Interview with Danijel Zezelj: Equilibring black and white

November 18, 2009

His characters are nameless, yet each of us… dancer… boxer… prisoner… trumpeter… dreamer… runner…. juggler… invisible painter…

vite_cover_finale.jpgVita Precarie by Danijel Zezelj taken from Globalproject

He was influenced a lot by painters and photographers such as Velasquez, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Vermeer, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Wordz by Octavio Paz, Joseph Borodsky, Stanislav Habjan, Bohumil Hrabal, Kafka, Mayakovski and Pier Paolo Pasollini left a mark in his visual storytelling.

In Zezelj’s world nothing is exaggerated. A graphic poet, who lives without a television in Brooklyn, makes a scan of modern society. One might be deceived that such art resonance means living in oblivion, but you can be sure that’s not the case with his artwork.

Either in his novels or paintings he does while performing with his wife Jessica Lurie, stunning free jazz saxophonist, there is always present some kind of music structure Zezelj inherited by listening jazz… In his comics you can easily see tempo, meter, articulation, sonic qualities and all textures.

danijel_zezelj_1.jpgPhoto: Danijel painting Reflex by dopamine (c)

Black / white… silence / sound… quiet / loud… gentle / brutal… touching / distancing… moving / sitting…

Danijel Zezelj has published more then twenty five graphic novels. His artworkz appeared since 1987 all around the world (DC Comics/Vertigo, Wild Storm, Marvel Comics, The New York Times Book review, The Harper’s Magazine, San Francisco Guardian, Washington Chronicle, etc.).

He has lived in UK, Italy, Zagreb (1991-95) and from 1995 he resides in USA drawing comics, book covers and illustrations and making multimedia performances with composer Jessica Lurie. From 2001 he runs jointly with Stanislav Habjan (writer & visual artist) publishing house and graphic workshop Petikat which is based in Zagreb.

danijel_zezelj.jpgPhoto by Comicon (c)

Danijel was one of the main guests at Funny Comics Show Festival two weeks ago. He rarely gives interviews and thanks to him, Slaven Goricki – director of the festival and the people who attended his talk, this interview was possible…

When you do your own stuff, how does the preparation look like?

DZ: Well, everything starts from the story or some scenario, doesn’t matter if it’s a longer album or short story, that’s the first move. Although for me, that’s never the text, but a visual setting. Projects I do for DC Vertigo always come to me as texts or scenarios. Plus, when I do comics there are already pre-set characters and situations, according to the story.

BOLIVIAN_inside_as_Smart_Object_1.jpgPages from Bolivian Nero

Is there a huge difference when you do custom work compared to artworkz you do for yourself?

DZ: Yes, there is a big difference. First, the process is different because usually the script is already divided into pages and images within the page with dialogues and more or less descriptions. It depends on the scriptwriter. Some scriptwriters use more descriptions, some less. For instance, Brian Azarello, his scenarios are almost exclusively dialogues.

He uses very little descriptions, more like description of the situation, where and what happens, but practically everything else is left to the drawer. But he can do this, because Brian Azarello is a big master of dialogue. Basically, through dialogues the characters are being formed. I like the most those kinds of scenarios, because in such cases you have completely opened space for composing images and layouts. I have a lot more freedom within that form.

zezelj_artwork.jpgMural by Danijel Zezelj taken from PLG

Do you find hard to adapt to other people’s ideas, because you are strong as author, too?

DZ: Not necessarily, if the story is good it’s very inspiring, indeed. I had the luck to work with people like Azarello. One of the latest projects I took part were series Scalped by Jason Aaron, for instance. Great story! Basically, it’s just one story in 22 pages. When there is a good story, that’s actually really good. Everything depends on the story. When you have bad story, then there is no sense in making it. Like everywhere, there are good and bad script writers. Luckily, I had opportunity to work with really good scriptwriters.

What was like to work with Brian Wood?

DZ: Yes, Wood is also more specific when it’s about locations. For instance, DMZ series have this very specific situation – setting up everything in New York and so. I like a lot DMZ, because it’s located in New York and it’s written by somebody who really likes that city. Wood just moved the story in different situation, but the situation that is actually possible. The other project was about the Vikings – Northlanders, which are completely different. Whereas those stories are really good, they are really interesting to work on.


You have very original style of drawing, but seems like entering the text into an image was much more crucial in your early workz, then now… you were more dedicated to storytelling in classical way before… where did your stories came from?!

DZ: I think this is just one possible use of comic’s language. Because there is an image and there is a text, but also the space between those two. This space could be a place where the most interesting things could happen. Therefore, this is an open space which is not defined and within which you can build things and balance the image and text.

