Cartooning in the Shadow of the Northern Lights

Published On November 5, 2008 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Reviews

From the Shadow of the Northern Lights: an Anthology of Swedish Alternative Comics

Edited by Johannes Klenell

Published by Top Shelf/Ordfront Galago
From the Shadow of the Northern Lights Swedish Comics Top Shelf.jpg

It seems as if we have been fortunate enough to see some cracking comics anthologies over the last few years – McSweeney’s, Best American Comics, Mome, Kramer’s Ergot, Flight and others – but this recent offering from Top Shelf/Ordfront Galago is a little different. This is a collection of alternative cartoonists from the Swedish magazine Galago and I imagine even those of us who like to try to keep up on independent creators and comics from outside the English language world will not recognise most of the names contained within – Tom Karlsson, Anneli Furmark, Marcus Ivarsson, Gunnar Lundkvist and more – but I think that made this all the more interesting. All I knew of this when the book landed on my desk was what Top Shelf’s Chris Staros had written after his visit to the Swedish Small Press Expo earlier this year (which he kindly allowed us to reproduce on the blog here).

So I had that rare thrill of coming to something quite new and unexpected to me; obviously like anyone I had certain preconceptions – perhaps a mix of the old Monty Python ribbing of Sweden (“my sister was bitten by a moose, you know”) and some Robert Crumb influences… No, only joking, I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a great collection – as with any anthology there are some stories I enjoyed more than others, some styles and some art was more to my own taste than others, but that’s always the case and there was plenty of variety on offer here, from wordless strips to the more text heavy, elegant art to dark and scratchy. While I found plenty to intrigue me some caught my eye more than others, starting with Marcus Ivarsson’s Nemesis, a fourteen page silent strip which boasts some gorgeous art, which somehow manages to create a bit of a psychedelic feel despite being in black and white and the wordless nature means the reader has to become more involved with the artist in creating a narrative that’s half in the drawings and half in the reader’s head (and it boasts a moral too about the perils of drugs. Or maybe just a warning about really bad trips).

Nemesis Marcus Ivarsson From Shadow Northern Lights.jpg

(Nemesis by Marcus Ivarsson)

Mats Jonsson seemed to be on a more familiar ground, looking back at past romantic relationships in I Dated a Teenager, an enjoyable piece dealing in trying to find that elusive connection in a relationship, two people together trying to make what they think a good partnership looks like but somehow never quite on the same page as one another. Relationships – always a fairly rich source of inspiration for any writer, prose or graphical – surface again with Anneli Furmark’s A Private Place, in which a failing artist deliberately tries to isolate himself from everyone he’s known, executed in a very different style from Ivarsson’s, much scratchier, which I thought suited the subject matter a lot more; it also seemed to be having a gentle poke at the mindsets some artists can get themselves into when they are trying too hard to be ‘real artists’.

Henrik Bromander manages to explore both sibling relationships and lack of genuine connection in romantic relationships, mixed with that certain regret that can set in around our 30s and beyond where we wonder how we got to this stage in our life, why we are with this person, why we didn’t do all the exciting things we thought we’d do when we were younger, while Asa Grennvall’s A Useless Fag Hag has a woman who doesn’t date much and her once close relationship with a gay male friend, showing how even good friendships can be disrupted and eventually fade, managing to be both funny and sad. David Lilkemark’s Henry Says sticks with the relationship theme and, like Mawil’s We Can Still be Friends, is largely flashbacks told by friends over a drink and was one I’d quite like to read more of.

Henry Says David Lilkemark.jpg

(a page from Henry Says by David Liljemark)

Its not all relationships – and often failed or regretted relationships – of course; Kim W Andersson serves us up a quick single page helping of Girlboy, taking some spandex-clad underwear pervert (or superheroes as they are more often called) stereotypes and giving them a fun transgender twist, complete with 60s style Batman sound effects, but instead of ‘POW!” we get a punch by Hermaphrodite to the sound of “COCK!”. Yeah, I know, maybe not the subtlest, but it amused me anyway (not normally hard). Jonna Bjornstjerna’s Obsessed offers up some more chuckles as her heroine struggles to stay off the ciggies in a world that seems to owe something to Edward Gorey and Tim Burton.

Knut Larsson’s Projections is a sequence of twelve panels, two large frames per page, wordless and, I have to say, I have no idea what the hell is going on. Which doesn’t seem to matter – the artwork is quite beautiful and I’ve found myself turning back to those pages several times (no, not just for the nudity , you dirty lot). I’m not sure if I’m just not following the narrative correctly or if really there is no firm narrative as such, simply a sequence of unusual images to spark neurones and connections in the reader’s brain to let them form their own impressions, a bit like a sequential art version of freeform poetry. Whatever the case, I liked it, partly for the artwork, partly for the way, like a Surrealist painting it doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t spoon feed the viewer, simply presents itself for individual interpretations. As such I suspect that whatever story it evokes in you is as correct as anyone’s else’s.

Knut Larsson Projections swedish comics.jpg

(Knut Larsson’s Projections)

Liv Stromquist gives us I Was Stalin’s Girlfriend (oh, back to relationships again!) , a light-hearted look at the romantic and cuddly side of one of the 20th century’s great mass-murdering dictators and a warning to younger women about dating much older men, especially when they are the dictatorial head of state. Pontus Lundkvist’s Fingered circles around a group of complete wasters, the bottom of the barrel, lazy, drunk and drug fuelled (when they can get it – when they can’t expensive shoplifted aftershave will do in a scene that seems to pay homage to Withnail and I’s lighter fluid scene), foul-mouthed and full of it. In a way the characters came across as the weed-produced mutant offspring of the Freak Brothers crossed with Nemi and Scandinavian metal culture; they manage to be simultaneously fascinating and repulsive.

Pontus Lundkvist Fingered from the shadow of northern lights swedish comics.jpg

(a panel from Fingered which I thought would make a great T-shirt, guarenteed to offend the retired colonel Daily Mail type reader; (c) Pontus Lundkvist)

All in all its a great collection of new (to English language readers) comics creators, showcasing a variety of styles and subjects. Looking back at it I’m trying to think if there was anything notably ‘Swedish’ about it though – apart from all the Abba jokes and frequent recourse to a moose watching Bergman movies. Okay, I imagined those last two, I’m glad to say they aren’t in there. Which is kind of my point – yes, perhaps you could say a few strips have a slight melancholy element of regret to them which is a bit Swedish, but in truth that’s not very different from a number of Indy comics from Britain and North America. Which is part of the point, I think – forget the Swedish tag and take this for what it is, a good collection of new talent for you to experience for the first time and enjoy. And hopefully, like any good anthology, you will come away delighted at finding an artist you’d never heard of before that you found you loved and can’t wait to read more of. One of the more unusual anthologies of the year and a very welcome (and encouraging) example of cross-cultural comics cooperation, I’m hoping there will be more. Have a look.

Like this Article? Share it!

About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Cartooning in the Shadow of the Northern Lights

  1. Pingback: Here come the Swedes! | The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log