Sparkplug has just put out Department of Art #1, by Dunja Jankovic. It’s one of my favorite comics in recent memory…Dunja’s work hits me the same way Ray Johnson’s images do: the right line next to the right shape drawn with the right weight. Powerful compositions that aren’t labored at all—a pleasure to look at and not a simple pleasure at that.

I’m always thinking about how drawn I am to storytelling but also to pure image making—and the back and forth between the two. I love Dunja’s comics because they offer that thing I’m always looking for: storytelling through imaginative image making. Dunja’s characters change shapes and their landscapes melt behind them—but there is still a strong feeling of an important story being told. I dont feel like I’m wandering around with a character (as I do in many image focused comics) but rather that I’m walking around quite assuredly with a character.

There is a lot of figure drawing in Dunja’s comics…a lot of different ways of drawing people. There is a kind of an alien language through their movement but I don’t feel a coldness from it. It feels familiar and whenever I open one of her comics, I’m glad to see these strange shapes again.

here is a short interview with Dunja. -Austin English

1. I don’t think many American readers, even very well informed ones, know much about cartooning in Croatia. Can you talk little bit about how you were first exposed to comics in Croatia, and how you found a comics community there?

When I was a kid back in the 80-s, it was still Yugoslavia and we had a couple of monthly anthologies presenting foreign comics in series. Here and there you could also find comics of the older generations of Croatian cartoonists (some of which were excellent). The comic industry back then was pretty decent. After the war, in the 90-s the market was devastated, there was practically nothing worthy till around the year of 2000. That was a huge gap where everybody who did comics started swimming alone in their own individual waters.
That stopped the continuity of the comic form development and made the scene smaller. But at the same time, things started changing for the benefit of alternative comics. Nowdays, that scene is dense, fresh and unpretentious. And that also means that there are no such things as fashionable movements like in America. OK, maybe there is this dark and existential, black and white, semi-pornographic, brutal and anarchistic stream in the alternative/underground comics in Balkans, but it stays underground and is definitely not being exploited by the mainstream.
My first real and intensive engagement started with becoming a member of Komikaze, an underground and alternative comic crew with which I started attending surrealist-like workshops in and out of the country, meeting artists and comic collectives, Serbian Kosmoplovci, or Slovenian Stripburger, to name the few. There’s a bunch of great and partially undiscovered talents like Igor Hofbauer, Vanco Rebac, Ivana Armanini, Aleksandar Opacic, Rasid Popovic, to name a few, all of which very diverse. You can find them all on Komikaze pages: It’s deffinitely ,worth seeing.

2. Looking at your drawings, I’m most struck by how the characters are rendered with very specific sizes and tones. Do you design your characters before putting them into your comics, or does your idea of how a character should look evolve as your drawing the story?

I try to think about the characters before they enter the comic stage, but the truth is, I can do that only to the certain extent. After they enter the stage, they start to change depending on the situation, story flow, or visual composition. I have a character I made for this one comic, whose appearance was changing radically from frame to frame. It was my vision of an imaginary boyfriend I didn’t have at the time. I liked the idea it could have been anybody or anything in every new frame.

3. In your work, it seems like you’re able to marry eccentric visual elements along with clear storytelling. This is pretty rare in comics. Do you ever feel a conflict in comics where you feel like you have to sacrifice interesting visuals in order to tell a clear story?

Oooooh, the conflict’s there all the time. It became even more difficult and frustrating with my art development. Lately, I’ve become more interested in visual experimentation, but the urge to tell the stories that are more “realistic”, sticks with me. I feel like I’m walking on a thin line. I would really like to jump on one side into the abyss of total freedom, but something is holding me from doing that.
For now I’m just balancing. Most of the time I make sacrifices on either side, one time the story will suffer because the page design will start to go out of hand, other time I’ll pick up more conservative drawing so as to keep the story flowing. Also, I’m working on a couple of pages simultaneously, without order. I’ll do the pages I find interesting to me that day. I’m not sure how big of a problem that is for the readers. I’ve heard some comments by more conservative comic fans, of my latest comics being hard to follow. I don’t really care, because I can’t go back any more, it’s only going to get worse, I’m afraid.

4. You make serialized comics—Ego has 4 issues and Department of art will also be a series. Is there something that you appreciate about a series as opposed to doing one long book?

