Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Top Shelf's Swedish Invasion: A Survey

I thought I'd take a (belated) look at Top Shelf's "Swedish Invasion": a group of translated graphic novels and anthologies from the Scandinavian country that has had a long and varied comics tradition. These books mostly came out in early 2010 and made a splash at MOCCA that year.

Swedish Comics History, by Fredrik Stromberg (Swedish Comics Association). At just over a hundred pages, and with most of that space given over to illustrations, there's not much room in this book for a thorough critical examination of Swedish comics. Stromberg takes the reader by the hand and whips them through nearly 150 years of cartooning while occasionally dropping the odd tidbit that discusses why the comics are important and how they fit into the larger context of Swedish culture. My favorite example of the latter was the decline of a certain kind of comics magazine thanks to the invention of the safety razor. The magazine was popular in "shaving parlors", an institution that died out when the razor was introduced. As a brand new reader of most of the comics in this book, I would have especially appreciated more of the latter. There was rarely a sense of what made the comics in the book uniquely Swedish, though that may be well part of the point. As a smaller country that's plugged into both European and American culture, it's no surprise that so many of the comics discussed in this book feel derivative of other comics scenes. Sweden was even affected by Frederick Wertham's anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, to the point where comics were widely reviled.

That said, comics clearly holds a unique and ferociously loyal place in the hearts of many Swedes. Unsurprisingly, Donald Duck is as big in Sweden as he is in the rest of Europe, and it was interesting to read that this comic still sells over 100,000 copies a week. I was fascinated to read about the Swedish Comics Academy and the Swedish Comics Association, the latter of which was apparently largely responsible for legitimizing comics as something more than entertainment for young children, partly through publishing its own magazine. Its headquarters, Serieteket, is not unlike the Hicksville Lending Library in that it specializes in comics and holds the annual Swedish Small Press Expo. Combined with Seriecenter, a building that houses studio space, educational space, and office space for cartoonists. The Academy lobbied the government and convinced them to create grants supporting cartoonists.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that Stromberg gives little critical weight to the comics and creators he introduces. The section at the end about autobio comics and comics by women is tantalizing and well-illustrated, but I received no sense of who the truly significant and original artists in Sweden are. The end result is that this historical survey is more useful as a reference tool after having actually read some of the artists discussed than as a critical guide. The book is excellent in that regard by providing names, dates and which comics have been translated into English. I would recommend reading this book in conjunction with the In The Shadow Of The Northern Lights anthologies, as it helps provide a bit of context.

The Troll King, by Kolbeinn Karlsson. This strange, beautiful book looks like something Secret Acres might have published. In particular, there are similarities between Karlsson's work and that of both Eamon Espey and Theo Ellsworth. This book features a series of loosely-connected vignettes about a forest filled with strange inhabitants, all under the watchful eye of a benign but enigmatic lumpen creature with what looks like a carrot for a nose. The wavy lines of detail give the comic an almost vibratory quality at times, while the eye-popping use of color lend a dreamlike, psychedelic quality to the proceedings. The stories feel like comforting dreams and disturbing nightmares at the same time. The larger narrative concerns two mountain men (who describe themselves as Ewoks) who are lovers and are gifted with twin sons by the Troll King. That gift winds up being one that they cannot actually possess, as the sons grow to reject their fathers' ways in a sequence that was heartbreaking, strange and disturbing.

My favorite sequence involved a dwarf getting swept up into the magic of the forest; here, Karlsson abandons black lines to allow the color to fully saturate the page. The only blacks here are for negative space, which makes the incredibly vivid colors pop out all the more, creating the atmosphere of a waking dream that marks true psychedelia. Another great sequence found an anthropomorphic carrot taking a soak in a public bath before winding up as a tree. Karlsson's art evokes the same sense of wonder and imagination of Ellsworth's intensely-rendered dreamworlds while also carrying the grotesque and visceral quality of Espey. Like Espey's work, strange & ugly boys figure prominently in the narrative, and strange rituals are at the heart of the story. Like Ellsworth's work, the ultimate source of the narrative is a positive presence, even if his motives don't always seem immediately evident. The Troll King is a startling, unsettling, and ultimately life-affirming book that spins a mythology that is at once alien and familiar.

