For over three decades, Yugoslavian born Mirko Ilić has been a mainstay of American graphic design. His groundbreaking design and illustration work has regularly graced such publications as The New York Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and myriad others, as well as numerous book covers and identities for luxury hotels and restaurants. He is the designer/author of several books, many done with co-author Steven Heller, and one he created with Milton Glaser, the Design of Dissent, is also currently a traveling exhibit they co-curated, which recently opened at Non-Breaking Space, a new non-profit gallery created by the Seattle-based studio Civilization, devoted to showcasing important works of graphic design.
What is less known about Ilić is that he began his career as a comic book creator. He attended the high school School of Applied Arts in Zagreb, a five year program. At that time, Croatia didn’t have any colleges or universities where one could study graphic design.
While still at school, Mirko’s first work was in animation, begining when he was 17. “At that time it was hand drawn cel animation, which was my summer job for a few years.” That same year he hitchhiked across Europe, in part to meet artists he admired. “I always loved to meet the people behind the drawings. I wanted to know how much they looked like their drawings. I wanted to see the sparkle in their eyes and see if they are true. I always had a desire to see their working table and see what kind of mess (or order) it’s in. I don’t hitchhike anymore, but I still go around the world and visit artists I admire. Conversation with them makes me feel better. Even if they’re quiet you still learn something from them.”
He lists his early influences as Hal Foster, Alexander Raymond, Milton Caniff, José Antonio Muñoz, Joe Kubert, Richard Corben, Robert Crumb, Hugo Pratt, Sergio Toppi, and Jean Giraud Moebius.
His moody, beautifully rendered, often violent and self-referential comic work was soon published, first in European and later American magazines, such as Heavy Metal, and Marvel’s Epic Illustrated. At the same time Ilić found work designing and illustrating album covers, magazine covers and posters. “All of this was the same job to me,” he says. “Except some things like comics required more table time/sitting than others. But I didn’t make any distinction between them. As a matter of fact, I liked switching from one to another, it gave me a break from routine—and I started every job refreshed.”
Despite his early comic success, this work came to an abrupt in 1980. “In the 80s my comics were very popular, especially in Spain and the United States and suddenly I started to get requests to produce a certain amount of pages in a certain period of time. I was not able to do that. I was afraid that something that I really liked would turn into business and routine. That’s why in the middle of producing one of the comics I just said to myself ‘Nah, I don’t want to do this.’ And I never drew comics again.” Ilić emigrated to New York in 1986.
Unlike animation, which he has returned to on occasion, including the opening title for the movie You’ve Got Mail done in conjunction with Glaser and Walter Bernard, he has no desire to return to comics. “I just watch the show from the benches. I buy comics, I buy original art, I enjoy drawings, but I will never draw again. I don’t think I have that in me anymore, because to be good at drawing comics you must work for days and days, months and months, years and years until you get it. I don’t have that much time in my life anymore.”
Last year a hard-bound collection of Ilić’s comic work from 1976 to 1980 was published, Iz povijesti ljudske gluposti – Mirko Ilic (From the History of Human Stupidity) in Croatia by Biblioteka Kvadrat, which includes previously unpublished work. Hopefully there is an English language publisher who will take this on, for an American and English speaking audience, although Ilić’s strong provocative graphic storytelling often works in pantomime, for all to appreciate.