Welcome to Hofbauerland
The publication of comic-strip collection Mister Morgen confirms Igor Hofbauer’s status as the unrivalled master of Croatian grotesque.
While Hofbauer’s poster designs represent a playful exercise in trash horror, his narrative strips are a much darker affair, featuring tales of obsession, anguish, and impending apocalypse.
Graphic artist Igor Hofbauer has long been considered one of Zagreb’s most eloquent visual spokesmen, producing posters, murals, book-cover designs and club flyers that conjure up a darkly seductive image of his native city. What’s increasingly apparent is that he is also one of the country’s leading practitioners of short fiction, a status confirmed by the graphic-novella collection Mister Morgen, out this month courtesy of Paris-based publisher L’Association.
Summoning a twilight world of abandoned hotels, sexual obsession and urban paranoia, the book cements Hofbauer’s reputation as one of the leading figures of the European graphic underground. Printed on thick matt paper, Hofbauer’s retro-sci-fi-constructivism-noir artwork serves as a compelling introduction to a distinctive visual universe.
Hofbauer’s literary potential has been obvious ever since the emergence of Prison Stories (published in Croatian by Otompotom) in 2007, a woozily narcotic collection that showcased an ambiguous and unnerving narrative style. Prison Stories is nowadays something of a cult title among the graphic-novella cognoscenti – the number of people who claim to own a copy far exceeds the 300 that were actually printed.
Bringing Hofbauer’s comic-strip work to a wider audience was Crimson Lagoon (the grotesque tale of an Adriatic-based holiday dystopia co-scripted by the author of these lines), serialized in four parts by Croatian magazine Globus in summer 2015.
Horned man at the crossroads
It’s with the design of posters and flyers for alternative club Močvara that the Hofbauer story really starts. Throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s, his eye-catchingly phantasmagorical designs were a ubiquitous feature of Zagreb’s once-flourishing street-poster scene. As Močvara’s co-founder Kornel Šeper explains: “The first concert we ever organized was on November 29 1996 and was called ‘Day of the Republic of Noise’. We invited Igor to design a poster for us because we knew him and liked him; we hadn’t actually seen any of his work. He gave us two different designs – one with a monkey dancing on its head, another showing a horned man standing at a highway crossroads – and we used them both. He turned out to the best possible artist we could have chosen. He was humorous, he was different, he was absurd. Which was exactly what we needed.”
Hofbauer grew up in a country where the culture of the poster was highly developed. “The first author to really fascinate me was Boris Bućan, whose poster for Stravinsky’s Fire Bird I saw in ‘real time’ “, Hofbauer explains. Bućan’s epochal posters (of which the Fire Bird is the most frequently reproduced in art books) subverted normal practice by putting the event information in hard-to-read writing around the margins of the image. For Bućan it was the style that was the message, not the actual information.
“Later came Greiner, Kropilak and Damir Žeželj, who were together responsible for the visual identity of the Kulušić club.” The Kulušić was Zagreb’s most legendary rock venue of the 1980s. Sonic Youth and the Pixies were just two of the incoming bands that played here in its heyday.
“The immediate spark that set me drawing came from the work of Pula designer Nadan Rojnić, in particular his DIY posters for Estonian-Russia ska-punk band Ne Zhdali, who played in the Slovenian city of Koper some time in the early 1990s.” If Rojnić’s felt-pen approach was an important lesson in directness, the creation of an alternative universe peopled by misfits and monsters was all Hofbauer’s own work.
“When working on a gig poster I always used to try to intrigue the potential public in a way that was almost like giving them an uncontrollable itch. The mere sight of the poster would make them jump out of a tram and go straight to the concert.”
If Hofbauer’s visual style has any international parallels it is with the alternative American strip culture of the 1980s, especially the artists grouped around Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine. The warped Americana of RAW’s Charles Burns is in many ways a precursor to Hofbauer’s Balkan grotesque.
“RAW was a particularly edgy product of the American underground scene of the 1980s, and one of the edgiest things about it was Charles Burns” Hofbauer enthuses. “RAW arrived here at a ten-year delay, in the form of bound-together photocopies, in that romantic pre-internet age, which only enhanced the magazine’s mythical quality. In my formative period I couldn’t help but not steal from Burns’s dominant style.” A couple of years ago Hofbauer spent an entire evening at the Erlangen Comics Festival standing right next to Burns, and only found out later who he was – the pair had never been introduced.
