Drums of Darkwood

“For the first time in their history, our nations have the right to and opportunity for cultured life. This right, acquired with great sacrifices, demands to be protected from anti-cultural speculations, which are, by the same token, unpatriotic […] In former Yugoslavia, comics were of great assistance to the regime that worked against the people, because they stultified the people, dragged them away from immediate social problems, distanced them from authentic literature and art and were direct help to the police, censorship and other mercenaries of the regime […] Our cultural space should not be littered by the black market of ersatz goods, our people have the right to culture and protection against all barbarism, even the doodled one”.

The outcry against comics came out on 5 January 1946 on two out of four pages of the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, “Borba” (Fight), from the pen of Jovan Popović, eminent cultural theorist of the young communist state and later head of the Committee for Agitation and Propaganda (aka AgitProp, shorthand for the Communist censorship authority). The occasion for such fervent attack on comics was the local remake of Louis Fourton’s Les Pieds Nickelés: Les Pieds Nickelés in Times of Occupation. The cartoon pictured Fourton’s three rogues making fools of the Germans in Belgrade, or in the words of the local judge who forbade distribution and further print of the comic under Article 10 of the law on printed media (“heavy offence against public morale and instigation of crime”) “presented fabricated adventures of three monstrous personalities” and “pictured the fascists as naive, stupid people”.

“This is a moment of great decisions! It is better to
live a hundred years as a millionaire than seven
days in poverty!”

On top of protecting the dignity of the emissaries of the Third Reich, this early attack on comics hinged on two serious accusations. Comics were seen as a danger to both the founding myth (patriotic war) and the value system (collective and laborious self-betterment) of the new state and its regime. On the one hand, they had the power to take over the official version of the national memory, twisting it into (pulp) fiction, and “desecrated” the liberation struggle by picturing Party Member Ratko, the Man of Steel in the poses and situations copied from the US pre-war favourite Detective X. On the other hand, they defied the collectivist socialist value system by celebrating extraordinary, even criminal individuals and offered a cheap, colourful way to smuggle in the values of capitalism, corroding the edifice of the people’s democracy. They came after all, as Popovic rightly warned, from “America, land of ‘impossible possibilities’, money runs, instant production and instant living, bubblegum, bootleggers, kidnapping, lynching and crime movies”.

In other words, comics were both unpatriotic and capitalist kitsch. Well, it was true. Pity nobody listened.

Watch out Mirko, the bullet! or History to Fiction 

Closing the gates of the Yugoslav people’s democracy for comics, AgitProp left a hole in the dam: unexpectedly, Popovic amnestied Walt Disney as a “real artist”, whose “poetic” work is not poisonous for the eyes and minds of the workers. The rumours have it that the blessing came directly from Tito, who allegedly responded to the Greek ambassador begging him to let Disney in: “Why not, I like Donald Duck”. And so Disney was the first to return with a few pages in “Politikin zabavnik”, a magazine for youth reintroduced in 1952, and that was only the beginning. Timidly at first, with short strips and politically correct children’s cartoons, comics reconquered the pages of newspapers.

The first to be dropped was the accusation of “anti-patriotism”. The transgressor was the official newspaper of the Yugoslav People’s Army, which announced a public call for comics dealing with the themes of the liberation struggle. In no time the first Communist blockbuster hit the pages of Serbian “Decje Novine” (“Children’s Newspaper”) – Mirko and Slavko, two children-partisans, and their adventures against the rather naive, stupid Germans. Mirko and Slavko soon got a separate weekly publication with circulation of around 200, 000, followed by a host of other comics dealing more or less distant events from the national histories. But the attempt to use comics to support the official mythology soon started to backfire. When they found out, it was too late.

Mirko and Slavko was a beautifully black and white story of good guys (innocent communist children in brotherhood and unity, us the Yugos) against bad guys (the Nazis), free of shady characters (nationalists, Russians, Cetniks, Ustasas, collaborators etc.) and moral dilemmas. And they always won. They were so popular that the publisher could not gather enough artists to satisfy the demand and their simplicity and invincibility soon slid into absurd: people privately chuckled that Mirko and Slavko single-handedly killed more Germans than ever crossed the borders of Yugoslavia, and the legendary dialogue “Watch out Mirko, the bullet!” with Mirko who ducks and, returning fire, politely retorts “Thank you, Slavko” became a commonplace joke at all absurdities and pretences of state socialism. The state was still trying control the flow of new comics pouring in from abroad and from the local workshops, but the damage was already done: the immaculate conception of SFRY wasn’t sacred any more.

