Sketch 01: Doljevac
“Imma probably be in Doljevac,” Serafim hailed over Messenger. “There’s some slaughter horror art festival there, so we worked out some deal with ’em.” As far as I know, this is the first time in the quarter-century-long history of the Balkans Festival of Young Comics Creators that they had to partner up with a different festival, though I could very well be wrong. It was surely the first time it was done with a festival related to slaughterhouse slasher films.
Still, after having all of my bones bent out of shape on the bus, having arrived in Leskovac at 9 PM (well after the Festival was already declared open), it was a clear route: hostel, shower, the ABC Ruppa café. And though I hadn’t seen Serafim there initially, he came a little later, quite obviously tired beyond belief.
“Oh, ye cut yer hair,” that well-known southern accent of his made the exclamation stand out, “It’s like yer back to yer college days.”
This tiredness was shared by a young author from Osijek, Croatia, called Stjepan Matić. In the park, well-drunk, he could barely stay conscious after coming back from Doljevac. “I need me an ounce, a bit of weed, man, y’know? Not the beer, like, the beer itself’s fine, but a joint would do me well. Oh Jesus!” Of course, there was more chikanery there. But for now messing with Stjepan regarding a particular subject would have to suffice, a subject I’m not going to disclose here. That messing around continued well into the next day, when he sobered up.
Sketch 02: CAN for Balkans
The “veterans” of the Festival surely know this one: see, it hasn’t always been one for the Balkans, though it became that (and much more) over the course of the last 15ish years. Let’s take my arrival at the hostel this year as an example. Who should I meet there, but none other than Marko Dješka and Matija Pisačić, Croatian authors with an impressive back catalog between them? Furthermore, at the table in the café we visited later sat people from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Belgium alike. Not long after I was shaking hands and embracing acquaintances and friends from Macedonia (now North, though throughout the lengthy history of both names it remained a close friend of the festival in Leskovac), Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina (both entities), and Bulgaria. An international cabal of comic book nerds, one might say?
Still, this isn’t the Balkans we’re talking about, but rather the interconnected project known as CAN for Balkans. So, the whole goal of the project, as stated on the official website, is to create a network of countries from the Balkans (and beyond) where authors would create comics with topics on history that are objective and fact-based, and containing European values. The collaboration has, aside from several prominent exhibits in multiple countries across Europe, given birth to three printed editions which I have bought (or have been gifted) right there in Leskovac – CAN for Balkans: Macedonian Experience, the CAN for Balkans catalog from Brașov, and Stripovski BalCan.
Of those three, surely the bulkiest and most extensive is the one from Brașov, and it’s crammed full of content. First, I got to see lots of near and dear acquaintances and friends alike. For example, El Jakk’s short comic about burek was there in all of its glory. Deda Roga by Aljoša Tomić and Dragan Stokić Rajački showcased the already established prowess of both the giants of the Ninth Art that worked on it. Naturally, one must point out the ever-active Adnadin Jašarević and the Valev brothers, whose style one simply cannot fail to recognize. And how can a reader say No to the comics of the Leskovac comics school alumni like Marijana, Mina, Andrijana, Katarina, and the aforementioned Serafim?
Though, there were some pleasant surprises there as well. Firstly, there was the Romanian author Andrada Băeș who, other than having one of the coolest names ever (the only name cooler than hers that I came across at the Festival over the years was that of Pericles, or rather Periklis), is also the author of a spectacular three-page story of a (fellow) Romanian Queen Mary of Edinburgh. Next, there was the Albanian author Henri Dimo and his expressive, experimental story Left Behind. Gjurgjica Varela, a Macedonian author boasting a quaint, almost tame style, braves the harsh road onward with a heavy yarn called War Story. And just so we don’t forget Belgium, we should also mention the short comic Tuzla and its author, Maximilien Van de Wiele.
One can tell that so much effort went into both publishing and promoting the project through these three publications, especially the one from Brașov. Now, it is true that the first comic I happened to flip open while perusing this edition contained a notoriously inaccurate historical “fact” that had been proven wrong a long time ago by legitimate, proper historians. But that just goes to show that even noble projects such as this one are not perfect and that errors will appear. That certainly does not take away from the desire that some of the Balkans folks have to settle their centuries-long differences and finally march onward into the upcoming decades towards peace and with fewer skeletons in their closets – and on the battlegrounds.
Sketch 03: Pia
“You’ll see, broham, Pia is cool!” A variation of this line was uttered to me over and over by Saša Paprić over our interactions during the past few years. Namely, he wanted to connect us as potential colleagues within a certain publication (one wherein he was also a writer), so he merely wanted to illustrate the kind of character and feel of this individual I was yet to meet. “Pia is one of us – she loves trash B movies, she loves music, she adores comics, her boyfriend is a punk-rocker, she loves to drink. Dude, the girl’s a fucking legend!” I am yet to doubt anything Saša says, so I said to myself “Whoever this Pia Nikolič is, I’ve got to meet her.”
A single YouTube video was enough to convince me that she has this natural, raw charisma. Namely, during the show Voditelji se predstavijo airing on Ljubljana TV, I saw these two tiny, slim, minute, petite, all-but compact little ladies. One of the two is Maša Tiselj, the host, and the other is her guest, the Pia in question. And though they are of similar build, their voices are diametrically different. While Maša spoke in a nigh-squeaky soprano, Pia knocked it out of the park with a deep contralto. That contrast was what got me, and knowing of her prior work was simply icing on that proverbial cake – I’ve definitely got to meet this woman.
