An Interview with Nina Bunjevac

[This interview with Nina Bunjevac was originally conducted on March 28 2010 and published on (now defunct) books.toronotoist.com. I’m posting it today (Dec 21 2022) and backdating the post to match the original interview date. At the time Nina had published many short stories, and was working as a teacher at Maxx the Mutt College of Animation, Art and Design. Nina since went on to become an internationally recognized cartoonist, publishing (to date) four graphic novels, including her most famous, Fatherland, which became a New York Times bestseller. You can find more about Nina on her Wikipedia page or on her website ]

Howard: Can you tell me about Maxx the Mutt [College of Animation, Art and Design], in their first year, how they teach drawing?

Bunjevac: Basically the first year, the foundation year, drawing is being taught the Nicoladies way with a little bit of a mixture of Bridgeman and Hale. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hale, especially on anatomy by  him and his anatomy tapes from the later years. 

Howard: What did you teach there, yourself? 

Bunjevac: I taught principles of drawing, life drawing and hands and features. Which is a subject for the  second year in both animation and illustration program 

Howard: I’ve often said, for better or for worse, about the difference between illustration and fine art, and  how that applies to comics — there is a division in the fine art world between illustration and fine art. And  the comics often are often seen by the fine art world as falling in the illustration category. 

Bunjevac: Oh- yeah… ok… 

Howard: And that has to do with the “commercial art” label. 

Bunjevac: Oh, I think it’s because it hasn’t been taken seriously so far, I think it’s going more that way, the comics are stepping over the boundaries, a lot of new comic book artists and authors are using a lot more  interesting styles in their work. 

Howard: Unique styles. 

Bunjevac: Especially compared to mainstream comics. I’m talking about people who are doing  independent comics, really. 

Howard: You come from a fine art background. 

Bunjevac: Yeah I do. 

Howard: And you have had a successful fine art career. 

Bunjevac: Well, I would call it successful in that I would finish these paintings and I would show them in a gallery and people would buy them, but really, the process you know, I lost a lot of the pleasurable feeling  in the process; I stopped enjoying it a long time ago. It just didn’t do it for me. I saw fine art as only one  form that one could express him or her self in. 

Howard: How about the sculptures? Your sculptures are beautiful and it is what drew me to your work. 

Bunjevac: The funny thing about it, after I graduated from OCAD, and well before that, when I graduated  from Central Technical School, I spent years painting, trying to really get a hold of the medium, both  acrylic and oils, and I think that I’d overdone it. I stayed in one medium way too long and after a while I  just burnt out. After that, just for the sake of variety, I started working in sculpture installations as a  medium and started with doll making, which was kind of more of hobby. Then I started to realize there was  more to the dolls, that there was a narrative between, you know what the dolls looked like, and the objects I would gather around to display the dolls with, in different art shows. The difference between painting and  the sculpture installations was that the installations had a narrative component and the paintings were little  bit more static, which I find illustrations can be as well. So, really, fine arts are perceived as static images, I believe there’s something to it which you don’t get enough of, and you just can’t express yourself after a  while. I think all artists should keep changing their mediums, and should never get stuck with one style.  The life of an artist is really about self discovery, tackling challenges and learning through the process. 

Howard: You went to Serbia last year? 

Bunjevac: Yeah, I went to Serbia last year. I spent a month in both Serbia and a week in Rome. I was  invited to participate in CRAK festival, which happens every June in Rome in an abandoned fort. It used to  serve the purpose of jail, back in the 1700’s I believe – or 1900’s – and for about four days, every June, the  CRAK festival turns the fort into this incredible event where hundreds of artists participate: illustrators,  comic book artists, small press houses, zines, performance artists – basically whatever. 

Howard: Do you find distinctions among those groups sort of blurred? 

Bunjevac: Yeah. It think what I saw in Europe that I haven’t seen in North America as much is a lot  political content, the kind of type that’s in all of these disciplines – there’s a lot of, there’s a very strong  feminist and anti-fascist movement among these people, that’s one thing I noticed.  

