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22 Mar 12 / 10:28:58
Serb Cartoonists See No Joke in Comics’ Plight

Iconic art genre that enjoyed a vogue in the Yugoslavia of the 1980s is fading away, forcing young cartoonists to try their hand abroad.
Dimitrije Bukvic BIRN Belgrade

Fans of the comic genre fear that Serbian cartoons – along with the country’s young cartoonists – may vanish as a result of declining sales and lack of interest on the part of the authorities.

Last October some 70 publishers and cartoonists signed an appeal deploring a Ministry of Culture decision in 2010 not to include comics in the list of books to be procured for public libraries.

“Lack of support for publishers is the main reason for the poor state of comics,” the open letter written from the Association of Comic Artists of Serbia said.

Because Serbian publishers cannot make a profit from local works they rarely finance them, and so mostly buy licences for cartoons published abroad.

The only hope for young and talented Serbian authors is to finance their first comics themselves and then offer them abroad.

All-time low:
Comics were once considered a pillar of the Yugoslav art scene. In the 1970s and 1980s up to million copies of some editions were sold individually or in magazines. Successful ones, like “Cat Claw”, by Branislav Kerac, now form part of ex-Yugoslavian subculture lore.

Like many other segments of culture, this art form moved into the underground in the Nineties during the era of Slobodan Milosevic.

Meanwhile, because of the war and inflation, some of the biggest comic publishers, such as “Decje novine”, “Dnevnik” and “Marketprint”, ceased activities, leaving comics an almost exclusive product for fans and collectors.

A new generation of Serbian authors has emerged since 2000, such as Aleksa Gajic or Drazen Kovacevic.

But today’s cartoonists are disappointed that interest is so low for comics in Serbia as a result of which most have signed contracts with European publishers.

Fatal decision:
Low incomes and high production expenses have troubled all publishers for years. However the biggest concern of those working in comics at the moment is lack of state support.

Since 2003 comics were always on the culture ministry’s list of books offered to libraries to choose from. But last year this tradition came to an endand publishers say this decision could ruin them.

Igor Markovic, editor of “System Comics”, one of those who signed the public letter sent to the ministry in October, said he had expected to earn 600,000 dinars (about 6,000 euro) from last year’s procurement of books by the ministry for library needs.

In 2010 Markovic’s publishing house published 11 comic titles, partly thanks to ministry money. Eight were works of domestic authors. He is not expecting such a good year this time.

Although the ministry still financially supports comic festivals, publishers and authors say direct grants and tax allowances are also vital in order to stimulate the troubled comics market.

Instead of importing comics and paying copyright on them to foreign companies, they would like domestic publishers to be able to promote comics as a national brand.

Meanwhile the sum they would obtain from state procurement alone would be enough to cover the costs of publishing one comic album by some young still unknown domestic cartoonists.

“You need about 7,000 euro to publish a 50-page black-white coloured comic strip,” Igor Markovic notes.

This publisher says he cannot cover his production costs from local works and so buys copyrights from European publishers for whom prominent Serbian authors work. He then presents their albums in Serbia.

The Ministry of Culture says the commission for the procurement of publications treats comics like any other publications.

“The commission examining submitted books was primarily led by their quality and appropriateness for library usage”, reads a written answer from the ministry for Balkan Insight.

The ministry underlined that it co-finances comic festivals and publications through regular competitions.

In 2011, the ministry co-financed the “Comics conference” in Kragujevac to the tune of 200,000 dinar (2,000 euro), for example, as well as the “Zigomar” comics exhibition in Pancevo with 120,000 dinar (1,200 euro), the Comics Competition in the Children’s Culture Centre in Belgrade with 100,000 dinar (1,000 euro) and the Alternative Comics Magazine “Azdaha” from Kragujevac.

Follow France:
But Serbian cartoonists now working abroad say this kind of help is not enough to revive the comics market at home.

They think the state could contribute more, by following the example of European countries that co-finance publishers and offer them tax breaks.

Drazen Kovacevic, one of the many Serbian cartoonists now working for publishers in Italy, France, Belgium and United States, says the state should try the same recipe as France has done for its comics industry.

“Comics are a brand for France, like wine or cheese, so the country gives subsidies and tax allowances even for the biggest publishers,” he notes.

“Comics are seen as equal to other arts, and comic editions are usually at the top of French best-selling book lists”, Kovacevic adds.

He believes comics could become also а national brand for Serbia because the skill of local authors “compares to that of any famous world production”.

This successful cartoonist, now working for “Soleil” of France, says the lack of state help limits comics’ production to periodical albums instead of continuous serials.

“Unfortunately, I cannot imagine an author in Serbia signing a contract with a publisher to make a comic serial that would then make money for them both,” Kovacevic concludes.

Vladimir Vesovic, a cartoonist still working in Serbia, thinks that he and his colleagues should be treated the same as other writers sent by the ministry to the Frankfurt book fair every year.

“The ministry takes writers to Frankfurt – why not do the same with cartoonists and take them to the biggest European comics festival in Angouleme in France?” he asks.

The Ministry of Culture responds that it presents Serbia’s national culture and authors in relation to the profile and programmes of book fairs it participates in.

“If comics were a topic at one of these fairs, we would organise the participation of comics authors and editions,” its response reads.

Keeping domestic talent:
Publishers, as well as cartoonists, would naturally like the state to allocate budget money to co-finance production of comics. They say help is especially needed for young authors to keep them in Serbia.

Igor Markovic says that paying the author’s working expenses out of the national budget is the most significant measure that could be taken to nurture a new generation of authors.

“If the country covered expenses for authors, which are at least 100 euro for page… we could find a way to make respectable productions that could be presented abroad,” says Markovic.

He feels it is wrong that some young authors are giving away their comics for free to domestic publishers “only to get a reference for a potential international client”.

Vladimir Vesovic, a teacher in Belgrade’s “Djordje Lobacev” Comic School, says there is plenty of young talent in Serbia, but they have no chance to publish their work.

Serbia should start to invest in its cartoonists, he maintains. “It is absurd that we buy our own authors from abroad, instead of selling their work worldwide,” he says.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.