Dobrosav Bob Zivkovic: the illustrator who hates string beans
Legend says that there is one name behind every good illustration - Dobrosav "Bob" Zivkovic. In fact, if you have never seen any of his work, the only possible explanation is that you haven't been born yet.
This master of color and illustration reveals to 011info what he considers the pinnacle of his career, categorically refuses to tell us what a 'rajsfeder' is and reveals why he'll have to live forever.
When did "Bob" Zivkovic first feel the need to express himself through drawing. Once you said that you were born with a pencil in your hand. Do you remember your first drawing?
It's hard for me to think of a time in my life when I wasn't drawing. I drew during all my school lessons, during P.E. class, during field-drips. I even have little animals and people I made out of bandages back when I was a kid and ended up in the hospital because of some minor injury. The first real drawing I distinctly remember was my first success - a picture of a lion and his mother who was praising him. I didn't have my own room yet, so it was the smallest in the world somewhere in the Palmira Toljatija street.
Usually artists don't get much understanding from their parents as children. Moms and dads tend to say that you can't live off art. Was that true in your case or was your family supportive from the start?
They weren't thrilled but by that point I'd been drawing my entire life. So, I do think in the end it didn't make any sense to anyone that I'd end up doing anything else.
(There's always a small chance that they were very kind, understanding people but I wouldn't bet on it - they tried to make me eat string beans, which is an obvious crime against human rights!)
What was your childhood like and when exactly did you fall in love with science fiction? How did this all affect your later work and development of your specific worldviews and artistic expression?
I really discovered science fiction as a genre with the help of our first private publisher Boban Knezevic and the Lazar Komarcic club of science fiction fans. They found me near the end of my studies when I was drowning in Russian classics.
I was convinced that books are read when you have a whole half-year to draw out the experience and drown in eight thousand pages of long-winded Russian literature. Not that I escaped that when I moved to science fiction - it tends to get into the seventy-five hundred page territory.
Boban bombarded me for years with works by Zelazny, Silverberg, Martin, Brin and I just ate it all up and drew it. Since then, my one criteria for what makes a good book or a story - is imagination. Human drama, crime and monstrosities happen enough in real life news.
You were born in Pirot but you didn't stay there long. Do you have any memories from there?
I was only born in Pirot. My mother went to Pirot from Belgrade, I was born there and then brought back to Belgrade within just a few days. My impressions were - I was probably hungry, thirsty and needed a diaper change (not much has changed to be honest).
What were your student days like? What preoccupied and fascinated you back then? Did any of those interests stay with you?
My life hasn't changed much. I was fascinated by books - mostly science-fiction - enamored with comic books (the worst student of my generation. Back then saying someone is a comic book fan was worse than an insult - it was a swear word). I studied in industrial design. My exam assignment was to 'draw an iron using a 'rajsfeder'. No, I won't tell you what that is, you can google it - I had to wash mine every day, but I continued to draw before and after class, every second of my free time.
How did your professional career begin? What was your first job?
This ties into what we talked about in regards to science fiction. My friend had started publishing some of our favorite books and our first paychecks came from working at Saatchi & Saatchi - back then the biggest, best and nicest advertising agency. I got called in for the first time to design the Zoo sign still used today. After that they couldn't get rid of me for 11 years.
People tend to see others' success as something that happened over night, but the truth is it usually comes after years of hard work. How did your career develop and when was that crucial moment when Bob Zivkovic became a synonym for amazing illustrations?
Surprisingly enough it did happen almost overnight. A polar night. I had been publishing my illustrations in school newspapers since I was in high school. My first book came out in my first year of college (1982) and I earned my first real money drawing in 1991. At that time I'd published around 30 books, had been drawing professionally for 15 years and I was still asking my parents for pocket money.
It took way more time then, we didn't have the internet - it was much harder to be seen and for your style to be recognized. When I finally made it to the internet, that was the biggest shock for me. To know that someone had been buying these books, read those magazines, seen those drawings - and my signature on them all.
You've worked for a variety of magazines and publishers. From "Student", "Vidik", "Zeka", "Tik-Tak" and all the way up to "Politikin zabavnik" and the "Kreativni centar". Did you ever have creative disagreements with your coworkers?
I never had conflicts in my profession. Maybe I was just lucky or it was really a different time. In the world it's a huge industry but here every assignment I worked was a novelty and each of them was organized by someone equally in love with the topic as I was. Together we'd look forward to seeing what we could do and gush over how amazing it is when it's done. Ok, I'd gush - they'd mostly look at me with sorrow and confusion, but I'm sure they were all satisfied deep down.
What can you tell us about your creative process and what challenges you the most? Once you stated that "Sex for beginners" was the only book that had you frustrated to tears.