Well, Ego is basically a collection of my short comics that I’ve been self-publishing in issues. I don’t know if that’s really a series. In case of Department of Art, it really, truly should be a series that will make one long comic in the end. It’s still one very vague story plot and no ending on the sight but that’s the way I like it. Because of how much time I’m spending on it, I would already be bored with the beforehand written scenario.

For years I’ve had this urge of making a “big comic“ and I’ve tried it once already for my BFA Thesis in Croatia. I made a 100 pages of, basically, introduction to the story and that was it. Soon as the school ended I had to abandon the project because it was time exhausting. Then I forgot all about it.
But, those unfinished things kind of stick with you. They sediment somewhere inside your brain and are a part of everything that follows. So in the end, it did kind of transfer into Department of Art and what will follow after it.
Now, that I met Dylan Williams from Sparkplug Comics and them being the ones who will publish DOA, I would call it a lucky moment for my obsession to keep on drawing a loooooooong comic. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll even finish it.

5. Since Department of Art touches on art school (to some degree) can you talk about your experience as an artist in SVA’s cartooning program?

It was actually SVA’s MFA in Illustration. I enrolled in it, mainly because I desperately needed to get out of Croatia for a while and take a deep breath. The school was very stressful and too expensive for what they had to offer which is the case, I guess, with most of the American schools. BUT, it really was interesting, I focused on my art development and I met a lot of great people like my adviser Gary Panter, Marshall Arisman and made a few really great friendships. Plus I had the opportunity to exploit different techniques and medias, including my favorite – silkscreen. That was something I didn’t have a chance to experience on a conservative Academy in Croatia, that diversity and immediate accessibility of everything I can think of… Basically, I became greedy and that’s how it should be for an artist.

But it was more then just a school experience, it was an immediate introduction to American art, culture and thinking, completly strange and different then my Eastern European one. I’m still kind of frightened of the American culture. Because it spreads around, everywhere, but in the lowest form of the mass media, which I despise from the bottom of my heart.

6. Can you talk a little bit about the small face like collages you make that you described to me as “a game”? How do you make them and how do they differ, in feeling, from your comics?

I call them friends and they do look like faces or masks. Sometimes I add hands or feet but mostly, it’s just bare circles. Circle shapes are one of my obsessions. I started making those ever since I came to New York, they just poured out of me like they were some kind of manifesto of my broken ego.

Mostly I work on them while making comics and my only explanation for that is that it establishes some kind of balance. The comic demands hours and hours of contemplation, coming up with the solutions, visual symbols, thinking as a director, scenographist, writer, cameraman, that I need something spontaneous and improvisatory on the side, a game basically. I use any technique I can think of (collage, crayons, watercolors, ink), coincidence being my parameter, instead of thoughtful over thinking, it has a liberating function.

7. Since your work is radically different from most people doing comics, I’d be curious to know if you ever had a moment where you decided that comics was what you were interested in, as opposed to something like painting, where your style might be more of a type.

Well comics have always been the most natural form of expression to me, I drew them ever since I was 4. I was lost for a moment, in my Fine Art Academy years, when everybody tried to convince me I’m a painter, and the Renaissance one to make the things worse, but that didn’t work out well… I went back to my first love, on everybody’s disgust. You have to realize, comics in Croatia are a bastard art, a lowbrow form, there is no respect whatsoever for them in the “fine art” (I hate that pompous expression) circles.
But, I did start using other mediums recently, like animation and painting, only because it came naturally to me and is connected with my constant need to get out of the comfort zone and explore a little. Still, everything I try outside of comics magically enters it back, giving it a new dimension. Self-surprising can become an addiction.

8. Are there any other artists working in comics today that you could point to and say, “that person thinks like me and we’re trying to accomplish similar things”?

First I have to say I generally find inspiration outside of the comic world.
Any art where I see some kind of struggle, where somebody moves on insecure territory, is very inspirative to me. And I love Outsider Art, even though it has been prostitutionalized. The purity behind Art Brut is so powerful and inspiring, but (un) fortunately, I’m too normal of a person to be able to go that far. Though I still see it as my final goal and it being my ultimate inspiration.

I can name a couple of artists I admire. In comics (and everything else that he does) that would have to be Gary Panter because of his constant metamorphosis and jumps from medium to medium. In movies I love Terry Gilliam and his caricaturistic and twisted characters, stories, scenes and reality. I like Max Ernst because he was seeing art in everything. My ex professor of painting Zlatko Keser because of his almost lunatic, shamanistic energy, both in work and person. I love Betty Woodman with her impossible mixture of ceramics, 3-D collage, painting and sculpture. And many, many, many more…