Wivel’s Nordic Mixtape

By Steffen Rayburn Maarup

As mentioned in this space once or twice, Kolor Klimax — Nordic Comics Now, edited by this site’s owner Matthias Wivel, is now available in bookstores across North America, and thus the rest of the world. To mark the official release, I decided to ask him a few questions on the book, the project and the future.

Why a Nordic comics anthology? Why the US? And why Fantagraphics?

The idea came from the Finnish Comics Society. They’ve been running an international initiative called Nordicomics — which includes exhibitions and workshops — for a number of years now, and figured that publishing an anthology series in English would help their mission to promote Nordic comics internationally. The idea is that this is the first in a series of books with rotating editors, under the general helmsmanship of Kalle Hakkola of FCS, who is responsible for Nordicomics. The second book is already being planned and will be totally different from Kolor Klimax in concept as well as content. As I understand it, the idea is that every book will be a stand-alone work.

As for Fantagraphics, I basically bit the idea from you. As I’m sure it did for your Danish anthology From Wonderland with Love, it just seemed the obvious choice — besides having been one of the best American comics publishers for decades, they’re consistently the most interested in supporting grass roots projects such as this one, as long as the quality is there. And co-publisher Kim Thompson is half Danish and knows about and is interested in Nordic comics already.

From Jenni Rope's "The Island 2"

What can you tell us about the next book in the series?

I know that the theme will be children’s comics but that’s about the extent of it, and this may have changed since I last heard about it.

How did you select the contributors? What picture of the Nordic comics scene did you wish to paint, consciously or subconsciously?

Putting together a good anthology is similar to making a good mixtape. Whatever the individual merits of a piece, it won’t do to include it if it doesn’t somehow work for the anthology as a whole. There has to be a consistent idea or tone to the book, which doesn’t mean that there can’t be dissonance — there’s some of that in Kolor Klimax, and I think for the better — but the individual parts still have to generate something greater than their sum. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve, but also a lot of fun.

It was of course important that all the contributions were of high quality, that they weren’t so long as to destabilize the book’s anthology concept, and that the work included was current. Other than that I had no specific criteria for inclusion — what was important was that each contribution presented a strong, original, personal vision. One of the advantages of the relative lack of a lucrative comics mainstream in the Nordic countries is that many of talented people who decide to make comics anyway, do it to pursue their own muse, often in decidedly non-commercial ways. Although the output is necessarily meager because cartoonists have to make their living doing something else, it also results in comics of remarkably high quality. I think the book demonstrates this, even if it also includes contributions from a few strongly consolidated, popular cartoonists.

From Bendik Kaltenborn's "The Great Underneath"

One works with a lot of variables. Initially, I had hoped to include an equal number of contributions from the four largest Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark), as well perhaps as a few from the others (Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Baltic countries), but this was easier said than done, and it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t make for a good book. So I ended up focusing on the four largest countries and decided not to pay attention to balancing the numbers. And then, of course, there were certain people whom I would have loved to include, that unfortunately couldn’t find the time to contribute.

As it happened, the book is a combination of new comics made especially for it and others recently published elsewhere. Only one piece is somewhat older. The contributors include a handful of the people who broke new ground for comics in the seventies and eighties, as well as a number of the nineties innovators, but since the focus is on current work, the majority are younger artists — the ones making waves today.

In the book’s introduction you say — broadly speaking — that Swedish comics are autobiographical and in social realist, Finnish comics are experimental, and those from Norway and Denmark are only now being liberated from each their mainstream yoke. Is this a characteristic you would apply to the book’s contributions?

From Thomas Thorhauge's "Suicide Joe vs. The Dead Tree Press"

Well, yes and no. I think you can definitely see those tendencies in the comics included in the book, and mostly for the better, but they remain generalizations and there are certainly spectacular exceptions to my shakily formulated rules too. As indicated earlier, I didn’t think about what was typical or not when making the cut, but rather what was good work and would work for the book as a whole.

What were your deliberations when planning the book’s structure, the sequence of the individual stories?

It has to work. It’s a question of feeling rather than principle. One important choice was designer Frederik’s Storm’s decision occasionally to insert blank pages between individual contributions. This meant that we were able to start each comic on the left-hand or right-hand page that worked best for it without having to worry about the overall sequence. It also gives the book a nice sense of punctuation, enhancing the reading experience.

Are there artists who especially surprised you when handing in their contributions?

Yes, I think Bendik Kaltenborn went in a bold new direction with his disturbing “The Great Underneath.” It still has his signature humor, but this is new territory. Johan Krarup’s “Nostalgia” perhaps didn’t surprise me as such, but it is presents his ablest handling of concept and execution to date. Gitte Broeng and Mikkel Damsbo’s “Relocating Mother” is also an innovation in Nordic comics — a very fine synthesis of the visual and the literary. And Thomas Thorhauge’s “Suicide Joe vs. The Dead Tree Press” is a remarkably angry, trenchant piece for him, not the least when seen in relation to his earlier work. It ends the book with a bang. There’s plenty of other material in the book that I love just as much, but these were the most surprising, each in their way.

Johan F. Krarup’s “Nostalgia” was nominated for a Ping Award for Best Danish Comic, and Mikkel Damsbo & Gitte Broeng’s story was accepted at the Charlottenborg gallery’s spring exhibition. Are there any other entries in the book that have had a life of their own outside of the book?

From Joakim Pirinen's "This Is My Life"

Several of the contributions had already been published elsewhere and so were already out there before I got my hands on them. Something like Joanna Rubin Dranger’s fantastic “Always Ready to Die for My Child” is part of a bigger, and big-selling, book, for example, while most of the other, excellent Swedish pieces were published in the landmark hundredth issue of the greatest Nordic comics magazine, Galago. I know that Rui Tenreiro has republished his lovely “thelytoky” elsewhere already. Other than that, I’m not sure.

In the 60s and onwards, Color Climax was the name of a world famous Danish producer of porn. Is there a statement of intent in the book’s title or is it just an amusing throwaway reference?

I guess it plays on some of the most persistent prejudices about the Nordic countries in the world at large. It also reconfigures a great title from something not only sordid, but repellent, to something that might still be sordid, but is also beautiful. There’s a belief in the transformative power of art somewhere in there.

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