Interview with Danijel Zezelj by Pieranna Cavalchini
(This interview is slightly altered and edited from the original version published in Stray Dogs graphic novel, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2005)
Pieranna Cavalchini: What made you choose drawing as your primary medium? You attended a school that taught painting, yet you decided to stick with drawing.
Danijel Zezelj: I was always drawing. So it wasn't a choice-or rather, it wasn't a rational choice. It came naturally. What really defines drawing and what defines painting? I think what I do is somewhere in between. As a style, as an approach, my drawings actually come out of studying painting. There are no colors-if the absence of color makes it drawing rather than painting-but the way I use shadow and light comes very much from baroque painting, from chiaroscuro. Basically, I try to apply the patterns baroque artists were using in oils, the same principles. When you are looking at things in chiaroscuro, light and shadow, you do not start from white canvas, you start from a middle tone, usually a sepia tone-they often used a raw umber color. So you cover the whole surface with raw umber, and then by taking the color out you get the lighter parts, and by adding more umber you get the dark. You are thinking differently; you are thinking in terms of shadow and light. You do not see the line: the line is excluded. So I apply this same idea, sharpening the contrast and reducing it to only black and white.
PC: Who are the painters you looked at most closely?
DZ: I looked a lot at Caravaggio. I think, more than anyone else, he really mastered this approach in which the subject is always emerging from the dark toward the light. As for other painters ... I really like Velazquez. And one painter I've always thought is absolutely fascinating is Vermeer; from a technical point of view he blows my mind. I have no idea how he achieved what he achieved. It's so sophisticated. The paintings themselves are beautiful, but if you are in the profession, you can see that technically they are perfect, pure diamonds. And of course I like many other painters. I've made copies of some paintings by Michelangelo, for instance. I studied Cezanne a lot.
PC: Did you copy many paintings while you studied?
DZ: Yes. I think it's a very good exercise. I learned a lot from that. Of course, there comes a certain point when you are just repeating the same thing, but it's a good way of understanding how things work. I copied a lot of Velazquez and some Caravaggio, as well as Michelangelo. It was interesting. But I learned even more from drawing nudes, studying the human body.
PC: How were you able to translate the brushstroke into ink?
DZ: I always use brushes. I do not like pencil, because it has a very thin line. I hardly ever use the line. It outlines forms but doesn't get inside, where the volume is, where the meat is. To put it simply, you either see lines, or you see light and shadow. You cannot have both.
PC: How important are words with your drawings, in your work?
DZ: I think the drawings are more important than the words, but there is a balance between them. The drawings definitely take the bigger place, but the words are important; that's why they are there. They do not necessarily follow the drawings. There might be one storyline in the drawings, and then another in the words. That also creates a third space in between the drawings and the words. That's what I find most interesting in this way of storytelling through images and words.
PC: What you describe sounds like a form of counterpoint. It sounds very musical. A little like jazz?
DZ: In some way, as a method. It is not necessarily improvising-or it could be improvising within a set structure ... although the process is what really matters, what is really important for me, the process of making it. I do not have the story written down, and sketches prepared for all the pages, so that in the end I can just sit down and draw the whole story out. I could not work that way. I do have an idea for the story, the main characters, definitely the end of the story, maybe some sketches, but everything is very loose and open. During the work, these elements keep changing until they connect. I might even finish the whole story, and then realize that a couple of pages in the middle are not really working and redo them. Or throw something out or add more pages at the end.
PC: Is it like making bread?
DZ: Could be. It is never going to be the same bread twice, even if you use the same ingredients. In the process of making anything, I think you need to be open to any influences that might come.
PC: What comes first when you are starting a project? Do you start with the drawing?
DZ: I am always thinking in images, and often stories or ideas come from an image, or from memory, or something seen at the moment, or a photograph, or a painting….But it's always image, it's visual.
PC: And yet the words are very beautiful, very poetic. You weigh them very carefully.
DZ: When I write, I always write and rewrite the same thing many times, and the idea is to try to eliminate any word that is not necessary. That's the method I use, because I do not see myself as a very good writer. So I'm trying to reduce the number of words as much as possible. It's similar to my approach toward images: often things are reduced to black and white, to the necessary. I think somehow through that, also, the words and pictures connect.
