Days with the Mummy of Tito

By Jerry Lasota
(except quotes in italics, taken from various interviews)

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In July 2003, a Balkan festival was arranged in Berlin. Two Swedish comics artists were asked to make an exhibition focusing on a comic they had created following a visit to the Balkans. They agreed.
The show was presented in a sparsely lit cellar in the district of Prenzlauer Berg. The walls were decorated with the by then three chapters of the comic, in the form of oversized prints. A glass showcase contained souvenirs from the two artists’ first trip to the Balkans together: notes, travel sketches, a bust of Tito and grenade shells decorated with folk art motives. A battered war diary lay on a piedestal. Finally, residing in an old refrigerator, the main thread of the comic in person: The mummy of Tito.
The artists were Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson, the comic was called “Bosnian Flat Dog”.

The two artists met through the Swedish comics magazine Galago, to which they each contributed stories as well as their own special characteristics. The most well-known antiheroes of Lars Sjunnesson are the anarchistic and bomb-blast-happy Åke Jävel and the violently burlesque Tjocke-Bo, while Max Anderssons cruel contemporary fairytales have protagonists like the aborted foetus Pixy and the damaged but good-hearted Wreck-Boy.
And it was in Galago that “Bosnian Flat Dog” was first published. In the story the two artists travel to a comics convention in the Balkans, but they get sidetracked and are confronted by the mummy of Tito, zombiefied Nato soldiers and traumatized widows from Srebrenica.

- Most of what’s in the comic has happened for real, or at least in our minds, but perhaps not always in exactly that manner, they explain.*

Fiction is mixed with reality, but also with fragments of previous works by the artists. The mutated flat breed of dog named “Bosnian Flat Dog” is one of Max Anderssons’ earlier creations, and has appeared in his book “Döden” (Death).
- I often recycle characters, exploit them as far as possible, Max himself says.
Lars Sjunnesson agrees in the case of Uncle Skledar, the character who, in the comic, initiates the whole trail of events by phoning and demanding royalties for being used as a character in a previous comic. The real-life model is Stefan Skledar, Lars’ old student dormitory pal from Slovenia, from whom he by this time had heard nothing for years. Assisted by the editor of the Slovenian comics magazine Stripburger they managed to track down the real Skledar, and subsequently went to visit him.
- He wrote an excellent, and, in my opinion, almost touching preface on the offical stationery of the Slovenian state, Lars Sjunnesson says.

The absolute origin of the comic was a journey to a comics convention in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1999. The trip proved to be disturbing though inspiring. Safely back in Berlin, the two artists made the decision to draw a comic together about their experiences. Nothing special, just a short travelogue. Or so they thought.
With the aid of travel notes and memories the creative process was sparked. But after a few months of kicking ideas around, they realized that the story deserved more. They produced a new synopsis, where the absurd story plays on a meta-level, and the two artists themselves play the leading roles.
But the story didn’t seem satisfied with its form; it twisted and mutated all along.
During the summer of 2002, they got stuck working on chapter three (which was supposed to be the last one), abandoned their old synopsis, turned to drinking beer and let the characters themselves take over. The story shed its old ending and was brought to new life. The artists agreed that there would have to be two more chapters.
A side effect of the constant twisting and turning of the story is, of course, a huge amount of drafts. According to Max Andersson, a “director’s cut” version would be impossibly long.
- There are piles of notebook pages and sketches that we don’t know what to do about. Some were damn hard to get rid of. In the end it wasn’t a question of “kill your darlings” anymore, it was more like a mass murder of darlings. I can’t even begin to count the alternative endings. They are numerous. On the other hand, the moment we had written what became the final ending of the story, we both knew that this was the one, we didn’t even have a discussion about it.

When two people make a comic together usually one of them writes the script, which the other then interpretes and illustrates. But this very special story was shaped by joint efforts.

