THEO PANAYIDES meets a Greek comic writer who surrounds himself with strange, beautiful people and the largest collection of Greek language comics in the world
Before we’ve even sat down – at Prozak in Nicosia, the book-lined café patronised by writers and alternative types – Melandros Ganas is offering to put me in touch with other artists who might be worth a profile: a graffiti whiz named Rock The Dog, for instance, or a fashion-designer duo calling themselves Cherry & Mint. You’d assume he’s been in Cyprus for years, to be such a confident expert on the local scene. In fact he arrived from his native Greece last May, went back home for the summer, and has been here since September.
Then again, it’s the same when he’s in Greece. “My life has not been calm, because of constantly moving from place to place,” he recalls. “I’ve met many people – many, many people. I’ve got friends in every town, all over Greece. Whichever town you mention, I can give you the name of someone to talk to”. Manos (people call him Manos, partly because he himself was unable to pronounce his unusual name when he was a kid) seems to be what Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point called a ‘connector’, one of those who relish bringing strangers together. “I know every artist in Cyprus,” he tells me. He’s not shy, nor does he wait around to be introduced; if he likes someone’s work – even if he doesn’t, probably – he’ll go up to them and shake their hand. “I’m very open.”
His particular field is comic books, though he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the awkward, withdrawn comic-book geek. “I’m the most sociable person,” he protests. “I’ve played football. I’ve been married. I make friends.” He writes the stories (‘scripts’) for comics, doesn’t actually draw them – but he’s also, as befits his personality, something of a mover and a shaker in the comic-book world, in Greece and (he hopes) now in Cyprus.
Manos runs a Larissa-based publishing house called Kampos Publications (Ekdoseis tou Kampou), putting out about 12 graphic novels a year. He works with Comicdom Con in Athens – one of Greece’s three big comics festivals, attracting 12-15,000 visitors – as head of department for self-published works. He also has the largest collection of Greek-language comics in the country, probably the world – a monstrous, increasingly unwieldy 25,000 titles, stacked on shelves and deposited in boxes upon boxes at his home in Larissa. They range from well-known titles in translation to Greek fanzines and small-press comics which are vanishingly rare, often published for a minuscule audience (some of his treasures only ever had a printing of 10-20 copies) and preserved by Manos for posterity.
His life in comics is divided in two by a cultural shift that’s hard to pin down precisely – though he dates it to around the turn of the millennium, when he was in his 20s (he’ll be 40 in June). That was when comics became respectable, indeed revered – “the ninth art,” as he puts it – and people like him, who were veterans of the scene in Greece, suddenly found themselves in demand: “Everyone was like, ‘Comics are the ninth art now, who knows how to write about comics? Ganas does, he has 20,000 comics!’”. Before that, things were slightly different: “When I used to read comics in the past, it wasn’t an art-form yet. People stared, and made fun of me. I mean there I’d be, a grown man, in my Air Force uniform, going to a bookshop and saying ‘Hello, I’d like to read some comics’ – and they’d be like: ‘25 years old, and you’re still reading Mickey Mouse?’.”
Wait a minute, though: what was that about an Air Force uniform? That’s the other, more surprising aspect of Manos’ life so far, and explains his reference to constantly moving around: he grew up an Air Force brat, the son of a military man, following his dad all over Greece – primary school in Thessaloniki, junior high in Larissa, four years in the border town of Florina – and later followed Dad into the Air Force, as did his brother, spending 22 years in uniform. He resigned last May, just before coming to Cyprus (his girlfriend already lived here; the girlfriend’s brother has been here for years, running a number of nightclubs). The catalyst for his sudden career move was a lump on his scrotum which he feared might be cancer; it turned out to be just an infection – but “in those hours, till the test results came out, I was afraid I might be dying. And the next day, when I got up, I decided that I’m doing something I don’t like, and life’s too short”. He resigned two days later.
It’s a pivotal moment, for two reasons: one having to do with Manos himself, the other with the state of Greece as a whole. The first reason is the more evident as he sits across the table at Prozak – a raffish, bearded figure, ruggedly handsome. His eyebrows slant upwards as he talks, giving him an ingratiating air. His nose is broken, the result of an elbow to the face during a basketball game; he’s always been sporty (how un-geek-like!) and played football seriously for years, his team ascending to the Greek fourth division during his final season. He talks fast and endlessly, even by the standards of Greeks (a people famous for talking fast and endlessly), and isn’t shy about stating his views. He’s extremely pro-cannabis, and has called publicly for its legalisation, but has never touched booze in his life.
He’s also covered in tattoos, maybe not showily (most are hidden by his clothing) but with the same dedication that he brings to comics. His tattoos are a tribute, to himself and his friends. “My friends are all strange, beautiful people,” he explains, “I’m happy to have such beautiful friends. A lot of them are tattoo artists. Others are musicians, actors, theatre people.” Manos is glad to volunteer when a friend wants to try some new tattoo – “I consider my skin to be a collector’s item” – and also marks his own life by turning it into art. A paper boat on his arm commemorates a posting to Crete some years ago. A ring of tattoos around his wrist includes the ‘Nirvana smiley face’ logo (a face with crossed-out eyes and tongue hanging out), signifying that he’s led an “unstable life”. A small stick person on the inside of his finger is the birth of his daughter Irene, now 13 (her name appears in another tattoo). Other markings include a quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – ‘Too weird to live, too rare to die’ – and a cryptic ‘220.127.116.11.’ which actually stands for A.C.A.B., i.e. All Cops Are Bastards. Manos is a walking canvas, with his 40 years on Earth as the subject.
