For some the only sensible response... was the most vicious of gallows humor. —Matthew Collin. This is Serbia Calling
When I was asked to review Robusto!!! (Lovecraft House, 2016) by its editor/translator/publisher Dragana Drobjnak, you could pretty much sum up all I knew about Serbia in two words: “Novak Djokovic.”
This turned out not to be strictly true. Thinking further, I came up with a war (against Bosnia), a massacre (Srebrenika), a NATO bombing, and a head of state tried for war crimes (Milosevic). Also Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. (My wife is a huge tennis fan.)
And I’d read Rebecca West’s pre-World War II classic, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Of which I remembered nothing.
So I did not appear the most qualified reviewer.
But I agreed to take a look.
I expected a single comic. I received a collection of twenty-four stories (over 200 pages) which had appeared between 2001 and 2005 in a fanzine, Krplj, that had been named for a Serbian parasitic tick which appears irregularly in nature, rather than in a biologically determined pattern. Robusto!!! was written by someone called “Wostok,” with three similarly single-named co-authors. Wikipedia was no help identifying him; but I did learn that Serbia’s Golden Age of Comics had ended with the Nazi invasion in 1941, had revived under Tito, and that, between 1971 and 1981, 717 million comics were published for a population of 22 million. (That’s 3.26 comics per person per year. Which looks about the same as in the United States.)
Then Lambiek.net informed me that “Wostok” was born Danilo Milosev Wostok in then-Yugoslavia in 1963. A computer operator and filmmaker, he is also known as “Ex-Wostok” and “MediaKritet.”
Robusto!!! credited twenty additional contributing artists who, according to its introductory material, were often people approached at art openings, rock concerts, bar brawls, “and other small events,” shown isolated pages, and asked to illustrate them. The result is a textually-complementary, off-the-wall, unsettling mix running from the childlike to Adults Only, minimalistic to expressionistic, cartoony to photo-incorporated collage. (Some photos are of figures anyone would recognize; others, I imagine, only Serbs would.) There are also many penises. If penises upset you, stay away.
Robusto!!! takes its name from a bankrupt toilet shop encountered within action of the story. This action occurs in the town of Bollywood (“Bolly” being Serbian for “idiot” or “imbecile”) in the fall of 1993. The text establishes – and supplemental reading, notably Tim Judah’s The Serbs (3d ed.) and Matthew Collin’s This is Serbia Calling, confirm – that this was a time of economic catastrophe. By July 1993, inflation had reached 363 quadrillion percent. (By 1994, it was 313,567,558 percent per month.) At one point the government issued a 50,000,000,000 dinar note; two weeks later it was worthless. A year’s wages bought carrots; on the other hand, hours after a utility bill arrived, it was insignificant. People bartered, dumpster-dove, prostituted themselves to stay alive.
Serbia had gone to war in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992. These wars, between people who had lived peacefully as neighbors for decades – if not centuries – were fought, fueled by tribal instincts and religious mania stoked to Old Testament intensity by governmental inflammations. Mass murder, mass rape, mass arrests, the forced deportation of millions, and the mass destruction of mosques, churches and homes resulted.
Within Serbia, black markets existed for everything from cigarettes to heavy artillery. Cross-border smuggling raged. Banks were nothing but pyramid schemes and money laundries. War profiteers, robber barons, and gangsters thrived. Judges were bought and advanced degrees purchased. The psychotic became normal, Judah wrote, and the normal insane. Life, Collin said, had been “stolen” from a generation; its “freedom... culture and... youth” extinguished. This generation’s response was an “almost nihilistic hedonism.” Survival was impossible; but one had to survive.
Robusto!!!’s central characters are three glue-sniffing, home brew-drinking “outcasts.” (Becoming “blotto” was a basic survival mechanism. Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, alone, developed 30,000 heroin addicts.) Peki, who resembles Oliver Hardy is one. Red, who wears a rabbit-eared hat is another, and Grampa, who wears a conical hat, like a Catholic archbishop’s is the third. (Why Red and Grampa wear these hats, and who Grampa is grandfather to are not explained. I suspect readers of Wostok’s earlier works may know.)
Having been evicted for not paying rent for two years, Paki, Red and Grampa consider self- employment. The mercantile efforts of others, selling pre-worn underwear, plastic sex organs, and moldy walnuts, do not appeal. So having taken residence in a condemned “shithole,” living on stolen food and moonshine made from potatoes – and when they run out, diarrhea – they begin selling pirated CDs, before expanding into pornographic videos (“Gang Bangs with Bisons and Baboons”, “Aunts with Whips”). “We are small time crooks,” Peki concedes at one point, “but the criminals are the ones in power.”
This sets in motion a series of adventures (Issues 5-8), which involve a visit to the massage parlor of the author of “fuckable poems,” celebrating spanking and whipping, among other perversions, and a rock club, where a fellow in a tutu and another in a Nazi helmet perform ear-splitting “sadotripmazotechnoturbotrans” music to an audience of deaf “nuthouse” escapees. The three outliers also have time to pick up two pets, “Freak,” a monstrous creature which eats rocks, and “Sir Fartsalot,” a bisexually overactive hamster.
Then things get really strange. The president has led the nation into war. (“In this damned country... as soon as one evil ends another begins,” Peki says.) The trio lock themselves and their pets inside their residence in order to avoid forced conscription. (Within Belgrade, during these years, only 13% of those eligible actually served in the military. The rest hid or fled. Over 300,000 people, most of them young, left the country.) They are soon eating rats, snails and wormy beans and smoking dried mosquitoes. But, usually initiated by a knock (“KUC! KUC! KUC!”) on the door, the world continually intrudes.
