The Swedish Comics Invasion Arrives: ‘120 Days of Simon,’ ‘Hey Princess,’ ‘Troll King’
Foreign art can be inherently enticing for its foreignness. We all look to fiction and art to transport us to another world, another reality, another point of view, but much as memoir and autobiography hold in them a special titillation of getting to see something real and private, art from other cultures brings with it a promise that, no matter how successful the art may be at transporting or communicating, by default the reader will be exploring something exotic. As a suburban white boy I read manga, drink Chilean wine, listen to Ethiopian jazz, and watch German films, and buried in all my reasons for enjoying those things is a kernel of that thrill of "the other." It can be a strange angle of entry into a piece of art, a set of assumptions that pre-judges the work as somehow different and exciting solely because of its point of origin.
The first page of "The 120 Days of Simon" (out this week) declares: This story takes place in Sweden. I don't know if that page was added for the American edition or not, but if it was, talk about selling the other! And if it wasn't, talk about being from Sweden!
Now, the reference book on Swedish comics wasn't one of the books I got to read, so I have no knowledge of Swedish comics as context for reading any of these works. I went to Sweden once. I ate some really delicious mashed potatoes, slept on a boat, and saw a woman spitting flaming vodka into the air on the street. So, um, that's my context.
In that context, or in any context really, "The 120 Days of Simon" is a pretty lousy book. The cover design is impeccable, but the book itself is more or less what I would come up with if you asked me to make an ignorant joke about what Swedish comics are probably like.
The book goes like this: cartoonist Simon Gärdenfors walks into this publisher's office, and pitches the idea for the book that you're reading. The concept he pitches: He, Simon, will set up a website where people all over Sweden can offer up free food and lodging for a night, and he, Simon, will travel and stay with them, not returning home until he's hit all his destinations, and not staying in any spot for more than two nights. He then proceeds to do this for the rest of the book. On his travels, he drinks a lot, does a lot of drugs, has sex with a lot of women (and some young girls -- potentially too young), and in general behaves like an egomaniacal, vaguely racist, idiotic, awful person. And then he returns home.
It's a little bit admirable that he seems to portray himself pretty bluntly as just completely insufferable, but even then it's hard to tell how self-aware the work actually is. And in any case, even if the whole thing is ironic it still requires you to spend an entire book enduring him, which is frankly too much to ask. It doesn't even really work as a travelogue. The art is incredibly simplistic, which makes it impossible to even tell the different locales in Sweden apart from one another -- that is, when Simon bothers to try to draw them at all. The majority of the book we spend literally staring at his cartoon head and little else.
But I think we can all agree that a scene in which a pimply recently-ex-virgin convinces his lust object to tie him up, only to have her answer a phone call that turns into an hour-and-a-half-long tearful conversation with her sobbing boyfriend that our pimply bound hero can do nothing but lay there and listen to, and after which she comes back and breaks up with him while he's still tied up -- that's a comedic tour de force, right there. And that's just the book's opening story! Sadly it isn't all quite up to that bar of excellence, but there's enough to pull you through the slower parts.
It's entirely possible that I simply relate more to Jonsson's awfulness than to Gärdenfors'. "Hey Princess" is the story of Jonsson as a solipsistic cinema studies student and indie rock snob who fumbles about with romance and sex, which plugs into my own experiences far better than Gärdenfors' solipsistic wandering rapper who likes to sleep with Junior High School students and has weird ideas about black people.
Jonsson's art, while crude in a very classic alt-comix sort of way, is representational enough to convey environments and moods, and he seems more legitimately interested in the people around him as well. There's one chapter that covers a summer he can barely remember through the amnesiac haze of new love, and so he turns the book over to friends and supporting characters to narrate, to often terrific effect.
My personal favorite is, of course, a long, blond-haired man in a sarong who is labeled as "Jim, an acquaintance," and who is given the honor of telling the story of Jonsson and his girlfriend first saying "I love you." "I know, because I was there," says Jim. The story lasts exactly three more panels. In two of them, Jim drunkenly urinates on Jonsson's head at the romantic peak of the moment, and in the third Jim relates that Jonsson was drunk and smelled of vomit at the time. It's unflinchingly unsentimental moments like that which undercut any self-mythologizing impulses that might otherwise threaten to overwhelm, as happens in so much autobiographical fiction.
The real gem in the Swedish Invasion line, though, is Kolbein Karlsson's debut book, "The Troll King," which is slated to ship in April. Trading in a different kind of exotic other-ness, Karlsson's story is a surreal exploration of a fantastical forest kingdom where hairy (like, Cousin It-hairy) homosexual mountain men pray to the gods of the forest for butt babies, old gnome-like men fall asleep and cavort with spirits, carrots that walk like men sprout into trees, and green trolls grow themselves from buried skulls.
It's a delightfully mental book, popping with color, and staged with a peculiar but compelling visual rhythm. Everything is organic in Karlsson's art: fur, meat, grass, wood, vegetable flesh. What's more, everything grows together, intertwined, both in story and art. Where "120 Days of Simon" opened with a map and then erased all sense of place from the proceedings, "The Troll King" first deposits you without warning into unknown and bizarre surroundings, and then proceeds to elegantly and effortlessly map the strange geography of a world that exists only in Karlsson's linework but nevertheless feels more real and knowable than Gärdenfors' Sweden.
For all its fantasy tropes and weird creatures, "The Troll King" is the most oddly affecting of the three books. I cared so much more about the familial struggle of Karlsonn's mountain men and their increasing alienation from their growing, adolescent children than about Jonsson's romantic struggles or Gärdenfors' indistinguishable wanderings. In the second story in the book, an old man either wakes up or falls asleep (it's left unclear), and sees strange beings with pillowcases and decorated cardboard for faces, wrapped in bulky winter clothing.
"They are the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen," reads the narration, and I believe it, in a way I never would if the drawing were a failed attempt at capturing a more normal, idealized notion of beauty. The figures are so strange and unique that of course there would be someone who would find them more beautiful than anything else. Trading in realism for absurdity allows Karlsonn the space he needs to convey a certain truth and feeling that more literal, grounded work can often fumble when trying to produce. In "The Troll King" I found the perfect marriage of the foreign and exotic with the familiar and universal. Plus, there's a killer sequence set in the Wild West that features Bigfoot dying in a shootout on a Hollywood backlot. What more can you ask?
Just to think: yesterday I had never read a Swedish comic, and today I have a favorite Swedish comic. All due praise to Top Shelf for being the kind of company that strives to infect the marketplace with the strange and the new. This suburban white boy certainly appreciates the broadening of his horizons to foreign lands both real and imaginary, and sometimes both at once.