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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/01/2010
On the Enchantment of Secrets, the Power of Folktales, and making The
Legend of Steel Bashaw
Petar Meseldžija on The Legend of Steel Bashaw

OK. Let’s get the messy stuff outta the way right now.

Yes, I wrote the catalogue copy, and by extension even a bit of back cover copy, for this book.

But the truth of the matter is that I would be doing this interview, and raving about the Legend of Steel Bashaw to all and sundry, whether I’d done that bit of work for the good folks at Flesk Publications or no. Quite simply, Steel Bashaw represents not just a breathtakingly beautiful debut from a storyteller and painter of immense talent; it’s also the single best Foreign Language Original Graphic Novel [or illustrated story] I’ve read all year. And this has been a year filled with mightily impressive translated OGNs.

The Legend of Steel Bashaw is a tale filled with princes and princes, beasts and monsters, real and otherwise. It’s built from the same strong, lasting stuff as all of the other Great Tales. And Petar tells it with such passion, purity of vision and exemplary execution that it seems to flow effortless from the page to inhabit your heart, mind and deeper, more profound regions, too. From the book’s history-haunted introduction to the last page of the tale, and even beyond that into the “making of” section which follows the main feature, it is a triumphal performance from start to finish, one that announces the arrival of a truly noteworthy new artist to the American publishing scene.

Ladies and gents, it’s my pleasure to introduce you all to Petar Meseldžija. He’s one hell of an artist and storyteller, and as you’re about to discover, even via email his wit is a deadly as his brushwork and narrative instincts are steady and true.

Bill Baker: How would you describe Steel Bashaw?

Petar Meseldžija: The Legend of Steel Bashaw is a tale about the wonders of life and the joys and pains of living. It talks about love, responsibility, dedication and compassion. It is a story which does not promote the sharp division line between good and bad, but rather sees these opposites as the indissoluble parts of the whole.

BB: It’s also based upon a tale that is a particular favorite of storytellers in your homeland. What lead to your decision to adapt that particular yarn out of all the folk tales you heard as a child?


PM: The folk tale, “Baš Čelik,” which served as the springboard for the creation of The Legend of Steel Bashaw, is simply the most interesting, exciting and one of the most picturesque of tales to choose from the Serbian folklore library. It is not without a reason that it became the most popular Serbian fairytale. A curious thing is that this folk tale appeared in 1916 within the collection of fairytales from the Allied Nations, as a representative of the Serbian folklore. The book was illustrated by the legendary French/English illustrator Edmund Dulac and was published in Great Britain during the First World War.

BB: Ah, another volume to add to my list of books I need to add to my library.

Well, how closely did you follow the basic outline of Bas Čelik while creating Bashaw… and if you did make changes, what might those be, and what lead to those alterations?

PM: I used the basic outline of the original tale only as a guideline, or as a kind of spine whose function was to inspire and hold the “muscles” of my story together. To be honest, though quite exciting, the original tale appeared to me too old-fashioned, not exactly ‘up to date’ and belonging to the mind frame of the past times. So, I thought it was time to redesign and refresh it, without spoiling the beauty of the ancient folk wisdom and the mythological truth embedded in it. I also reduced the level of violence and took the opportunity of infusing the story with some spiritual symbolism.

I tried to make the story more appealing to the contemporary reader, and by doing so, to give him chance to identify with the characters and situations.

BB: Now, I understand that it took you 15 years to finish Bashaw. So, cutting right to the chase, what took so long? Not that the results aren’t spectacular—they are—but I was curious what particular challenges, artist, narrative and even spiritual, this project posed that required that long of a process?

PM: Well, one proverb says: “There is no shortcut to the place that is truly worthwhile of being at.” I obviously did not take a shortcut in creating Steel Bashaw. It is true that it took me 15 years to complete it, but it does not mean that I worked on the project constantly for 15 years. On the contrary; there were many breaks, of which the longest one lasted for 7 years. I think, all in all, I effectively worked on the paintings two (2) to three (3) years. It is not possible to count the time I spent on thinking, traveling, collecting reference, reading, photo shooting, doing all sorts of research, sketching and making preliminary drawings.

Besides, as you might have noticed, my approach to illustration is greatly influenced by the XIX (19th) century art, especially the last few decades, as well as by the art of the American illustrators from the golden age. Therefore my approach to illustration is painterly. I often think of myself as being a mind of an illustrator trapped in the painter´s body. The pictorial quality of my illustrations is very important aspect of my approach. I often spend days on solving a certain pictorial problems although I know it will not be possible to properly see and enjoy the results when the painting is published. It is just that the physical appearance of my originals are so important to me—more important than how a particular painting will turn out when reproduced in a book, on the cover, as a poster or in the magazines. Therefore I am often disappointed when I see my paintings reproduced.