Howard: It really sounds as if their art serves a social purpose. 

Bunjevac: Yeah exactly, and there’s this big environmental movement as well in the underground. Now the festival itself is “the festival of drawn art” and the fact is, if you have a festival that caters to “drawn art,”  and you have all these cross-disciplines represented, what does that tell you? It tells you how you can’t  really confine a medium just to itself. I think, really, when you think of sequential art, you know, I don’t  think that comics were the first form of sequential art, you can go back to the hieroglyphs, right? For  example I remember last year coming across AA Bronson’s installation, but it was an online version, when  you go from one image to the next – it was the Mirror Mirror installation – basically, the piece consisted of  found objects, snapshots and wall paintings in terms of text written by AA.  

Some of these pieces are about his dreams, some of them are about his life experiences, the loss of his  partners from General Idea and I realized… what is the difference between this and comics? – if this isn’t  sequential arts, I don’t’ know what is. I mean for me, that piece, I lived it and I felt it deeper than, any  comic art. So, really I think confining sequential arts to pen and paper is wrong. You don’t want to – it’s ok  – I don’t really care if people take comics/sequential art seriously or not, just let it develop, it will find it’s  own way. It’s still a very young discipline, you know? And I think there’s a lot of room for improvement  and it’s constantly growing, all you have to do is look at the amazing pieces that have been produced just in the last 40 years, it’s incredible. From the undergrounds to the present, especially. 

Howard: You’ve really connected to the underground art scene in Serbia. 

Bunjevac: Yeah. It’s funny because when I started doing comics, which wasn’t really in the 90’s it was  more like 2000, after doing sculpture, I realized that the comics have always been a part of my life but I  never took it seriously. Just because maybe no one else takes these things seriously, when it comes to  comics, and so I didn’t really connect to the scene, I didn’t really have friends who did comics and I pretty  much did it on my own. The first people and the first groups I associated with I found through the internet,  who I found through contacting personally, and they happened to be in Europe. So all of a sudden I found  myself connected to the scene, I found my self connected with the scene in Rome, and I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I haven’t really had enough time, and really I haven’t really put enough effort into connecting with  the scenes from Toronto, or the scenes from Canada. Something like that. 

Howard: Can you tell me a little bit more about the subject matter of your comics? They’re often about  people coming to Canada for the first time, and they’re about dysfunctional situations and dysfunctional  families, and I look as some of your fine art, some of your paintings, and it seems like sometimes I’m  seeing some of the same people.  

Bunjevac: Oh, that’s very interesting. Well, I take a very personal approach to my subject of course, due to  the fact that I don’t do commercial comics – I illustrate my own comics and I write them – the ideas always  seem to come from the same place, inside personal experience, or the experiences of other people that are  close by. I was born in Canada and when I was a year old my family moved back to Yugoslavia. I did not  return back to Canada until I was 16.

Howard: Wow. 

Bunjevac: At this point I did not speak any English, and so my return to Canada was very much like a  newcomer, a new immigrant. I had friends who were in the same position, and the people around me who  naturally, you know, the jobs you can get for somebody who doesn’t speak English, will dictate the people  you have around you. And so the jobs that were available to me were basically the same jobs that would be  available to recently arrived immigrants. I’ve seen, witnessed a lot of really interesting stories, especially  from Eastern Europe. And so that’s why that particular subject matter is dear to me. I also like to explore  relationships 

Howard: The micro in the macro – the microcosm as an example of a major shift in the culture? 

Bunjevac: Something like that, but what I would really like to focus on is the humour in my work. What I  really try to do is laugh at my characters. You know, I mean we’re all walking caricatures, really, and it’s  really interesting to portray that. Also there’s a really wicked part of me that likes to make fun of dark,  existential dark stuff, you know? 

Howard: Yes. 