Of course, I was beyond pleased to learn that she was on the Leskovac guest list. “Pia’s coming?” I asked Saša via Messenger. “Yes, yes,” he added. As early as Night One of the Festival, we managed to pick out a common topic of conversation, along with the poor, post-Doljevac Stjepan – B movies, especially those of Wakaliwood. A digression; that same topic came up when I spoke later with Matija, and then Mido and Dejan (more on them a bit later). As the festival was moving forward, Pia showed how friendly and open-minded she can be. There was no guest at the festival that she didn’t become friends with, and if there was ever someone who had left an indelible impression on everyone and who will be remembered for a long while, it’s this little lady. I highly recommend that you do some research into her work, especially in the field of fantasy, comics and similar activities. It will amaze you how much talent and hard work lurks in there.
Sketch 04: Beli Manastir
If there’s one thing I hold in high regard, it’s someone sharing a line that can get me in hysterics. After the exhibit in the Leskovac National Museum, the Croatian crew and myself were going back towards the Cultural center. Stjepan was singing some song in German, and thus I’ve reminded everyone nearby of the softcore porn films that used to be played on the DSF sports channel. But then Saša hit back with a sentence that still makes me burst out laughing like a moron.
“Look, mate, back when I was young, our local television channel Beli Manastir was playing actual hardcore porn after midnight, and–” and I honestly have no idea how he finished that sentence, because I was howling with laughter at that point. Jesus Christ, TV Beli Manastir (literally translates to “the white monastery”) playing hardcore porn! Absolutely perfect!
Sketch 05: Oh, Canada~!
Usually, the comic book festival in Leskovac is a host to a particular national “scene” of comics, an overview of a nation’s history regarding the Ninth Art. I know this fact because I myself was involved in research and coverage of a few such “scenes” over the years for the purposes of this festival (female authors from France, Belgian comics, Korean comics – a feat I am particularly proud of – and, with this festival iteration in particular, Japanese comics). This year, I should stress, was when two different countries’ authors were covered. Aside from the aforementioned Japan, Leskovac somehow gave room to the country of maple leaves and excellent B movie industry, i.e. Canada.
The Canadian comics exhibit curator was our renowned artist and comic book author Ivana Filipović, who was also one of the winners of the Memorial plaque for her contribution to Serbian comics. Ivana clearly enjoyed her stay during the festival, herself doing a bit of art while the panels took place at the top floor of the Cultural center, and the authors she chose to exhibit in the Leskovac public library Radoje Domanović are unique, in every sense of the word.
Sketch 06: Banter
“Ahoy, Fat Man!” I hail these words as my hand extends forward into a greeting. “Ahoy, what the hell happened to your hair? Did they pull it all out at that new job of yours?” Peter Bollen fires back while extending his hand towards mine in response, commenting on my hairdo (since I keep mentioning the hair, here’s some context for the uninitiated: for a good seven years I’ve been rocking long hair – since a few weeks ago I no longer do). He claims how I have two wives – at least! – and how I need to give some sage advice. I claim that he once stated how he would sell his own son for comics.
We banter, Peter and I, and it’s a practice that we’ve been involved in for years now, be it in Leskovac or Laktaši. Whenever there’s a comic book festival, we take snipes at each other (though we sometimes even accidentally veer into serious topics). And if there’s one thing I simply love, it’s high-tier banter, where not a single side buckles. That is what I, for instance, share with Saša (“Dunno, man, they seem like they’re on the spectrum.” “I mean, broham, we’re not far from that diagnosis either.”), with Sreta (“Are you friggin insane, Ivan?” “Sreta, we’ve been friends for so long, you already know the answer to that question.”) and with Serafim (between us two, there is at least a few tens of thousands of variations on the phrase “greasy dick”). Now, I should also point out the banter with Dejan (“Oh look, it’s Snake Plissken! Him and those Bulgarian ladies, I swear, the archival anthological footage we have shows it all!”) and with Nebojša (all I’ll say is the word “cliché”), as well as a solid chunk of bantering time with Koral (“Man, I’m serious, I love you, but when you annoy me like that I feel like punching you.”).
However, unlike certain people in this country (especially among comic book professionals), I actually know the limits of banter. Always and without question, banter must come out of respect for the individual, as well as out of a desire to have a good-faith battle of wits. And of course, it’s important to recognize one’s own flaws and occasionally joke at one’s own expense (hence why I often say that I’m not a good human, or even human for that matter). Without high-tier banter there are no high-tier friendships, or even acquaintances – just ask Stjepan while you subtly remind him of the post-Doljevac drunken park adventures!
Sketch 07: Mia
And since I’ve mentioned Bulgarians a few paragraphs above, no less than two fractions of the Bulgarian manga scene made an appearance in Leskovac this year. One fraction was led by Daniel Atanasov, an author with a proven track record who shows no signs of stopping. The other fraction, however, was led by Anna Tsocheva and Luboslav Gerasimov.
I’ve met Anna a few festivals ago, when she was visiting for a grand total of a few hours. I’ve kept in touch with Lyubo for at least two years back. This was the first time I’ve met him live, as well as the first time I’ve spent more than seven minutes talking to Anna. Of course, Lyubo was also here to pick up an award, and Anna to teach about her (or, I should say, their) Manga Academy and even join an additional panel. If you wonder what kind of artists they are, I’ll lay it on you thick – they are irreplaceable.
But they were not alone in Leskovac. Three additional individuals were there with them. One of the three, Claudia, was Lyubo’s witty, conversational girlfriend whose positive energy kept electrifying the room around her. That, and she was the self-proclaimed “sticker girl”. Though, the other two caught my attention more so than others, those being Yasna and Mia.
