Interview: Stuart Kolakovic

Categories:  Interviews


Stuart Kolakovic’s ultra-mini-comic
Ja Ljubav Te.

Stuart Kolakovic is a young creator of considerable talent. I first came across his postage-sized mini Ja Ljubav Te at my local comic shop, dispensed from its own vending machine. His comic Never Been has been making waves all over the net. Basically, you need him in your life.

I wanted to know more. Luckily, because he’s my mate’s cousin, I had an “in.” Me being me though, I turned up about an hour early for the interview. To kill time I went to by some squid for tea (Americans: dinner). This would proceed to rapidly defrost as I quizzed Stuart in the midday sun.

Where does Kolakovic come from?

Kolakovic (Koh-lak-a-vich) is from my granddad…

I’ve been saying Koh-la-koh-vich.

I like having a surname that no one can pronounce.

It makes you sound like a cop from NYPD Blue or something, like some Jewish or Polish cop.

For three years at university, none of the tutors could say my name. I did a project with a box of three little mini-comics called The Kolakovic Mini Library and I spelled it phonetically on the cover, and they still couldn’t get it. It comes from Serbia. My granddad was Serbian and my nan was Ukrainian. They met in England after the war.

This has influenced a lot of your work, hasn’t it?

Recently it has, yeah. Whilst I was studying I was a bit lost as to how I wanted my work to come across, the style I guess. Near the end I came up with this idea. My granddad died when I was younger, about 11 or something, and I never really got to know him. It was just something that came up as a kind of “panic project” for university. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I wanted to find out more about my family history. So I did this book for my final project, about my Serbian granddad, about what he might have got up to in the Second World War. It was a weird one. I didn’t want it to be like Maus, which is what people might automatically think of when I say I’ve done a comic about my Serbian granddad. Also, trying to convince my tutors to let me do a comic was a big obstacle to overcome.

Even for an illustration course?

Yeah, you’d be surprised.

I assumed doing a comic for an illustration course would be a given.

You’d be horrified at the amount of students there who couldn’t even read a comic. They wouldn’t know where to begin. They couldn’t understand that you start in the top left-hand corner and read it that way. These were kids who’d never read a Beano (Americans: British children’s comic) before. The tutors didn’t see comics as pure illustration mainly, I think, because you draw in panels.

Wasn’t sure if it was you or not, but I read some where that someone’s tutor had treated each panel as one separate illustration, rather than a whole page being the one piece. Sorry, that squid fucking stinks!

Put it down wind. I over came the panel thing by doing a lot of double-page spreads. I broke it up between really intense panels and stuff that was more open and free. As a whole though, comics were really frowned upon, but with every project I got, I’d try and twist it round to make it into a comic, much to my tutor’s dismay. The head of the course was a guy called Geoff Granfield and in the 80s he did a comic called Fast One. It’s a shame more people haven’t read it, because it’s really good. He did it in like six months and it’s something like 155 pages long. It’s a girth-ie book.

Girth-ie? I’m stealing that word.

Yeah, it’s a hefty book. It’s massive. Even he hated the comics I did, it was really odd.

The first thing I saw of yours was the vending machine mini.

Yeah, the Ja Ljubav Te comic

Say that again?

It’s Serbian for “I love you.” I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing it right, I can’t speak a word of Serbian. Again, that was a “panic project.” A couple of weeks before the graduation show went up, I was messing ’round on eBay and I bought an old 70s postage stamp vending machine. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something with this,’ and I had a wall free in my exhibition space. So I burnt out a comic really quickly to fit this machine and it was really fun to do. Because it was postage stamp size I had to keep it really tiny. Keeping in mind how it was going to be reproduced I had to draw really small. So there are no panels, just double open-page spreads. It was a story that was in my head for a while and it’s been really successful, but a pain in the arse to cut up and sew though. I’ve made almost 900 now.

Jesus Christ! By hand?

Yeah.

Pack it in, man!

Yeah, it’s almost a year old now.

It is really nice. A lot of things are over-blown and have to be massive, but this is almost like a tiny little gesture.

A lot of people who bought it never buy comics, mainly because it comes out of this machine and it’s almost a novelty item, but also because it’s cheap. That’s the main thing with small press comics: you’ve got to make them cheap or people just aren’t going to buy them.

How many vending machines are there?

Just the one. It was in a comics exhibition in Richmond but they’ve not sent it back yet.

I’d get on top of that if I were you.

There’s a gallery in Edinburgh who wants it as well. I’ve made another vending machine for another comic of mine called A Gosling.