In the beginning the two of them drew their own characters respectively, but looking at the results they found it unsatisfying. Instead they decided to do everything together. And they had to stick to certain rules: both had to be responsible for about 50% of each pencil drawing, and no one was allowed to draw a whole character by himself. The same rules applied to the text. The method was supposed to end up with the artists “forgetting themselves”, which, according to Max Andersson, would guarantee the best possible result. **

They abandoned their “separate” drawing styles in favor of a new style, which was neither that of the one or the other, but a composite.
- In a way the comic is made neither by me or Max, but by a third artist, one that only exists between the two of us, Lars says.
- I don’t know which is the most fun. It’s fun both to fill in what Max didn’t draw, and to see what Max achieved with the page I started on. But it takes a lot of time. We both imagined it would be faster to work when you’re two. Instead it takes twice as long.
- It was an inefficient working method, but it’s been fruitful. One has to coax oneself into developing as an artist with this sort of tricks, says Max.

- I can no longer tell for sure who drew what in which panel, Lars Sjunnesson claims.*

Eventually the main character materialized in Lars’ home. None of them can remember whose idea it was.
- I guess it was Tito himself who needed to be built, Max decides.
Tito was constructed in life size, with a skeleton of styrofoam and joints of fabric. Head, hands and one foot (the other foot is missing, that’s part of the story) was manufactured out of papier-maché. An old GDR uniform was added and off they went.
They rented a car, and with Tito in the back seat they drove around to different exhibitions in the Balkans.
- We crossed a lot of borders all the time. It seemed the rumor was spreading from one border checkpoint to the next, ‘cause at one checkpoint they asked us if the guy sitting in the back was Tito. When we replied that this was the case, we were ordered to pull to the side and park the car. Then we had to sit and wait for quite awhile until finally someone arrived, whom we assumed to be the chief of police. He was happy. All he wanted was to be photographed sitting next to Tito in the back seat, Lars recalls.

More and more they had the feeling that they were no longer the main characters, but Tito.
- He was always the one at the center of attention, not us. We were more like... his assistants, Max explains.
The carreer of the puppet in uniform also included a live performance at the independent club Mocvara in Zagreb.
- He was sprawled on an ancient, pre-WW2 type hospital bed while a transvestite was dancing around singing old disco hits from ex-Yugoslavia.

So how did people in the Balkans react to the often disrespectful and macabre comics?
- In a very positive way, says Max.
- It was as if they were happy to see their own history from our perspective. If the reactions hadn’t been that positive, we wouldn’t have been able to go on.

- It was strange. We discovered that the locals who came to the exhibition were just as inquisitive regarding the war as we were. They asked us about what caused the war, which is absurd. We don’t even live there. That was our question for them, says Max Andersson.**

They’re not entirely sure themselves why the reception was so benevolent, and bad feelings seemed so far away.
- We’re not getting into reasons our explanations. We’re not being partial for one side or the other. Even though we’ve read a lot, we still know too little to be capable of doing an analysis of what it was like down there.

- It was the first war in Europe, in our own immediate vicinity, that we experienced ourselves. The more we worked on the comic, the more it got to be about ourselves, they say, and claim that they got “balkanized” in the process.
- Look it up in the glossary of the book, they say and point at a section where concepts like the Dayton peace talks, ethnic cleansing and Republika Srpska are explained. Under the key word Balkan it says that balkanization means “ a feeling of having vanished in different directions”.*
- Of course we tried to tell a political story. But we dont want to tell people what to think. We provide clues, then it’s up to the reader to think for himself.**

- I imagine that if we would have tried to present something as the indisputable truth, we would have been more likely to step on somebody’s toes.
The Berlin exhibition is now finished. If the artists were to choose, they would most of all like to take the mummy on another trip to ex-Yugoslavia, above all to Montenegro and Macedonia.
- It’s the only two former republics of Yugoslavia where it still hasn’t been, Max says.
- When Tito died, his coffin travelled through all the former republics within Yugoslavia as a kind of last farewell. It would feel good to have done that also with our Tito.

Text © Jerry Lasota 2004

* text © Thomas Hall 2003, excerpt from interview published in DN 03-12-29
** text © Paulina Bylén 2004, excerpt from interview published in SvD 04-02-10

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