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Books To Read: Best Graphic Novels of 2014:

An International Perspective Part 1

Comics is a Big World! All too often our terms of reference and our co-ordinates can be rather provincial and blinkered, sticking to what we know. This regular annual survey is one of my favourite features on my website, because it lets me learn about amazing comics I might never otherwise hear about. In several cases, this coverage below is the first, and perhaps only, English-language exposure these comics may get. So join these trusted connoisseurs, members of the team who helped me compile the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, as they reveal the best releases of last year in Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Serbia, South Korea & Sweden! And the cover image above (sans text) is from Korporativni pandemonium (‘Corporate Pandemonium’) by Zoran Penevski & Aleksandar Zolotić, published by Besna kobila in Serbia.

BRAZIL - DENMARK - GERMANY
PORTUGAL - SERBIA - SOUTH KOREA - SWEDEN

Brazil

Selected by Carlos Baptista
Carlos Eugênio Baptista is an award-winning comics writer and researcher. He began working in the Eighties writing horror comics. Later on, with artist Allan Alex, he created Nonô Jacaré, the taxicab driver who appeared in a number of different comic books. After that, some graphic novels followed, one of them for the Italian market. He’s also been writing about comics in a number of specialised publications since the Nineties. His book Almanaque dos Quadrinhos won an award of “best nonfiction book for young people” in the year it was published. He´s also worked as curator and translator at a number of international Brazilian comics events. In 2014 he adapted into comics, with a number of artists, Night at the Inn, a classic short story book by Brazilian romantic writer, Álvares de Azevedo. Carlos also saw the new edition of The Fractured Night, his collaboration with artist Hélio Jesuíno, about a peculiar family’s life and travels.


Sombras: Edição especial (‘Shadows’)
by Julio Y. Shimamoto
Quadrantes & Atomic Editora

Completely different from most Brazilian artists of his generation, Julio Shimamoto, or ‘Shima’ as he is called by his fans and friends, has never allowed himself to relax into a single established style or graphic solution. Even if you can always recognise his work, with each small bunch of stories he creates a new style, to be abandoned as soon as he’s fully comfortable with it.  Sometimes, in the not too distant past, within the covers of the very same magazine, two of his stories were drawn in completely different ways, and readers said this was what sold the comic to them! Early on in his career in the late ‘50s, he found a home in the then very popular niche of horror comics, due to his love of expressing emotion. This combined with his love of literature resulted in his becoming one of the main references in the field. Later on, he also established himself as one of the authors who could best talk about both Brazilian and Japanese popular culture and folklore, also within the covers of the best horror comic books in the country. As he joined the considerable number of artists who also worked in the very popular erotic comics of the early ‘80s, his work quickly established itself as a paragon in that area as well. Realising who they dealing with, the editors only assigned him the very best texts, including his own.

All of which brings us to the gem of a book that is Sombras, his latest collection of previously published short comics, ranging from four- to eight-page stories. All of these are masterpieces, suffering from no deadline hindrance nor editorial orientation beyond his vast storytelling experience, since most were produced for specific projects, not continuous comic book publication. Thus the book is only 62 pages long, but the painstaking care that was put in each page is a full-blown subject for a class. Shima these days commits himself only to those projects which allow him to expand the boundaries of his very eclectic style(s?). Having heard about the distortions afforded to an artist by the use of a computer, in the ‘90s he started to work with rubber balloons, different kinds of black paper, and Xerox, means through which he could very effectively depict fear or paranoia, actually drawing far less original art for each page, and keeping true to the type of stories which interest him…all without having to deal with a computer! Of course, this newer production, entirely written by the true Proteus of Brazilian comics, is far more personal than most of his previous work, and it is fascinating to see how his very contemporary sensibilities and his attention to the facts of life in our country keep pushing the envelope. You can find this book through Quadrantes and Atomic Editora.



Cumbe
by Marcelo D´Salete
Veneta, SP

Brazilian literature, to this very day, has not produced a novel or a short story book about the harsh realities of slave life in colonial times, let alone on a plantation. In comics, slavery is more of a present theme. It’s been used since the Sixties as something of a cliché in short horror comics in which cruel slave owners got their dues. What Marcelo has achieved in Cumbe (quilombo or ‘rebel village’) is an entirely different and new thing. His 157-page graphic novel features five long stories and is supported by a wealth of historical research, on which he based his “fictitious” tales, which read more like testimonies of resistance to slavery. They begin by visually introducing the reader to the harsh realities of slave life in those days. As the tales unfold, nothing supernatural happens, but the reader gets to see what resistance could mean. The high-contrast black-and-white images flow in a slower rhythm than in most recent comics, and the writer/artist knows how to profit from a number of well-planned and -placed silent pages. Even though they are submitted to slavery, his characters fall in love and achieve a personal life. His concise, precise pen and brush get to depict a number of very poetic moments, in which the struggle for freedom and a decent life is depicted as far more subtle than it may look at first, notwithstanding all the violence. Quite an achievement!