Mia is an extremely talented sixteen-year-old artist whose style grows on you in mere seconds. I’ve had the honor of seeing her art skills before the Festival, via social media, but to see her draw in real time is a treat. I’ve told as much to Yasna, her proud mother. Yasna began, right then and there, to sing high praises of Mia, to show how happy it makes her feel to see her creative daughter succeed. And then the perfect parallel came to mind. Namely, similarly to Mia, the Serbian author Nađa Tiodorović also started off young, and at 15 had already had her first manga The Beasts Within Us published. At the Festival of Comics and Fantasy in Sombor last year, I’ve had the honor of meeting Nađa – as well as her proud mother Natali. Just like Yasna, Natali openly sang high praises of her daughter’s efforts in the field of the Ninth Art and how fascinated she was that young Nađa had achieved something so early in her life.
Of course, Nađa’s homebrew manga got a reprinted edition, this time under the editing skills of an experienced artist and writer Jelena Vučić, published by System Comics. Why do I mention Jelena, you ask?
Sketch 08: The Female Principle
Barely breathing and tired from climbing up the stairs, Jelena approached and we said our hellos. “Jesus, please don’t get me started, highway jams, there was a crash, an accident, no way of moving, had to wait, etc.” Readying herself for the new panel, she and I spoke of the ambiance. I pointed out to her who the kind folks of Manga Academy were, who Daniel Atanasov was and what he did, as well as who Andrijana was. We exchanged an impression or two, she had a chat with Stjepan and then the panelists began to assemble.
The panel was about the so-called Female Principle in comics. And yes, dear reader, I know you already have a pre-formed opinion on the matter, irrespective of your beliefs. Still, let’s look at this panel as its own beast – did it go left or right of the political center? Was there a heated argument, or judgment, were there any attacks, etc.?
Luckily, none of that was there, but that’s because one could hear a lot of reasonable takes at his panel that you couldn’t really hear anywhere else. For example, Andriana used the term “women are visual animals” when describing the aforementioned Female Principle in comics. Pia remarked that the original idea behind feminism was ruined in the modern times by hatred of men. Anna had an absolutely spot-on statement to make – “I honestly don’t know what the Female Principle in comics even means nor can I judge it objectively, since I’ve never been a man.” Ilina Naydenova, a Bulgarian artist with a skilled hand and a praiseworthy resume, added that we suddenly have a lack of feminine-looking women, “as if it’s the norm that all of the women have to be buff and strong-looking, like men.”
Realistically speaking, the best ideas came precisely from Jelena. Pessimistic though she was (which she did warn about ahead of time), the author of the young adult novel „The Escort” mentioned how the topic of sexes/genders is secondary and pointed out some much more prevalent problems in comics, those being the lack of monetary support to the authors of any background. Black pills flew left and right, and within her allotted time on the panel alone did the other ladies actually engage in conversation instead of just presenting their case to the audience. Jelena listed off everything that was wrong with the current comic book industry in the Balkans, with a specific focus on the older generations, the ones currently holding the reins, who don’t do jack to support young generations of authors.
Of course, this reminded me of the recent KiS (Literature and Comics) Summit in Belgrade. A whole bunch of those comic book professional enthusiasts, i.e. publishers, festival organizers, heads of comic book associations, hiring agents, critics, reviewers, etc. had a few panels during the event about “institutionalizing comics and forming a new comic book scene.” One publisher not present at the panel(s), whom I’m currently involved with on a professional level, asked me “Hey, you going to watch the panel on the strategy for the domestic comics?” I gave him a brief glance. “Ooooh, that THING.” He could not contain his laughter. “OK. That thing. You’ve told me enough, I got it.” One young author present at that famed panel during the KiS Summit actually spoke her mind and put it very simply as a response to their mumbling – “you’re a bunch of old-fashioned boomers who have no idea what the young people want.” Young people, of course, want to be paid fairly for the amount of work they put in, but proving this point to the people who have already lulled themselves in their big, fat leather chairs is the same as expecting an elephant to take flight.
But let’s focus on something a bit more positive, shall we?
Sketch 09: Star Wars
After all the black pills, Jelena needed a breather, so we were heading over to a store that sells geek merch (more on that later), and we weren’t alone. This year it seemed I was destined to hang out with the Croatian crew, so Marko, Matija, Stjepan and Saša were joining us. Along the way, Marko and Jelena exchanged contact info regarding future collaboration within Marko’s Strip Prefiks magazine, while Matija went into some detail about the new open call that his OHOHOzine was having on the topic of horror manga. I love seeing good, hard-working people connect professionally, especially when it happens on the way to a restaurant.
“Wait, I assumed we would be getting burgers at the Cultural center,” Jelena asked. “It would suck if I came to Leskovac and did not try the famed local barbecue!” I’ve provided her with several pointers regarding the best fast food joints in the town (you can’t replace Bipac, after all), plus we were already heading over to a restaurant where the meat was of high quality and the service was top-notch. Of course, this was also the spot Saša insisted on visiting, considering he had a hearty meal there last year as well.
Now, food for the body is one thing, but as a writer, I require food for the fingers. And as if on cue, Matija and Marko provided an ideal conversation to immortalize via text.
“The new Star Wars shows are shit,” Matija exclaimed. “How someone can watch and like The Book of Bobba Fett, I honestly don’t know, it’s a trash fire beyond words.”
“Bobba Fett was excellent!” Marko added animatedly. “It was the first time you could see the sixties aesthetic in Star Wars!”
“No goddamn way! The only thing worse that I’ve seen is Obi-Wan!” Matija exclaimed again.
“I disagree! Obi-Wan is so epic, those battle scenes were so amazing!” Marko hit back.
“No way, no how! The only one of those Disney Star Wars shows that was worth anything was Andor.”
“Man, I found Andor to be boring! How can you watch that?”
At that point I was kicking myself for not having my notepad handy, but with an equally cackling Saša I was discussing this particular argument, in the same manner a couple of sports commentators would during a football game.
I think the way Marko summed it up at the end of the argument was the icing on the cake. “Look, I agree on absolutely nothing with you on this topic,” he concluded, a painfully obvious conclusion at that. What was not painfully obvious to me was the fact that both Marko and Matija are actually Trekkies. What a twist!
