The MoCCA Art Festival, this coming weekend, will see the debut of the English language anthology of Danish comics, From Wonderland with Love, published jointly by Fantagraphics and Danish small press publisher Aben Maler. This book contains some great work by the cream of Danish cartoonists working today, and a handful of them will even be on hand to push the book at the Art Festival. On the occasion of the release, here’s a short interview with editor and publisher at Aben Maler, Steffen P. Maarup.
Can you briefly describe Wonderland?
The book’s subtitle sort of says it all: Danish Comics in the Third Millennium. It’s basically the best short comics of the past decade, selected and edited by me. 19 artists, 176 pages. There’s quite a range of different material in there: from funny, satirical newspaper cartoons to crazy, graphically experimental contributions — but all with an indie, graphic novel sensibility. Fantagraphics are publishing the book in the US, and my own publishing company, Aben maler, is putting it out in Denmark.
Could you describe your take on the Danish comics scene today and what it has to offer an international audience?
The Danish comics scene is fairly small (because it’s a small population — 5 mil), and it’s nearly impossible to make a living doing comics. So the stuff in Wonderland is all personal stories that people have made in their spare time. I have a hard time pinpointing what is specifically Danish about these stories. Several of the artists have been published abroad in various contexts and orient themselves accordingly. Their artistic peers might be Swedish, French or American, rather than Danish. That said, all these disparate stories taken collectively do somehow come off as Danish. It’s a combination of a poetic quality and a skeptical irony, I think. But the bottom line is that this is just a collection of great, great comics by people who are virtually unknown to a US audience.
What were you looking for in terms of your selection? Anything more specific than simply ‘good comics’?
In some cases I knew I wanted an artist but was unsure which story to use, in others a specific story just insisted on being included. My selection process was pretty much as simple as picking what’s good; so stories that were original, did interesting things with the medium of comics, or touched me in some way.
Like everywhere else, “alternative” — there isn’t much else! — Danish comics are characterised by an increasing cross-media orientation, especially with the fine arts. To what extent do you take this perspective into consideration? How strict is your definition of ‘comics’ in this specific context? To bring in American analogies, are we looking at the MOME model or the Kramers Ergot model?
Four of the artists in Wonderland are graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, so there is a very obvious fine arts-strain in the book. I’ve almost co-opted some of them, in that one or two of them probably wouldn’t regard their contributions to the book as comics. But I’m very sympathetic to the inclusive Kramers Ergot definition of comics. If it’s telling stories with images, it’s comics in my book.
For most of the medium’s history, the vast majority of comics have had an incredibly limited range of expression — in Denmark as well as the US and elsewhere. Finally we’re seeing cross-fertilization between comics and other art forms, so for God’s sake let’s embrace that trend rather than frantically trying to keep comics looking the way they’ve always done.
Can you describe a few of the contributions and tells us why you like them?
First off “Because I Love You So Much”, an example of how liberal a country Denmark is: A newspaper strip about pedophilia, which ran in one of the mainstream daily papers. The remarkable thing about it is that the creator, Nikoline Werdelin, actually manages to make it laugh-out-loud funny as well as touching, tragic, and at times even nauseating. The story is completely devoid of cliché and (like all Werdelin’s comics) captures people of our time very precisely, both their actions and their language. Nikoline Werdelin is our Posy Simmonds.
Mårdøn Smet is the guy who put the ‘scatological’ in ‘eschatological.’ His “Stig & Martha” story is about love, death and the afterlife, drawn in his usual, insanely beautiful line. There’s a pleasant Disneyesque quality to his drawings but they can be incredibly hard to decode. So sometimes you’ll find yourself spending minutes just to figure out what’s going on, only to find that’s it’s a man slipping in dog shit. There’s a wonderful perversity in that.
The title story, “From Wonderland with Love” by Julie Nord, is a series of tableaux inspired by Alice in Wonderland. It’s only barely a narrative, and certainly on the borderline of comics, but Julie Nord is such a singular graphic artist. “From Wonderland with Love” is very feminine, very dreamy, and very raw and direct. I don’t know anyone who does anything even remotely similar to this.
“Sloth” by Ib Kjeldsmark is a drug-infused road movie to a headbanging soundtrack. I could offer a summary of the story, but who cares? It’s Gilbert Shelton’s and Moebius’ illegitimate child, and we’re just along for the ride.
These are some of the longer pieces in the book and they might seem disparate, but I’ve tried to sequence the stories so that the book reads well.
Tells us a little about the Fantagraphics connection — how did that come about?
My initial thought was to make an anthology that I could bring to MoCCA, but then I figured that it ought to have an American publisher to give it a shelf life longer than the MoCCA weekend. So around Christmas I showed Fantagraphics a more or less finished PDF, and after a few emails back and forth, they agreed to publish it. That felt pretty good. I mean, I knew that all these comics stories were great, but that Fanta agreed to publish all these unknown Danes was a nice affirmation. (Oh yeah, and I’ve previously published a Danish edition of Ghost World.)
In addition to publishing quality Danish comics, Aben Maler (‘The Ape Paints’/ ‘Is Painting’) is the Danish publisher of such great cartoonists as Edward Gorey, Tom Gauld, Simone Lia, Dan Clowes and Anders Nilsen. In the works is a lovingly adapted Danish edition of Chris Ware’s masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth.
Maarup, as well as Wonderland contributors Simon Bukhave, Allan Haverholm, Christoffer Zieler, Ib Kjeldsmark, Søren Mosdal and Thomas Thorhauge will all be present at the MoCCA Arts Festival. They will be signing at the Danish table Saturday at 12 AM and Sunday 11 AM at the Fantagraphics table. On Saturday at 4 PM they will be participating in a panel on Scandinavian comics. From Wonderland with Love info here and art samples here. Images: cover by Thomas Thorhauge, excerpts from the contributions by Julie Nord, Nikoline Werdelin and Søren Mosdal.