Tungstênio
by Marcello Quintanilha
Veneta, SP

This gem of a graphic novel is Quintanilha´s longest comic to date. As it is 177 pages long, this time he gave up on the use of colour, to the profit of the writer, who finally gets room to really develop his characters. That makes all the difference. The story, set in the present day, depicts a number of ordinary people, cops included, who get confronted by a crisis, namely the discovery of an illegal and predatory fishing operation, being carried out in broad daylight in front of them. Tungstênio could be described as a cop story, but the careful development of character psychology and attitudes stretch those genre limits to the utmost, and Quintanilha gives careful conclusions to all of the personal stories he depicts, not just those of the cops and robbers. As the difference between the two of them is sometimes quite subtle, the grey tones he uses to establish light and shade are also tremendous for the very human, ambiguous characters whose ungainly steps we follow. Very early on, the reader realises the author has crafted his story with the same care he has devoted to his artwork, using his ears to capture dialogue as accurately as his eyes grasp the details of the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia, where the action takes place, establishing what a careful observer the author is. The end result sets new standards.


Baratão
by Bruno Azevêdo & Luciano Irrthum
Pitomba, MA / Beleléu, RJ

Bruno Azevedo’s independent comics and “mixed-media” narratives are quickly establishing him as a strong voice in Brazilian illustrated storytelling, whether sequential or not. This book goes a step further, since it´s a very well written, 177-page graphic novel, drawn with tremendous enthusiasm and courage by artist Luciano Irrthum, whose “humorous” approach in now way detracts from the story´s harsher aspects, but in fact underlines them. Based on true facts, Baratão fictionalises the almost unbelievable occurrences which took place within this place’s walls a short while ago, and gives the main characters false names. However, as one of these is based on the about-to-be-retired political patriarch of the writer’s native state of Maranhão, it’s very easy to see who is who. Even more so because this careful researcher gives the actual sources of the many unbelievable lines people in power are capable of uttering in this story.

The protagonists of this unlikely tale of the violent transformation of a traditional and very well known whorehouse into a cultural centre have their further trajectories detailed at the end the end of the volume, as the survivors. Azevêdo was careful not only with his research, but also with his depiction of it, in which his tremendous dialogue lines play a very strong role all through the book, adding tremendous momentum to the very raw depictions Irrthum achieves. Yes, it’s a confrontational book, the kind of confrontation that’s necessary every now and then. Someone has said that a number of stories which shock too many of the well-fed and educated to be accurately depicted in the written press or on TV have found a cozy home in comics. This graphic is certainly such a case, a strong story with a strong depiction. These events shouldn’t be told any other way.


Denmark

Selected by Matthias Wivel
Matthias Wivel is an art historian with an MA from Columbia University and a Ph. D from the University of Cambridge. He is currently working as working as Curator of sixteenth-century painting at the National Gallery in London. He writes comics journalism and contributes to the weblog Metabunker.


Desertør (‘Deserter’)
by Halfdan Pisket
Forlaget Fahrenheit

Among the most promising Danish comics debuts in a decade, this is the first volume of a trilogy telling the story of the cartoonist’s father. His youth in the borderlands between Armenia and Turkey is described with the kind of vividness that comes not only of a man with a good memory, but also of an attentive storyteller with a great sense of telling detail. Half-Turkish, half Armenian, he embodies the uncertain, untethered state of his hometown, circled as it is by Turkish soldiers guarding the peace, and haunted as it is by the bones of the Armenian genocide, still lining the roads. Central to the story is Pisket’s father’s short stint in the Turkish army, from which he deserts with fatal consequences. His motivation is partly political, but runs deeper, and Pisket is to be commended for trying to probe deeper, more troubling aspects of his father’s personality and the sense of betrayal he clearly carries around. Pisket’s approach is poetic, almost dreamlike—far from traditional realism, but clearly rooted in lived reality. His digitally executed line work, with its dramatically spotted blacks, is reminiscent of Didier Comès’ dreamy comics symbolism, while his use of visual metaphor—the Turkish solders all wear threatening, anonymising white burlap hoods, for instance—takes a page out of David B’s playbook. Pisket is possessed of a real talent for narrative drawing, however, composing pages that combine the visceral with the mysterious, and his prose is at times exquisitely evocative. While Pisket still struggles somewhat with the clarity of his storytelling, he is clearly a remarkable new voice in comics. The second volume, Kakerlak (‘Cockroach’), which describes Pisket’s father’s arrival as an immigrant in Denmark, will be published imminently. An eleven-page preview is available on issuu here… and Pisket is interviewed by Opaque Journal here…