Sketch 10: Manga
The National Museum of Leskovac has once again, an N-th time in a row, hosted a comic book “scene” from another country. And though this time that country was Japan, in cooperation with the Japanese Embassy in Belgrade no less, it wasn’t the kind of exhibit one would expect during the Festival. I should know, considering I’ve been intimately linked to the processes of organizing a few of them before, mainly as the writer of texts on the histories of comics in individual countries for the exhibit catalogs (and in the case of Korean comics, a bit more than just writing texts; a story for another time). Typically, representing one country’s current state of the comic book industry and culture in Leskovac would include exhibiting authors that are currently active, and either live in the guest country or are originally from it. This time, that practice was eschewed in favor of a different one, so instead the exhibit consisted of two major segments:
- Manga viewed through the eyes of a prominent female author, for the purposes of this exhibit the author was Michiyo Akaishi-sensei (赤石 路代)
- Both the winners and the runners up of the 16th International Manga Award (国際漫画賞).
Before officially opening the exhibit, the First Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in Serbia, Mrs. Ikoma Yuki (生駒 由紀) spoke to the guests, followed by Dejan Jovović, the Embassy’s Assistant on Press and Culture Affairs. Madam Secretary had, with both excitement and respect, reminded the guests of how powerful manga is, how it travels across the globe and connects many people, be they artists or just fans of the medium. And that power was more than evident during the exhibit – artists from Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, Brazil, South Korea, France, Vietnam and Czechia found their place here, after having been awarded in Japan no less, and these authors shared a connection that we fans of Japanese comics also share – the unique aesthetic which hasn’t weakened since Rakuten Kitazawa (北澤 楽天) first brought manga to the cultural mainstream, and Osamu Tezuka (手塚 治虫) reinforced it so strongly that it will never weaken, ever.
Sketch 11: Serafim
“Listen, bro,” I say to Serafim while he’s devouring his late breakfast through fierce mastication. “This month will probably be tight for both of us, but later on I’ll call you in advance, before going to Svilajnac, so you can actually drop by and we can have a proper chat.” “Oh, definitely! I can’t do it at the moment since I’ve got a crapton of work to do, but we’ll be makin’ it happen.” Serafim, Marko (and if you’re a female friend of his, Maci or Cepi) happens to be one of my closest and dearest friends, possibly the first person there who I’ve met before the Festival (or maybe third, I dunno), and one whom the Festival has made an even closer friend of mine, a friendship forged in steel. Though we live near-300 kilometers apart, even a decade plus later we are where we are.
That’s why I’m honestly a bit sad that we could barely find a minute to have a conversation during this iteration of the Festival. Serafim had advanced over the years from a mere participant of the Festival into one of the organizers. He had become an author of some renown, an experienced illustrator and comic book artist, but goddamn, he had remained a notorious boozehound who loves him a bite to eat. All of that prestige does come with a price, though; as he himself said, he could barely get a minute to have a talk with his friends, man to man (but then again, due to my late arrival, I have also had no time to talk to anyone man to man, and I’m barely human to begin with), nor did we manage to hang out at the Leskovac Quay, as we normally do every year. But then again, it’s not like we’re worlds apart (the particular distance between us is actually measured in hundreds of kilometers), there will be other times when we can hang out.
Sketch 12: Sreta
I still remember my first Festival in Leskovac. Not only did regular comic fans actually visit the event back then (nowadays 99% of the guests are authors), not only was it a far more relaxed affair, with room to breathe and have a drink with folks, but it was the time to make new friends. Once there, for instance, I had the pleasure of meeting two people whom I’ve only known via internet forums back then. One of them was Ivica Sretenović.
Come to think of it, that was also the first time I’ve met an author who was drawing comics for the American market. I still remember our first conversations together, mainly about US-based comics, and I also remember being drunk and waiting for Dražen (Kovačević, for those of you asking) to draw something for me. “Oooh, if you only knew, Ivan,” Sreta was telling me back then, “how many times Dražen and I got to drinking late into the night.” It was fairly evident that the two had a history going however while back. I did not know that back then.
What else had I not known? That this was the very Festival I’ve started forging a history with Sreta.
Where the hell do I even begin? Drinking at the quay, then one story related to Ognjena Omi, then an exchange of both comics and books, then both his and my growth in an authorial sense – him as an artist, me as a writer (“for I am a writer”; he who gets it, gets it), then the first confiding about personal issues, both on his end and mine, then his first absence from the Festival, then my first absence from the Festival, then the first comic we worked on together, then drinking in Belgrade (“I did not cry!”), then drinking in Kragujevac, then drinking in Leskovac almost ALWAYS on the first evening, then sobering up in the morning (“Fuck me running, I’ve got to take it down a notch, I’m getting too old for this…” is roughly the sentence we both uttered at one point or another), then drinking again…
“Fuck, Ivo. You’re really not drinking?” Sreta exclaimed. And I can all but hear the disappointment in his voice. The same disappointment Dejan would express a little later. “I don’t drink. I’ll try to leave alcohol for at least a year.” “Shit. But hey, that short hair suits you,” A few exchanges, and then he goes again with “It’s really strange to me, seeing you not drink anything. I can’t get used to it.”