The 180 Days of Simon, by Simon Gardenfors. Peter Bagge did a blurb for the back of this book, and it's fitting since the Simon of this autobiographical diary comic is sort of a real-life Buddy Bradley. This book is essentially a Swedish version of K. Thor Jensen's Red Eye, Black Eye, in that the artist travels around the country, staying at the homes of total strangers who have agreed to take him in after he made a request on the internet. Unlike Jensen, who made the stories of others a primary focus of his narrative, Gardenfors makes everyone else part of his own adventure. Gardenfors is also a popular rapper and that bit of notoriety gets him the attention of a number of young women eager to sleep with him--including a couple of underage girls whose parents (incredibly) are amenable to him staying at their homes. All the while, Gardenfors balances his feelings about another artist that he's in love with for his project.

Gardenfors is hilariously self-centered, trying to squeeze as much sex, drugs, fun and weirdness into his journey as possible (in part, I'm guessing, so that he has something interesting to write about). Along the way, Gardenfors manages to draw death threats from an overprotective brother of a girl he has sex with, get savagely assaulted by some young punks, lose out on a bunch of money, fool a TV crew into thinking a friend of his was making sacrifices to Norse gods and do all sorts of drugs. By the end, he manages to solve all of his problems with solutions that drop out of the air. Any American artist reading no doubt started screaming with jealousy when Gardenfors gets the equivalent of $40,000 from a government grant. Gardenfors' highly stylized and simplified figure drawing style removes some of the salacious and sensational qualities of the content and plays things for laughs, even if much of his behavior is less than amusing. Indeed, the cutesy nature of his figures becomes cloying after a while. Essentially, this is the story of a fellow who's kind of an asshole who happens to get luckier than he deserves at times, but at least tries to make some of the jokes at his own expense. To his credit, more of his jokes are hits rather than misses, and the two-panel-per-page pace of the book makes this a breezy read.

Hey Princess, by Mats Jonsson. Of all the three solo "Swedish Invasion" books, Hey Princess was the one I was most skeptical of when I started reading it. Autobiographical comics by 20-something guys about their relationships, heartbreaks, humiliations and pop music are standard fare in the American comics scene and have been for over twenty years. Indeed, Jonsson lists Joe Matt and Seth as his primary influences, and he named the book after a pop song by the 90s band Popsicle. While there's a bit of Matt-style self-deprecation, Jonsson's book reminds me more of the work of his peer Jeffrey Brown. There's the same shabby line that invites intimacy, the same chronological focus on relationships and the same obsession with music. The blunt honesty regarding his own feelings of sadness and focus on the physical particulars of his relationships is reminiscent of David Heatley--another cartoonist who employs a simplified style. Most of all, Jonsson's comics remind of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity.

That novel's hero was not only obsessed with music and why his ex-girlfriends dumped him, but the role that pop music played in the actual break-ups. Similarly, Jonsson slowly pieces together patterns regarding his relationships while making sure to pepper these accounts with anecdotes that aren't just humiliating but also hilarious. He begins the book with an account of his first sexual encounter that also happens to describe the way in which he asks his girlfriend to tie him up and how she complies. Jonsson structures the book around the women he sees from age 19 to age 24, mixing in his ambitions as a comics editor, his life as a scenester/hipster type, and his relationships with his friends and rivals. While at first I felt the book was entirely derivative of better autobio artists, Jonsson eventually won me over.

How did the book change my mind? First and foremost, while there's some distance between the Jonsson who drew the stories and the Jonsson who experienced them, he's careful not to draw too distinct a line between them. Too often in confessional autobio, the artist looks back in contempt on old personas and opinions, positioning themselves as being more enlightened now (I'm thinking specifically of David Heatley here). While Jonsson gains some hard-fought perspective by the end of the book, it's not at the expense of the account of his past exploits. Second, Jonsson really gets at the feeling of being a young person in Sweden in the 1990s. The more specific he gets in terms of his details, the more vivid and relatable his story becomes. Those details prove to be important when he's trying to understand his own feelings and desires. At the same time, Jonsson captures the feeling that Sweden is a small country and that it's not hard to throw oneself into the scene if some effort is exerted. Third, Jonsson is really funny and gets funnier as the book proceeds. In particular, his depiction of his arch-rival Marcus Gerdin, a sleazy DJ hipster, is hilarious--down to the character design (with an elongated head) to the anecdotes themselves. There's also an anecdote about Jonsson and his friends defacing an Aaron Carter poster, only to have to deal with 9-year-old pop star happening upon the poster and becoming upset. The way Jonsson tells the story (as an anecdote within a larger story) was clever, as was his afterword where he discusses the grim lesson Carter learned about the price of success. Jonnson's sloppy line and slightly grotesque character design eventually becomes endearing, especially with the way the book is formatted: two panels a page, which lets each story whip by quickly.