Bunjevac: Which is why I like all my comics to be reminiscent of black and white moves, of film noir, and I like to inject humour and make fun of the darkness. Because I really do believe the only way you can  fight darkness is with laughter, just bringing in some light. You know? I mean how many books are there or poems written about people with existential angst, and stuff, and how many comics are there our there  about how comic book artists can’t make money and are poor. You know what I mean? 

Howard: Who do you read, what artists do you read or recommend. 

Bunjevac: That’s funny because recently I’ve gotten a copy of Crumb’s Genesis and I thought, “Oh my  god, I know it’s Crumb, but it’s the bloody bible!” You know what I mean? I just look at the pictures! I  really like what he did with that, it’s a collectible, you really have to have one, you know. I really believe  that he did a wonderful job.  

I’m a big fan of the US underground, one of my biggest influences were [Charles] Burns, and Crumb,  again, I really liked the guy who did Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond. I really like his style, I like that  romantic vintage style of drawing. 

Howard: Dave Sim is trying to explore that in his new Glamourpuss comic. 

Bunjevac: Next to that I haven’t had much time to read. There’s a couple of books I’d eventually like to  turn into graphic novels. I have three on my shelf and I haven’t yet made up my mind when I’m going to  start working on it. One of these days you know? 

Howard: Are there other people in Europe who you’ve connected with? Zograf? 

Bunjevac: Alexander Zograf – he’s really one of my favourite artists in Europe. His background is in  journalism. To really appreciate Zograf, you have to read him. His comics are just wonderful social  commentary. 

Howard: Necessary social commentary? 

Bunjevac: Definitely – necessary social commentary. He’s a huge influence on me, he was actually the  first person that I connected with in the Balkans scene. That was some years ago when I was working on  editing a copy of dtm, and I had met some artists from different parts of the world, from Italy and Argentina and on, and I was still looking for some people. And, one point when I was looking through his book,  Regards from Serbia, I decided to give him call and get in touch – that’s how it started. I was eventually  offered a show in Zograf’s home town of Pancevo in 2007 and in Belgrade. Since then I’ve made it a habit  of visiting regularly, at least once a year. The scene over there is just really rich. Everyone seems to be 

doing comics in the Balkan underground – not making much money out of it, but really sticking to it.

Howard: It sounds really vital. 

Bunjevac: It is really vital – they have taken it, the comics, the medium of comics, really seriously. And  just what we were talking about, in some ways, I can see that the scene in the Balkans is about 20 years  ahead of North America. And I’m talking generationally, I’m talking about this generation doing work. I  mean I can’t categorize the whole population of North American comic book artists. But as far as our  generation goes, the people over there in Europe are way way far ahead. Especially community speaking.  These people get together and draw regularly, and there’s always certain events – and we’re talking about a  country who have been economically exhausted, there’s hardly any money – but there’s always money  coming from somewhere to publish a new book, a new magazine. 

Howard: Because it’s important?

Bunjevac: Because it’s important, culture’s a very important part, and you know, we don’t have as much of that in Canada. What we have is so commercialized, you know? 

Howard: It takes away from it’s vitality? It’s entertainment rather than social commentary? 

Bunjevac: It’s safe and it’s commercial art, you know? I really hate to say things like this, you know, an  artist in Canada heavily depends on government grants. They’re available, but you have to fit into a certain  category, you know? And you have to have Canadian content. And so, instead of looking for brilliance in  work, they’re looking for Canadian content. So you know, aside from that, it’s sad, you know? We’re light  years behind our neighbours south, actually. Which I hate to say. 

Howard: Yeah? 

Bunjevac: Yeah – but… it’s true. 

Howard: If it’s true then it’s true. And we should know that. 

Bunjevac: I don’t want to sound negative or anything. 

Howard: Understanding the scene is … the first step! (laughs) 

Bunjevac: Exactly – but then you have to have a scene to understand. Right? 

Howard: Oh, I see. I got it. 

Bunjevac: I mean I have a handful of friends who are cartoonists in Toronto. They’re fabulous guys, you  know but it’s a handful. When I go to Europe, there’s dozens, everywhere you go. So, it’s that type of thing. 