This was not, in other words, a case of a square-looking Air Force officer taking off the military mask in the privacy of his own home. This was a case of an obvious rebel (and self-confessed stoner) somehow ensconced in the Air Force. COs were forever sniping about his tattoos. He was subjected to frequent drug tests, which of course always turned out positive. He’s endured a court-martial, and a forced psychiatric evaluation.
Manos was a square peg from Day One – yet he wasn’t hated, that’s important to note, indeed he was liked and protected by his immediate superiors (it was the higher-ups who were always out to get him). He’s not that kind of rebel, not a rage-against-the-machine type but a free spirit; he’s the cool open-minded guy, the fun-loving guy adding colour to the company, half in half out, the voluble hippy who shrugs at convention. “I was weird,” he admits of his time in the military, but he won respect just by being himself (and artistic); when he left, they all wished him well. “They’re my friends, I love them. I’ll never badmouth the Air Force: it wasn’t for me, it didn’t suit me, but it fed me… I had money from the Air Force all those years” – he went in at 18, straight from school – “I was getting a very good salary, in the public sector.”
That brings us to the second reason why Manos’ story is so fascinating: because it encapsulates Greece, the Greece of the recent past and the Greece of today. Here, after all, were two young men – Manos and his brother – who got civil-service jobs in the place where their dad worked, even though neither was a natural fit (his brother resigned from the Air Force a month after he did). It’s a Greek way of doing things, and worked fine while the country had money; but eventually you get to a point – says Manos – when you see old ladies rooting through the trash for food, and you’re taking home €1,300, doing something you don’t even like, while your friends are making €200. The situation weighed on his conscience, even before the infection-cum-existential-crisis which finally pushed him over the edge – and his only redemption, he decided, was at least to be true to himself, to walk away (without a pension) from his government sinecure and follow his dream, whatever the cost. In a way, he owed it to Greece.
“Greece is a beautiful country,” he sighs. “Very beautiful people. Kalamarades, as you call us. We talk too much! But it makes me sad – because we have some great minds there, yet I can’t see any way back. They’re talking about 20-30 years but no, I can’t even see us going back [to normal] in 20-30 years. I’ve got friends working four hours a day, for €140 a month. I’ve got friends suffering from depression. And I’ve got myself as an example, because I couldn’t stand the misery around me, and I got up and left despite having a salary – I mean, I could be in Greece now, with €1,250-1,300 plus what I make from comics, I could be on €1,700 a month and living like a king. But I chose to leave because – it was getting me down, seeing all those people…” Manos shakes his head: “I mean, I’m here now and I see people smiling. We talk about a crisis in Cyprus, and there is a crisis – but you still see people getting on with their lives.
“I say it’s a shame,” he goes on, getting back to the state of his homeland. “It’s a shame, because we only get one life – and they’re destroying it. We’re to blame, of course, I’m not saying Greece is not to blame. No, we are. I just don’t like the punishment. And you can’t keep punishing an entire people – because I didn’t take any money, what could I have taken? You’ll say to me: ‘You were in the civil service, you’ve been taking money all your life’ – but that was my salary. I didn’t steal.”
So here we are, on a sunny afternoon at Prozak – and here he is, Melandros ‘Manos’ Ganas, taking stock as he embarks on a new chapter of his life. How does he make a living now? “I don’t! My girlfriend works at the moment,” he replies cheerfully. This is not entirely true. Manos is well-known in the Greek comic-book community: he’s currently involved in organising two regional festivals, he does some teaching, he sells his books – and of course there’s the publishing house. Not many Greeks (and even fewer Cypriots) make a living from comics, admittedly, but money is money.
Still, this is the first time in his adult life that he’s not taking home a monthly salary – and that, plus the prospect of turning 40, does seem to have spooked him a little. He admits to some trouble sleeping. Thoughts of obsolescence, and his life being ‘all downhill from here’, prey on his mind. Almost absurdly, given that he spent all those years in the Air Force and flew C-130s, he’s developed a mild fear of flying, and shudders as the plane leaves the runway on his trips back to Greece. I suspect he feels pangs of guilt at not being there for his daughter (who’s being raised by his ex-wife) and now-elderly parents; and of course he admits that Cyprus – much as he likes the place, and would like to stay – is, in many ways, a foreign country.
There’s a bit of a dark side to Manos. The comics he writes are mostly horror, with slashers and serial killers (he also produces pro-cannabis tracts, plus a few jokey porno volumes with comic-book icons getting it on); his biggest hit, with art by Nick Giamalakis, was a 2015 comic called Freakshow, a Gothic tale about an evil travelling circus. Some may also find something slightly desperate in his bonhomie, the desire to know everyone and have friends wherever he goes. I can see how he’d come on too strong, for some people.
Maybe it’s a weapon, a defence mechanism from a peripatetic childhood. One assumes there must be a link between the collector seeking to impose himself on the world of comics – amassing every possible comic, 25,000 of them – and the connector seeking to impose himself on the world of people, flaunting his friendships like rare first editions. Manos is omnivorous when it comes to reading comics, and seems to attack life with the same forthright honesty. “Don’t write it all, just the good stuff!” he pleads as our conversation threatens to become too elaborate – but in fact, journalistically speaking, it’s all good stuff. He shakes hands warmly, and goes off to chat to some other people.