I read the text and then I think about what I have to say on that topic. It's like a conversation between myself and the author and myself and the book. Up until now (I'm Serbian - I know all about everything!) I've always had plenty to say about any topic and I had my fingers in a thousand pies. The only important book, the only time when we had to be very delicate, take a lot of care and had to do a lot of thinking, writing, erasing and re-phrasing was..."Sex for beginners".
The goal of this book was to help children and their parents find answers to 'those' questions and we had to be very, very careful to get it absolutely right. Usually, when I get wild, I can finish a book in. ten days. If a book is very complex and difficult, it can take up to a month. We prepared "Sex for beginners" for three years. Jasminka Petrovic, the editor Ljiljana Markovic, an army of psychologists and (the poor) me.
Your drawings and books depict reality on a different, deeper level. You could say your trademark is a high level of empathy for your surroundings and a deep level of thought about occurrences and events as well as honesty in depicting them. Is that where your secret lies?
Could be. I don't see why I'd lie about anything. I don't think I'd even know how. I can't imagine the effort and skill it would take for someone to lie in illustrations. I draw what I feel and think, as cleverly as I'm able and in such a way that I personally find it funny or interesting. Then I sit down and wait for feedback - will the reader laugh where I laughed or cry where I cried?
What do you consider the pinnacle of your career?
In the game World of Warcraft, in Orgimar (a city in the game) my character was standing in the city square. I was a Tauren (that's like a cow with an axe) and I had an amazing set of horns - I crossed my arms and leaned on my axe and was looking around to see if anyone wanted to go kill a dragon.
In that moment, 11 million other players - people all around the world - were in the game with me. All of them were orcs or zombies or elves or various other fantasy characters. Above my head is my in-game name "Goovedo". From a massive crowd of monsters, a green orc in full war armor walks up to me and asks me (in Serbian!):
"Is it true you're Bob?"
My heart skips a beat for a second. 11 million other monsters (like a busy day in Zelenjak, pretty much) is staring at us and Goovedo replies (I type):
And the green orc fighter turns to the other monsters in the game and says "Yeah, that's Bob".
And right there in WoW, in Orgimar, around 20 armored knights came up to me and did the /kneel command.
There's nothing else for me left to do in life - I have peaked in that moment. I'm crying again.
You have also worked on some - let's say more commercial - projects for chemistry industry and the police. Which one of them would you highlight and was it different to work on them compared to book illustrations?
The main job of the 'Zabavnik' is to be 'the Zabavnik'. The creative center was born to be creative. It's easy for me to work with their people because I understand them - to them fairy tales, imagination and beauty are everyday goals. That's why it always delights me when I encounter someone whom you wouldn't expect to have those goals but who ends up just as happy when we make something nice.
The Zemun police has been drawing with kids from the neighborhood for around 10 years. The give them awards and organize celebrations. It's very important for the police to have their own 'Yoda' and to listen to what he says.
It was funny though - well, okay not exactly funny at the time - when I got my first call from the police. I was in a brief panic. Or that time when I got a call from a company that said "Only you can draw this - you understand us!! When we saw the problem, we all agreed - Bob is our man!"
"And you are"
"We're a company that makes chemical products against cornstalk fungal diseases".
To this day we aren't sure if they knew about me because of my fame in corn or in fungal diseases.
What is an average day in the life of Bob Zivkovic?
I wake up.
And I play videogames when I can get away with it. I know it's not normal, that's what my psychiatrist tells me too.
It's a well-known fact that you love video games and movies. Do you think they would've pulled you in a different direction if you had them in your formative years?
I played games even back in their earliest form. When I was on a field trip in England as a high-schooler, I spent all my money and then called my parents to tell them I saw an absolute miracle in a foreign country.
You push buttons and a line moves from one side to the other and it's like you're playing tennis. Or ping-pong. It was Pong.
From there I went to the historical Spectrum with Chuck and egg, Sega and Earthworm Jim, the first D&D in Yugoslavia, Heroes 3, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, then to the part of my life I lost to Guild Wars, WoW and until today when I play Raid. I don't play favorites with mediums of expression - games, movies, books, shows. As long as they can take me up to a new high that I hadn't experienced before, they're a part of my life.
What is your favorite thing to do in Belgrade? Where do you like to spend time? The parks, rivers, taverns or something else?
None of those. I just do my 'wake up-draw-sleep' routine...but in Belgrade.
I need to know that I'm in my own city, among my friends, though. And that if I were normal and I wanted to go out into a tavern, forest, river or park - I could.
A massive retrospective exhibition of your illustrations will take place in the Museum of Applied Arts between 2nd and 23rd of October. What are your plans moving forward? Would you maybe like to work on a video game next?
I'd like to work with great people, more than anything. And games, I prefer to play them. Our own game 'Pagan online' was just published, made by better men than me. I have my books - there are so many stories to draw that I think I'll have to live forever.