Pages books store which is a legend in Toronto. They’re gone now. Just like Black Sparrow press. (laughs)  I’m pissed off with the whole Black Sparrow thing 

Howard: Ok, tell me about that then. 

Bunjevac: One of the first things that really got me to seriously do comics was the chapbooks, the  Bukowski chapbooks illustrated by Robert Crumb, by Black Sparrow Press. The original runs were done on this amazing lovely textured paper, they looked like a zine you would pick up from a fair, you know? And  then Harper Collins bought them out, and they did re-printing of these chapbooks, and anything they did of  Bukowski that was on this lovely paper is redone on this…. laser paper, I believe – it’s got a sheen to it,  you know what I mean?

Howard: I do, it looks like it’s come off of a laser printer.  

Bunjevac: No kidding. That’s my beef. Anyway. Any more questions? 

Howard: I am very interested in what you said once – I’d said something like there needs to be more  Nicolaides in comics, and you’d said “Nicolaides is not enough” what did you mean by that? What is your  ideal education? 

Bunjevac: Oh, what is my ideal art education? Oh, um, number one, I don’t think students should be able  to touch figure figure drawing until year three. That’s one thing. It’s very important to spend the first two  years of drawing with the basic principles, starting with measuring and proportion down to the line, and  tone, etc. I believe in the first year the students should focus on the main geometric shapes, really focus on  them over a really long period of time, and then move on to the plaster casts for about a year and then to the figure drawing. And I think the same principle should be applied to figure drawing – Nicolaides should be  added in for no more than one hour a day. You can always start a session with a series of gestures and close  it with a blind contour or a cross contour or vice versa, you can work that out every day could be something different.  

Introducing life drawing and introducing Nicolaides at such an early level is hoping to breath life into  something that is a shapeless hunk of clay. I think it creates more confusion. I’m a firm believer that you  have to construct something before you can deconstruct it.  

Howard: That’s.. very thoughtful 

Bunjevac: Well… I had to share it (laughs) 

Howard: (laughs) I’m glad 

Bunjevac: (laughs) I had to share it. I love teaching and you know, it takes time, it takes time. You have art  schools that run for seven to eight years in Russia, people come out of it being able to draw… blindfolded,  basically.  

Howard: Where as here it’s three years, four years. 

Bunjevac: Oh, you can’t do anything in three years. Four years, yeah… Maybe. Three years you can’t do  anything, it’s impossible. Plus I’m a big believer in talent. I thinking that you have to start from having an  affinity for something – not an affinity, but .. a better.. ability.. to handle certain things, you know? When  you explore talent, at what you’re good at, I believe to tap into your life purpose. 

Howard: That is a very interesting thing because it’s directly opposite of something that someone like a Ty  Templeton would say – or anyone would say, really. Lots of people would say that. 

Bunjevac: You know how many times I’ve heard that? I read somewhere recently that Ty Templeton has  said he doesn’t believe in talent. 

Howard: It makes it empowering for people who can’t draw. 

Bunjevac: It’s a marketing strategy. Theory is one thing. Practice is a different thing. I think that everyone  who says that they don’t believe in talent is either trying to sell you something, or they can’t draw themselves.  

Howard: Ahh.. that is harsh. Ho – leee. Well. It’s good to hear. Tell me about Mineshaft. You’ve just been  included in this high profile magazine. 

Bunjevac: Mineshaft is an American zine that comes from North Carolina, but they regularly feature work  by Crumb – usually his dream diary or his letters to Mineshaft. Sometimes little strips, little illustrations  from his sketchbooks. They regularly feature Kim Deitch, Jay lynch, and this issue will also feature Art  Spiegelman. My art will be appearing this issue, and I am very very very happy about it. Very excited. The cover drawing is done by Sophie Crumb as well as the logo. The beautiful red overlay is done by Robert  crumb. My illustration will be on the back 

Howard: Do you think this is the kind of publication you think new cartoonists should pick up? 