Fimbulvinter (‘Fimbulwinter’)
by Søren Glosimodt Mosdal
Abenmaler

Based on the Norse sagas, this is a retelling the colonisation of Greenland by the Icelander Eric the Red and his relationship with his son, Leif the Lucky, the Christian convert who would subsequently ‘discover’ America. It is a portrait of a man who loses his grip in conflict with his son and becomes a symbol of the collapse of an old order in the face of a new one. Historic facts are interwoven with divine visions in an effort to evoke the spiritual milieu of the time, while the author’s oneiric inference in several impressively rendered sequences contributes additionally to what is essentially a darkly lyrical meditation on the thin line between power and marginalisation. Mosdal has always been interested in the outsider, or in people who consider themselves as such—see for example the compilation of his early stories in Gash (Slab-O-Concrete 2001) or his and Jacob Ørsted’s recent, hilarious generational satire Rockworld (Fahrenheit 2013; Hoochie Coochie, 2014). His portrait of the marginalised patriarch Eric is by far his most ambitious work to date. It is, in part, also a failure: it was originally planned as a trilogy, which would also have covered in more depth Eric and the young Leif’s journey to Greenland, as well as the latter’s American adventure. Mosdal cut this sprawling project back to a single, fat volume, which makes for a confusing, unresolved read in places, exacerbating the difficulties with plotting and panel-to-panel continuity that characterises all his work. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully cartooned, haunting piece of work well worth the effort. Also available in French from Casterman. And here’s the link to Mosdal’s tumblr…


Et knald til (‘One More Bang’)
by Rikke Villadsen
Abenmaler

In this, her second book-length work, Villadsen continues the examination of male archetypes and genre conventions started in 2011’s Ind fra havet. Her framework here is the western, with most of her characters plucked from Sergio Leone’s casting catalogue. However, this is a kind of psycho-sexual genre-bender, with two women—a whore and a young girl with transgender aspirations—at its centre. The various cowboys surrounding them strut around with their phallic implements, and one of them even gets to penetrate the whore with a fly on his member—something which Villadsen depicts from the inside! Sounds gross, perhaps, but it’s actually rather hysterical, for Villadsen is a funny cartoonist, tempering her psychoanalytic insights with freewheeeling humour and inventive visuals. The dialogue is partly in Danish, partly in English, but it really is not all that important to know both languages to enjoy the book, which works in large part because of its expressive, painterly artwork. Villadsen, who relied heavily on the example of Anke Feuchtenberger in Ind fra havet, has matured considerably and has adapted her still-dominant inspiration to a sensibility that is actually quite different from that of the German master cartoonist. Rendered in ink wash with corrections and reinforcements left visible to the reader, this is lively, process-oriented storytelling brimming with ambition, if also rather heavy-handed in passages. A disillusioned statement on the biological underpinnings of gender that feels like a lively romp until it hits home. Here is Rikke’s tumblr…

Det Sarahkastiske hjørne (‘The Sarahcastic Nook’)
by Sarah Glerup
Self-published webcomic

This online diary consisting of comics as well as text pieces is a deceptively powerful, honest day-by-day account of the life of a self-described “Lesbian, radical leftist, big sister-humanist nerd with muscular dystrophy”. Her condition makes Glerup’s point of view an unusual one, and one senses it informs her dry humour, but it is really just gravy in a strip which is plain funny, and not a little insightful. Glerup’s honesty is of the raw variety, but never becomes overbearing. She brings to material that in other hands might have been rather dour (such as being fitted with a respirator) a refreshingly cheeky, kinky gleam in the eye. The art is digitally wrought using vectors and is decidedly unlovely, reminding the reader of the motoric constrictions of the artist. A rather touching, paradoxical index of the artist’s hand. Its garish colouring and angular contouring also serve the material well—brutal and quite beautiful. [ Sample strips below: “People tend to think that belonging to two minorities is hard. But in many ways being a cripple prepared me for being a dyke (and vice versa) : ]

Germany

Selected by Christian Gasser
Christian Gasser is a swiss fiction-writer, journalist and lecturer at the Lucerne University of Art & Design. He reviews comics for various newspapers, magazines and radio-networks in Switzerland and Germany. He is the co-editor of the comics-magazine STRAPAZIN, the co-curator of the Graphic Novel Days in Hamburg and a member of the “Max und Moritz Preis”-Jury of the Erlangen Comic-Festival. His latest books: “animation.ch. Vision and Versatility in Swiss Animated Film” (2011, as an enhanced e-Book in 2014), “Rakkaus! (finnisch: Liebe)” (novel, 2014).