These visitors include the organizer of an art show (“Art No Limits”), which features works composed of post-spoiled bean soup defecation, used toilet paper, and vomit; a Lilliputian-sized World’s Greatest Lover, who boasts of having had sex with canned sardines; an agriculturalist who produces industrial-strength marijuana; a pig-snouted, reptile-tongued, eight-testicled professor of “dirtiest perversions”; an investigator of “the darkest and remotest corners of the human soul,” who once copulated with an extra-terrestrial; a fighter against pop culture, rasta, heavy metal, pocket pool, and Satan, whom he believes has commanded the nation’s youth to “Eat dead cats,” “Don’t go to Bible school,” and “Fart in your grandma’s mouth”; and, finally, an outsider artist/fanzine publisher, whose grandparents made a living exorcising demons, and whose insanely patriotic father had a proclivity for book and comic destruction. Many of these visitors decide to move in, leading to the invocation of “an old Bollywood proverb: “A house was never too small as long as no one living there had rabies.”
“What kind of world are we living in?!?” a fellow in Robusto!!!’s final panel asks, clutching his stiff-as-a-pole cock in double-handed masturbatory fashion.
It seems, after all a reader has witnessed, a reasonable question.
Some transgressive cartoonists seem to work out of an accumulation of internalized personal wounds which they splay upon the page like a suddenly burst pimple, to which others are likely to respond, “Uh... What’s on the next channel?” But Wostok’s book carries the weight of a trailer truckload of bloody-limbed horrors which, having previously pummeled an entire population, makes its dismissal impossible. It may lack forward-moving narrative pull, but it commands attention through its I-can’t-believe-you-topped-what-went-before accumulations. It may not lead to cathartic release; but it effectively assumes catharsis is a myth. It may present no relationships with psychological complexity to explore; but it has persuasively squashed them through the blow-upon-blow-upon-blow it has rained upon you.
Robusto!!! is unhinged and offensive, sure. It also seems honest and just. It convinces by its content that anything less would leave unscratched the ground from which it sprang. It is a you-got-nothing-on-me, Catch-22. Bite this, Dr. Strangelove, it says. Blackly humored, deadly serious, it speaks, for a different time and a different place, truths that have been hard-earned.
After I had finished a draft of my review, I e-mailed Wostok several questions. Here they are, along with his answers, both slightly edited by me.
LEVIN: My research says you were born in 1963, work as a computer operator and film maker and are also known as “Ex-Wostok” and “MediaKritet.” Is this correct?
WOSTOK: You are right. There is just a little correction with "MediCkritet." This means "mediocre" in Serbian language and it was not a joke, but rather an expression of my huge frustration with my lack of talent for drawing!
Are you still creating comix? If so, of what nature? If not, why did you stop?
I already told you how unsatisfied I was with my drawing skills, so I burned all my comics that I have created up to my 25th year of life in autumn of 1988. I planned to quit comics for good and also to, er, kill myself, too! Fortunately neither of two plans of mine were fulfilled and now you find me still alive and in good health and drawing comics!
Robusto!!! is set in 1993, but seems to have been published between 2001 and 2005. If this is correct, why did you wait until so long after the events that you depicted had occurred?
Robusto!!! started more like a joke, actually. I was teasing my friends Red and (Peki?) because they tried to sell a few pirate discs just to get out of some debt. Then I said, “Hey, guys, you are criminals now, hahaha! But don’t feel ashamed because you are only small time crooks and the real big criminals are employed in our government and on other important positions in our state! Then I started to remember everything that happened in previous years in our unhappy and fucked up society and than I decided to make a comic serial.
What percent of the art was contributed by the individuals you approached at art shows, rock concerts and bar brawls, and what percent under less spontaneous circumstances?
I started to collaborate with just one accomplished cartoonist, Lazar Bodroza, and Robusto!!! was supposed to be a crossover serial, which was supposed to make mainstream comic readers interested in underground comics. But then our cooperation failed and I had scripts for ten episodes written and I decided to post it for drawing in empty panels and offer it to anyone interested to draw. It was my way of trying to relax from too much ambition probably. And also I was bored with most of the comics I had a chance to read at that time and then I said to myself, “If professionals create so much predictable and boring stuff maybe we should give a chance in fresh forces embodied in absolute beginners, amateurs, and other outsiders which didn’t have skills but also weren’t brainwashed with training!"
I know that the Rambo fellow is a real person. [Author’s Note: Rambo Amadeus, one of the visitors to the “shithole,” was a member of the pun band KPGS, a Serbian acronym for Dick, Pussy, Shit, Tits.] What about the others?
Most of them are real persons. The most interesting is “Nymphomaniac” from this comic and in reality Radomir Belacevic, who was the owner of legal automechanic repair shop and also illegal bordello! He produced a few movies when he was in his last years of life, even a feature film western in which he is scriptwriter, producer, director, and main actor!
Most of the people in the photo-collage panels I didn’t recognize. Would they be known to other Serbians?
The leader of “Rotten Rose” satanist sect from my comic is represented by photo of Mitar Miric, who was “the worst officially dressed man in show business in Serbia in year 1994.” and is still a very popular although really bad folk singer!
Why does Red wear rabbit ears? Did he and Paki appeared in earlier comix of yours?
He wears rabbit ears because I took him and three other friends who don’t play musical instruments to play in really important rock venue in Belgrade in year 1999. When they realized that they really gonna have a gig they got totally drunk and then found some ballerina clothes—actually it was clothes for ballerina for the role of the rabbit in some ballet play and they shared three parts of her costume and Red got the ears! So him and Peki had this retarded gig in Belgrade dressed as cretins and the only good thing about it was that they were so drunk that they don’t remember almost nothing!