From Wonderland with Love

Posted by on May 28th, 2010 at 2:27 PM

Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Paul Gravett & a cropped view of the present author

This past weekend saw the fourth edition of the international comics biennial,, in Copenhagen, Denmark. The most ambitious and successful yet, it was held at a large venue at the center of town, whereas previous iterations were on the city’s periphery, and it boasted an impressive international guest list headed by the American triumvirate of Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, and the British one of Dave Gibbons, Kevin O’Neill and Frank Quitely.

Danish comics culture does not have a particularly solid tradition for organization. Where comics in sister countries such as Finland and Sweden have a significantly stronger institutional presence and a more consistent history of events such as this, — organized by a small group of unpaid volunteers on their free time — is gradually making a case for Denmark’s position as a center of comics culture in Northern Europe. Roughly 4.000 guests passed through the old meatpacking hall, Øksnehallen, in the slowly gentrifying but still very much red-lit inner Vesterbro district of Copenhagen.

As the guest list indicates, the festival aims to accommodate comics in all their breadth, from national to international and from small press to mainstream. Besides a host of Danish guests, big and small, it vied this year to achieve a satisfying mix of Anglo-American mainstream and the best of alternative comics, supplementing the three ’90s paragons with the Germans Line Hoven and Arne Bellstorf, as well as a number of cartoonists from Sweden, Finland, Iceland and elsewhere. The European mainstream was represented by the best-selling Belgian genre writer Jean van Hamme (XIII, Thorgal, Largo Winch), fantasy writer Christophe Arleston (Lanfeust de Troy), and Dutch master chameleon Daan Jippes. Japan, always the problem child — not the least when it comes to inviting guests — was held down by Keitaro Arima, the author of Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase. a view of the main alley of the hall

The festival opened on Friday night with a party/awards ceremony. Since yours truly was part of the jury, I shall refrain from entering into too much detail, just out of basic propriety, but suffice it to say that Ware did not enjoy being bestowed the award for best international comic published in Denmark. Not one bit (the list of awards can be seen here).

The festival itself ran for two full days over the weekend and saw extensive programming in the form of on-stage interviews and panels. I myself had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Ware, as well as co-hosting, with the estimable Paul Gravett, a panel on “The Great American Graphic Novel,” featuring Burns, Clowes and Ware (check back for imminent transcripts), and an international panel of comics scholars conducting live analysis of selected comics pages. In step with the festival’s general ambitions, the programming spanned a wide range of topics and catered to a impressively diverse audience of all ages.

What the still lacks more than anything is quality exhibitions. My guess is that the cost and time involved in mounting art shows is beyond the reach of the organizers, already stretched thin as they are. This year’s offerings included an exhibition by the German guests, a Scandinavian showcase for the Finnish-run collaborative art project Nordicomics, and a small exhibition of Danish cartoonist Thomas Thorhauge’s current newspaper strip True Story, which translates into humorous and often poignant comics form actual quotes from famous film personalities. Fair enough, but slim pickings when compared with most other festivals around Europe of similar size.

Audience at the 'Great American Graphic Novel' panel

All in all, however, the festival was a positive experience that successfully managed the difficult act of pleasing everyone, and consolidated the Danish scene as one to watch in European comics. What’s more, it was as usual a catalyst for comics culture in Denmark more broadly — each time it rolls around, many new comics, local and international, see publication and related events are planned, and this year was no exception.

Among the most interesting Danish releases were: a new book by Søren G. Mosdal, Lost Highway, which spins a story from the mysterious last 24 hours in the life of musical legend Hank Williams into an oneiric, suggestive narrative; four new titles in publisher Aben Maler’s minicomics imprint ‘676’ amongst other things introducing to Danish comics the inventive draftsman Michael Rytz as well as the ridiculously talented newcomer Mikkel Sommer; and another fine effort from rising star Johan F. Krarup.

In addition to this, a lost classic of the ’80s, Suicide Joe, by one of the seminal pioneers of the Danish ’70s generation, Peter Kielland, was finally published by long-time small press house Fahrenheit. A short — if oversized — and hilarious parable of life, art, and everything by an underappreciated master in the making. Last but not least, the festival saw the release of the first of five large archival collections of the biggest Danish mainstream comic of the last 30 years, Valhalla, by Peter Madsen, Henning Kure and others — a series which recounts and reinterprets in comics form the Norse myths and wrapped up with Ragnarok last year, ending one of the most significant and popular Danish comics projects ever.

Add to this fine, new Danish editions of Burns’ Black Hole, Clowes’ Wilson, and Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Especially the last one, translated and prepared for publication by Steffen Maarup of Aben Maler, is an historic release. Maarup has hand-lettered not only all the italicized script of the book, but also the numerous intertitles, creating what is surely the most beautiful foreign edition of the book and a major feat for a small, essentially one-man publishing house.

Additionally, the festival was preceded by an international academic conference, dubbed Contemporary Comics, which was held at the University of Copenhagen on Friday. Again, I was on the board of organizers and can hardly presume to write about it with any kind of objectivity, so the facts will have to do: 12 papers from an international roster of comics scholars in two concurrent sessions. Keynote from Canadian scholar Jacques Samson, who has recently published a book on Chris Ware with Benoît Peeters, and Mr. Ware himself in conversation about his work with Paul Gravett. All in all an lovely day that served not only to consolidate the academic study of comics in Denmark, but more broadly — we hope — the general institutional presence of the medium in Scandinavia.

Today, I’m off to the OCX festival in Oslo, which promises to be a fine event too — stay tuned for a comparison in what may just turn out to be a bit of a Scandinavian-themed summer here in my corner of the Journal.

Photos by Frederik Høyer-Christensen. Check in here for his ample flickr set from the festival.

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One Response to “From Wonderland with Love”

  1. iggynore says:

    Hi all,

    if you’d like to know more about and the independent comics scene in Scandinavia, see our video and read our magazine at our website:

    Thank you!