Belgrade Comic Art 1935-1941
Comic-art in Serbia began in the second half of the 19th century, in many humorous and children’s periodicals and calendars, as a developed form of caricature. However, historical circumstances conspired to halt the evolution of Serbian cartoons for a long period, which lasted to the mid-thirties.
From 1912 to 1918 Serbia was involved in three wars: two Balkan wars (in the First Balkan War, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece shook off the Turkish tyranny; in the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece) and the First World War (Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany attacked and invaded Serbia). From these three wars Serbia emerged a winner, but with huge casualties and material damage: one third of the population died, 50% of all men were killed in battle. At the close of the First World War, a wave of great social, economic and political changes swept Europe. In Central and Southeastern Europe, many new nation-states were born. Some of them were multi-ethnic; one such was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, formed on 1st December 1918. The entire pre-war Serbia entered this new Kingdom. In 1929 that state got a new name, Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The ethnic groups which found themselves in that country were at widely different levels of economic and cultural development; and the average, overall level of culture and education (of the whole Yugoslavia, rural and urban areas) was lagging behind the Western Europe. The census of the entire population of the Kingdom in 1921 showed that there were 12.000.000 persons older than 12 years of age; and of them, 51.5% were illiterate.
Comics entered the Serbian newspapers indirectly – through the children’s section. The daily newspaper Politika was the first to introduce such a section, at the beginning of 1930. At that time, no newspaper carried a special page for children. Following Politika‘s example, two other dailies, Vreme (“The Time”) and Pravda (“Justice” or “Truth”) introduced similar sections, and several weeklies did the same. Predominant in these sections were strip-cartoon jokes of entertaining or educative content; under the drawings there was text, mostly in verse. There were no text balloons, nor any steady characters. The intended readership for this were, mainly, the youngest of readers.
At the time when this new medium was still struggling to establish itself permanently in the pages of daily and weekly press, an illustrated magazine for children appeared in Beograd (Belgrade). The day was 7th January 1932, and the magazine’s name was Veseli cetvrtak (Joyful Thursday). This was an important novelty in the publishing practice, because an unusually large proportion of the printed space was given to strip-cartoons. But these still had the text under each picture, no text balloons. It was on the pages of Veseli cetvrtak that Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse appeared for the first time; the title was “Dozivljaji Mike Misa” (“The Life of Mika the Mouse”) but re-done, re-produced by Serbian authors: artist Ivan Sensin and writer Bozidar Kovacevic. Mickey attracted the interest of some other authors in Serbia, in those times. In the daily Vreme there was a section “Decje vreme” (Children’s Time) and in it appeared, simultaneously with Veseli cetvrtak, the comics “Dozivljaji misa Mike i majmuna Djoke” (“Life of mouse Mika and monkey Djoka”) produced by an immigrant from Russia, Sergij Mironovic Golovcenko. Besides Mickey Mouse, in Veseli cetvrtak also appeared Adamson, and “Bim i Bum” (Katzenjammer Kids), and also “Macak Feliks” (Felix the Cat). Names of protagonists were changed variously; text was still under the pictures, and written in verse, with rhyme. And so, at the beginning of the third decade of this century, while the first heroes of adventure comics were beginning to entertain the American readers, the Serbian comics (and European comics generally) were partialy still under the sway of this pseudo-literary tradition with descriptions under pictures. Although Veseli cetvrtakdid not live long (it endured only two years, the last issue was issue 39, on 28th September 1933), it performed a very important service, because it paved the way for other, future publishers of comics editions.
National newspaper-oriented comic strip could not develop so well in Serbia as they did in America, because the Serbian newspapers, even when they opened themselves for this medium, mainly published foreign comics, which were of better quality, cheaper, and satisfied the readers’ interest quite sufficiently. But some Serbian-produced comics were also published in dailies, weeklies and in children’s periodicals. The two main Beograd dailies, Politika and Vreme, were especially important in this respect; from time to time they published some Serbian comics, and not only in the children’s sections but also in the regular pages. Besides, they launched specialized comics editions.
The X-9 Blast
One of the most important events in the history of Serbian and Yugoslav comics happened on 21st October 1934 on the pages of Politika. On that day one whole page was devoted to a strip-cartoon (six strips of it) which was ended only a month before in USA; it was “Detektiv X-9” (“Secret Agent X-9”) produced by Alexander Raymond and Dashiell Hammett. The publishing of this work created a real sensation. It was a novelty of such magnitude that a new name had to be invented for the new phenomenon. One of the editors of Politika, a man called Duda Timotijevic, rose to the occasion. He looked at the original, English term “comics strip” and decided to adopt into Serbian language just the second half of it – strip. (And to this day Serbs and other former Yugoslavians call that sort of art – strip. It is pronounced “streep” – translator’s remark) Promoted as “the newest miracle of our time”, “a novel which you read two minutes each day”, “home cinema”, strip achieved immediate, very large popularity. Politika‘s example was soon followed by others. The fastest was Vreme, which began, on 10th January 1935, to publish “Radio patrola” (“Radio Patrol”) and three days later also “Tim Tajlor” (“Tim Tyler’s Luck”). This was the first publication of adventure comics in Politikaand Vreme. It encouraged Serbian authors. The first on the move was Vlasta Belkic in the illustrated periodical Nedelja (Sunday). Inspired by Raymond/Hammett comics, he produces a criminalistic (detective) strip “Avanture detektiva Hari Vilsa” (“Adventures of the detective Harry Wils”). Author’s full name was Vlastimir, and Vlasta only his nickname. He was born in Beograd, probably around 1896. Vlastimir Vlasta Belkic is remembered more for his later work than for this first effort marked by beginner’s mistakes; he proceeded to create interesting front pages and caricature-filled comic strips with Disney’s and other comics characters and also with other characters from the cartoon films and from the cinema industry of that time; he produced such things for Mika Mis. Only a month after his initial work, on 23rd March 1935, Djordje Lobacev and Vadim Kurganski begin, in the illustrated periodical Panorama, a detective series “Krvavo nasledstvo” (“Bloodied Inheritance”) under the pseudonyms George Strip and Vladimir Cilic. The editors of Panorama announced that this “Bloodied Inheritance” is a joint effort of “one Yugoslav and one American, working together”, which would “present to our readers an exceptional event from our life – in a manner quite American”. At about the same time, in one children’s periodical, artist Aleksije Ranhner and writer Slavko Petrovic publish a folklore-oriented, rural-theme “Zadrugarsko srce”. Also from this period is the plumpish hero Stojadin created by Moma Markovic. This hero appeared in the newly-started humorous magazine Jez (Hedgehog). For the next several years Stojadin entertained the readers of Jez in single-picture (single-panel) cartoons, but also in entire comics episodes. This was a humorous and satirical production but the art was in the classically realistic style prevalent in the thirties. The scenarios were supplied by several authors.