Bunjevac: You can go online and take a look. They also feature poetry and photography. Definitely  recommend it. Really from what I’ve seen so far, it’s probably the closest thing to the way the things were  in the 60’s in the comics underground. I mean this publication is very true to it. It’s a very small run, you  know what I mean? It’s not this huge publication, you can’t really find it in the World’s News, but you  would be able to source it out through comic book stores and certain bookstores. And you can order online 

Howard: Do you have ay advice for new cartoonists in Toronto? How would you advise new cartoonists,  what should they do to help them pursuer their dream? 

Bunjevac: Don’t think about what people will like. Develop your own style, your own voice. Wash dishes  if you have to in a restaurant. Don’t settle for smaller “creative” jobs that will jeopardize your creative  process, and make you resent what you do. And in short, find other ways to generate income and be true to  what you do. And stay persistent, get online and connect with people. That’s what’s collectives from the  other side of the world, from Europe, from Asia, South America – Latin America. The Canadian scene is  not the only one, there’s multiple scenes all over the world who are really happy to exchange work and  ideas. And that’s a really great way of getting out there. 

Howard: That is excellent advice. I know Kean Soo here in Toronto, he’s done Jellaby, he goes online, an  he has his community online, and lots of them are in Toronto – but he didn’t meet them that way! 

Bunjevac: It’s amazing, internet is amazing for cartoonists, especially, because you can spread your work  really fast. I mean if it’s music – you have more computers in the world that are capable of reading a  regular jpeg than computers that can play a Youtube video, you know? Images are very accessible. 

And it’s a really good way for cartoonists to network. You know, they don’t really get out much, they’re  way too busy. 

Howard: And cartooning is such a solitary thing. 

Bunjevac: It’s so solitary – I quit my job at Maxx the Mutt in September to do my own work on comics, I  just didn’t have enough time to do both, and I’m surprised – now that I work from home – that I work  more. I really don’t leave my place, unless I absolutely need to. Which is very isolating, but, you know, it’s  different. It’s a different life style I have than when I was painting, which is very strange and I have no idea  why, maybe it came with age, I don’t know.  

Howard: That is an interesting thing. That means then what is the source of what is being accessed in an  artist for comics is different than the source of what is being accessed to do painting. 

Bunjevac: Oh, exactly. And back when I was painting in my 20’s, I would have people over in my studio to paint, and the whole party would go on while I was painting – and actually participating in the party while I was painting. With comics it was completely different, even though you can take your sketchpad, and put it  on your lap, and take your little ink pen from your pencil holder, and you can take it anywhere you want,  

but it’s different. And I don’t’ know what it is. 

Howard: It makes me think of the writing component. If you are writing and you have a laptop at a café,  you block out everybody else. But with drawing, you can all draw a figure, the same figure, and there’s 12  people in the room and you can talk to eachother.  

Bunjevac: I agree with that. 

Howard: It’s interesting how the comic jams have worked out that way. People don’t talk – there are those  who talk… and I’m one of them… and there are those who draw. (laughs)

It’s interesting this idea, of connecting with other people through these scenes. I mean you’re connecting to  other people in the scene thought your art 

Bunjevac: Definitely, definitely. But also, when you’re connected with people who do similar things as  you, obviously, they’re not going to be talkers, or do way too much socializing. I don’t really know too  many cartoonists who do too much socializing. Or talk much for that matter. 

Howard: It’s hard to generalize – but I know what you mean. I mean, there are those who are socially  competent.  

Bunjevac: Definitely. But I think it just comes from the fact that cartooning is physically draining. It really  is. And it requires a lot of time, and a lot of thought. 

Howard: It requires a lot of your mind when you do it. 

Bunjevac: Oh, it takes a lot of it. 

Howard: If I can say such a thing. I meant there are people who put on music while they ink.  

Bunjevac: Well, I watch TV while I draw. It’s the only thing I can multitask. Because TV doesn’t require  much of your brain. It’s just like water running, you know? 

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