11/12/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Lucid Dreaming in Pancevo

Pancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There's a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.

The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, Regards From Serbia, appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages.

In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the "smart bombs" and "cute little cluster bombs" of NATO. He catalogs the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. "Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies," he writes in one panel. "Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!"

In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. He showed me the cultural center and we talked about one of his recent fascinations: Neolithic life at the confluence of Pancevo's rivers, the Danube and the Tamis. Eventually we sat down at a café to talk about life during wartime, the challenges of lucid dreaming, and the surrealism of the everyday. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that engulfed the region had a profound effect on the cartoonist and his art. "Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions," he told me. "After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person's physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. In a psychological sense, it's good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself."

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how you felt about it? Your book begins with 1993-94. There's nothing before that. Were you doing comic strips at that time?

At that time, I was not really doing comics of the same type that I did later. I was still at that point experimenting with comics. I was also a writer, and I was writing about mostly rock music and art and also a little bit about comics and literature. It was at that point that I started experimenting with publishing comics.

It was different here in Yugoslavia -- at that point, Yugoslavia still existed -- since we had a different history compared to the rest of Eastern Europe. We were a mixture of a socialist bloc country and a more Western country. We were somehow on the brink of the two worlds. So, for us, it was not so dramatic, the end of the Berlin Wall. It was happening elsewhere.

Most people here, if you ask them about normal life in the time of socialism, they would say it was more comfortable than now. I have this feeling that 80 percent of the people, particularly if they are old enough to remember these times, would say that their life was easier then. It was not the same as it was in other Eastern European countries. But still, I would say that we expected that things would change in many ways. We were not sure if it was going to be for the better or the worse.

A collection of these columns, plus the emails that he wrote during this period and some work from both before and after the bombings, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.