Even in the most banal way, letting the story to talk one thing and the image another thing, then connecting all at one particular level. I think this is not something new, it’s now often used, whether more or less successful. People do such things. The other issue is whether it is enough in use.

stray_dogs.jpgStray Dogs by Danijel Zezelj, photo by Bohman (cc)

But, using comics as a language… I think it’s not used in full potential, only a limited scale of possibilities and features. More or less, everything goes according to the first idea, at that’s it. It’s still largely on the level of Mickey Mouse, in a sense of early Disney’s works for kids or superheroes. In a sense of storytelling, superheroes are simplified down to banality.

Frank Miller was the only one who made a serious move; he added another dimension within the genre, genre that was so petrified and yet boring. He simply made good shift by telling the story in a little different way and the whole thing started to be more lively and interesting. Some of the best things in comics happened as a result if his collaboration with Sienkiewicz.

Then came, of course, Allan Moore with Watchmen, which was an extremely complex situation he told us in a very specific form. But, we can say that he’s doing those things a lot in a very subtle way and he always succeed.


Your style is now clearer, more like a painting then a comic…

DZ: I needed a long time to find something that satisfies me. Something for what I can say, yes, this is what I had in mind and it fits on paper, too. That’s it. Actually, I don’t use line, because my drawings are basically made with tones – tonal relationships between light and dark. It’s very simple. I graduated painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, and during studying I got deeper into the painting, Baroque painting with all relations between light and shade.

So, the volume is not based on line, but on tonal gradations between dark and light. That’s the principle of Baroque painting, and I simply used this technique on black/white ink and then I found a form which is suitable for me. It has never been a line. It’s hard to tell… or if it’s now more like a painting, more or less…

mural_work.jpgMural by Danijel Zezelj taken from PLG

I’m not sure. I think my drawings are always slightly changing… I mean, when I say ‘My drawing’, I don’t think it’s something special… I want to say that my style emerges from a painterly approach, but not lines such as. Lines simply switch off the light and shadow, and vice versa. It seems to me that comic authors are drawing either with one style or another.

I find crucial the moment when I discovered comics by Munoz (Jose Antonio Munoz) and Alberto Breccia. To me, it was the most natural thing for comics to look like this.

SupermanMetropolis.jpgSuperman Metropolis by Danijel Zezelj

What do you think about colours, cuz you don’t use them very often in comics, but particularly in your own stuff (graphic novels published under label Petikat)?

DZ: I don’t have anything against colours, but I find chiaroscuro more interesting. I mean, in today’s world I see a lot of colours, but in relation to that I see more depression then ever. Everything is full of colours and depressed people.


Beside literature and painting; you were strongly influenced by cinematography and photography…

DZ: I was introduced to cinematography very early. I like the most German Expressionist movies, silent movies from 1920s and particularly the Russian Avant-garde. Films by Sergei Eisenstein are pretty much based on what I want to create within the image. And those relations between the black and white are something visible in films from German expressionism, that’s exactly what I want to use while I’m drawing. I think chiaroscuro could be visible in films from those eras.

On the other hand, films are interesting because of this storytelling they are made from. Narration in films is very often similar to those in comics.

As for photography, I’m mainly interested in documentary black/white photography. This is something what I want to project into my work, too. I think it’s related to the fact that I mostly like telling stories through images.

zezelj_lurie_1.jpgPerformance ‘My Home is Your Home’ by Danijel Zezelj & Jessica Lurie
Photos by Funny Comics Show & Slaven Goricki (c)

What is your opinion on animated films? Do you have any desires to try to express yourself in this media?

DZ: Um, I like animated film as media, as an art form, sure. But, for now I really don’t have desire to try something with it. Animation has completely different way of setting the time dimension, sometimes it seems like somebody is recording the process of realization. So, I really like seeing it, but not doing it. For instance, I like a lot films by African animator William Kentridge. He uses a lot black and white contrasts and shading in his animations.


Performance ‘My Home is Your Home’ by Danijel Zezelj & Jessica Lurie
Photos by Funny Comics Show & Slaven Goricki (c)

Performances you do with Jessica and other jazz musicians are based on improvisations… do you make some additional arrangements or you just let it  flow… because this time you had already prepared material – photo slide before you even started to paint the wall…

DZ: Photos we used in this particular performance were made by Stanislav Habjan. This wasn’t imagined as with other performances we usually do. The first part was more documentary oriented. It was about the architectural structure of early Croatian sacral architecture from 9th, 10th century that exist on isles… So, the thing was not growing in some particular order or something like that. But the idea was to connect the first and second parts.

The first part is consisted of combined photographs from Habjans private album and small chapels they took during summer and in the second part I’m trying to connect the story and music together with painting on the wall. This time we collaborated with two Austrian jazz musicians for the first time in this form. So, in a way this was complete improvisation.

Danijel, Thanks a lot!

p.s. intro to this interview written by Deborah Hustic aka body pixel

(CRS – Funny Comics Show Festival is a co-blogger on Body Pixel)