Most importantly, Jonsson gets at why he's so attracted to "indie girls" (as in indie rock). In a sense, they are living personifications of the aesthetic perpetuated by indie rock. In other words, the fantasies found in Brit Pop or pop music in general espouse the perfect moment, captured in three minute bursts. Being able to have a relationship with a girl who embodies that ideal was something that Jonsson simply couldn't resist, until he finally saw how destructive this was after he dated a 17 year old girl who lied about her age. He experienced one night that was a series of perfect moments with her, a night that could be encapsulated by a pop song, and stayed in an otherwise terrible relationship because of the weight that one moment continued to possess. That concept is captured by the book's cover, a photograph of two lovers laying on autumn leaf-strewn grass. That's a perfect moment, one that he was trying to manufacture again and again, until he understood that this very attempt would wind up destroying any real chance of a relationship. This insight, delivered with the easy grace, humor and good will that he accumulated throughout the course of the book, provides a nuanced recapitulation of the book, one that adds a layer of depth to each chapter without being too reductionist.

From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Volume 1, edited by Johannes Klenell. Readers curious about Swedish comics would be well advised to start with these excellent, wide-ranging and visually exciting anthologies. Essentially featuring the all-stars from long-time Swedish alt-comics stalwart Galago, Northern Lights manages to pack the work of 26 cartoonists of varying styles into 200 pages. What's remarkable is that every story feels like a complete unit and that no cartoonist is shortchanged in the process of assembling the anthology. Karlsson, Jonsson & Gardenfors all make appearances, but what distinguishes both anthologies is the preponderance of female cartoonists. Klenell plays up the "Scandinavian angst" angle of these comics in his introduction, invoking the long winter months and Galago's place reacting against popular culture and reactionary politics. There are some strains of that, though the influence of American underground comics, alt-comics and mark-making are in far greater evidence.

Art by Loka Kanarp

Highlights of this volume include Anneli Furmark's story about an artist attempting to alienate and isolate himself from his friends and loved ones (she may be known to North American readers from her appearance in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #5; it's drawn in a scratchy, dense style with scribbly, expressive figures. David Liljemark's "Henry says" is about two friends having a conversation in a cafe', with one man detailing his ups and downs with an enervating female friend. This was done in a cute, almost superdeformed cartoony style with a thick black line. At 13 pages, it's one of many stories in the anthology that's given the space to really breathe. Fabian Goranson's 21-page freakout reminds me a bit of the sort of thing Zak Sally does, in that it depicts a mental and emotional breakdown of a desperate character depicted as a monkey. The range of visual styles is dizzyingly impressive, especially when the main character starts to hallucinate and the images break down into psychedelic and cubist images.

Art by Knut Larsson

Liv Stromquist's minimalist line and sharply satirical point of view made "I Was Stalin's Girlfriend" an especially amusing entry, as she draws from history to reflect on the monstrous and yet particularly male aspects of Stalin's reign in the way he treated his wife. Loka Kanarp's "The Party" depicts a socially awkward young woman given a social lifeline that is later cruelly yanked away from her, downplaying her pain in a series of quiet, meditative panels. On the other hand, Asa Grennvall's "A Useless Fag Hag" employs autobio to explore her feelings about the time she had a gay man as her best friend (pointedly noting that even though he was gay, he was still a man and less was expected of him in terms of hard labor) and how shabbily she was treated by his friends. The line is loose, crude and expressive, befitting the emotions she's venting. Malin Biller's "Motorcycle Emptiness", an account of her time in England working menial & demoralizing jobs in a starry-eyed attempt to meet a famous musician, uses a touch of the grotesque in describing the horrible people she meets.