Sunday came, a bunch of us at Murphy’s Pub. There, at the corner of the table, both Sreta and Pia are seated. Aleksandar Uzelac is also somewhere nearby, I believe he had to go to the restroom. “Jesus, this insane guy here woke up at 6 AM, for fuck sake,” Sreta was telling her, with Pia listening and an enormous smile adorning her face. “Check this out, Pia. I tell him “Are you friggin insane, Ivan?”, and he goes “Sreta, we’ve been friends for so long, you already know the answer to that question.”.” I observed her reaction, and I couldn’t help but smile. Not because I am insane (in fact, no sane person would whack their fist against the table in a crowded pub like I did later that day, extremely into the topic I was discussing, and give the crowd an undeserved startle. My knuckle is still aching from that day.), that’s a given. Rather, it was because Pia was now going through the same moment I was going through back in 2011 – well, she did it the second time; Saša had to explain away mine and Peter’s banter to her a few nights earlier – a moment that any new person at the Festival would have. Namely, I had a history with Sreta, and based on how long we’ve known each other, that history can only deepen over time. “Look, when we both find the time, I’m coming over to Trstenik to visit you,” I let my friend know. “Hey, but see here, it’s not out of the question that I might drop by Belgrade to visit my sister, so I’ll let you know in advance,” a friend had replied.
Sketch 13: Darko
I still remember my first Festival in Leskovac. Not only was I planning on copy/pasting the same paragraph here to annoy the reader, but it was the time to make new friends. Once there, for instance, I had the pleasure of meeting two people whom I’ve only known via internet forums back then. That other friend of the two was Darko Bogdanov.
A proponent, exponent, and adherent of the dark from Vinica, Macedonia (North now, back then murkier than usual), Darko was a relatively fresh, new author. We got along instantly, and from back then to today things just kept heading up. In a relatively short time, he became an author with possibly the biggest number of published graphic novels in his country, at least among the newer generations. And based on the trajectory of things, he has not stopped creating, despite having a life filled with work and more than a few personal issues.
We’ve met as a misanthropist and a man of the dark. During our early years we were friends as a post-therapy misanthropist and a somewhat lighter man of the dark. As time went on, we somehow managed to leave our trace in the world of Balkan comics, and even a bit beyond (him as a comic book critic, literary publisher, and even working on a few movies, me as a poet, a prose writer, published both in literary magazines and beyond, with a number of collaborators that makes one’s head spin). And though it has been a long, long time since we’ve spoken, including the Festival described in this article, we’ve definitely not forgotten one another.
Darko is an individual whom I’ve shared some of my hardest moments with, but also someone whom I’ve had some of the best alcoholic beverages with (be they beer or rum; we’re fairly well acquainted with both of those drinks). We’ve both shared a great love of women with eerily similar life situations. And I can never forget that night we’ve spent at Murphy’s Pub where we (along with Sreta, of course) stuck around until 2 in the goddamn morning and were asked to leave at least twice. For fuck sake, at one moment I’d noticed that a chunk of my glass had broken off! It’s a miracle I didn’t butcher my tongue drinking that night.
Be that as it may, though Darko wasn’t around, Sreta and I spoke about him at length. In fact, my most cherished memory ever, an experience surely ranking in the top 5, was that second evening of 2011. An evening where Darko, Sreta, Serafim and I had our first drink together, talking about comics. My nearest, dearest friendships began that night, and our reunion in Leskovac in 2015 (remember that year) merely contributed to reinforcing those bonds. Darko, my friend, I’ll be there waiting, drink in hand – if not here, then right where you are, in Vinica.
Sketch 14: The Links from Without
Darko was absent, but as a reader might notice, I still remembered him; I like to mention people near and dear to my heart like that, people who might be far away physically but whom I can vouch for and say that they are good individuals. One such person is Majo Pavlović, a Bosnian horror author. We’ve been in touch for barely a couple of months, online-only, but you know how it is with us comic book authors – it takes barely a day to forge a powerful bond. Interestingly enough, his graphic novel „Hydria” (with art by Amir Hadžić) made its way from Sarajevo, across Zagreb, and then all the way to Leskovac so that it would fit snugly in my collection here in Belgrade (and in Svilajnac, soon enough). And this came to pass because, well, we both happen to know Marko Dješka, and Marko was an absolute chad in bringing the comic to me in Leskovac. Furthermore, Majo is also an acquaintance of Marko’s friend and mine, Saša. Naturally, he got a photo from us from the Festival.
Pavle Bogojević is another individual who, sadly, could not attend the festival due to personal reasons. He asked me to say Hi to an entire list of people for him (nearly got em all, Pavle!), and whomever had heard his name had the same type of response – “Oh, Pavle! Such a good man, very near and dear to my heart.” Yes, this was uttered by both Saša and Sreta and Mido and Koral and Dejan and Nebojša. And considering they are far better men than I am (which isn’t hard to pull off), I can do little but agree with them. Pavle is unique, and if you have the pleasure to meet him, you’ll be richer by one unique experience.
Finally, it’s impossible not to mention a fresh new link that I hadn’t really been expecting. Namely, a little before the Festival, Ana wrote to me in the common group via an app. “Ivan, some man called Koral sends his regards. He says he knows you from Leskovac.” Sara didn’t add anything to that, but she kept track of the conversation and agreed to everything. With a cloaked smile, I merely started sharing photos with Koral, Serafim and I (as well as one with Koral, Fafner and I). “Koral Ilhan. Turkish author. An extremely good person.” I reply to them in that order. And being astoundingly good people themselves, the Živković sisters continued the conversation with joy in their eyes and, of course, sent my regards back to Koral. Along with an “Ispep” truck (he who gets it, gets it).
Sketch 15: Koral
Indeed, it is Koral’s turn. Thanks to the Festival, I’ve met a few comic book authors from Turkey who grew near and dear to my heart, some even became close acquaintances (Devrim, Elif, Ayşe, I’m looking at you!). But I seem to know Koral the best, though still far from knowing him that well. And the reason I know him so well is because, also thanks to the Festival, he’s a regular in Leskovac and always stays much longer than the allotted Festival time.