In parallel with the realistic adventure comics, Serbian newspapers and periodicals were “invaded” also by caricature-oriented comics. Again the leader was Politika which, on 20th January 1935, published a single-panel slapstick-humor cartoon “Mikijeva savest” (“The conscience of Mickey”) with Disney’s Mickey Mouse in it; a month later, the first humorous comics in daily installments “Plutonova velika trka” (“Mickey Mouse and Pluto the Racer”). Many readers were already familiar with Mickey Mouse from the cinema screen. In January that year, for instance, Mickey Mouse was entertaining thousands of viewers in the Beograd’s cinema-theatre “Koloseum”. From that time, Disney’s characters became something of an identifying feature for Politika as such. Soon Mickey Mouse was called Mickey Mouse, but Donald Duck was named Paja Patak and remained so till this day. Politika also published Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”, which were translated into Serbian by excellent newsmen Duda Timotijevic, Bata Vukadinovic, and even by the owner-director of Politika, Vladislav Ribnikar. Those were the years of extremely high popularity of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other Disney’s characters. This is why their names, especially Mickey’s, were utilized in the titles of a number of comics periodicals (Mikijeve novine, Mika Mis, Mikijevo carstvo, Paja Patak).
Surprised by the rapid growth of popularity of this new medium, publishers started thinking in which other ways they might use comics. And so, very soon, in the spring of 1935, the first two specialized comics magazines appeared – Strip and Crtani film. That was the year of economic upswing in Yugoslavia, reflected in an increase of printing and publishing activity. Immediately after the end of the First World War, there were only two printing facilities in Beograd; but at the end of nineteen-thirties Beograd was the greatest printing and publishing center of Serbia and of all Yugoslavia. The creation of the magazines Strip and Crtani film was prompted also by some European developments, especially by some events in France and Italy. Namely, the great success of American comics in those two countries was followed by the launching of the Italian magazine L’avanturoso on 14thOctober 1934 by the Florence publisher Nerbini, and French magazine Le Journal de Mickey on 21st October 1934 (exactly the same day when “Detektiv X-9” started in Beograd) by the Paris publisher Paul Winkler. There is no doubt that these two magazines, as well as the Italian Topolino and L’Audace and French Robinson and Hop-la, influenced similar publications in Serbia. For instance, Strip was designed, in its format, number of pages, and technical features, to look like Nerbini’s Topolino. From issue 21 it even carried identical heading, with the figure of Mickey Mouse in it, on the front page. Those were comics newspapers, in newspaper size and design but filled with comics (the magazine format prevailed much later). This concept was followed by other pre-WW II publishers: I. Zrnic (Crtani film), J. Grdanicki (Crveni vrabac, Red Sparrow), A. J. Ivkovic (Robinson and Tarcan), the owners of Vreme (Vreme strip) and the owners of Politika (Politikin zabavnik). All these publications were shortlived, except Politikin zabavnik which is still published today.
The first Serbian publication in which comics predominated appeared in Beograd on 10th April 1935 as an “addition” to the illustrated Panorama, and was named Strip; that first issue was given away for free, which was a promotional strategy. The publisher of Panorama and Strip was Anatolije Ivanovic, owner of the publishing and printing company “Narodna prosveta” (“Enlightenment of the People”). Editor of Strip (and, from issue 40 onwards, owner of it) was Vojin M. Djordjevic. The Strip was published for 14 months only; on 4th June 1936 was published the last issue, Number 63. One constant comics in it was Flash Gordon. Many comics saw their first light of day in this publication; authors were, in many cases, Russian artists, refugees who settled in Yugoslavia. Struggling to survive somehow, they accepted all sorts of jobs, even the work so much despised and looked-down-at as, for a long time, drawing of comics was considered to be.
After the October revolution and civil war in Russia, Russian refugees started arriving into the Kingdom of SHS (Serbs, Croats and Slovenes); the greatest influx was from the beginning of May 1919 to the end of 1921. Being Orthodox Christians (as Serbs are) and knowing of the strong historical connections and closeness of the Russian and Serbian people, most of these Russian escapees settled in Serbia, especially in Beograd. Most of them were well educated (equivalent of high school or college) and most of them spoke at least one foreign language. In the period between the two World Wars, there Russians influenced deeply the social, scientific and cultural life of Serbia. They influenced culture in general, but they practically formed the Beograd’s ballet and opera, founded the theatrical scenography, and they elevated illustration and comics art to European levels.