Kinderland
by Mawil
Reprodukt Verlag

In recent years, quite a few german graphic novels dealt with the former German Democratic Republic. However, most of these books were at most useful for educational purposes, as they were far too didactic to be great comics. Mawil’s Kinderland is the wonderful exception we’ve all been waiting for – and it has been, in the context of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, very successful. Kinderland is set in the months before November 9th 1989. Mawil, born 1976 as Markus Witzel in East Berlin, tells the story of Mirco Watzke (obviously his alter ego). Mirco is around 13, he is shy, wears glasses and serves as an altar boy at church – he is obviously an outsider in the rigid socialist society. But he is great at ping-pong, and it’s at the ping-pong table where he manages to assert himself even against much bigger guys. Apart from playing ping-pong Mirco and his friends live their pre-adolescent lifes as kids do all over the world – and it never crosses their minds that something might ever change. The opening of the inner-German border comes as a total surprise – and for Mirco it’s the biggest possible calamity.

Mawil is a fantastic storyteller. His characters, their relationships and their dialogues feel authentic, his drawings are lively, his narration is fluid and dynamic. And he is very funny. Mawil never leaves the perspective of his characters, and there is, at least on the surface, no reflection of what the GDR meant, he doesn’t even criticise it – he shows us the reality of those kids who do not really know about anything beyond their own experiences and the government’s propaganda. Kinderland however is far from being harmless and superficial. Mirco’s coming of age reflects the liberation of his fellow-citizen from the yoke of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). The end of Kinderland not only marks the end of the GDR, but also the end of Mirco’s childhood. Across 296 pages, Mawil combines these two stories of emancipation and liberation with subtlety, lightness, depth and humour. Kinderland is about the confusion and the excitement sparked by necessary changes, whether those changes happen in an adolescent’s existence or provoke the collapse of an outdated political system. These processes are indeed timeless and universal. And so is Kinderland.


Irmina
by Barbara Yelin
Reprodukt Verlag

Joint guilt by looking the other way. In recent years, one of the main historical debates in Germany has dealt with the responsibility of the politically passive Germans during the Third Reich, the ones who did not agree with Hitler’s ideology but didn’t dare speak out against it. With Irmina, the freely reconstructed life-story of her grandmother, Barbara Yelin revolves around this question of guilt in a remarkably subtle and multifaceted way. In 1934, while studying in London to become a secretary specialising in foreign languages, Irmina, an independent but politically disinterested young German, falls in love with Howard, a black Oxford-student from Barbados. For financial reasons, Irmina has to return to Germany. She promises Howard to return as soon as she has earned enough money. But Germany has changed since her departure. Everything is more rigid, bureaucratic, oppressive. Irmina finds a job in the Ministry of War and applies for a position at the German embassy in London. But her plans don’t work out, and when a letter to Howard comes back undelivered, Irmina loses hold and orientation. She marries a passionate Nazi, whose high-flying visions and connections take him only as far as Stalingrad … By then the formerly cosmopolitan woman has become a jaundiced conformist, she has internalised the ideology and language of the Third Reich and drums anti-Semitism even into her son.

Irmina remains a mystery. Why has she changed so drastically? Out of opportunism? Of professional and social ambition? Of true convictions? Barbara Yelin doesn’t answer these questions. She observes Irmina from the outside, without judging, sometimes empathetic, yet unapologetic. She leaves us alone with Irmina, whose face becomes more haggard and closed-lipped the longer the war lasts. The changes in Irmina’s personality are reflected in the artwork over these 288 pages: Yelin’s sketchy drawings and the increasingly greyish and brownish colours not only reproduce the historical atmosphere, but also Irmina’s inner world. With Irmina, Yelin has created a complex and credible character who exemplifies the attitude of many Germans during the Third Reich. This makes Irmina a haunting graphic novel which adds important aspects to the historical debate on guilt and responsibility.


Hotel Hades
by Katharina Greve
Egmont Graphic Novel

Three people are shot at a food-stall in Berlin: they have been killed by mistake. That’s annoying of course, but nevertheless the famous writer Martha Korn, her young lover Florian Brinkmann and the foodstall-owner Peter Fischer have to fill out complicated immigration forms for their one-way-trip into the realm of the dead. Martha Korn is relaxed: years ago, rather drunk at a party, a dubious character sold her a golden ticket for an “all-inclusive” stay in the Elysion, the Hades’ VIP-zone. But then Florian steals her ticket, and while he enjoys death at the side of VIPs like Elvis, Mother Theresa and Ghandi, Martha suffers in the Tartarus, a neighbour to Adolf Hitler and Sisyphus. She has to erase all her books, page by page… And Peter Fischer? He works in the Elysium’s kitchen, discovers Florian’s betrayal and decides to save Martha.

