Danijel Žeželj is a graphic novelist, animator, illustrator and painter. He is the author of twenty five graphic novels and eight short animation movies.
His work has been published by DC Comics, Marvel, Dark Horse, Heavy Metal, Image, Glénat, Dargaud, Eris Edizioni, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and many others.
Danijel's career began in 1993 with Il Ritmo Del Cuore, published in Italy, with an introduction written by no less than Federico Fellini. He then developed a lasting working relationship with French publisher Mosquito, and with American publisher Vertigo. He has written his own stories, and worked on stories written by Darko Macan, Brian Azzarello, Warren Elis, Andy Diggle, Steve Gerber, Chuck Austen, Brian Wood, Scott Snyder, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Jason Aaron, Aleš Kot.
Chief of Deer and Van Gogh are Danijel's most recent graphic novels.
"No One You Know”, for Italian band C’Mon Tigre: Illustrations and animation by Danijel Zezelj, 2022
After your studies of classical painting, sculpting and printing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, Croatia, you remained for a time in London, then Italy. Your first published professional work is Le Rythme du Coeur, with an introduction by film director Federico Fellini (1920-1993). How did Fellini happen to write an introduction for a beginning artist?
I published my first short comics in the Italian magazine Il Grifo, and Federico Fellini was associated with the magazine, he was also on the board of directors. Fellini was a big fan of comics, and passionate about drawing and painting, he created numerous sketches for sets and characters for his movies. Il Grifo was one of the best comic magazines in Italy and Europe at the time, publishing work by Hugo Prat, Manara, Liberatore, etc, before it went bankrupt a few years later as all the comics magazines gradually disappeared and audiences turned to books, or graphic novels. Fellini saw the work I sent to Il Grifo editors, and he liked it immediately. So when Editori del Grifo decided to publish my first graphic novel Il Ritmo del Cuore (which was actually my third graphic novel but the first two have never been published), he was happy to write a few sentences of introduction. I was extremely honoured, especially since I grew up on Fellini’s movies and Amarcord is still one of my all-time favourites. Generally, the Italian directors, from Rossellini to Pasolini, to Fellini, together with French new wave, as well as silent movies, were a very important influence on me and my work, just as the cinema in general.
What can you tell us about your mostly B/W art?
It’s a style based on the contrast of light and shadow. My background is in painting, I studied classical painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, and I was particularly drawn toward baroque painting, especially work by Caravaggio and Velazquez. Baroque painting is based on the relationship between light and shadow, "chiaroscuro”, that’s how you build forms and shapes. I try to apply to my work the same patterns baroque artists were using in oils, the same principles. When you are looking at things in chiaroscuro, light and shadow, you do not start from white canvas, you start from a middle tone, usually a sepia tone, they often used a raw umber color. You cover the whole surface with raw umber, and then by taking the color out you get the lighter parts, and by adding more umber you get the dark. You are thinking differently; you are thinking in terms of shadow and light. You do not see the line: the line is excluded. So I applied this same idea, sharpening the contrast and reducing it to only black and white.
Illustration for Harper's magazine
Who are the painters you looked at most closely?
I looked a lot at Caravaggio. I think, more than anyone else, he really mastered this approach in which the subject is always emerging from the dark toward the light. As for other painters, I really like Velazquez. And one painter I've always thought is absolutely fascinating is Vermeer; from a technical point of view he blows my mind. I have no idea how he achieved what he achieved. It's so sophisticated. The paintings themselves are beautiful, but if you are in the profession, you can see that technically they are perfect, pure diamonds. And of course I like many other painters. I've made copies of some paintings by Michelangelo, for instance. I also studied Cézanne a lot.
Can you explain to us exactly how you are working? Which are the techniques you are using?
Brushes are my main tool. I use flat brushes with a high quality Japanese black ink, and thin round brushes with white acrylic paint. I work on heavy paper, usually A3 size for comics pages and illustrations. I also use sponge with black ink and old oil brushes with white acrylic for splattering paint, creating “grey” areas, tones between black and white. For colour paintings I paint sometimes on large size wood panels, using rollers and acrylic paint. For oil paintings I use “yupo” paper, with traditional oil paint, applying it with brushes, rugs and my hands and fingers. I do not use a pencil, because it has a very thin line. I hardly ever use the line. It outlines forms but doesn't get inside where the volume is.
A few years ago I also started painting digitally, with the Cintiq. It’s a great tool, but when I use it for too many days in a row, I’m missing the tactile feel of the paper, ink and paint, the smell and feel of the material. So I use different tools depending on the project.
Illustration from graphic novel Chief of Deer, recently published in Italy by Eris Edizioni (September 2022)
The list of writers you have worked with is very impressive. Do you choose who you work with? Is your choice based on the theme of the story?