Two of the authors whom we already mentioned, Vadim Kurganski and Djordje Lobacev, published in Strip their “Zrak smrti” (Death Ray) inspired by the novel of A. Tolstoy The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin. This was the second, and final, work of this artistic tandem; after it, Kurganski withdrew from such work. (He died in USA about the middle of seventies.) But Djordje Lobacev continued to draw comics – and as for scenarios, he wrote them himself, or adapted texts from literature. When the royal censorship came down particularly hard on Jez, banning some things in it, it changed its own title to Osisani jez; and it was in Osisani jez that Nikola I. Tiscenko published, under the pseudonym Ten, on the front page, which meant with some use of color, a comics titled “Funny things happening to detective X-9”. As the title suggests, it was a parody of the then so popular “Detektiv X-9”. Besides Lobacev and Tiscenko, on the pages of Strip also debuted their compatriot (Russian) Nikola Navojev whose rich talent began to shine fully only on the pages of Mikijevo carstvo (Mickey’s empire). Navojev left an imposing opus, more than 40 complete comics episodes. Several of them were for Strip: “Rat pod zemljom” (War under the Earth”), “Crna krila na ostrvu Amazona” (“Black wings on the Amazon island”), “Lovci orhideja smrti” (“Hunters of death orchids”), “Moderni gusari” (“Modern pirates”) and others. The most interesting was the story of Tarcaneta (Tarzanetta), a half-naked, half-wild girl from the jungle.
On 25th April 1935, only two weeks after the publication of the first issue of Strip, the publisher of Jugoslovenske ilustrovane novine (Yugoslav illustrated newspaper) Ivan Zrnic published the first issue of Crtani film. Like Strip, it was rather poorly received by the readers, but managed to endure longer, until 30th September 1936. It was graphically poorer and largely relied on the already obsolete form with the text printed under the pictures. Besides Harold Foster’s “Tarzan”, it also carried Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” re-worked by little-known Serbian authors, then “Three scoundrels” credited to Louis Forton (“Les Pieds Nickeleds” by Lois Forton), and one comics credited to “Joe McManus” (it was George McManus) titled “Fema i njen Joca” (“Fema and her Yotza”) but later much better known in Yugoslavia as “Porodica Tarana” (“The Family Tarana” – original title was “Bringing Up Father”). Although in the very first issue of Crtani film there was an invitation to “artists, ladies and gentlemen, all who may be interested in this sort of work” to come and cooperate in the production of comics, the response was below all expectations. In almost a year and a half, on the pages of Crtani filmappeared no Serbian works worthy of any attention.
“Mika Mis” And The Creation Of The First True And Indigenous Serbian Comics
If the publications Strip and Crtani film were just a passing stage in this area of Serbian publishing, Mika Mis was much more. This magazine was started by Aleksandar J. Ivkovic in Beograd on 21st March 1936. This man was born in Russia in 1894, came to Serbia, married a Serb girl and took her surname. Between the two World Wars he owned and managed a Publishing and Printing House “Rus” (with a workshop for photo-zinc-cliché making). In the year 1937, together with L. Lustig, he founded the “Universum Press” Company, which produced, published and distributed comics. Although announced and designed as a children’s magazine, with much humour, songs, crosswords, and puzzles, Mika Mis was soon transformed into a real comics magazine. Guided by the editorial hand of Milutin S. Ignjacevic it soon took the leading position in this area of Serbian publishing and kept it right up to that dawn of 6th April 1941 (Sunday) when German bombs started raining on Beograd without a declaration of war. The last issue was number 504, on Friday 4th April 1941. The Mika Mis magazine owes its high reputation largely to the most popular heroes of American comics of that era: “Prince Valiant”, “Phantom”, “Mandrake the Magician”, “Flash Gordon” and others. However, the reputation of Mika Mis was also greatly bolstered by the comic strips produced by a group of Serbian artists. The first to arrive were Nikola Navojev and Djordje Lobacev, but in 1937 other masters of Beograd comics joined them. Such a gathering of forces had never happened before in the history of Serbian comics. Until the day when the country was plunged into the Second World War, these local authors produced imposing oeuvres, each making twenty or thirty complete stories, so that, we can say without exaggeration, Beograd by the end of 1930s was one of the capital cities of European comics. Some foreign influence cannot be denied; but the Serbian comics never before and never again attained such heights of self-expression and authenticity, such narrative and graphic contribution to European and world comics. There is practically no genre into which the Serbian comics artists of that era did not venture: historicals, adventures, Western, science fiction, melodramas, crime stories. Not always with the same level of success, naturally, as is sadly witnessed by Sensin’s “Crveni bizon” (Red Bison), Solovjev’s “Big Kid”, Lobacev’s “Seikov sin” (“The sheik’s son’). (Three failed attempts of important authors.) However, there are many masterpieces of comics dramaturgy and forms applied to it: Sensin’s “Hrabri vojnik Svejk” (“The brave soldier Schweik”, a non-militaristic soldier figure from Czech literature) and “Zvonar Bogorodicine crkve” (“The Hunchback of Notre Damme”); Solovjev’s “Robin Hud”, “Ajvanho” (Ivanhoe) and “Bufalo Bil”; Lobacev’s “Gospodar smrti” (Master Death), “Baron Minhauzen” and “Bas Celik” (Serbian mythical figure, meaning “the very steel; steel itself”); Kuznjecov’s “Grofica Margo” (Countess Margo), “Tri zivota” (Three lives), “Pikova dama” (Queen of spades) and “Bajka o caru Saltanu” (“Fairytale about Tzar Saltan”); Jankovic’s “Maksim” and “Pop Cira i pop Spira” (Priest Cira and priest Spira); Ranhner’s “Jadnici” (“Les Miserables”) and “Revisor”; Navojev’s “Mali moreplovac” (The Little Sailor), “Mladi Bartulo” (The Young Bartulo) and “Zigomar”; Lehner’s “Dzarto” and “Sigfrid”; Markovic’s “Stojadin”. Esthetic and stylistic features of these works are original and varied, in keeping with their wealth of themes and genres. But predominantly they are realistic adventure stories. There were a few excursions into caricatural stylization (“Boemi” /Bohemians/, by Konstantin Kuznjecov, and “Avanture nestasnog Bobija” /Adventures of unruly Bobby/, by Djuka Jankovic), but that approach remained marginalized. The crucially important artists in the Serbian comics of the thirties were: Djordje Lobacev, Sergej Solovjev, Konstantin Kuznjecov, Nikola Navojev, Ivan Sensin, Aleksije Ranhner, Djuka Jankovic and Sebastijan Lehner. But we also must mention Moma Markovic, Marijan Ebner and Djordje Mali. They were all well educated, and they all introduced a lot of wit into their comics creations.
