Top Shelf’s Swedish Invasion

Posted by on July 26th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

The Troll KingHey Princess; Mats Jonsson, 472 pp., $14.95; Softcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1603090513

120 Days of Simon; Simon Gardenfor; 472 pp., $14.95.; Softcover, B&W, ISBN: 978-1-60309-050-6

The Troll King; Kolbeinn Karlsson; 160 pp., $14.95; Softcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1-60309-061-2

Swedish Comics History; Fredrik Stromberg; The Swedish Comics Association, 124 pp.,  $19.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN 978-91-85161-77-5

From the Shadow of the Northern Lights Vol. 2; Johannes Klenell, ed., Top Shelf/Galago; 200 pp., $14.95; Softcover, Color; ISBN 978-1-60309-064-3

It sounds, on the face of it, like a great marketing idea. Find a country that has a thriving comics community, but yet isn’t well known for it by most North Americans comics readers, indy or otherwise (i.e. any place that’s not France or Japan). Then, translate and release a number of said country’s books to the American and Canadian public under the header of “The [name of country here] Invasion.” Voila! Almost half of your publishing catalog for the season is taken care of!

OK, so it’s safe to say that Top Shelf likely had more sincere and idealistic goals in mind beyond merely filling slots in their schedule when they released their “Swedish Invasion” collection of books earlier this year. After all, it’s not like publishing these books doesn’t come with a certain amount of financial risk; there aren’t that many readers clamoring to procure Scandinavian comics as far as I know.

And also, it’s not as though astute fans have been unaware of Sweden’s comics scene, since known artists like Max Andersson, Martin Kellerman and Rene Engstrom have had works released on these shores. But just how rich is the country’s comics scene anyway? According to Fredrik Stromberg, author of the named Swedish Comics History, pretty rich. Stromberg takes on a speedy tour through Sweden’s sequential history, from about the late 19th century to today. Along the way he drops countless names, both essential and secondary, in an attempt to convince you that Sweden has more on the ball comics-wise than you might initially think.

Unfortunately, while he does succeed in that goal, he doesn’t do much beyond that. Authors, titles and characters zoom by at an almost dizzying speed, with little more than a paragraph or sentence or two to provide basic information. A few minutes after closing the book, I honestly could not remember a single author or work mentioned in it beyond the few I already knew about before I began reading. Stromberg shows us that there are a lot of cartoonists in Sweden, but he doesn’t give us much of a chance to become interested in them.

For that reason, the anthology From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, Vol. 2 makes a much better case at establishing Sweden as a comics utopia. This second collection of short pieces, originally done for Galago magazine, is much richer, funnier and far more revealing than its predecessor (which honestly wasn’t that shabby to begin with). Certainly if you want to sample what that country’s best and brightest are producing at the moment (or are just hungry for a really good anthology) I can’t imagine a better option. A variety of styles, genres and attitudes are on display here, enough so that it’s hard to pigeonhole the book in order to exclaim, “Swedish comics are all like this!” (even editor Johannes Klenell cries uncle in his introduction). Although I should note there is a decided emphasis on erotica, sex, sexual discomfort and smutty jokes throughout – make of that what you will.

Certainly love, sex and romance are at the heart of Hey Princess, a brick-shaped collection of autobiographical tales by one Mats Jonsson. Jonsson’s extremely crude art style has been compared to Mike Diana, although I would add the qualifier, “Mike Diana, if he were a complete wuss who never shut up about Britpop and ex-girlfriends.” The book is basically a litany of bad relationships, with him falling for a variety of young trendy-looking girls who either adore, frustrate or reject him. Sometimes all three. Jonsson sells himself as an earnest, overly sincere sort who frequently sets himself up to be the schlmeil in the relationship, although honestly that doesn’t excuse his often horndog behavior.

Jonsson’s crude art aside, the main problem with Hey Princess is this: Several years ago, a book like this would have seemed like a daring, raw, unflinching, honest look into someone’s personal life. But so much genre-defining work in that vein has come out over the past decade that today Princess seems to be following in others footsteps rather than leading the pack. It’s not a horrible book, despite my earlier snark – if you’re the type who loves to have people reveal their embarrassing secrets to you you’ll get a kick out of it – but it isn’t as revealing or insightful as I suspect Jonsson likes to think it is.