Art by Marcus Ivarsson

In terms of visual pyrotechnics, Knut Larsson's creepy, densely rendered nude figures remind me a bit of Renee French's rendering style, but with an aesthetic that is otherwise all his own. There's a stark, otherworldly beauty to his strange images that lingers in one's memory. Marcus Ivarsson's "Nemesis" is a dense, psychedelic story that reminds me a bit of Jim Woodring in the way its anthropomorphic rabbit protagonist negotiates his environment and a life full of woes. Tom Karlsson's story about a character telling his son how he came to be through the recounting of a dream was affecting, strange and rendered in exacting, powerful detail. The one sour note in the anthology was Henrik Bromander's story of a sister manipulated into a situation where she was gang-raped by a gang of motorcycle toughs. The crudeness of his line actually ameliorated some of the more disturbing aspects of the story, but this felt like an underground artist looking to shock for shock's sake. In a book filled with visually and intellectually challenging & honest work, this story felt adolescent in comparison.

From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Volume 2, edited by Johannes Klenell. The second volume expands the line-up with a number of new names who are mostly women. Indeed, 16 of the 36 contributors are women, which is highly unusual in any comics anthology that is not specifically focused by gender. It's clear that in Sweden, the alt-comix movement has bridged the gender gap much more quickly than it did in the US, though the gap is certainly closing there as well. Unsurprisingly, given that many different cartoonists, the styles are all over the map. In some ways, this volume is a bit less tight and focused than the first volume. The stories are generally shorter and more scattershot, even as the physical appearance of the book is much more appealing. Many of the pieces are in color, for example, and there are more visual pyrotechnics to be found. Certain aspects of the book are less appealing; the book lacks a page providing more information about each contributor and also omits the name of the artist at the top of each page, which was quite helpful for a reader new to Swedish comics in the first volume.

Art by Loka Kanarp

That said, the array of talent and approaches is still quite impressive, making this a dense and occasionally challenging anthology. The transitions aren't quite as smooth as in the first anthology, but getting jarred from time to time wasn't entirely a bad thing. The anthology is clever in the way it uses Joakim Pirinen's "Drafted For Life" as a kind of interstitial comic, with each chapter popping up throughout the book as the protagonist is being reincarnated but must make every life decision for its new life ahead of time. There's a dark but cartoony quality to Pirinen's line that imbues it with a certain comic energy. I mostly won't touch on stories by artists I reviewed in the first volume. One exception is Knut Larrson's "Forest Boy", which retains the fantastic detail of his story in the first anthology and adds a layer of deep, rich color to the crazy proceedings.

Art by Ruben Dahlstrand Vargas

Joanna Hellgren's pencil drawings and the way she draws children is reminiscent of Amanda Vahamaki, down to the lettering and word balloon style. The density of her pencil drawings adds to the sense of mystery and dread surrounding this story of a young girl reluctant to go cliff diving and the strange secret the waters hold. Stina Johnson's minimalist use of watercolors lends a fragility to her account of a childhood spent with a mother who was a seeker--politically and spiritually. Johnson's use of her mother's divining rods to find her eyeglasses is an especially amusing gag. John Andersson makes the most of color with his character taking a trippy walk in a garden at evening-time, flipping through a variety of realities and identities along the way. The vividness of the color makes this one of the most visually appealing strips in the anthology.

Art by Coco Moodyson

A flip between transitory states and pure naturalism is not an uncommon segue in the book, as the next story, Coco Moodyson's "I Remember My Mother's Lovers And How They Used To Touch Her" demonstrates. This is a Jesse Reklaw-style autobio catalog of events that reveals deeper truths, told with wit and bite. Her character design is amusing, as she depicts a variety of the titular lovers mostly from the point of view of her as a child and how they benefit or annoy her. One of the laugh-out-loud strips in the page is a story from Sara Graner, who depicts a male author being interviewed about his feelings regarding "the boom of male writers during the last 500 years", brutally satirizing the sort of questions feminist artists face on a regular basis.