Authors had complete creative freedom. There were no limitations in how the panel must be composed, or of how many pictures it will consist. The usual practice was to draw the episodes successively, only a few panels at a time, only a few steps ahead of the printing shop, this was possible because each story was printed in installments. Only exceptionally were the episodes given to a publisher complete, all at once; it was so, for instance, in the Mali zabavnik (The Little Entertainer) edition published by A. J. Ivkovic which published complete episodes, mainly first attempts by young, not yet accomplished authors. This brought a risk, however; sometimes the next installment failed to appear… and was a week, or several weeks late. Editors did not even comment on this, or they mentioned something about “technical reasons”, or the excuse was that the author had health problems. For instance, in eleventh issue of Paja Patak the editorial notice said: “Due to the illness of our contributor, we were not able to publish the continuation of ‘Smugglers of people’ in this issue”. In one letter in the year 1985, Djordje Lobacev wrote about that: “For Mika Mis and for Mikijevo carstvo I worked mostly from issue to issue. Before leaving for a vacation (that is since I became a contributor to Politika; until then I never even thought of a vacation) I drew panels in advance, for a month’s publication. As a rule I had several panels prepared in advance for Politika and for Politikin zabavnik. And the scenarios were thought up, whole, before the start of drawing. ‘Hajduk Stanko’ is my only comics episode which was completed before the publication began.”
Except for Djordje Lobacev, Sebastijan Lehner and (part of the time) Konstantin Kuznjecov, the Serbian masters relied almost entirely on texts prepared by their associates, and on literary works by various writers, on Serbian folk poetry and folk tales. There were no particular rules in the choice of these source texts. Foreign and Yugoslav authors were treated equally. The need for good scenarios seems to have been felt more sharply (at least as far as Mika Mis was concerned) than the need for good artists. This is why the editors of Mika Mis announced, in mid-June 1937, a great competition for “several original librettos” for comics. This call for manuscripts specified from which “areas” the “librettos” ought to be: “fantastic, exotic, crime-and-detection stories in the genre of Detective X-9”. Also demanded was that “progression of action in the strip should be lively, with fast tempo and powerful plotting”.
Artists and writers seldom signed their own names, or, if they did, used pseudonyms which, as a rule, sounded Americanized. This was probably done because the American comics were the most popular at that time, and because readers valued foreign products more highly. Djordje Lobacev, for instance, was for a long time known among his Beograd friends as George Strip, because he so signed his first comics. Nikola Navojev used several pseudonyms, the most popular of which was Nick Woodly. Konstantin Kuznjecov also accepted this practice several times, signing his own work as K. Kulidz (Coolidge) and as Steav Doop.
In the years just before the Second World War, cinema was the chief entertainment of the masses; but members of the most respected and prominent Serbian families also went to cinema houses. Comics publishers and editors were fervent cinema-goers. Some of them, like Vojin M. Djordjevic and Milutin S. Ignjacevic, took part in movie-making also. How strong was the opinion that comics are, as a form of expression, very close to movies, we can see from promotional advertisements for comics and for movies in the Beograd press. A good example is the announcement for Disney’s comics “Pluto’s great race” which started coming out in Politika at the beginning of 1935: “Today Mickey with his whole company of friends has crossed over from the movie screen onto the pages of Politika“. And, naturaly, some ads went in exactly the opposite direction. The Beograd cinema theatre “Koloseum” advertized, on 24th October 1938, their next film with these words: “From tomorrow, Flash Gordon, the most popular strip-novel, transferred to film”. And the cinema-theatre “Novakovic” recommended, in the first half of February 1941, the movie about the secret agent X-9 thus: “Made from the famous strip-novel of Politika, this is the most exciting film of all times, entwined with powerful action and yet-unseen heroic deeds of the fearless secret agent – a gigantic sensation such as never before was on the film screen”. No wonder, then, that authors working for comics magazines found their inspiration in many movies. Besides, movies thermselves were often based on literature, so that we really cannot know, now, whether a comics was inspired by a novel or by a “silver screen” rendering of it. (It is important to notice, however, that the influence of cinema on comics was not only in themes and scenarios; there was also a transfer of certain patterns, certain forms of expression.) Even a cursory look at the Beograd movie repertoire and the titles of Beograd comics will show interesting resemblances. For instance, in 1938, on 10th January, premierre of the film “Postareva kci” (“Mailman’s Daughter”) was held; two years later a comics of the same title was produced by Aleksije Ranhner and published in Mika Mis. In January 1938 Belgraders had the opportunity, for the first time, to watch “Taras Buljba” and one year later there it was in strip-cartoon (comics) form, drawn by Nikola Navojev, printed in Mikijevo carstvo. In the cinema-theatre “Triglav” the film “Queen of Spades” was shown, and two years later Konstantin Kuznjecov, inspired by this screen version, created the eponymous comics episode, one of his best. But the list of such interconnections of movies and Serbian comics is much longer and more complex.
