Komikaze: the Croatian comic books carrying the legacy of the Yugoslav underground

Komikaze: the Croatian comic books carrying the legacy of the Yugoslav underground

From stark punkish scribbles to garish psychedelia, the artwork inside the pages Croatian comic-strip magazine Komikaze offers up the very best of the south-eastern Europe's underground scene — creating its own vibrant world where official art institutions often fall short.

24 November 2020

“Each of our artists is searching for their own answer to the question of what comics actually are,” says Ivana Armanini, editor of Croatian comic-strip magazine and small-publishing phenomenon Komikaze. “Our authors take inspiration from experimental film, contemporary literature, alternative music. D.I.Y culture… This position on the artistic borderlands is the ideal place to take on all dimensions of human experience.”

Based in Zagreb, Komikaze has been active since 2002, publishing content both on the internet and in the form of an annual zine (actually a professionally produced book of more than 100 pages). Throughout its 19-year existence, Komikaze has served as a platform for emerging comic creators from Croatia, the ex-Yugoslav region, and beyond, and is one of the key points of contact between the graphic-storytelling world of today and the once-thriving alternative scene of pre-breakup Yugoslavia.

Indeed, it’s the interplay between fine art, illustration, and pop-design that makes the current Komikaze generation so compelling

Komikaze’s mission is to promote what they call “authorial comics” — the work of illustrators who have a story of their own to tell rather than providing the visuals for a commercial client. The zine deliberately seeks out new voices, and new ways of visualising them: its pages offer everything from stark punkish scribbles to garish psychedelia, cubist-inspired angularity and deeply atmospheric exercises in comic-strip noir. Many of Komikaze’s collaborators have gone on to become graphic-art standard-bearers in their own right: Zagreb-based poster designer and graphic novelist Igor Hofbauer; enigmatic magus of Serbian pop-noir Wostok; and Ivana Armanini herself, whose alluring abstract images have adopted an ambiguous life of their own.

Recent project Femicomix, an exhibition accompanied by a fanzine-cum-catalogue premiered as part of Ljubljana’s Tinta Festival in October, is an outstanding example of what Komikaze does best. Featuring work by Agata Lučić, Apolonija Lučić, Ena Jurov, Korina Hunjak, Nikolina Fuzul, Tea Jurišić, and Armanini herself, it showcases a gamut of styles, from the wry pop-art of Hunjak, to the crisp avant-garde abstractions of Fuzul and Armanini. All of the authors involved are accomplished artists with a variety of strings to their bow (all of them have done street murals or posters; Tea Jurišić has designed album covers; Agata Lučić has illustrated children’s books). Indeed, it’s the interplay between fine art, illustration, and pop-design that makes the current Komikaze generation so compelling.

A comic by Korina Hunjak, from Komikaze's "Femikomix 2020"

In many ways, 2020 has been Komikaze’s year. In January, the team picked up the best alternative comic award at the Angoulême Festival, the comic book equivalent of picking up an Oscar. June saw the release of “Covix”, a Komikaze special edition featuring the reflections of eleven international artists on a new world of quarantines and lockdowns. October’s Femicomix disappeared from the shelves within days of publication. Luckily, its contents will be reprinted in the next full edition of Komikaze magazine, due out at the end of 2020.

Read more Drawing strength: what does the first generation of Russian superheroes look like?

Many see Komikaze as a continuation of the vibrant alternative scene that flourished during the last years of Yugoslavia. “The alternative comics scene to which I was introduced in the 1990s developed directly from the fanzine culture of the 1980s, and the alt-cultural infrastructure of that time,” explains Aleksandra Sekulić, Belgrade cultural activist and editor of Beton magazine. “Festivals, youth centres, music, film, literature… this is what cultural theorist Aldo Milohnić [currently teaching drama history at Ljubljana University] has defined as “radical amateurism”, a dynamic field of experimental culture that exists outside the conventional infrastructure. Komikaze is one of the best examples of how alternative culture continues to make a significant impact.”

Despite being deeply rooted in the alt-comic traditions of the European southeast, it’s not a difficult magazine to understand. Much of the featured work is in English, and the visuals are sufficiently mind-blowing to make it a page-turning experience whether you understand the captions or not.

A comic by Ena Junov, from Komikaze's "Femikomix 2020"

Komikaze overflows with artistic ambition, but it’s also important for other reasons. Artists in south-eastern Europe frequently lack the kind of institutional frameworks or commercial opportunities that would allow them to carve out conventional careers. Here, street art, poster art, and comic-strip art have always offered alternative fields of activity. This is why an alternative comics magazine like Komikaze can act as a rallying cry for artists across the spectrum, rather than simply act as a subcultural ghetto.

It also offers a creative alternative to comic-publishing’s traditionally male-dominated menu of fantasy and adventure. As Armanini explains, “Komikaze has always had active female protagonists and has always been recognised as a place where female artists can gather and express themselves freely and personally. Traditionally, the comics world tends towards the conservative and the patriarchal.”

A comic by Nikolina Fuzul, from Komikaze's "Femikomix 2020"

Komikaze’s enthusiasm for authors across the region has made it an important vehicle for cross-border exchange., Aleksandra Sekulić talks of the community around Komikaze as “a family”, which has “helped create a new sense of togetherness for alternative artists and illustrators”. Many of the people involved in Belgrade graphic-arts collective Matrijaršija (or The Matriarchy in English) are regular contributors to Komikaze. “Regional cooperation has become standard”, Sekulić continues, “it is not some exotic accident.”

The Zagreb branch of the Institut Français organised a Komikaze exhibition in June 2020 as a way of celebrating their success at Angoulême earlier in the year. I met Ivana Armanini at the opening and we agreed (perhaps rather too enthusiastically) that 2021 would be the year when big publishing would continue to stumble, and leaner, fitter independents would come into their own.

Six months later, Armanini is still optimistic. “I have been advocating internet publishing and micro-publishing for the last 20 years, and it is these areas of the comic world that are getting stronger while the big publishers, bookstores, and festivals are facing problems. Alternative comics are travelling in all directions; there are more and more exhibitions, online traffic has tripled, and micro-publishing is booming.

The Komikaze archive can be explored here.