Art by Fabian Goranson

Karolina Bang's "Cowgirls" is proof positive that the women in this anthology approach comics from a number of different angles; this one is a lesbian cowgirl sex romp, complete with strap-on dildos, rendered in a sketchy but expressive pencil style. This is one of several stories depicting sex as a (mostly) joyful romp, including one of the longer stories in the book, "Pornographic Saxophones". This collaboration between David Liljemark and Ruben Dahlstrand Vargas features rubbery and lively art in its depiction of a love affair between two musicians gone horribly wrong. The woman, an avant garde free jazz saxophonist, accidentally records herself blowing sax while having sex with her lover. Impressed with the result, they release the record and put together a career that draws a few hardcore fans. When she wants to go to the next level with a live sexual & musical performance, he balks and their relationship soon ends. The tragic end of her career and life obsesses the man in fascinating and unhealthy ways, eventually breaking up his marriage and leaving him the same fragile state his ex-girlfriend wound up in.

Art by Benjamin Stengard

Lennart & Fabian Goranson's "When The Devil Created The World" is a funny account of a conversation between god and the devil prior to the creation of the universe. Of course, who's responsible for what winds up being surprising, and neither creator emerges without blame in this story that looks like a bar crawl bull session gone horribly awry. Later in the anthology, we go from satire to horror in Benjamin Stengard's "Twin", a story of two boys rendered densely in pen & ink. The story starts with an understanding that this is about one of a pair of twin boys who falls ill and dies. Stengard takes a sharp left turn in returning the twin, only this time he's massively deformed. The true horror of the situation is the way in which their mother tries to assure everyone that things are perfectly normal. Niklas Asker's realistically rendered and pained "Under Sheets" takes a turn for the strange and dreamy, making a story filled with the typical yearnings of the lonely into something oddly beautiful.

Art by Emelie Ostergren

The two stories that stuck with me the longest were Loka Kanarp's "The Find", an oddly stirring story about a woman who picks up a guy and goes back to his apartment. She undresses him, fellates him and brings him to orgasm--all while keeping on her clothes and flatly refusing to undress. This is a smart story because of the clever way Kanarp addresses objectification without lecturing; the woman at the end simply asks the man to imagine what he wants her to look like and then close his eyes. The other story, Emelie Ostergren's "You Make My World Go Round", is five pages of exciting lunacy, as a fey-looking man is manipulated by masked creatures into trying different sets of clothing and different identities. Ostergren creates the sort of hallucinatory world matched only by Karlsson in Swedish comics, one that possesses its own rules and logic. What I like best about the "Swedish Invasion" is that it's helping to cross-pollinate two different comics traditions. While the work of many Swedish cartoonists may well have its origins derived from various American & European traditions, there's no question that those traditions have mutated into fascinating re-interpretations and new brand new takes on old tropes. There's a certain brutally honest frankness about these comics, both in terms of expressing one's emotions as well as one's id. It will be interesting to see what kind of mark these books make on North American audiences and how that will wind up carrying back over the Atlantic Ocean.


  1. My eyes were really opened thanks to Galago and Top Shelf. Swedish comics rock! Love the anthologies, and The Troll King is one of the best comics I've read. Interestingly, in the anthologies, one of my favorites was Henrik Bromander's "The World-Wager." I agree it had a lot of shock value, but I was drawn to the faux-auto-bio (fauxto-bio?) setup of the comic. It seemed so plausible and real until the last few pages, when it did get pretty sad and gruesome...but somehow I was still satisfied with the story. At least, this one and "Fag Hag" have stuck with me me as being unlike any comics I had encountered before!

  2. There is certainly something transgressive and provocative about Bromander's comics. And I agree that he sucked me in with this slice-of-life story that went horribly bad (in a ridiculous, S.Clay Wilson kind of way). With this and the story in the second anthology about the woman who can only get off sniffing the underwear of young boys, though, the shock/transgressive factor almost feels like a parody of sincere comics of this kind, but it's parody that for me falls flat.

    The fact that both stories are told from a woman's point of view is problematic for other reasons in that both stories seem misogynistic in the sense that Bromander really wants to punish both female characters. In the first story, she's punished for paranoia and living a happy life (and not being a "special", poetic character like her brother); in the second, the woman's own guilt is her own punishment. It's this character that made the stories feel adolescent for me.

    That said, these are really impressive comics. I'm eager to hear from others who have read them, like yourself, who might have differing opinions on certain things.

  3. I read "The World-Wager" as a self-mocking, self-referential metaphor for the way certain artists pointlessly force unpleasant experiences onto an unwilling audience.

    In other words, in this case the poet brother is Henrik Bromander and the somewhat conventional sister is Rob Clough, and the sympathies of any sane reader of the comic will lie firmly with the latter.