It also became accepted practice to pick up a “roto-roman” of a Serbian writer and make it over into a comics episode. (Roto-roman is a pulp-novel printed with the same printing technology as daily newspapers and then folded several times into the shape and form of a small notebook, stapled along the spine and sold at the street kiosks alongside the newspapers; it is a form of literature much cheaper than regular books. – t. r.) Usually the roto-roman would be published first, and the comics of the same title subsequently; so it happened with “Tajne abisinskih gudura” (“The Secrets of Abyssinian Ravines”) and with “Carev stitonosa” (“Tzar’s Pageboy”). But there were cases of a roto-roman and the comics episode (of the same title and contents) appearing together, on the same day; so it was with “Crna maska ili lord Varvik” (“The Black Mask or Lord Warvick”). And there was yet another combination, inside the roto-roman there would be “contents briefly re-told” in the form of strip-cartoon; such case was “Gresnica” (“The sinner”, but female).
Aleksandar J. Ivkovic launched many comics episodes of his associates into the foreign markets – but without their knowledge! For this he used his agency, “Universum Press”. Many works of Serbian authors were published under the copyright mark of his “Universum Press”. Today it is rather difficult to find out which Serbian comics were re-published abroad, but it is known that there were such appearances in several French magazines. In the magazine Les Grandes aventures were published comics by Djuka Jankovic (“La Course aux millions”, “L’Enfant de la brousse”), by Sergej Solovjev (“La Mystere du Dalai-Lama”), by Djordje Mali (“Le Roi des contrabandiers”), by Nikola Navojev (“Le petit mousse”, “Tarass Boulba”) and by Konstantin Kuznjecov (“Ali-Baba at les 40 voleurs”, “Orient-express”). Works by Kuznjecov came out in several other French magazines: in Jumbo (“Simbad le Marin”), in Aventures (“Singes a nous l’aventure”, “Le Descendant de Gengis-Khan”), in Le Journal de Toto (“Le Dragon vert”), in Gavroche (“La Comtesse Margot”). But Djordje Lobacev’s “Princeza Ru” (Princess Ru) appeared in installments in Aventures titled “Princesse Thanit”. Milutin Ignjacevic, after he seceeded from Mika Mis and started his own magazine, Mikijevo carstvo, followed this example of his ex-boss and slipped some Serbian comics into the French market; for instance, he arranged that “Dzarto” by Sebastijan Lehner be published in Gavroche but – under the title “Sartor”.
Right from the start the contents of Serbian comics fell under severe, merciless censorship, which reflected wider social trends. Never-sleeping censors examined each episode minutely, trying to discover some concealed criticism of the government. There are several recorded cases of such interventions by censors, especially after the Second World War. The first known incident happened in 1937. The State censor was reading through the pages of Politika and it struck him that maybe there was some similarity between Walt Disney’s comics episode “Miki i njegov dvojnik” (it was “Mickey Mouse as the Monarch of Medioka”) and the events on the Yugoslav Royal Court; because in those days rumors were flying that the nobleman Pavle Karadjordjevic is planning to seize the throne away from the his nephew, not-yet-adult King Petar. For this reason, the censor banned the publication of three installments, in the first three days of December, and of yet another installment, on 5th December. A newsman who dared to report to the world about this incident, Hubert Harrison (correspondent of New York Times and of Reuters) was immediately expelled from Beograd. Walt Disney was informed of this event, and he sent to Politika a telegram in which, with mild irony, he expressed his regrets that the Serbian newspaper had trouble because of his comics.
In The Courtroom Because Of Comics
The year 1938 was the most fruitful as regards the number of comics publications started. Five saw the light of day. Four of them, however, died in that same year or at the beginning of the next year. Before this sorry end, there was a big court case involving two of them.
At the end of March 1938, two new publications were launched on two successive days. This would not have attracted much attention if there had not been an unusual fracas immediately before, and afterwards an open collision of two publishers, something that had never before happened in the area of Serbian comics publishing. The basic source of trouble was the intention of A. J. Ivkovic and of I. Zrnic to launch magazines which would be named Tarcan and Novi Tarcan (Tarzan, and, New Tarzan), thus relying on the popularity of the well-known hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ivkovic noticed in the newspapers the promotional texts of his rival, made use of that opportunity, and dashed to print one day earlier. Zrnic was thus forced to give up his intended title; but his publication was already out of the printing presses. So the new title (Truba, meaning the trumpet) had to be printed and pasted over the old – glued, actually. This was only the beginning of a merciless competitive fight. They both wanted to buy up the copyright for the comics “Tim Taylor”; specifically for one episode which in Truba appeared as “Tajna jezera Vamba” (“The Secret of the Vamba lake”). Ivkovic bypassed his new Tarcan magazine and published that same episode of Tim Taylor in his main magazine, Mika Mis, but titled “Tajanstveno jezero” (“The Mysterious Lake”). Things culminated in July, over an episode of Lee Falk’s and Ray Moore’s “Phantom”. The two Serbian editors both did the same unprecedented thing, devoting one complete issue of Truba, and simultaneously one complete issue of Mika Mis, to that same comics. We do not have reliable information how this little publishing war ended, but it seems that litigation followed. After some time, Ivkovic got rid of the competition.
