement is perfectly in keeping with the property.

Somehow Stevens finds a way to bring together all of the mystery strands of his story to provide a Hollywood finish. The action scenes even extend to the epilogue, providing a bitter-sweet finish that gleefully sets up the character's future adventures.