This is Fred Andersson, writer of this blog, beginning this evening’s update on comics and comics research in a more personal vein. The reason for this sudden sentimentality is that the topic makes me strongly recall certain picture stories that were probably the main influence behind my choice, as a teenager, to disregard all good advise and plunge into the totally irrational and insecure waters known as ”studies in the humanities”.
These picture stories were not Rembrandt, Shakespeare or even Bob Kane’s Batman. They were ”alternative” and experimental comics by such cartoonists as Martina Edoh, Joakim Pirinen, Ulf Lundkvist, Lena Ackebo and Max Andersson… (the list can go on and on…) The magazine was Galago, the main venue of young Swedish comics artists in the Eighties. The editor of Galago, Rolf Classon, was keen to foster an image of himself and his friends as a totally crazy pack at the far edge of the ”mad left” (in Swedish tokvänstern). These gags and surrealist inventions perfectly captured the spirit that reigned between Punk and 1989.
How we waited for every new issue! How we absorbed it all, and how we recognized our own fears and dreams! And then there were also Pox and Epix, bringing a constant flow of newly translated American, French and Spanish undergound COMIX into Sweden, thanks to the brilliant editor Horst Schröder.
Well, it is very different days now. Trends in artistic or ”alternative” comics have changed several times. First there was a major economic crisis for comics and comics magazines at large in the Nineties, following 1989 and the recession, almost killing Galago. The market recovered but the carefree attitude of the Eighties did not return. With identity politics and new generation feminism, autobiographical storytelling became a strong current in European comics. During the last ten years, many young comics artists have started to identify more strongly with specific political issues and movements. The manner in which some express their dedication would be familiar to many artists older than the Galago generation. Politics in comics is no longer a joke, and sex and violence are no longer the only reasons why cartoonists are forced to repent.
Last Friday at Uppsala University, Kristina Arnerud Mejhammar defended her doctoral thesis Självsyn och världsbild i tecknade serier (Self-Image and Word-View in Comics) in which she analyses the work of four Swedish comics artists: Cecilia Torudd, Ulf Lundkvist, Gunna Grähs and Joakim Pirinen. All of these had their real public breakthrough in the Eighties with guest comics for the comics section of the main Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. Ulf Lundkvist and (especially) Jokim Pirinen were also very active in Galago. Cecilia Torudd, the oldest of the four (b. 1942) has a large audience among readers of books and publications for children and teenagers. Her most well known story, about the everyday life of a single mother and her two teenage children, was running as a daily strip in Dagens Nyheter for many years. Joakim Pirinen, who is the youngest (b. 1961), is also most likely the one whose work is least read and appreciated outside the circles of comics fans. Aestetically, he is an highly experimental and innovative artist, and has even made completely ”abstract” comics (see e.g. the album Döda paret och deras ”vänner”, The Dead Couple and Their ”Friends”, 2008).
In addition to being an academic thesis, digitally available (link to the DIVA portal page) and publically defended in Zoom, Arnerud Mejhammar’s work has also been printed as a readable and nicely designed printed volume, no 1 in the new series Seriehistoriskt bibliotek (library of comics history) from the Swedish comics publisher Sanotorium. See image above. The book is rather evenly divided between theoretical and historical introduction (Chapters 1 and 2) and individual case studies about the artists (Chapter 3). Even though the case studies contain much useful information and pertinent observations, the greatest merit of the book is probably the overview it provides of comics culture in Sweden and of important debates in comics research.
In a gentle and pedagogical manner, Arnerud Mejhammar introduces readers new to the research field into the main competing theories about comics as a medium, and clarifies how the politics of the 20th century Swedish welfare state provides much of the explanation for the ideological and aesthetic choices exemplified by Torudd, Lundkvist, Grähs and Pirinen. She prefers the term alternative comics instead of for example ”adult comics” (which can give wrong associations) or ”experiental comics”, because the term ”alternative” stresses the strong connection between these comics artists and alternative lifestyles and political movements. This is especially evident in the cases of Torudd, Lundkvist (who has cooperated with the socialist-autonomous Swedish newspaper ETC. since its start in the late Seventies) and Grähs.
Due to her training as an art historian, Arnerud Mejhammar is capable of providing perceptive and detailed descriptions of certain image sequences and image frames which she has selected as particularly worthy of scrutiny. With this approach, she somewhat disregards the sequential and relational properties often stressed by more semiotically inclined theorists (such as Thierry Groensteen) and instead puts the old cartoon master Will Eisner’s motto ”what goes on inside the panel is primary” into good use.
Arnerud Mejhammar can describe a single panel in a comic almost as if it were a painting. This is probably not a very good narratological approach (narratology stresses the relationships within a text), but it makes her able to analyse an a very precise manner the psychological space created by the comics artist by means of stylistic choices.
See for example the panel by Joakim Pirinen shown below. It is the opening panel of an autobiographical story in which the basic theme is ”follow me into the house where I grew up”. In the opening panel things still seem rather normal, and the setting even looks rather idyllic, but already here the picture space has a somewhat dense and claustrophobic character. It will get worse as soon as we enter the house: the walls will close in, past and present will mix in an uncanny fashion and the limits between person and environment will become virtually erased. Arnerud Mejhammar rightly characterises this particular story as one of the most original and innovative works in alternative Swedish comics.
In her analyses of the other three artists, Arnerud Mejhammar similarly pays close attention to the setting and space inside comics panels, and to houses and interiors as important elements in the stories. Her observations will stimulate the reader to think more about the manner in which the house in which we live, or in which we once lived, often has a shaping influence on our self-image and world-view.