But this isn’t easy. In the afterworld, there’s no justice, only chaos and arbitrariness. The Hotel Hades is overcrowded with the trillions of dead, and meeting with your dead family is disillusioning, because nobody remembers anything. Forgotten Gods like Odin, Osiris and Quetzalcoatl grieve over their insignificance, and the Hades’ bureaucracy is driven by even more incompetence and surreal rules than ours. And what about the promises all religions make? On the phone with the white-bearded Christian God, Hades complains about how difficult some of the customers are after their rude awakening in the beyond, when they don’t find resurrection, nirvana, nor willing virgins… Katharina Greve’s 128-page Hotel Hades is a smart and funny satire of our visions of the beyond. The quirky plot is full of surprising turnabouts, but thanks to Greeve’s stylized and clear drawings and a clever colour-concept, we never lose track in the maze-like realms of the dead, but instead enjoy a cunning story full of mean humour.


Portugal

Selected by Pedro Moura
Pedro Moura is a Portuguese PhD student researching trauma and comics. He writes mainly for his own blog but has published several articles and worked as a teacher, curator, translator, and conference director in comics.

As every year, I want to underline the fact that I am somewhat allergic to “best-of” or “top ten” lists, as more often than not they hide quite interesting work from those who take it too seriously. So, by all means, do try to find out more about Portuguese comics any way you can. 2014 was a particularly interesting year, as much of the small press published dozens of new titles, mostly by domestic artists. Whereas commercial, mainstream publishers continue their business-as-usual, with few surprises apart from a couple of important historical and contemporary translations, local artists have had a good, hopeful year. So for now, here’s my short list:


Safe Place
by André Pereira
Kingpin Books / Clube do Inferno

This a strangely light-melancholic book. It was meant to be a fanzine published by Pereira’s own self-publishing house with a bunch of colleagues, but the dynamic small press publisher took charge of the project, in order to assure better production values and a wider circulation. Engaging in most of the author’s obsessions, we follow an adventure of a young boy, Magus, and a young dog-headed girl, Dragoon. They fight weird evil black dogs and collect prizes and points as if living in a videogame. Perhaps they are. But there’s also a feeling that they have unfinished business in their emotional lives, and the way they wander through what seems to be suburban wastelands is perhaps a symptom of contemporary ennui. Drawn in a clear yet dynamic style, in a perfect wedding of the major comics-making traditions, Pereira’s book is not his biggest so far (remember last year’s O impaciente inglês) but is perhaps the one that will herald his next bolder steps. And the text of the dialogue is in English.


Sepulturas dos Pais (‘Tombs of the Parents’)
by David Soares & André Coelho

David Soares has been working on comics for more than a decade, and although he has moved on to intricate, dense novels, he has “returned” to comics as a writer, working with a handful of a younger generation of artists. Given the fact that most of his books deal with the genre of horror (of the high-end, philosophical kind), the inky, detailed and organic drawings of André Coelho (which works as an artist for comics, posters and record sleeves and is a musician of some sort of industrial metal band) are perfect for this story. An old, under-educated men from a nondescript fishing village somewhere in Portugal, Borges is somehow able to communicate with spirits which animate sand. His untimely relationship with a young, sexually free woman will guide these uncanny forces towards a small tragedy, scattering questions about love, intelligence, society and what the role of magic is in relation to human concerns. Check out the artist’s Behance…


O livro dos dias (‘The Book of Days’)
by Diniz Conefrey
O Quarto de Jade / Pianola

This is a one-volume book collecting but also re-editing two previously published volumes plus unpublished material. Conefrey started this project a long time ago and his original plan was to have 6 French BD-like albums, but unfortunately our “market” didn’t help. O livro dos dias tells the story of a tlacuilo, i.e., without a more precise word in English, a “drawing-writer” artist from the Mexica-Colhua people in Pre-Colombian times. Conefrey creates a detailed and highly researched book about this culture, adapting writings, events and visual documents into the kaleidoscopic journey of a young man through both his country and his social-cultural world. At the same time, one could say that this graphic novel is also a sort of reflective essay about creation and perhaps about what one achieves as one combines words, pictures and life. The artist is also known for his varied, coloured and textured approach to comics-making, transforming him into one of the last great artisan masters of this art in Portugal. Visit the artist’s blog here…


Zombie
by Marco Mendes

Marco Mendes continues his long-haul autobiographical project. Each and every work he creates can be read autonomously, but at the same time, and even beyond the mere obvious fact that they’re autobiographical, his books are also a sort of reflection on contemporary Portuguese society, especially where it hurts the most during the financial crisis and the political tensions. Zombie takes place during one day and night: between visiting family members and friends, and trying to hook up with whatever female friend is available, we see Marco coming across many of the objects that characterise everyday life in the city of Porto. A so-called “subversive” action is planned – painting dancing skeletons all over the city – as a response to the oppressive cultural policies of the City Council, the social unrest and a series of other behaviours from mainstream society in relation to problems that are not solved. There’s also a conflict with the “Tunas”, the academic troupes that humiliate freshmen in the name of a “tradition”, and a night at the club dancing one’s brains out. Who are the “zombies”, though? Perhaps all of us.