Although it’s also a memoir, I enjoyed Simon Gardenfors’ 120 Days of Simon a lot more than Hey Princess, perhaps because Gardenfors really doesn’t seem to feel the need to present himself as a sympathetic character. Or perhaps his behavior is frequently so loutish that to do more than simply present it would be inexcusable.

The book’s plot is simple: Gardenfors spent 120 days away from home, touring the Swedish countryside and staying with friends and strangers willing to put him up for the night and then turned his expedition into a comic. Along the way he indulges in various forms of debauchery, drugs, rock music and unprotected sex with underage girls (at one point in a day care no less). He also gets mugged, successfully cons a TV station and generally attempts to have as much fun as possible. Whether or not he actually learns something about himself or the country he lives in is not a subject the book cares to talk about (though I suspect the answer is “not much”).

One of the things I liked about the book was Gardenfors’ minimalist, geometric art style, where he breaks figures and objects down to their basic shapes and lets Ziptone and spot blacks give them form and depth. That, in addition to the author’s laissez-faire attitude toward his book (no lessons are learned, crises are quickly averted and little of consequence happens overall) made the book a breezy but enjoyable read.

Finally we come to The Troll King, the last book in the Invasion onslaught, the most stylistically and thematically different of all the books in the series, and the best of the bunch as well. Working in a decidedly surrealist vein, Kolbeinn Karlsson’s mostly wordless tale concerns two sasquatch-like brothers who live in the woods and yearn for a child to raise. Strange rituals are performed, odd transformations take place and their prayers seems to be answered, although, as the old saw goes, be careful what you wish for.

In between that central story the book often segues to focus on other, equally odd characters that may or may not have anything to do with the overarching storyline. It’s kind of hard to tell at times.

Karlsson’s characters are fat, lumpy and sweat a lot. His world seems extremely treacherous. Bloody violence occasionally occurs. Nature is both horrific and bountiful. It will literally consume and/or alter you. And yes, there is growth and revitalization, but said growth can often be destructive.

In short, this is a unique, thoroughly bizarre book that will fill you with unease in the best sense possible. I wouldn’t even mind a second invasion round, if it allowed us to sample more works like this.

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3 Responses to “Top Shelf’s Swedish Invasion”

  1. Thomas Karlsson says:

    As a Swedish im extremly proud of the so called “Swedish invasion” but im not so shure about its long term life? Im not even shure that Top Shelf is the right forum for this. Top Shelf is not exactly a blockbuster publishing house in terms of selling and neither is Galagao from which much of their material that comes from. I could be really nasty and say that the problem Top Shelf is they lack in both editorial skills as well as a basic understanding good entertaining comics. But that would not be entirely true as the main problem is a rather limited selection in what they offer. Buy Fredrik Strombergs book on Swedish Comics and leave the rest on the “Top Shelf”

  2. RWB says:

    That’s a pretty harsh assessment of Top Shelf. They may not live up to your definition of “good entertaining comics,” but since you leave that definition blank, it is impossible to take your criticism of either Top Shelf or Galagos seriously. Personally, I rather liked 120 days of Simon (for the same reasons as listed above), and am willing to check out The Troll King based on this review.

  3. Thomas Karlsson says:

    I realize now that choice of word entertaining was a bit unlucky if not to say clumsy. The word entertaining can be understood and also misunderstood in so many ways. For me personally “entertaining” comics means first of all well executed artwork which I am afraid many if not most of Top Shelf’s books lack. I of cause realize this is a matter of opinion and subject to personal taste. But comics is also a craft and If you lack that basic knowledge of “the craft” the result will suffer. Secondly I do not mean by entertaining something that is equal to, funny & or a comic situations. For me an entertaining is a story so well told that that its completely enthralls and consumes you. My personal view on these comics, maybe with the exception of Kolbeinn Karlssons marvelous Trollkungen, is that they lack many of these basic components that makes up a great graphic novel. With few exceptions I also think this is a major flaw in Top Shelf’s entire line of publishing

    I don’t want to criticize Galago too much. They are not a major publishing house and they are doing the best they can in small “comics country” like Sweden. But with Top Shelf I have patience what so ever. They are doing a lousy editorial job in their choice of imported comics.
    If you really are interested in good Swedish comics why not try Pixy from Max Andersons from Fantagraphics, it’s a bit old I know but its a work well done