I always picked scripts, if I didn't find the connection with the script it was impossible to work on it. Good writing and a good story is extremely inspiring. One of the greatest treasures, to me, is good dialogue. I admire a good dialogue, and it’s a rare beast, a few writers are good at it. There are many writers I would have liked to work with, although I'm not sure they would've wanted to work with me. I take a lot of freedom. I don’t like scripts that are too meticulous and precise in mise-en-scène descriptions, movements and scenography, I have to have freedom to compose and arrange pages, panels and compositions through my own eyes, and to pick the ways my camera moves. That is one of the most exciting parts of work and I like to have freedom to do my best. If the script is too specific I become blocked and unable to work with it. Working with a writer requires a very different approach than working on my own graphic novel. With someone else's script, the text is the beginning while when I work on my own books the beginning is something visual – a certain scene or a series of scenes, like a movie that runs before my eyes and I try to capture the fragments of it. Some graphic novels were born from one single image.
Reading your works, it appears it has a very graphic feeling to it. You have realized numerous silent sequences, and some stories devoid of words. Le Chaperon Rouge remains a favourite, compelling to participate more in the reading, to formulate with words in one's mind, what the eyes are seeing.
I mentioned before the importance of Italian and French movies, and movies in general. Those “silent", wordless graphic novels (Industrial, Babilon, Red Riding Hood) are, in part, homage to silent movies from the beginning of the last century, especially German Expressionism, Russian Avant-Garde movies, as well as Buster Keaton silent movies. There is a special visual quality, the precision of mise-en-scène that is a characteristic of silent movies and got somehow lost with the arrival of sound and spoken word. As if the foundation of storytelling has shifted from the image to the word, and automatically the visual aesthetic lost its purity and quality. The other important work in a similar vein is the work of graphic artists from the beginning of last century (around the same period as the silent movies and the connection is probably not casual). The best known are Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel, but there were others who created wordless illustrated books, which today would be called wordless graphic novels. Such an approach to storytelling has a long tradition and probably spans well over just the western cultural and visual arts tradition. The absence of words brings a different atmosphere and rhythm to pages and it very much changes the way of visual narration. You can even connect it to dance or mime art since those are all narrative forms without words, using body, movement, sound, light, time and space to tell stories. Even if those movies or illustrated stories were created a hundred years ago they are still modern and alive.
Looking at your panels, at your page the eye is directed by the shadows. How do you construct your compositions to manage this effect?
Composition of the page and panels is one of my favourite parts. I usually sketch it on a separate paper, very roughly, just to get the idea of the main black and white areas, the balance and composition, then I apply it to the real page. You can get lots of energy and tension just from the composition of the panel and the page, it has a powerful narrative drive.
Your work relies heavily on visuals. How do you approach translating space and time in images?
I think in images more than words, I believe that comics are a combination of images and words, but for me, the image always comes first. There is an element of time and rhythm in the comics, there is a third space in between panels and pages, between images and words, and that third “invisible” space is one of the most exciting elements of narration in comics. It’s difficult to control it and achieve it. I love it when it works and when it's used well, like in some graphic novels by Alan Moore, Cyril Pedrosa or Larcenet.
Do you work with thumbnails for each page? With pencils for each panel, before going to ink and paint?
I use pencils very scarcely, in a minimalistic, sketchy way, almost unreadable to anyone but me. My drawings are not based on lines, but on shapes, so it's pointless to create precise preparatory pencil work because it’s simply useless when big blocks of black and white are applied over it. So most of the work is created directly in ink.
How do you create your characters? Do you work with a sketchbook to refine them visually? Do you see them as a projection of yourself?
I hear them. I hear their voices and I see their faces and bodies. There is always lots of sketching, trying different angles and moods. No, I don’t want them to be like me, although, probably, unconsciously, there is a projection of myself in all of them. You can't escape from yourself, but it's good to try to.
Common sense would say that an homage to Vincent van Gogh must be colour. Why did you choose Black & White?
I would say black and white chose me :)
Actually, the early paintings of Van Gogh are predominantly monochromatic, his heroes were Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt, painters of a limited palette, and only later he finally opened up towards the richness and brightness of colors. It is pointless to try to reproduce Van Gogh’s colors without making them banal, and I never intended to. However, the light and shadow, the extremes of black and white are appropriate ways to describe a life stretched to emotional and physical extremes, a life completely absorbed with obsessions, a desperate desire to belong, and a serious mental illness. It's not a traditional biography, although it is based on facts and it follows the chronology and authentic locations. It portrays the emotional states rather than events. Each of 15 episodes in the book takes place in a documented location at a specific time, but those events are invented, they are constructions of something that might have happened or might have not - as if we are invisible witnesses of silent moments in Vincent's life. The episodes are wordless, and the letter at the end of it, which corresponds to the place and time of the episode, is like a post scriptum, a comment which is sometimes in harmony and sometimes in disparity with the episode.