PC: By reducing, you make it more forceful. Distilling to a central quality is always the hardest thing to do in any work, don t you think?
DZ: It is. But when it works, it opens a whole new dimension, because all this black or all this white is actually not just black and white-in one dark space there is actually the whole idea of light. Like a reflection. So it's not about taking away; it's about putting more in.
PC: You control time in a very interesting way in your stories, in terms of cadence. It is very musical.
DZ: I'm happy you said that. I hope I can capture a little bit of that sense of rhythm and time, in this medium that isn't necessarily about time. I mean, in film time is a very important element. And of course in music. I find it very interesting how Thelonious Monk played: using the silence as much as the sound. lie had these long pauses in his playing. lie used the fewest possible notes instead of filling up space. There have been critics who've said that he simply could not play because his playing was so simple and awkward. But it was actually his way of thinking and working: reducing the number of notes, and letting the silence be as present as the music. He was really working with time. It's not just about filling space with notes, it's about letting the space breathe and letting the pauses be as important as notes.
PC: Have you studied Japanese painting at all? I find there's a quality, of haiku poetry in your work.
DZ: That's a nice compliment. Haiku has a strong visual quality in it-not just because you can see images while reading them, but also because of the way the poems are written.
PC: The calligraphy.
DZ: The writing has a visual dimension that is an important part of the poem. That's an element of haiku that we cannot grasp.
PC: Could you talk a little bit about the visual themes in your work? There are certain themes that you repeat. Like the circus, and the idea of the glider. Boxers. And there are many city scenes.
DZ: The stories are very much connected to the city. In Stray Dogs, the city reflects New York (although the city is never mentioned by name), and the sense of living here.
PC: Animals show up again and again-like the rhinoceros.
DZ: The rhinoceros is a negative symbol here. Of something dangerous, ominous: something that can run you over, like the system-the bad side of the system.
PC: What does the panther mean to you?
DZ: Wildness and freedom. It's mythological, ancient, the idea of something wild, untamed and unknown. Something irrational. That's the beauty of the animal, and the fascination too. I always find that tigers and panthers in particular are fascinating. There is always that element of something beyond our comprehension, something we cannot grasp rationally.
PC: And they're just very beautiful.
PC: Are there other animals in your stories that you use?
DZ: Well, there are often elephants, sometimes flying elephants.
PC: Is that something you picked up in your Marvel comic days?
DZ: No, I picked it up before that. I always liked Dumbo, it's one of my favorite Disney cartoons. Just the idea of an animal, so big and heavy, that can actually take off and fly is funny and also a great symbol.
PC: You have mentioned that you read a lot.
DZ: I like to read. I do not have a TV or anything.
PC: Do you have any favorite writers?
DZ: I have a lot. Whatever I'm reading at the moment. Right now, I'm reading essays by Joseph Brodsky. I like his poetry, too. Octavio Paz is very important for me. Anything by him interests me. Of course, there are things that you can always come back to-like Dostoevsky-you read it again, and it's like reading it for the first time. If you still have time and patience for it. I like Pier Paolo Pasolini a lot as a writer-for me, he is primarily a writer. I really think that his poetry is the most fascinating part of his whole body of work. His movies are great, but for me the poetry was a big discovery. It's a combination of everyday and trivial with ancient and eternal. The ability to discover classical beauty in the most ordinary dirty street dog in Naples. Another favorite writer of mine is Bohumil Hrabal. And also Stanislav Habjan. But you can read him only in Croatian.
PC: What about films?
DZ: When I was a kid, Zagreb had a great theater, the Kinoteka. They used to show movies by different directors, and many works from the past. I saw German Expressionist movies from the 1920s and Russian avant-garde films. We were able to see all kinds of things, like old films by Bunuel, Buster Keaton, almost all of Fassbinder's films, Herzog's films. So I grew up seeing a lot of good stuff. In film storytelling and narration, I think there are a lot of similarities to graphic novels.
PC: What is a "graphic novel" exactly? What's the difference between a graphic novel and comics?