At first, Koral might look introverted and closed-off, mainly because life has not been kind to him. But once you get to know him, you’ll know he has so much to offer. You can clearly see in his eyes that he is a well-rounded individual, that he has lived life to the fullest and that, if you show respect, you’ll get respect right back. And such people make for amazing friends. I guess that’s the reason why he got his own exhibit of illustrations during this particular iteration of the Festival that’s absolutely worth checking out. And I guess that’s also the reason why I always feel extreme happiness whenever I see him, though we both like to banter with one another from time to time for good measure.
“Ana and Sara say Hi,” I tell him near the end of the Festival.
“Ana and Sara…Ooooh, Shidoosha Art! Give my regards to them as well!,” friend Koral replies, coming full circle right there.
Sketch 16: Missed Opportunities
I’m reading my Messenger popups as we speak, and I see a few from Serafim. “Fuck, man, I barely got th’chance to even talk to people, I was so busy.” And I fully understand him there. Even with fewer participants than usual, the Festival hosted around 60ish people, give or take. After all, let’s take into account that I barely spoke at all with Sreta and our two bunkmates, Igor and Aljoša, despite sharing a room with them. I barely even got a few words in with the Macedonian crew. But we at least managed to chat a little.
On the other hand, I feel sorry for not talking to the following list of kind people who were in Leskovac at the time:
– Sabahudin Muranović (we saw each other very briefly when he was leaving; what hurts the most, though, is that we were discussing having a drink there during the Festival at least a month in advance)
– Daniel Atanasov (somehow all we did was nod our heads at one another, with silent waves)
– Ilina Naydenova (just brief introductions during the second day, in passing)
– Kosta Milovanović (met only as we were saying our goodbyes)
– Milorad Vicanović Maza (barely exchanged a couple of words during the last day)
– Alen Mašić (a few brief Hellos in two days)
– Aleksandra Andreeva (also only during a brief drink with Dejan and Nebojša)
– Milan Drča (a few words near the beginning of the Festival)
– Ivana Filipović (barely exchanged a few lines, if that).
There will, I hope, be other chances of chatting in the future. Luckily, there are lots of other festivals. And lots of other comic book authors as well.
Sketch 17: Aleksa and His Objects
Imagine creating a comic in a wooden box? Then you see that the box has compartments, a tiny door, a lid, that it expands and contracts, that it has at least one, at most a few dozen holes in itself, that it extends like a tape or links up like a chain. That’s the very nature of the comic book objects of Aleksa Gajić, and with a big smile on his face he was showing them via a presentation and talking about them during that last day in Leskovac.
Of course, Aleksa does speak English, but since he was having a bit of difficulty, he would occasionally ask the audience for help. At first it was Claudia who helped him out. Then I picked up the slack. Soon enough, nearly everyone from the audience was contributing to Aleksa’s translation, making his panel a lot more interactive than he had imagined it to be. All in all, he wowed the audience – a renowned master of his craft would seldom do otherwise.
I have a lot of appreciation for Aleksa’s comic book objects. I’ve had that honor of seeing them live once, and it turns out that, since that moment, they only tripled in number. And though Aleksa can’t print nor sell around 99% of them due to how difficult the production would be, his hobby is one deserving of a soldier’s salute. It isn’t easy to make a real treasure trove of objects using old weather-beaten items, with a few brushes and some paint. The thunderous applause that ensued after the panel proves that point better than anything.
Sketch 18: Events Visiting Events
This one will be short. Nearly all comic book festivals in the Balkans give shirts away as merch, and this one was no exception. In fact, Serafim himself wore a shirt of one of the Festival’s prior iterations. But OK, that bit may not be that interesting. What is interesting, however, is seeing how Nifest, MoStrip, Strip Trip, the Belgrade International Comic Book Festival, the International Comics Showroom of Veles, and a few other festivals from Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia are hanging out at the same spot, at least in T-Shirt form. Well, me, I didn’t bring any such shirts along (from the Deveta dimenzija Banjaluka-based festival I have no less than three, and no less than four shirts from the Leskovac Festival). But I did wear the shirt with the cover of the Croatian comic book magazine “Strip Prefiks” on the last day.
Sketch 19: Jim
With the internet getting sanitized, with politics being more polarizing than ever, we lack a nice, balancing voice online that shits on everyone equally when they do something stupid. That voice, up until the end of last year, was Jim.
Born as James Patrick O’Shaughnessy, known by his YouTube monikers Jim81Jim, GamesGoodMeBad, Internet Aristocrat, Mister Metokur, WeWuzMetokur, BrightSideBob, Billy the Anti-Bully, and the Weather Man, but almost universally known as Jim, he has been on the platform since the late 2000s/early 2010s. Two major bits of detail about his life are that one, to this day nobody knows what he looks like, and two, he was the initiator, though not on purpose, of an online grassroots movement known as #GamerGate back in 2014. From then up till today, there hasn’t been a single group online whose stupid exploits he hadn’t laughed at and ridiculed – feminists, furries, the Alt-Right, Black Hebrew Israelites, the MRAs, members of Internet Blood Sports, Otherkin, Tumblr users, DeviantArt users, neocons, woke morons…the list goes on.
The reason why I’ve been a subscriber of Jim’s since 2014 up until today was that, unlike most celebrities right now, he actually stuck to his principles, even when he would share an opinion I don’t personally agree with. Sadly, due to a combination of cancer and a range of unknown diseases, at the end of 2022 he held his final livestream and thus officially retreated into internet history.
A sketch of his YouTube profile picture was the first in my black-paper Fabriano sketchbook, and it was the very piece of art that Stjepan first saw while we enjoyed a cup of coffee on Saturday. His reaction told me enough. Immediately after, we talked at length about Jim, even touching on certain other figures (mainly Carl Benjamin/Sargon of Akkad, whom we both still subscribe to), and we came to the conclusion that good centrist voices like those of Jim and Carl are sorely lacking in modern sociopolitical and cultural discourse.