Quadradinhos (‘Panels’, lit. ‘Squares’)
Treviso Comics Festival
Zona de Desconforto (‘Discomfort Zone’)
Chili Com Carne
Crumbs
Kingpin Books

I’m cheating, because these are actually three titles, all anthologies. Wholly different from one another in their editorial choices, material form and purpose, but all excellent one-stop volumes to check out what’s cooking currently in the comics scene in this country.
Quadradinhos was published within the framework of the Treviso Festival in Italy. So it’s in Italian but it has an English translation on the covers, and it’s mostly previously published material, so that’s a good thing; it also has a very brief history of Portuguese comics, and although it’s not complete and there are a few hiccups, it plays its role well.
Zona de desconforto is a collection of short stories created for this volume and within the ongoing project of the publishing house to question the late capitalist logic that is sold as “inevitable” in most European countries. The artists tell some of their experiences in other countries, where they have been or where they still live, studying or working in search of better conditions than those offered in this country. Living abroad is always a source of growth and learning, and these are the lessons about which we read here. An English translation of the book is available online from Chili Com Carne..
Crumbs is a small but thick booklet collecting 12 original stories by 17 artists, some quite experienced, others newbies, some solo and others in collaboration, and across many styles, genres and types of stories. Most of them, though, are unabashedly good old-fashioned “stories”. Created to be a sort of Embassy of contemporary Portuguese comics talents, and to circulate to international festivals (starting at Thought Bubble in Leeds), all the stories were created in English and hope to show the world (or at least Europe) that we’re fine, thank you. And we are.


Serbia

Zika Tamburic is a long-time collector, historian and critic of comics from Belgrade and London. He is also an editor of the graphic novels published under Modesty Comics (e-books in English) and Modesty stripovi (paper books in Serbian).


Linije fronta (‘Front Lines’) 
by various
System Comics / Institut Français

To mark 100 years from the beginning of World War I (1914-1918), Serbian publisher System Comics has joined forces with the Institut Français in Belgrade to prepare and publish this exquisite book, available in Serbian and in French. It consists of 10 short stories by 5 Serbian and 5 French scriptwriters and 10 renowned Serbian artists (Aleksa Gajić, Zoran Janjetov, Zograf, Dražen Kovačević, Darka Perović, etc.). The stories are less about the war and more about ordinary human feelings and lives on and around the front lines during The Great War. Some stories are fictional and some are based on real facts and memories. The foreword for this book is written by Jean-Pierre Verney, a script writer of the book Putain de guerre! (‘Goddamn This War!’ in English from Fantagraphics), drawn by the artist Jacques Tardi and also translated and published in Serbian.


Valkira (‘Walkyrie’)
by Sylvain Cordurie & Dražen Kovačević 
System Comics / Lavirint

Valkira is a graphic novel which belongs to the genre of adventure and the subgenre of mythical history. It tells the story of the clash between Gods and men, in a time when they lived together, and that justice and love would prevail. The book is a compilation created by merging two stories from an original short series. What distinguishes this book is the fantastic drawing maturity by Kovačević. His analysis of characters, facial expressions and massive scenes produces some of the best panels of mythical history in French bande dessinée. Also, the incredibly brave decision of this Serbian publisher to publish this book in a black-and-white sepia technique, instead of in colours as in French edition, not only gives greater strength and dynamism to the story but also fully reveals the perfect lines and arrangements by master Kovačević.


Korporativni pandemonium (‘Corporate Pandemonium’) 
by Zoran Penevski & Aleksandar Zolotić
Besna kobila

In Corporate Pandemonium by debutant artist Zolotić and much more experienced author and scriptwriter Penevski, we are dragged into a strange, dictatorial society, with very little words and subdued feelings. The atmosphere really defines this world. It is provided with a realistic drawing style of humanoid creatures and buildings similar to ours and some obscure light and colours, mainly in shades of black, grey and dark blue. Inhabitants of the city are intimidated by the enemies outside the city walls, although these enemies remain enigmatic throughout the story. The social system has strictly defined roles and tasks for everybody and an undisputed hierarchy. The worst thing is that people’s feelings are observed and taken away (and implanted into toys). So, the boy who falls in love with the unknown little girl gets severely punished by the loss of his feelings. However, he is later rewarded, as he progresses through the ranks, with wings and can fly, which is regarded as the highest honour. But his doubts remain and lead to an unexpected ending to this book. This dystopian society is wildly dark and unpleasant, even odd and grotesque, but to a great extant reminds us that our own world could easily be heading in the same direction.


