Regards from Serbia
by Aleksandar Zograf (Top Shelf, 2007)

Under the UPC barcode, this book is described as "War Journalism/Autobiography/Graphic Novels." Yeah, that's an indicator for location to stock it, but it shows just how much this 287-page book contains. Regards from Serbia captures Aleksandar Zograf's experiences, impressions and interpretations of the turmoil and conflicts in the Balkans from 1993 to 2001. Part visual storytelling and part e-mail journal, Zograf relates his life during a time of crisis.

The visual storytelling is certainly eye-catching material. First off, the R. Crumb influence is unquestionable. If "Balkan artist" didn't prejudice the work towards the indie category, just look at his style: drastic contrasts, caricatured physiology, ultra-expressive faces, bunched-up and shifted panels and often disorienting hand-lettered text.

In this portion of Zograf's story, we see how life on the inside of a crisis is affected and unaffected. Whether it's questioning the logic of NATO bombing the very people they're claiming to help, or Disney revoking the use of their characters from national newspapers, Zograf displays how life is affected by the biggest obstacles or the smallest inconveniences.

In contrast, the e-mail portion of the book is starkly sobering. Of course it's going to look drastically different, with its standardized font on blank sheets compared to the visual cacophony of imagery and hand-lettering that precedes and precludes it. But the most astounding aspect of all is realizing that while bombs are being dropped blocks away, an everyday person like Zograf is able to communicate with friends all across the world in a near-instantaneous manner. Prior to the Internet, instantaneous communication was only available for the military and certainly wasn't as personal. There's a brusque honesty, not in the actual prose, but in the very existence of that prose. To have drastically different lifestyles connected by a single unedited and unfiltered message, it's an amazing aspect of contemporary reality.

Another aspect that Zograf explores is the media, especially television. For instance, television drives so much of the information and misinformation of all sides of the conflict. People within the area relied upon television news to tell them what occurred miles or mere blocks away. This over-reliance and prevalence of media paints a troubling image of society's survival, especially in the context of previous generations. Yes, information can be distributed immediately among the people, but Zograf shows how misinformation can be spread just as quickly, if not more so.

Regards from Serbia is truly imbedded journalism without the commercial breaks, flashy-themed graphics or press sensibilities. It's an artist's story of living and surviving when the world around him goes absolutely insane. At times, it is touching, silly, mundane, eventful, ludicrous, thought-provoking, routine and ... well, it's a lot like anyone else's life, honestly; just with a different background and context. And that's what Zograf is trying to show -- that even during difficult times, everyone continues to live their lives as best they can. And his story is like anyone's and everyone's ... both amazing and common.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

25 August 2007

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