I mention all of this because that panel on the female principle in comics and the presentation of the CAN for Balkans crowd could have easily gone either extremely to the left or extremely to the right. We could have easily had some useless bickering on our hands. But instead, there was a healthy discussion about the state of comics, there was an understanding that even diametrically opposing ideologies could get along, and there was a unique exchange of artwork between Stjepan and me. If anything, this 25th anniversary of the Festival was the perfect send-off to the last sober(ing) voice on the internet.
Now go on and deal with that CancerAids, Jim, and light a cigarette for us fellow weeaboos on the other side of the Atlantic. You have a bottle of Karkov vodka from me, on the house.
Glad I could help.
Sketch 20: You’re tearing me apart!
Speaking of internet legends, Stjepan and I discussed a few. There was the inevitable Chris-Chan, Cyraxx, Ethan Ralph, Kraut, DSP and the rest of the speds (I’m not providing any hyperlinks here on purpose). But those are still somehow not too mainstream, at least not for the guests of the Festival in Leskovac. For the guests of the Festival, we did spend a bit more time discussing B movies, with the inevitable topic being 2003’s The Room.
Because of course. Good old Tommy Wiseau (the pronunciation of his last name varies, even when he’s the one pronouncing it) who is a public figure even when he’s not in public. Now, it’s one thing for Stjepan to know who Tommy is, that much is expected. But Matija? A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. I remember, for instance, the first time a few Festivals ago when I found out that Darko is a fan of that film. We were quoting it non-fucking-stop! And how would we not, when we saw it seven million times between us. Of course, even during the latest Festival in Leskovac, each of us had a favorite quote, and each of us would then list off some of their own favorite B movies, or just move scenes (Aljoša was extremely happy to hear that Gymkata was made in Yugoslavia, at least four other people laughed to tears when I but mentioned Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive/Braindead, and I believe it was either Matija or Mido – or both? – who commented on the classics such as Birdemic and Samurai Cop…and yes, we can’t forget Enter the Ninja and good, old Sho Kosugi).
Well, we all know that Tommy Wiseau doesn’t like to share the spotlight with anyone, ergo, here I will end with a recommendation – everyone, watch The Room. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.
Sketch 21: Merch
“There’s a little store over there, selling anime merch,” I said in a Viber group, talking to Jelena. “When you’re there, we’ll visit it.” “Ah, I see that Leskovac is surely the place I must visit someday! It sounds like heaven!,” Aida stated. Her husband Ajdin didn’t add anything to that, but I have it on good authority that he agreed with her. Srđan didn’t say much either, mainly because he was working, if I am not mistaken, but again – it was a sentiment he would surely have agreed with.
And here Jelena was in Leskovac, so we’ve headed to the store after the group photo. And of course, who would go on to buy an item there other than yours truly? Well, Stjepan would, for instance. Sure, Saša and Marko and Matija were also there, but they didn’t get anything. This was just moments before we all went to the restaurant. Moreover, I should stress that the shop was more of a rock’n’roll store, so it sold more than just anime merch. Nevertheless, Jelena and I used that rock angle to our advantage too; we were looking at the cloth badges and for each band’s logo we were trying to find the appropriate JoJo reference. And yes, yes, yes, oh my God, there were quite a few of those.
Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a lot of branded comic book merch at the Festival itself. Usually the organizers would give away T-Shirts, pencils, lighters, etc. (I also happen to know who prints those, tehehe), but hey, sometimes it happens that the merch is just not there. Someone else, however, DID have some merch – the Manga Academy from Sofia was giving away stickers (three guesses as to who the person was in charge of those).
Sketch 22: The „Southern Railway”
“Got a haircut, did you, bro?” Anđel’s smile, one that’s never not honest, one that’s always full of pip. It’s like that man can’t get angry or depressed at all. “Ah, you’ve noticed?” We chatted for a while, mainly about freelancing and taxation. And yes, the topic is as boring as it gets, but as early as tomorrow we spoke about it again. I remember Anđel as a young man, eager and willing to draw, always the joker of the most sophisticated variety. I remember him as an outstanding, hard worker who was willing to push a mecha project through on the Serbian market, but sadly the stars simply did not align. And recently I’ve remembered him as a dedicated husband and father. It’s almost beyond belief – Anđel managed to find a wife whom he agrees with extraordinarily well, and got a daughter who’s as cute as a button. Though we rarely get to chat, when the chance does arise, I can’t help but feel warm inside, it’s like meeting a family member. “I gotta say, though, it’s still strange to see you not drinking.”
“You going to Svilajnac soon?” Danko asked. Again, much like Anđel, Danko nearly always manages to lift my spirits up. Back in the day he was rocking a long-ish hair and earrings that left massive gaps in his earlobes, the way of the metal, of punk even. But for some years back his ensemble is made up of caps, loose shirts and plain short shorts. Kind of laid-back and somewhat mature, one could say. If someone had told me back in 2011, when we’ve actually met, that he would actually be a close acquaintance and of a collector, a metalhead and a comic book fan from my hometown (even being the best man at his wedding), as well as a close personal friend of said metalhead’s wife, I would find it hard to believe. Yet, there isn’t a moment during our conversation where Danko and I don’t mention that friend of mine with an iron surname, nor one where that friend of mine and I don’t mention Danko. The two simply clicked, kind of like Serafim and I did.
“Hey, man, give me your number,” Igor stated, roughly after we all started saying our goodbyes. Igor Krstić is an individual I’ve only known on a surface level. In fact, I even misnamed him once (got him mixed up with Stefan Katanić; not on purpose, tho). During this Festival we spoke at some length for the first time. He has a good head on his shoulders, as our elders would say, and from his bearing and attitude one can tell that, though living in Niš for a number of years and being used to an urban lifestyle, he was still a provincial small-town dude. That’s where, I suppose, him and I are alike. I suppose that was one of the reasons we exchanged contact info to begin with.
