Animation’s Other Miki
Sixty years ago a young man called Miki Muster graduated from Ljubljana’s Art Academy and took up a job as an illustrator at a newspaper. It was to be the start of an incredible career in comic strips and animation.
Miki is short for Miklavž, Muster explains, removing any doubt as to whether his name is somehow connected to the world’s most famous cartoon mouse. Ironically, though, the name Miki Muster could have been connected to Disney if the times had been different. Slovenia was a closed country lacking freedom when this legend of Slovenian and European animated films started his incredible career, just after World War II. The Yugoslavian political regime was unsympathetic to the young man’s wish to travel to the United States. One can’t help but reflect that if he had been given the chance – or if he had been born at another time – the world might have been watching American cartoons drawn by a Slovene.
Had Murska Sobota-born Muster followed his mother’s dreams, on the other hand, he would have become an architect. She wanted him to attain an education that would guarantee him a comfortable living. But this too wasn’t to be: he changed his architecture studies for sculpture at the Art Academy in Ljubljana after the first year.
“I didn’t want to draw buildings but instead I felt passion for figures, people,” he says now. “For as long as I can remember I have been making caricatures – school friends, professors... I wasn’t interested in drawing with the ruler, wasn’t interested in straight lines.”
He graduated in sculpture but didn’t work in the field: “I only made a few sculptures of my then girlfriend who later became my wife,” he says.
Instead he dedicated his life to his other great love: cartoons and animated films. When he was in primary and secondary school there were some Croatian and Serbian cartoonists that were popular among Slovenian youngsters. But by the time Muster was starting out his preferred art form was not a welcome one.
“I was already drawing cartoons when I was at the Academy but nothing was published because cartoon was a taboo in Slovenia at the time. It was considered pro-American and therefore prohibited.”
But thanks to a courageous newspaper editor, Muster had a chance to pursue his passion. It was in 1952 that he was hired by Slovenski Poročevalec as an illustrator and journalist and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands – he didn’t leave the paper until 1973. During this period he drew a series of comic strips that became very popular amongst young readers – ultimately 20 books were published. Children also loved too for the picture books in which he illustrated the stories of many world renowned authors, as well as some original stories from Slovenian writers. He even penned one himself.
From comic strips to animation
“I never had to do anything for my own publicity; Zvitorepec, Lakotnik and the others did that for me,” says Muster, referring to the characters he created and which have been known and loved in Slovenia by many generations. “Trdonja the turtle, Lakotnik the wolf, Zvitorepec the fox; Joža Gulikoža the frog... everybody knows those,” he says.
Their popularity continues today: “If I go to town, I’m always stopped by at least three or four people who ask me for my autograph. It has also been established recently that my comics about Zvitorepec are suitable for children who are learning to read either in kindergarten or in the first year of primary school. Children are interested in the stories – and the writing is in capital letters.”
Older generations also remember Muster for the many animated advertisements he made for Slovenian National Television. He was enchanted by animation from early on in his life.
“I remember when I was about seven – we lived in the Dolenjska region then – and we went to the cinema in Ljubljana. There was an animated film on show before the ‘real’ film started – some little devils were making fire and danced around it. That was my first contact with animated film and I will always remember it,” he says fondly.
The American dream
At the time the only animation studio known in Slovenia was Disney. “I think it was in 1938 when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a full-length animated film, was on at the Ljubljana cinemas. I was poisoned. All I could do was dream about making animated films myself. Every piece of paper, all the notebook edges were full of drawings of dwarfs.”
Muster quickly became familiar with Disney’s approach. He admired how the company gave human character to objects and animals. But he never copied the famous US studio. It may have been his starting point, but Muster came to develop his own style – the hard way. When he was studying there was practically no literature on animation and so he taught himself.
“There was nobody who could show me things or give me advice, so I experimented,” he remembers. “I only knew what I found out from some newspapers here and there that you have to draw many pictures to create the appearance of moving. Years and years of hard work were needed to come to the first results. I had to literally invent it all by myself. There were also no proper materials. Sometimes we didn’t even have plain paper.”
During its early years Slovenian National Television showed no interest in animated advertisements. But Muster introduced them and thanks to him those adverts later became valued and recognisable. He made around 380 animated ads from 1967 to 1990 and some of them became legendary. In the 1960s he was commissioned by Slovenian film company Viba to make some animated films and so he created Puščica (An Arrow), Zimska Zgodba (Winter Tale) and Kurir Nejček (Courier Nejček).Wishing to dedicate himself completely to making films for children, he left his job with the national television company in Slovenia and took up a freelance role at Bavaria Film in Muenchen, Germany.
Soon after arriving in Germany he met Guillermo Mordillo, an Argentinean humorist and caricaturist. From 1976 to 1981 Muster created more than 400 short animated films based on Mordillo’s ideas. Simply called Mordillo, the rights for these witty films were bought by over 30 countries and proved highly successful. Muster also made a series about detective character Nick Knatterton and a series of 21 films titled Oma bitte kommen, both based on the comics of Manfred Schmidt. Both were very popular in Germany and Austria. As if all that wasn’t enough, he continued to make five to ten animated advertisements a year for Slovenian National Television. He also drew comics for German publishers.
His productivity has always been impressive. On average he drew seven seconds of animated film a day – given that every second of animated film takes 10 to 12 pictures, that means he was drawing 70 to 80 pictures a day.
“Only a few months after arriving in Germany I had contracts that guaranteed me work for the next three years,” he remembers. “I worked quickly, never missed a deadline, there were never any corrections and I became a kind of a wonder for them. I’ve always done everything by myself – the screenplays, animations, copying, and drawing the backgrounds. The films were only coloured and shot by others. They couldn’t believe that I was doing it all alone. Sometimes I was ill, once I had a poisoned working hand but I used the other hand to support it and I worked.”
Swimming back home
Muster returned to his homeland in 1990, a time of rising Slovenian independence. He continued with his work, drawing caricatures for one of the Slovenian weekly magazines among other projects. It was also at this time that he rediscovered his long-forgotten love, swimming. He ultimately won several medals among the veterans at the largest world competitions.
He explains his love for swimming with a joke that water greeted him into this world: “On November 22 1925, when I was born, Murska Sobota was flooded. The baker was delivering bread in a boat or rather in a washing tub because there were no real boats around.”
As a youngster he swam a lot, including competitively, and was later a swimming trainer for some time. But then he didn’t swim for a full 40 years because he spent all his time working. After he had returned from Germany, he went to the seaside and discovered he could still swim three kilometres without a problem. That made him think he could probably compete with the best veteran swimmers in Europe or even in the world.
He was right. “I went to a competition and I won,” he says simply. He describes one of his big contests: “I was swimming with former world champions that we once looked up to as idols. I knew six out of eight that were waiting on the start positions, all former world champions or Olympic champions. I was so nervous seeing them I thought I wouldn’t be able to swim. But then I realised they were all quite old misters.”
Of course Miki himself isn’t so young these days. He still creates but otherwise he lives a quiet and fairly private life in Ljubljana. That’s the way he likes it. He was uncomfortable being the centre of attention some years ago when he was celebrating his 80th birthday: “That’s not for me,” he says. “I never made public appearances or looked for the crowds. I don’t like it, the audience is bothering me. I like it best to be at home and to be able to work.”