DZ: I first heard the term "graphic novel" maybe twelve years ago-I'd never heard it before. I guess they had to find a term for these things that they couldn't call just "comics" anymore because they were real books, and they sometimes had well-written stories in them, and really good drawings. I think there are very different ideas of what comics are in the United States and Europe. In America, "comics" are supposed to be funny, comical. And superheroes are definitely an American notion. But in America they're often trying to make everything too easy and accessible, entertaining and simple, often underestimating the audience. (A good response to that is R Crumb's work and other underground comics-they are funny, but not easy.)
PC: How do you feel about that idea of accessibility?
DZ: Well, I believe that art shouldn't be separate from the rest of the world. It should be part of it, and it should be accessible. And in that way the whole concept of galleries is really problematic. In a way, what is appealing to me is that comics and graphic novels are accessible. They can be printed in any paper, and anyone can see them. So you might like them or not, but they're there and they're very easy to see, to get to. At the same time, this art form shouldn't deny or limit the creativity of the author, shouldn't be strictly submitted to the rules of commerce.
PC: You've said that the extraordinary thing about George Herriman's Krazy Kat cartoon strip was the freedom the author found within the genre.
DZ: Herriman made great use of a genre that was very well established: the daily comic strip and once a week it was the whole page. He created something that was his own-very weird, very personal, and very beautiful. And that's why today it's as fresh and new as it ever was and will always be. They are just timeless, those little stories.
PC: Do you think you're doing something similar, but in a different way?
DZ: It would be very pretentious to say I do. I do not know if what I'm doing will mean anything in five or ten years, even for myself. In a way, I think it's impossible to create anything if you start with the idea that it will last forever.
PC: Because life is too precarious?
DZ: Yes. You create something because you have a strong desire, a sense of necessity to express something. You do not know if it is going to be any good-you can only try your best. Try to put everything you know and feel into it, and do it the best way you can. That still doesn't mean it will be any good. The worst poetry is created with good intentions.
PC: Do you feel you're embarking on a new language in some way?
DZ: Whether it is new or not, I'm not sure-but it is a language I do not see very much elsewhere. Still, I wouldn't say that I'm inventing something very new at all.
PC: Well, nobody invents anything; everything has been invented. But I think the quality of your work is so clearly recognizable. Since the early 1990s, your work has changed, of course, but the voice remains the same. Do you think your work has changed dramatically over the years?
DZ: I think it has changed formally. It is different, but the idea of the storytelling through the images-that is the same. As you work you discover new things, you keep learning and finding different ways of achieving something, expressing something. In that sense, it definitely changes. The intention and the desire to communicate are the same. This search goes back and forth-things never grow in a straight line. There are moments when you feel you are getting lost, and then you come back.
PC: I once asked you if photography has influenced you, and you mentioned Robert Frank as somebody you admire. In what way has photography had an impact on your work?
DZ: Well, it's a certain kind of photography-reportage, or documentary photography -that interests me. It's not the photography where things are set up. Robert Frank is someone who captures the random moment, but at the same time you can always recognize his work. It's always his eye that is present. He is able to capture, in a single image, the essence of life. It is the most ordinary part of everyday life, but everything is there. I think that's the gift of photography. That's also what is fascinating about Diane Arbus, because in every one of her portraits, it seems you can see the essence of that person coming out. I do not know how that is achieved. I do not think the photographer himself knows at that moment what he is doing exactly. In her case-and I am basically speaking of her portraits-I think she found the courage, the endurance, to face someone without turning her eyes away from whatever might come out of that person at the moment. And I think that's a special quality of her work. Immense courage in front of the truth. She didn't spare herself. There is never a distance. She is inside every frame as well. And that gave her the right to take pictures of people. She was giving everything she had.
PC: What does the title Stray Dogs signify?
DZ: The title came from words at the end of the last story: I will keep searching and running like a stray dog. "Stray dogs" could be anything ... stray thoughts or stray emotions: a metaphor for something lost and wandering.
PC: "Stray" has an implication of nomadism-do you feel that you're a nomad?
DZ: I feel that I do not have a place that I would call home. I do not know if that means being a nomad. A place that you feel somehow belongs to you, and you belong to that place. I don't think there is such a place for me right now. Not in the material, physical world. My sense of displacement is split between a desire to belong and a sense of freedom, it is a curse and a blessing, and it forces me to create an imaginary home. It is a shaky home, the wind could blow it away any second.