Truba did have a solid repertoire, based on French and Italian (European!) comics: “Malajski tigar” (in fact “Sandokan” created by Guido Moroni Celsi); “Saturn protiv Zemlje” (“Saturno contro la Terra” by Federico Pedrocchi and Giovanni Scolari); and, “Kosmopolis” (in fact “Futuropolis” by Rene Pellos). Truba also carried some interesting American comics, such as “Tetkin sampion” (“The Aunt’s Champion”, the original title being “Abbie an Slats” by R. Van Buren). Also, “Ziva meta” (“Live target”, but the original title was “Red Barry” and the author was Will Gould). But never any Serbian comics. And, without Serbian, local product, Truba could not stand up to the Ivkovic publications, and collapsed on 13th October 1938, with issue Number 55. Perhaps a slight consolation to Zrnic might have been the fact that Ivkovic’s Tarcan collapsed even earlier, on 22nd June that year, after only 14 issues.
In constant trepidation from competitive abilities of other publishers, and fearing the very real possibility that new ones might spring up, A. J. Ivkovic not only kept up his Mika Mis but also started several new magazines, hoping to bolster the main edition, to reduce the market space available to anybody else, and to bond to himself as many of the high-quality Serbian authors as possible. So he launched Zabavnik, a sort of strip-cartoon album, which re-printed the old comics from Mika Mis – but now complete episodes in one issue; also, as we mentioned, “Mali Zabavnik” which published first comics of young, not yet known artists (the best of which then were given a chance to appear in Ivkovic’s main publication); and Veseli zabavnik with mainly humorous comics.
Although Ivkovic managed to tie up many artists to his magazines, but the interest of the readership for this area was great, so that some other publishers tried to devote some space to aspiring young authors in this new medium. Such was the case with Bufalo Bil and with Paja Patak, two short-lived magazines launched in 1938. Both imitated the concept of Mika Mis, giving space to foreign and also to Serbian authors. In Bufalo Bil no local work worthy of our attention appeared, but, in Paja Patak there were comics by several talented young men: Zika Mitrovic, Marijan Ebner, Sebastijan Lehner and Veljko Kockar. The first two of them also cooperated in Mika Mis and in Mali zabavnik, while Sebastijan Lehner proceeded to work in Mikijevo carstvo where he achieved his full affirmation. However, despite all the efforts of their editorial staff, Bufalo Bil and Paja Patak did not manage to attract a sufficiently large number of readers; the market was becoming choosy, and they did not survive.
The Shiniest Years Of Comics Publishing In Serbia
Until the beginning of the year 1939 Mika Mis had no real competitors anywhere on the horizon. Other publications were hampered by serious problems, organizational, technical, financial, and those with meager creative abilities of contributors; and, not surprisingly, they vanished from the scene before they could properly start to live. But, with the emergence of Mikijevo carstvo and Politikin zabavnik at the beginning of 1939, the market domination of Mika Mis was for the first time seriously threatened, and the publisher, Ivkovic, had to face two real rivals. Even worse for him, an irreplaceable loss, was the departure of the experienced, highly respected editor Milutin S. Ignjacevic. That man (born in Beograd 1899, died in Beograd in 1949) was educated at two High schools of Cinema, in Prague and in Munich. In 1922 and 1923 he made a series of short films under the pseudonym Tagoran Gand. (Which recalls the names of one Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, and one Indian politician, Gandhi). With R. Jovanovic he founded, in 1929, the firm “Adrija Nacional” in Beograd. For several years they managed the elite cinema-theatre “Kleridz” (“Cleridge”) with a selected repertoire. In 1930 and 1932 they produced two movies, “Kroz buru i oganj” (“Through Storm and Fire”) and “Na kapiji Orijenta” (“At the Gate of Orient”). Establishing Mikijevo carstvo, Ignjacevic took along with himself the leading scenarist, Branko Vidic, and the talented artist Nikola Navojev. Besides Navojev and Lehner, the main contributors of Mikijevo carstvo were Ivan Sensin, Djordje Lobacev and Sergej Solovjev. They left their strong mark on the magazine, creating, for it, some of their best, anthology-quality, comics. Sensin crossed over into this new magazine and completely oriented his career to it. Djordje Lobacev, however, continued to cooperate with Mika Mis and started to work for Politikin zabavnik also; Solovjev also remained in cooperation with Mika Mis and, immediately before Yugoslavia became involved in WW II, started to work for Politikin zabavnik.
