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.,Â $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 isnât well known for it by most North Americans comics readers, indy or otherwise (i.e. any place thatâs not France or Japan). Then, translate and release a number of said countryâs books to the American and Canadian public under the header of âThe [name of country here] Invasion.â Voila! Almost half of your publishing catalog for the season is taken care of!
OK, so itâs 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 âSwedish Invasionâ collection of books earlier this year. After all, itâs not like publishing these books doesnât 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, itâs not as though astute fans have been unaware of Swedenâs 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 countryâs comics scene anyway? According to Fredrik Stromberg, author of the named Swedish Comics History, pretty rich. Stromberg takes on a speedy tour through Swedenâs 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 doesnât 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 doesnât 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 wasnât that shabby to begin with). Certainly if you want to sample what that countryâs best and brightest are producing at the moment (or are just hungry for a really good anthology) I canât imagine a better option. A variety of styles, genres and attitudes are on display here, enough so that itâs hard to pigeonhole the book in order to exclaim, âSwedish comics are all like this!â (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 â 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. Jonssonâs extremely crude art style has been compared to Mike Diana, although I would add the qualifier, âMike Diana, if he were a complete wuss who never shut up about Britpop and ex-girlfriends.â 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 doesnât excuse his often horndog behavior.
Jonssonâs 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 someoneâs 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. Itâs not a horrible book, despite my earlier snark â if youâre the type who loves to have people reveal their embarrassing secrets to you youâll get a kick out of it â but it isnât as revealing or insightful as I suspect Jonsson likes to think it is.
Although itâs also a memoir, I enjoyed Simon Gardenforsâ 120 Days of Simon a lot more than Hey Princess, perhaps because Gardenfors really doesnât 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 bookâs 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 ânot muchâ).
One of the things I liked about the book was Gardenforsâ 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 authorâs 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 Karlssonâs 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. Itâs kind of hard to tell at times.
Karlssonâs 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 wouldnât even mind a second invasion round, if it allowed us to sample more works like this.
Tags: 120 Days of Simon, Fredrik Stromberg, From the Shadow of the Northern Lights Vol. 2, Galago, Hey Princess, Johannes Klenell, Kolbeinn Karlsson, Mats Jonsson, Simon Gardenfor;, Swedish Comics History, The Troll King, top shelf