I first discovered an early work by Danijel Zezelj on a low display shelf in a comic store in Chicago that had a mix of alternative comics that included Air Mexico (2000). The moment I opened this book, Zezelj’s thick brush strokes immediately shocked my senses with their intensity and magic—it was like I entered a dense jungle of skillful images that opened new vistas in each panel. I bought the book, stepped around the corner to a coffee shop where I drank shots of espresso while I excitedly immersed myself in Zezelj’s stunning black and white artwork. It was like he had mysteriously slit the surface of each white page that bled dark depictions into a narrative stream that flowed effortlessly from page to page. This book of stories, published by a grant from the Xeric Foundation, displayed a visual talent that expertly captured stark stories by renowned existentialist writers like Albert Camus and Frans Kafka.
Various publishers including DC Comics and Marvel have published Zezelj's comics. Some of his artwork includes Vertigo award winning series titles DMZ, Northlanders, Scalped, Hellblazer, Loveless and El Diablo. His artwork for Luna Parkwon him a 2010 Eisner Award for Best Artist nomination. With my lifetime interest in wordless novels, I reached out to Zezelj and discovered, in addition to his growing list of works, that he had recently created two wordless novels, Industrial (2011) and Babylon (2012), already published in a few countries. Sadly, an English publication of either book is still unavailable. Zezelj’s wordless novels fall into the genre of magical realism. They contain strong elements of social criticism with an edge of fantasy in the narrative that inspires wonder and bewilderment. After reading these two books, I was immediately struck with Zezelj’s heartfelt concern for people who, despite their meager living conditions, seek respect and the need to belong to something greater than themselves—and isn’t that what we are all looking for in our lives?
Zezelj naturally seems aligned with a group of twentieth century artists like Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and Palle Nielsen who are recognized for their “novels in pictures.” These artists raised their voices against social injustice with a plea to every reader to define their humanity and answer two universal questions that not only define us as individuals but also the culture we live in—Who am I and what am I doing here? The answers that Zezelj’s heroes give often challenge those in power.
In Industrial, Zezelj tells two stories—one of a disillusioned stoker on a steamship who finds himself part of an invisible group of workers that live meager lives in contrast to the rich and powerful. He becomes drawn into various groups of dissention that leads to his involvement in a violent busted strike and a failed attempt as a suicide bomber. In a second story, a woman factory worker, like the stoker, is isolated and marginalized. After being drugged and raped by a wealthy industrialist, she plans and succeeds with her revenge. Zezelj’s metaphorical use of animals cleverly inserted into the plot and the stark urban settings reveal a painstaking narrative skill in presenting a glimpse into lives caught in the squalor of capitalism.
Zezelj offers a hint of hope in his second wordless novel, Babylon. In this novel, he presents a world of contrasts and conflicts that involve the artist Lev Bezdomni, who is commissioned by the mayor to create a carousel for the pinnacle of a tower on what will be the tallest building on earth. His neighborhood and the family-owned businesses are leveled for construction of the tower and the livelihoods of his friends and neighbors taken away. Bezdomni gets an idea from a drawing by his granddaughter and enlists the expertise of local men and women in the building trades to construct a carousel that defies the mayor’s commemoration ceremony and recreates a community for his displaced neighbors.
Zezelj frames this novel with various symbols like the peaceful carousal horses and the friendly expressions of Bezdomni’s neighbors, which contrast with the savagery displayed in the jaws of power shovels as they rip apart the neighborhood stores and apartments. The towering demonic-looking building appears foreboding rather than promising and seems to strike the heavens with brutal force. The building is drawn in contrast to depictions of serenity like the symbolic balloon released by Bezdomni’s granddaughter and seagulls floating above the coastline where the relocated community grows.
In addition, collaborative performances based on Babylon and called Brooklyn Babylon, involved the jazz composer Darcy James Argue and Zezelj’s animation and live painting on a 36-foot panel as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2011.
Zezelj represents an artist who uses a visual language of images to tell stories that shakes our social conscience. Babylon is a stirring example of the power of the wordless graphic novel that effectively speaks personally to every reader across all continents.
David A. Beronä is a historian of the wordless novel and has published and presented papers widely on this topic. He is the author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels, translated into French (Le romangraphique des origines aux années1950) and Korean, a winner at the New York Book Show and a Harvey Awards nominee. He selected and edited Alastair Drawings and Illustrations (2011) that showcases the Decadent works of Baron Hans Henning Voigt and Eric Gill’s Masterpieces of Wood Engraving (2013).