Ignjacevic, very enterprising from the start, tried to secure not only the Serbian, but also the foreign comics. But he could not obtain the copyright to some of the comics then most popular in Serbia, such as “Phantom” and “Flash Gordon”, because that copyright was already bought up by other publishers. So he used quite another tactics: he took detective X-9 but altered his name into “Kapetan Fantom”; he swiped Brick Bradford but renamed him “Gordon Vels”; and he published something called “Pirati vazduha” (“Pirates of the Air”) drawn in a realistic, Raymond-like style, and announced it pompously as “the latest creation of the great A. Raymond”. (But in fact, as far as we could ascertain, it was “Will Sparrow, il pirata del cielo” by the Italian artist Kurt Caesar.) Raymond’s signature was meticulously glued onto the panels of this Caesar’s work; careful readers could, nevertheless, clearly see that it is common fraud. Part of the same editorial approach was the creation of Zigomar, a masked avenger, who quickly became the favorite with the readers. Zigomar was created by Nikola Navojev and Branko Vidic, with Falk’s and Moore’s Phantom as a model. Zigomar was also wearing a costume clinging tightly to his body, and as mask on the face; on his hand was a ring with an engraved letter Z. But, unlike Phantom whose inseparable companion was the tamed wolf Devil, this hero, Zigomar, adorned additionally by a black cape, had a different companion, a short Chinese named Chi Yang. One curious fact is that Vidic and Navojev, at one time, introduced even the Phantom himself in their comics! Obviously, the editors of the Mikijevo carstvo magazine wished to include Phantom in their repertoire somehow, and found this indirect manner. As for foreign work, Ignjacevic secured copyright and published “As Dramond” (“Ace Drummond”), less known comics “Karlej Harper” (“Curley Harper”) of Lyman Young, “Slavni tetkin sampion” (“Abbie an Slats”) of R. Van Buren, the French comics “Kartus” (“Cartouche”) and others. Although much loved by readers, Mikijevo carstvowas in a precarious marketing position, because it did not possess its own zinc-cliche workshop (as Mika Mis did) nor its own printing house (as Politika did). What is more, Mika Mis actively obstructed the printing of this rival, and so Mikijevo carstvo was forced, several times, to migrate to other printing shops; and this meant changes in format.
Mikijevo carstvo gave the first chance to young beginners, but not to an extent which would threaten the basic quality of the magazine. In order to achieve an attachment of readers to his magazine, Ignjacevic encouraged his contributors to make serials. For this reason, several heroes appeared in more than one episode: Mladi Bartulo, Zigomar, Kraljevic Marko, Dzarto, Sigfrid, Gospodar Smrti. Also the two poor girls of “Dve sirotice”, the brave soldier Schweik, and Napoleon. In contrast with this, the Mika Mis magazine, after Ignjagevic’s departure, did not launch any (except Maksim by Djuka Jankovic) true serials. Of all the comics magazines which endured to the day of Yugoslavia’s involvement in WW II, Mikijevo carstvo was the last to die: they published one more, last issue, their Number 217, after the big aerial bombardment of Beograd. The day was 9th April 1941.
Politikin zabavnik was the first “special edition” of Politika newspaper (and it looked as a newspaper). The first issue appeared on 28th February 1939, and the last, number 220 on 4th April 1941, two days before Hitler’s attack on Yugoslavia. After the Second World War, Politikin zabavnik was re-launched at the beginning of 1952. The creators of the basic concept, and the founders of this publication were the then director of Politika Vladislav Ribnikar and journalists Dusan (Duda) Timotijevic and Zivojin (Bata) Vukadinovic. Duda Timotijevic was responsible for the comics, and Bata Vukadinovic for articles because Politikin zabavnik (“Politika’s Entertainer”) was conceived as a well-balanced mix of comics and text features. Timotijevic was the editor; also, he was the one who translated the cartoons from English. He gave Serbian names to Disney’s heroes: Miki (Mickey); Silja (pronounced Shi-ly-a, suggesting a tall, lean guy; it is Goofy); Paja Patak (Donald Duck); Pluton (Pluto), Belka (the kind of name that Serbian peasants would give to a cow – transl. rem.; this is Clarabelle Cow) and others. He lucidly tailored these names and their sound to fit the psychological characteristics of these protagonists. Although many of the then most popular comics were owned (through copyright) by other publishers, Politikin zabavnik managed to publish many high-quality comics and not a single one of really poor quality. This will be confirmed by a look at the materials presented in Politikin zabavnik, which include: “Dzim iz dzungle (“Jungle Jim”); “Pustolovine malog Dzonija” (“The Adventures of Little Johnny”, in fact “Ming Foo”); “Dozivljaji male Ane” (“Little Annie Rooney”); “Usamljeni jahac” (“The Lone Ranger”); “Red Rajder” (“Red Ryder”); “Popaj” (Popeye and “Thimble Theater”); “Reporter Harper” (“Curley Harper”); “Brik Bradford” (“Brick Bradford”); and, “King iz severne brigade” (meaning “King from the Northern Brigade”; this was “King of the Royal Mounted”). One excellent Italian comics was also published: “Virus, carobnjak iz Mrtve sume” (“Virus, il mago della foresta Morta”). Significant space was given to local talent. To begin with, one artist who could not be bypassed was “our artist in the house”, Djordje Lobacev, who appeared in the very first issue with his anthology-quality “Bas Celik”. This, and the next episode which thematically followed from it, “Cardak ni na nebu ni na zemlji” (“A fortress not in the sky but not on the land either” which we might sum up as “Flying fortress” – translator’s remark) are a continuation of the folklore line which Lobacev started on the pages of Politika with “Hajduk Stanko” (meaning outlaw Stanko, popular Serbian hero who really existed and who fought for liberty against Turkish occupation – t. r.), with “Propast grada Pirlitora” (“The fall of the city of Pirlitor”), and with “Zenidba Dusanova” (“The Marriage of Dusan”, which refers to the greatest of Serbian monarchs, Tzar Dushan of the 13th century). This was in fact a series of stories based on Serbian folk tales and folk epic poetry. Also engaged to work from one of the first issues was Moma Markovic with his comics “Rista sportista” (“Rista the Sportsman”) about the life of Beograd boys. Politikin zabavnik managed to hire two other great masters, Konstantin Kuznjecov and Sergej Solovjev. Kuznjecov drew one episode from Russian history, about Tzar Petar the Great, and illustrated two fairytales written by Pushkin, “Skaska o zlatnom petlicu” (“A tale about a little golden cock”) and “Bajka o caru Saltanu” (“A fairy tale of Tzar Saltan”). Sergej Solovjev started to produce the episode “Ostrvo s blagom” (“Treasure island”) based on the novel by R. L. Stevenson, but the war interrupted him. What separated Politikin zabavnik from the competition was its large format and plentitude of texts: novels (in installments), crossword puzzles, Ripley’s “Believe it or not”, reportages from many areas and fields – from science to sports – and a great number of short, but interesting and educational articles. Besides, Politikin zabavnik managed to buy up the exclusive copyright for publishing Walt Disney’s cartoons, then extremely popular in Serbia.