“Man, I’m not satisfied with the print on this jacket one bit,” Miloš stated, showing a branded item he did art for. If you’ve ever needed a Southerner who was and still is into gaming, AND alternative comics, AND painting, AND urban graphic design, then Miloš is your man. If you’ve ever needed someone who is selfless, honest, and hard-working to the core, then Miloš is your man. And if you need someone to be your man, Miloš can help you find a man for the job, mainly since he’s too damn busy creating some spectacular designs for highly sought-after urban fashion brands. But he will find the time for some beer.
Of course, there were plenty of other people there from the South, people worth meeting and spending a few minutes talking to. Because, after all, if there’s one word that perfectly and unequivocally describes the Serbian South, or rather the Southeast. It’s “hospitality”. No man will be a better host than a Southerner, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Sketch 23: Future?
I’m looking at Dejan’s message. To my “I owe you a drink” he replied “I owe you one first, then you can follow it up with another.” This exchange came after he had dropped me off in Belgrade, then drove off with Nebojša and Aleksa to Novi Sad. I’m looking at that pair of sneakers he gave me as a gift (still didn’t wash them, Dejo!) and I’m thinking about us pausing at a gas station on our way home earlier that day. “You need to collect all those articles you’ve written in one book,” he was saying to me then, taking a break from driving. “And have someone illustrate them. That would be ideal.”
That’s a nice thought, but would I put that plan into action in the near future? I’m not 100% sure. My future is, at least for now, short-term only. I’ll be meeting with Bogdan over the weekend, to discuss comics. Furthermore, Aleksa had invited me to visit once again, having invited Dejan as well not long after. All I have to do is figure out the time that works for both of us and off to Zemun I go. Of course, I’ve already mentioned the possibility of Serafim visiting me in Svilajnac, as well as me visiting Sreta in Trstenik. Saša continues to invite me to Zagreb, to attend the OHOHO!Festival, and indeed Matija confirmed his own desire to have me visit. I can’t say no to them, they are too near and dear to me. Marko did not suggest any kind of visit, but he did ask me to find him a long, black cardigan similar to mine here in Serbia. No worries, Marko, the search is still on. And how can I forget the invite to Strip Trip by both Temnik and Jovčevski? Furthermore, I still have a ton of visits and hangouts to consider, as well as planning and comic book-making – Pavle, Sara and Ana, Srđan, Knez, Peđa, Erda, Valia, Geza, Domagoj, then there’s Osijek, then Ormož, Herceg Novi eventually… Honestly, I have no real clue what will come next.
Well, that’s roughly my future, if I don’t drop dead tomorrow. What about the future of the Festival?
Last year, it should be pointed out, was a bit on the dark side, somewhat pessimistic I’d say. This year it was a bit brighter, but nothing is that certain anymore. I’d love for it to continue, right up until the 30th milestone. But I won’t speculate either way. Surely, we will all hang out more. After all, it was in that Leskovac that many bonds were reinforced, built, and cultivated. Such links don’t snap that easily.
Sketch 24: Present…
So, the year is 2023. Throughout its 25 iterations, the Balkans Festival of Young Comics Creators managed to survive a war, the 5th October, the breakup of a country, political turmoil, lack of money, globalization, internet censorship, and even a global pandemic. The Festival has housed a multitude of exhibits, a comparatively slightly higher number of award-winning participants, and it also started, helped realize, and successfully concluded an insane number of projects. There isn’t a piece of media on this Hilly Balkans that hadn’t covered this event, nor a comic book author that did not want to attend at least once. The Festival now boasts an incredibly large number of participants overall, at least double the number of works they’ve submitted, and is powerful enough to effortlessly invite over guests from abroad and host several exhibits at once, as was the case this year. In other words, today the Festival is a giant, and it’s merely one of the many comic book-related entities of Leskovac whom you may have heard of far and wide.
But that’s not even the biggest success of the Festival. Throughout the quarter of a century of its existence, this event was the catalyst for friendships between an enormous milieu of people, be they from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia (North as it may be), Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, Italy, France, Belgium, Russia, USA, Brazil, South Korea, Czechia, Poland, Denmark, Turkey… Those are all people who, even if they had 25 lives to live, attended 25 different events of any kind, would not even have one-twenty-fifth of the number of friends they’d met right there in Leskovac. That was the very sentiment behind Nebojša’s visit to the Festival. That was the very starting point for Dejan when he offered to drive me back home. That was what had led the guests of the Festival, be they brand new or regulars, to say their goodbyes not with handshakes, but through embracing one another. It was a goodbye that, though temporary, still hurt a bit since, after all, we’re saying that goodbye to our family equally educated by the Gospel of the Panel.
Sketch 25: Past.
To top it all off, I should use some sort of witty anecdote related to this milestone that is the 25th iteration of the Festival, without making it sound forced. Therefore, here’s one for you. See, there were a lot of authors over the years who were awarded at the Festival. There are two types of awards there that are given to young comics creators: memorial plaques (first prize) and diplomas (second prize). Me, I happen to have three awards from this event – one diploma and two plaques. I wasn’t present to receive the first one I’ve gotten, i.e. the diploma, because of college obligations, but my very first memorial plaque from Leskovac, the one for comic book theory, I’ve been given when I could, in fact, attend in person. It was also the first time in my life that I had ever officially won first place in anything at all as an adult.
The award was given to me in 2015, during the 17th iteration of the Balkans Festival of Young Comics Creators, the same year Darko, Sreta, Serafim and I had reunited after a long while. It was the very same year I had turned 25.
Author: Ivan Veljković