Also, in more recent years I’ve applied more and more so-called alla-prima technique in my working process, which means that almost every brushstroke counts and therefore must be executed with outermost concentration. This is a working method that is quite exhausting, mentally as well as physically. All that contributed to the long genesis of Steel Bashaw project.

After all, now that the book is finished and published in Serbia (2008) and in the US (2010), I could say I was fortunate enough not to finish the book earlier. As I grew in age, developed myself and my artistic skills and gained life experience, so, too, did the book grow in its complexity, depth and quality.

BB: What kept you committed to finishing this project over such an extended period? Did you ever have any doubts you’d see it done, much less in print?

PM: I do remember I had some doubts back in the nineties. In fact, at that time I was deeply involved with a different kind of painting, which made me believe, fortunately only for a brief period of time that I’d lost my interest in the project. I suppose that working on Steel Bashaw was a kind of compensation for the things I lost and was missing in my new surroundings in the Netherlands. It also had to do with reflection on my own identity, for I must remind you, in 1991 I left my native country because of the civil war and therefore lost connection with all the things which made up the first 26 years of my life. How does one deal with such a huge life change and the shock which goes with it? I did it through the creation of Steel Bashaw.

BB: Did the basic format of the book go through any major changes between your initial moment of inspiration and the final published version? In other words, did you originally conceive of it as a comic, but it later became an illustrated prose tale as your artistic vision developed and shifted from comics to illustration and painting over the years?

PM: From the very beginning it was meant to be an illustrated book. I definitely stopped drawing comics a year before I started to work on Steel Bashaw. Back in 1993 I only knew that I had a strong urge to illustrate the original folk tale. As the project slowly developed, the idea of changing the initial tale grew stronger. My tale was conceived gradually and during many years. The new tale initiated the creation of new illustrations—the illustrations, in their turn, influenced the development of the story, forcing it to take unexpected twists and turns. So the story, the illustrations and myself, we all grew together simultaneously, interacting with each other.

BB: When did you first become interested in art, and creating your own? Is it something that you’ve always done, or was there a particular point where you discovered your gift?

PM: As with many other children, I often spent time drawing all sorts of things; but, when I was about 12 years old, I started to draw comics. It was love at first sight. Though I am no longer “married” to that first love of mine, drawing comics was one of the things that gave me a sense of tremendous joy and elation. It was one of the most important “addictions” of my life. It definitely defined my future career and therefore my whole life up to now. That is how I enrolled in the world of art.

As for my gift; it was during the studies at the art academy when, one day, my dog started to bark at one of my life-size drawings of a model, that I became definitely sure of my talent.

BB: What kind of formal training did you have early on? And are there any tips or special techniques you learned during that period which have proven themselves helpful through the years?

PM: I studied painting at the art academy in my hometown. I spent four (4) years learning drawing, painting, sculpturing, handling various graphic techniques, and studied anatomy, architecture, and many other useful things—all of which contributed to the development and deepening of my artistic insight, knowledge and skills. Just being at the academy every day, absorbing the inspiring atmosphere, was very important for my development, although I have to say that in fact nobody at the academy taught me to paint in the classic way, for the prevailing view on art was favoring the modernistic dogma. I learned to paint in the classic way on my own, through looking at and analyzing the paintings of the artists I adored at that time…and, let’s not to forget, through hard work, persistence and practice.

BB: When did you first break into comics?

PM: I published my first comic series, named Krampi, in 1981. That is how my comic career started. I drew comics with love and passion for the next 11 – 12 years. It was one of the most important aspects of my life. During that time I created about 300 comic pages. Nevertheless, in 1992, at that time I drew my last comic page. I already felt that my urge to keep on doing comics had almost entirely disappeared. The flame was out. Other things attracted my attention, like painting and illustration.

BB: Well, how difficult was it to abandon comics?

PM: As I have just said, my desire for doing comics weakened so badly that I stopped doing it without any problems. As an artist, I wanted to go further and to try my hand at different things. Other kinds of frontiers were calling me.

BB: You also graduated from the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad (Serbia). What lead you to enroll there? And are there any important lessons they might have instilled in you that you’d like to share with any aspiring artists reading this?