Altogether, from 1935 to 1941 about twenty comics magazines were launched in Serbia. Graphic look and the quality of print varied greatly. The inner pages were, in most of these publications, in black-and-white, while the front and back page, and sometimes the central two pages, received an overlay of one, two or three colors; in only a few instances, these pages were truly in full color. Sales were throughout Yugoslavia. Distribution outlets were of different kinds: the little privately owned shops in which you could buy newspapers and magazines, tobacco, paper, ink and other merchandise; newspaper kiosks in the streets; and, street-walking sellers known as call-porters. There was, also, the system of subscription, but it was not widely used. In order to sell better in the western parts of Yugoslavia (today’s Croatia and Slovenia), some publications were printed also in Latin alphabet, not only in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. In fact, Strip even had several editions translated into Hungarian and in Slovak language, printed and marketed simultaneously with Serbian editions. Typical circulations were between 10,000 and 30,000 copies, which is not at all so bad if we keep in mind the facts about Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941: it was one of the least urbanized countries in Europe, and print-runs of the main daily newspapers were: Politika, 146,000 copies; Vreme, 65,000 copies; and, Pravda, 45,000 copies. One of the most popular comics magazines, Mika Mis, which was the model followed by many other editors, had only a little over 30,000 buyers. The short-lived Vrabac sold only 10,000, while Mikijevo carstvo endured at 30,000 copies. Immediately before the country plunged into the war, average print-run of Politikin zabavnik was 41.000 copies. But, all these publications came out twice in every week; and they had various special editions “on the side”; so, it is easy to calculate that every week some 200,000 to 300,000 copies of comics, in various forms, were released into the market. The outbreak of war meant an end to all such publication. Those who existed in the very last moment, right up to the falling of the bombs, were: Politika‘s edition Politikin zabavnik, three editions of A. J. Ivkovic (Mika Mis, Veseli zabavnik and Zabavnik) and two editions by M. S. Ignjacevic, Mikijevo carstvo and Plavi zabavnik (The Blue Entertainer). And with them ended one short but tempestuous period in the history of Serbian comics.
Almost everything depended on the goodwill of enthusiasts, individuals with more or less talent. Constantly opposed by narrow-minded and conservative cultural environment, Serbian comics managed, in a relatively short period, to reach a level of maturity sufficient for a respectable placement near the top of European strip-cartoon art. Unfortunately, this creative upswing was brutally cut off by the Nazi bombardment of Beograd on that Sunday dawn of 6th April 1941.
Individual destinies of artists and writers were tragic. Nikola Navojev died of tuberculosis, in a sanatorium near Venac on the Fruska Gora mountain, in the year 1940, when he was only 27 years old. Two years later, under the Nazi occupation, Aleksije Ranhner was found dead in the Karaburma suburb of Beograd, in some ditch, where, in drunken condition, he fell in one cold October night. Ivan Sensin was executed by firing squad, by the communists, immediately after they captured Beograd; it was November 1944, and the accusation was that he, supposedly, collaborated with the occupational forces. To escape that same fate, Konstantin Kuznjecov retreated with German troops to Austria, and then to Germany itself, and from there to USA. He died in 1980 in Los Angeles. Sebastijan Lehner vanished in the turmoil of war in 1945. Moma Markovic escaped to Italy from an Austrian war camp, into which the Germans had deported him when Yugoslavia capitulated in April 1941; he never again returned to Beograd, and in 1951 he emigrated to Canada. (His only child, a son, attempted to escape from Yugoslavia to the West but was shot dead by the Yugoslav border patrols; after this tragedy, Moma Markovic’s wife became insane.) He died in Toronto in 1977. Sergej Solovjev lived in the Western Yugoslav town Rijeka (in today’s Croatia) for some time after 1945, but in mid-fifties he crossed over into Italy, where, in 1975, he died; but his last twenty years of life, in Italy, were devoted also to comics art. The new Yugoslav authorities had their big conflict with Soviet “Communist Information Bureau” (Kominform, Informbiro) in 1948; this political incident influenced the destiny of Djordje Lobacev, who was deported from Yugoslavia, with his wife, son, and two suitcases, into Romania; the transportation device was a railway wagon locked and secured with padlock and seal from outside. In the fifties he managed to get across into Russia and to settle in Sankt Peterburg. Djuka Jankovic emigrated to Italy in 1951, and from there into South Africa, where he died in 1974 under the name George Jacobi.
The authors of the Golden Age of Serbian comics never again gathered in the same place, and their spirit was never again, in any form, reincarnated.
Written in 1999 by Zdravko Zupan.