Bad Boy
by Mladen Oljača
Modesty stripovi

These short stories by Oljača falls halfway between grotesque mainstream work and alternative work. At first glance, these are stories which are humorous and very pleasantly drawn, but after reading them we will not only be entertained. Deep satire and sarcasm imperceptibly permeate through these stories, as well as a total crackdown on physical and psychological characteristics of archetypes from history, comics, literature and contemporary men, which evokes a much more complex experience for the readers. It has to be said that these black-humoured stories are a serious and authentic achievement, where a battle with trivial reality is resolved with resignation and a little humorous revenge. The author is battling and avenging, at least to some extent, with his black humour, against everything that has devoured his youth and prevented him from having a full humanistic development.


South Korea

Selected by Kim Nakho
Nakho Kim is a Korean comics researcher. He writes reviews and columns for book journals and other periodicals, has worked as the editor-in-chief for the comics critic webzine Dugoboza, and curated the special exhibition on manhwa or Korean comics at the Angoulême Festival in 2003.


송곳 Songgot (‘Drill’)
by Choi, Kyu-suk
Naver

When injustice is a fixed part of the system, everyone feels helpless and conforms to the unfair treatment. But once in a while, someone refuses to do so. By simply not bending, that someone pokes through the pressure like a drill. Inspired by actual events, this story is about how ordinary workers in a department store have built their labour union and fought for their rights in the early 2000s in South Korea. Set in a society that is overtly tolerant of labour abuses and hostile to labour unions, it tells the story of the vegetable section manager Soo-in who takes up the reluctant leadership in the fight, and the labour rights consultant Go-shin who becomes his mentor. Drawn in vivid black-and-white, it touches all the grey areas of moral ambiguities and dilemmas. It is not published as a book (yet), only serialised online as a ‘webtoon’ or webcomic.


먹는 존재 Muknun Jonjae (‘Eating Beings’)
by Dulkaeippal
Anibooks

Yoo-yang is a young woman who would typically be considered as “picky” by Korean standards, which means that she tends to speak up when confronted with a problematic situation. In an overcrowded and overtly nosey society such as Seoul, there is no shortage of those. This work draws the daily life of Yoo-yang, in which she faces social stress and then eats something. We are mere beings that have to eat food, no matter how angry, sad, happy or any other way we feel. It combines a detailed introspection of modern city life in Korea with witty insights into what feelings and memories each food item can bring us. In 2014 she won the Bucheon Comics Festival prize.


짐승의 시간 Jimsung ui seegan (‘Time of Beasts’)
by Park, Kun-woong
Bori Books

During the military dictatorship in the 1980s, Geun-tae Kim, a student leader of the democratic movement, was unlawfully arrested and tortured for a prolonged time. How does torture break people, and how does one gain the courage to stand up after that? What makes the torturers conform to the process and become that cruel? And have we really put those mentalities behind us? By juxtaposing the research process of the comics artist with what went on at the time of the torture, the artist of Flower fame digs deep into the fascist elements of Korean society that still needs to be overcome.


Sweden

Selected by Fredrik Strömberg
Fredrik Strömberg is a journalist, author, curator and historian. He is one of the editors of Bild & Bubbla, Scandinavia’s largest as well as the world’s second oldest magazine about comics, and President of the Swedish Comics Association. He heads the Comic Art School of Sweden, is the editor of Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art and writes regularly on www.sekventiellt.se. Among the books he has written are the English language Swedish Comics History, Black Images in the Comics, The Comics Go to Hell, Comic Art Propaganda and Jewish Images in the Comics.


Deras ryggar luktade så gott (‘Their Backs Smelled So Good’)
by Åsa Grennvall
Syster förlag

A real feel-bad graphic novel about being ignored by your parents until you become numb and emotionally impaired, unable to relate to other people and full of self-loathing. A disturbing tale that leaves you emotionally drained, and pretty angry at the parents in the story. Jenny, a grown-up woman with family and kids, tells the story of her growing up, and how her parents never, ever showed any emotions, never expressed any love towards her or even touched her, giving her emotional scars for the rest of her life. We get to follow her growing up, hear her inner voice as she tries to make sense of this strange situation, and finally figure out how to deal with it as she understands how she became the way she became and why her parents acted as they did. This book really got to me. Grennvall is the queen of feel-bad comics in Sweden, and here she really hits the spot. This is not straight autobiography, as some of Grennvall’s earlier books, but it is quite evidently based on real-life experiences, as indicated by interviews she’s done concerning the book. Some parts of the main character Jenny’s life also correspond to Grennvall’s, or at least to the way she has shown her life in earlier books that were presented as more straight autobiographical. Autobiographical or not, the story is harrowing and told in a cool, almost cold manner, which adds to the feeling of alienation and suits the emotionally scarred main character. Grennvall manages to evoke the feeling of being rejected by the parents rather well.

