Comics in Yugoslavia

You’ve probably heard of comics such as ‘Superman’ or ‘X-Men’, or maybe you’re interested in eastern titles like ‘Akira’ or ‘Bleach’. Whatever the case, you know about the existence of comic books and their influence in modern media. Even though nowadays you might say that you grew up watching TV series rather than reading comics, people from former Yugoslavia would say the opposite, because of the domination of ‘Alan Ford’, ‘Zagor’, ‘Il Grande Blek’ and other comic books in the market and the minds of young people at that time.

 The golden age of comics in the southeastern country is considered to have started in the early 1930s in Belgrade and ended with the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941. The first comics were short with humor. They were placed in separate sections of newspapers or collected in magazines rather than volumes like most we see today. One of the earliest examples of this was the American comic strip ‘Secret Agent X-9’ which had a whole page dedicated to it in the newspaper ‘Politika’ in 1934, even though it did not have a primarily a humorous subject. Children’s magazines also contributed to the popularization of comics by devoting a large portion of their pages to displaying cartoons and illustrations. Foreign characters were especially popular, among which Mickey Mouse took the throne as the most depicted character in Yugoslav comics. There have been many adaptations of this character drawn by Serbian illustrators, adaptations such as ‘Mikijeve Novine'(Mickey’s Newspapers) and ‘Mika Mish’.

 Mickey’s popularity was not always positive. Cartoons are often the hallmarks of a community, so when King Peter II of Yugoslavia and his regent Prince Paul saw the resemblance between themselves and the characters in Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Monarch of Medioka’ in 1937, there was censorship of this comic which was published in the newspaper ‘Politika’. The censorship ended two years later in 1939 and the comic series continued publishing new chapters. Hubert Harrison, who was a correspondent for the New York Times in Belgrade, wrote about the censorship and was even accepted as a hero by the people (despite his expulsion from Belgrade).

 Decades later, after World War I, reading and creating comics was discouraged by the new communist country. Comics were seen as corrupt western propaganda and harmful to society. Because of this, some of the Yugoslav partisans executed several comic book authors at that time because they believed that they were collaborators of war propaganda. Such was the fate of the author Veljko Kockar (who wrote comic strips about Donald Duck and cactus people ‘Kaktus Bata’ among other work) who was only 24 years old when he was killed by the partisans for allegedly being an accomplice of the German Gestapo. The popularity of comics fell until the separation of Tito and Stalin in 1948. Imports of foreign comics into Yugoslavia slowly started up again, among which once more appeared those of Walt Disney, and new French-Belgian cartoons such as ‘Smurfs’, which are still relevant to this day. Among domestic comics, “Mirko and Slavko” was particularly popular, and was the first Yugoslav comic to receive a live-action film adaptation. The eponymous characters had an interesting dynamic that attracted the audience, and the patriotic themes of the cartoon managed to change the negative opinion about comics of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia.

 At the end of the 1970s, comics gained their greatest popularity yet. The stigma against comics, especially those from the West, had almost completely disappeared. The aforementioned popular comic “Mirko and Slavko” was then criticized and considered outdated, and there was an increasing demand for western works. The Italian group of cartoonists EsseGesse created several works with an American focus that appealed to the Yugoslav audience. ‘Comandante Mark’ and ‘Il Grande Blek’ are titles from EsseGesse that achieved great success in Yugoslavia, although 30 years earlier such works were not well-liked in the country. Both works are fictional, adventurous retellings of the American Revolutionary War with main characters fighting against British rule. Other comics with this theme were ‘Zagor’, which tells the deeds of the main character Zagor Teney, an American fighter for justice whose name means ghost with an axe, and ‘Tex’, which tells about the character Tex Willer, an honest ranger and an enemy of discrimination; both published by Italian publisher Sergio Bonelli Editore. Among the other popular comics of this period were ‘Alan Ford’, which shows the life of a secret agent in New York, and the British ‘Modesty Blaise’, which introduces us to the female protagonist with a criminal background.

 Even after the separation of the republics that were part of Yugoslavia, comics translated into the Serbo-Croatian language were still popular. The language has been used for foreign translations ever since their first appearance in the country. This is not at all unusual, since the publishing houses were mostly from the Serbian republic. Although comics (which are not not by Marvel or Japan) may not be that well known in Macedonia anymore, I believe that there are publishing houses with Macedonian translations now more than ever.

 To this day, we can see old comics in the Serbo-Croatian language here, perhaps more prevalent than translations in the Macedonian language. When I visit store booths and notice a Serbo-Croatian comic, I think of the influence of Yugoslav publishers who contributed to the growth of comics in the country even after the separation of the republics. My own curiosity drives me to explore more. The next task I’m giving myself on this topic will be reading some of the old comics. I bought ‘Zagor’ a few months ago for my father to remind him of his youth, now it’s my turn to delve into the comic euphoria of that period. Would you also accept that challenge?

Nikolina Badjukova

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