Hofbauer’s first comic-strip narratives grew out of the monthly programme leaflets he was designing for Močvara. “Each of these programmes took the form of a four- or five-frame strip” Hofbauer explains, “and the more of them I did, the more I wanted to start telling longer stories”.
While Hofbauer’s poster work is frequently a playful exercise in trash horror, his narrative strips are a much darker affair, featuring morbid tales of obsession, anguish and impending apocalypse. It’s as if David Lynch, Luis Bunuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky had been given the collective task of filming Franz Kafka’s unpublished nightmares.
Many of his stories are set against a backdrop that is recognizable as Zagreb, or more specifically Novi Zagreb, with its river bridges, residential blocks and long straight highways. Hofbauer’s moody, menacing and decidedly grotesque vision of the city is extremely seductive, and might indeed function perfectly well as a perverse anti-brochure for the local tourist board. There are times when, crossing the river Sava southwards towards the concrete grid of Novi Zagreb, it’s almost a surprise to realize that there is no sign above the highway reading “Welcome to Hofbauerland”.
Another huge influence on Hofbauer’s work was Svijet oko nas (‘The World Around Us’), the Sixties-era Croatian childrens’ encyclopedia whose superb illustrations are greedily plundered by graphic artists to this day. It is a subject on which Hofbauer is particularly enthusiastic: “Svijet oko nas is for me something of a visual canon. It’s a while since I had a look at it but it’s always there somewhere in my subconscious. I know that my favourite page is 123 from the first volume” For the record, page 123 contains a map entitled The Natural Wealth of Europe illustrated with simple, effective and strangely poetic symbols for cows, sheep, fish, wheat and timber. “And I ought to point out that my copy of the book, although somewhat yellowed, doesn’t have the damp smell of old books” Hofbauer continues. “I owe that to the central heating in my building, one of the blocks popularly known in Zagreb as ‘tin cans’”.
With a copy of Svijet oko nas safely tucked under his arm, Hofbauer designed over 100 monthly programme booklets for Močvara between 1999 and 2011. Nobody can quite remember how many posters he produced over the same period – “100, no, maybe 200” is Močvara mainman Kornel Šeper’s head-scratching answer.
Zombies of the Adriatic
Hofbauer’s posters were certainly the main reason why the present writer started going Močvara in 1999. If there was a club whose visual identity involved a surreal mash-up of sci-fi, film noir and the lost world of the dinosaurs, then you can bet that I wanted to be part of it.
“I just tried to describe the autonomous culture that was happening right in front of me”, Hofbauer says. “I was determined to create posters through which people would feel that something was happening, and not just receive information.”
Nowadays the sense of a happening scene has largely disappeared from Zagreb’s streets. Only a few clubs devote resources to the printing of posters and programmes. A lot of bars and clubs don’t even have their own websites, preferring to communicate with their public via a facebook page that cultivates a closed circle of initiates rather than a wider public.
Although Hofbauer still produces the occasional poster, he considers it light relief compared to the long hard slog of bringing a graphic novella to completion.
“The birth of a strip is a slow and lonely process; desk, coffee, radio, brushes. You need to reserve at least 2-3 months of peace and quiet for that kind of work. It’s a demanding pleasure beyond which lies very little prospect of any commercial success. The kind of strips I’ve been working on over the last few years attract me precisely because I am left alone in total control of the process.”
Many of Hofbauer’s most recent stories are leaving the bleak cityscapes of Zagreb behind in favour of the deceptive glamour of coastal hotels, palm trees, café terraces and parasols. One of the main narrative strands in new collection Mister Morgen involves an abandoned Adriatic hotel which is taken over by walking corpses who have escaped from a fatal train crash: “it’s a story about neoliberal corporate zombies who travel through the ruined hotel complexes of the socialist period, which are in themselves the architectural equivalent of the living dead”. The birth of Adriatic Gothic has been long overdue. Maybe Igor Hofbauer is set to be one of its first protagonists.
Mister Morgen is published by Paris-based L’Association (www.lassociation.fr). A Croatian edition is planned by URK for May 2016. English-language readers will have to wait until spring 2017, when Mister Morgen will be published by Canada’s Conundrum Press (www.conundrumpress.com).
© Jonathan Bousfield