Are you allowed to say anything about your possible deal with Jonathan Cape (Americans: One of Random House’s British imprints)?

I don’t know, to tell you the truth, but I’ll talk about it.

They’ve got first option on your first book?

Yeah.

That’s a big thing isn’t it?

I was so surprised. One of the first mini comics I did when I was younger, Paul Gravett got hold of it when I was selling them at Gosh Comics in London. Paul does a lot of lectures and stuff.

He’s been really good for me as well. I gave him my first comic and I did the 24-hour comic thing at the ICA because of him.

Paul’s the guy, man. He’s the only guy in England who knows his stuff about comics. I went to one of his lectures and Dan Franklin from Jonathon Cape was there, and he jokingly said to Dan, “You should speak to this guy, he’s the future of comics,” and so Dan checked me out. This was my second year of university and I was still lost at this point, I still didn’t know what I was doing. But Dan called and said to go and see him and bring some examples of work, and I thought, ‘Oh crap, what am I going to do!’ I mean he published about half the comics that I own! So I quickly put some stuff together, and I went, and he was interested and said to keep in touch. So I did this book Milorad that got quite a lot of press and won a D&AD New Blood Award, which I think is farcical. It’s just bollocks. There’s something like 5000 exhibitors and they mark it in four hours. I mean, it’s not possible. So I’m a bit dubious about that award, but at the same time it’s still great.

You have to take awards with a pinch of salt but you’d be lying if you said it didn’t feel good getting one.

Exactly. Anyway, Dan got hold of Milorad and said he wanted to publish it. It was the first chapter, 80 pages long, of the book and he said to get another couple of chapters together and he’d publish it. But I didn’t know if I wanted it published because it was another “panic project,” just a big long experiment.

The other two things that have worked really well have been “panic projects,” so maybe you just deal with it and get it done.

I had to sit down and think if I wanted to carry on with this project. At the end of the day I just didn’t. I’d rather just start on something fresh. I deliberately did it as a first chapter of something so I wouldn’t have to cram a single story into one book. I told Dan all this and he was very understanding, so he said to get a proposal together and we’ll work on something new, which is what I wanted to do.

It’s good to have the security of knowing there’s someone there waiting to publish whatever it is you do.

It’s almost like a dream situation.

And there’s Blank Slate as well who are waiting in the wings.

I’m really looking forward to doing something with Blank Slate because they’re a new company. Kenny got in touch with me the other day and he’s interested in doing an anthology, which would be great, but the down side is all my work’s different sizes. So I don’t think that’s going to work, but he’s open to ideas and hopefully I’m meeting him next week.

So you’ve got one big time publisher and a little upstart one waiting for whatever you produce, plus you’re just about earning a crust from illustration gigs. You’re pretty much living the dream aren’t you?

It does sound great. The bad thing is I’m drawing all the time and you can get burnt out so easy.

Are your diamond shoes too tight as well?

Exactly! Some days I wake up and I can’t face another day at my drawing table, drawing all day every day.

You do need a break from time to time. You can get tunnel vision on one project.

Luckily I skateboard and I’m in a band so they’re good distractions.

I bought a skateboard last year in China as some kind of early mid-life crisis. Barely touched it. The last thing I wanted to ask you about was this Never Again.

Never Been.

That’s been referred to as a web comic.

Yeah.

That bugged the crap out of me for some reason.

I know. It isn’t whatsoever.

I don’t know why it annoyed me, it just did.

I don’t read web comics, comics are paper to me and if it’s online it ceases to be a comic. I’ve never read a web comic that I’ve really enjoyed.

I saw it exhibited in Projects MCR and it looked beautiful. It still looks nice on a screen though.

Luckily it translated quite well, but maybe a bit too small to see all the fine detail. It was originally about nine and a half metres long.

It’s been received really well, hasn’t it?

It’s at about 30,000 hits on my website.

Fucking hell.

I just think it’s hilarious people refer to it as a web comic though. I can’t stand that. But it was a project I wanted to do before I started my book proposal. I thought, ‘I’m never going to have the chance to be this self-indulgent again.’ It was for nothing. It was for an art gallery so I could do what I wanted without having to have a reason behind it. So I just wanted to play on some ridiculous ideas. I wanted a more tongue-in-cheek aspect to my Serbian heritage. It was fun to do as well so I’m glad I did it. It took almost six weeks of solid work, like every day.

Nice one Stu, thanks for that. I think I better get this squid home now.

– Oliver East

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