PM: By the time I decided to enter the Art Academy I drew comics for about 6 years. Some of my fellow comic artists told me that there is nothing a comic artist can learn at the Novi Sad Art Academy and that there is even a chance that I would lose the touch of a true comic draughtsman. In spite of their concerns, I felt that I needed and wanted to study art in order to fully awaken and develop the artist within me.

There is one particular thing I would tell, when asked, to any aspiring artist; if you really want to make something of your life by being an artist, make sure you love creating art to the bone!

The life of a true artist is hard and difficult. Most of your precious life, you will have to spend in loneliness, wrestling with your paintings, comics, sculptures, designs or whatever your true artistic vocation is or will be. Add to it the money issue and the long, painful and uncertain path towards recognition. Only through sincere love for the creative process and unreserved commitment will you be able to withstand all the troubles which will patiently wait for you to come along.

(One thing I like about myself is my "optimism”…)

BB: What aspects of illustration and painting first caught, and have held your interest, these past few years?

PM: Classic XIX (19th) Century (second half) painting enriched by some aspect of XX (20th) Century art was and still is my cup of tea. That is the reason I love so much of the American illustrators from the Golden Age. All of them were great classic painters and they carried that glorious tradition, so wonderfully represented by Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn, into the XX century. Let me be clear, I admire all sorts of good art, from the objects of primitive artistic expression to the contemporary forms of art. But, a fat oil paint and a proper brush are still my dearest toys.

BB: What do you hope your readers get from your work in general, and from Bashaw, in particular?

PM: Talking of Steel Bashaw, I can say that I hope people will be delighted and inspired by the sincere and multileveled approached to the art of illustration, which I tried to introduce in my book, and which is based upon all that I’ve experienced, the total sum of my knowledge and skill collected along the way until now,.
I also hope they will realize that suggestiveness in art (as well as in Life) reaches deeper than descriptiveness. No one can look through my eyes, but one can learn to look through his own eyes.

BB: What do you get from creating art, in general, and what has Steel Bashaw given you back?
PM: What do I get from creating art? Myself! Only through the process of creation, which in its purest meaning means—to make something from “nothing” (from a white canvas to the painted two-dimensional world)—am I able to be closest to my true being. I am not saying that I get to know myself completely through creating art, but I certainly experience the feeling of “coming home.”

Until now, Steel Bashaw has enriched my life on many different levels. On one hand, it brought me back to my national and spiritual roots; on the other, it propelled me into the wide world and reconnected me with it.
BB: I have to play the Devil’s Advocate here and ask if you’ve ever had serious thoughts about sharing the location of the ruins you so eloquently describe in your introduction to Steel Bashaw. After all, isn’t it a potentially historic find of real importance?

PM: Well Bill, I am afraid I can´t answer this question to your satisfaction. It is a secret and it will stay a secret, for as we all know, secrets tend to lose their enchanting power after they have been revealed. And enchantment is one of the keywords of Steel Bashaw. Sorry!

BB: Well, given that state of affairs on that front, what’s next for you, Petar? Will we be seeing more folk lore adaptations from you in the future, or are you moving in a completely different direction these days?

PM: I just finished the work on a new book which deals with the creatures from Serbian mythology. I collaborated with four very talented Serbian illustrators. I was responsible for envisioning the giants and dwarfs. I still have not see the printed book, but I have seen the PDF files and I must say that it looks fantastic! The book is printed in Serbian language, but the publisher, www.orfelin.info, will certainly try to find a foreign publisher in order to publish the book in English as well.

Besides that, I am working on my new book projects (there are two of them at the moment). Further, I am painting book covers for Scholastic, Inc., doing personal commissions and many other things.

BB: Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to work

PM: Dear reader, go to www.fleskpublications.com. Do yourself a favor and buy the book, The Legend of Steel Bashaw. Your children and even your grandchildren will be grateful to you, because they will cherish this book long after we have left this place. When you have read the entire book and have spent some time absorbing the pictures, you will understand why!

(Some people told me that one is his own best promoter, so I thought I’ll give it a try!)


And he does an admirable job of it, doesn’t he folks?

But in all seriousness, if you’ve not checked out Petar’s The Legend of Steel Bashaw yet, deprive yourself of that pleasure no longer. Once again, yeah, I wrote the catalogue and some back cover copy for the book. But I’d be raving about this masterwork regardless. It is, in my opinion, the single best translated OGN published so far this year. You heard it here first, folks…

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