“Watch out, Mirko, a bullet!”
“Thank you Slavko, you just saved my life!”

Wild West in Yugoslav Cultural Imagination or Fiction to History

The glory (and publication) of Mirko and Slavko petered out in the early 70’s. Comics were not considered unpatriotic any more, but they were still kitsch, and capitalist kitsch to boot. The 1972 “law against kitsch” (officially “Regulation on the sales tax in retail trade”) imposed a 31. 5% excise tax on all publications that were not exempt from the law by virtue of having “special social or cultural value”. Comics didn’t, obviously. So they withdrew into the ghetto of youth press, a myriad of papers printed by universities and youth organisations across the country, financed, protected, and controlled by the lower rungs of the Communist Party, where they were allowed freedom of speech and a vent for their dissident and revolutionary ideas, except nobody read them. What was left to the outside world was, in the best of the free market spirits, what survived the price hike and what people were, even then, ready to pay for.

And what people were ready to pay for, first and foremost, were the Wild West series published by “Dnevnik” from Novi Sad and Alan Ford from Zagreb’s “Vjesnik”.  It is difficult to explain how the Wild West caught on so well in Yugoslavia. It wasn’t only because the Winetou movies were shot in Bosnia that we felt like those prairies and goldmines belonged to us, were a part of the everyday life and the national subconscious. They were, in a way, a natural sequel to Mirko and Slavko – simple silly tales with a lot of shooting, tough masculine friendship and straightforward lessons. But they also had a touch of the exotic that didn’t stink of your grandfather partisan’s schnapps and roast lamb and the proverbial wooden barrel with sauerkraut where he hid during the occupation.

Zagor was the biggest of the Wild West comics, but took the national imagination a step further. Unlike Mirko and Slavko, Tex Viller or Big Black, who were always on the right side and the right side was where they were, Sergio Bonelli’s “Spirit with the Hatchet” never found his side. Born to a white trapper who is murdered by a gang of “Indians”, Zagor takes off to revenge his father, only to find out that daddy too was a bad guy who stole land and wives from Indians (courtesy of Freud and Tito’s quarrel with Stalin). A loner, perhaps the very epitome of SFRY, Zagor sets up his lodgings in the midst of the marshy lands of Darkwood, and tries to keep his world in one piece between the warring sides.

From here, there is only one step to Alan Ford. Although contemporary as a publication, Alan Ford is Zagor’s successor in a metaphysical sense: after Zagor hijacked the zeitgeist from the history books, Magnus and Bunkers’ TNT gang did away with all remaining ideals. Their job is to steal money from some, usually rich and disgusting criminals, to give to others, also rich and disgusting criminals, or better yet keep it for themselves, as long as one of the members does not run off with all the booty. This hilarious assortment of anti-heroes – mitomaniacs, kleptomaniacs, decrepit old people, fat bosses, ordinary criminals, failed artists and dwarves suffering from multiple inferiority complexes – is also selfish and profoundly pragmatic. The sides have disappeared. Or, everything is rotten on all sides (communism, capitalism), which is also funny, and not something you should worry much about. The spirit of pragmatism, of irony and subversion is the only acceptable ideology.  As the leader of the gang, No. One, would say: one for all, all for One (golden coins).

Errata Corrige

Before I am advised by the comic fans of the former country to mercifully transform my title into How-I-Think-Two-Obscure-Italian-Comics-Toppled-Communism, let me make two final comments.

There was also serious resistance to Communism in SFRY. But mostly there wasn’t. Most preferred to just wish it away. Unlike elsewhere, they also almost succeeded. The bulwark of the early legitimacy of the state – People’s Liberation Struggle – was transmogrified into the happy hunting grounds of Darkwood and life went on in the present, with comics sold on the (almost) free market. Together with other efforts at “normalisation” they ate out the soul of communism until it was but a shadow of itself. We will never know how Communism would have departed from Yugoslavia if it wasn’t burned down, but chances are it would have been a little less painful than elsewhere.

There were also serious comics in YU. Several popular magazines (“Strip Art” from Sarajevo, “Stripoteka” from Novi Sad and “Yu Strip”) brought in foreign comic masterpieces, and championed promising local artists, some of whom have made impressive international careers. They are known and missed by some, read by few, and are a token of national pride of others. But they weren’t a country-wide epidemic.

So a handful of obscure Italian comics is what remains, and AgitProp was right. Nobody misses the parades, few miss the country, but many miss the dark humour of the early Croatian translations of Alan Ford. Tried reading it in Italian, it’s not the same thing.

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