If anything feels a bit strange about this story, it’s the fact that the end is rather abrupt and that the solution and happy ending comes seemingly rather quickly, at least compared to the elongated way in which the journey there is shown, where she stacks up the offences by the parents, almost like in a mental list. But I guess this is very much intended, as it gives an indication of how the main character experienced the whole story. The story starts with her installing her old baby crib from her parent’s house for her own child and finding that it was full of strange scratch marks, and ends with her realising that this was most probably done by herself, screaming for attention and trying to climb out of the crib where she was left alone for far too long periods of time. The title Deras ryggar luktade så gott (‘Their Backs Smelled So Good’) refers to a heart-wrenching scene where Jenny sneaks into her parents’ bed at night and lies between them while they are sleeping, to be able to at least get some kind of closeness from them. And the art on the cover, depicting this very scene, is needlework by the artist, who also does embroidery art. This is the ninth graphic novel by Grennvall since her debut in 1999, but the very first one published by her own brand new, co-owned publishing house Syster förlag (Sister Publisher). Seeing this hard-hitting graphic novel was their debut book, I’m really looking forward to what they publish next.


Snyggast på festen
by Nina Hemmingsson
Kartago

There are few comics artists whose new books I devour as quickly and as readily as Nina Hemmingsson’s. There’s something about her combination of hard-hitting satire and sheer artistic prowess that speaks volumes to me. In this book, Hemmingsson and her publisher have found the perfect combination of already published cartoons, shorter comics and unpublished sketches and art to create a new whole. Actually it’s the latter category that gets to me the most. Seemingly quickly scribbled drawings on various supports, with or without text, that are at the same time small works of art, worthy of hanging on the wall of any art museum, and devastatingly funny. It is also a beautiful book in itself, with a cover in stark red, black and white and that kind of binding where you cut the cover and the interiour pages at the same time and at the same size, leaving the cover’s paper out there in its raw form. Beautiful! Writing this in English makes me realise what a shame it is that there’s so little of Hemmingsson’s comics translated into other languages. Even if some of her humour might be too heavily based on a Swedish sensibility to go over quite as well in other parts of the world, as it is with most humour, I think that the greater part of this book would work well in other countries. And there’s no denying the visuals, the art, which speak, I think, across most cultural borders. So, publishers all over the world, take heed and order a copy of this book for your translators to sink their teeth into.


Vandrande stjärnor (Den svarta jorden, #1) (‘Wandering Stars’) (‘The Black Earth’ #1)
by Lars Krantz
Kolik

Lars Krantz is a hidden gem, probably THE Swedish comics artist most worthy of wider recognition, not the least abroad. So far, the books and comics he has had published have not really lived up to the potential that is so obviously there. With this book, everything seems to have come together, though. For several years Krantz has been telling stories that are set in a fictitious version of reality, a Sweden in the 1910s where a mysterious war is ongoing, some sort of plague is raging and all kinds of supernatural elements seems to exist. It’s an intriguing mix of history, horror and thriller. So far, stories about this universe have been published in the Swedish magazine Utopi, but they have been too intricate, both in storyline and in design, with too many panels per page and stories that have sometimes been a bit hard to decipher. With this, the first volume in a book series with stories set in the Krantz universe, all this has changed. The story is still intricate, told from three different persons’ perspectives and interspersed with flashbacks, delirious dreams etc. But it is now clearly told, both in storyline and in the visual storytelling. It all takes place in Falköping (Krantz real life home town) in 1913, as a female reporter returns to get a job, only to find that the war dictates that she has to write positive, more or less propaganda stories that are supportive of the war effort. An old friend, a detective, gets involved in a case where a murderer is killing and mutilating women, somewhat akin to the old story of Jack the Ripper. We also follow the murderer, who, through a really bad childhood, ends up more or less insane, and with a penchant for oriental religion. Amidst all this there’s a strange, unexplained black-skinned deity, dancing though the dark streets. Parts of the story are quite straightforward and parts of it seem to be waiting for the big reveal in the following volume. Oh, and as a Swede, I can’t help but simply love the fact that one of the main characters is so clearly based on Christer Pettersson, the main suspect in the murder of Swedish Prime minister Olof Palme in the 1980s. Here, he’s a detective with a murky past that has driven him to drinking, a character in many ways resembling Marv in Frank Miller’s Sin City. So much so, in fact, that in the second half of the book, there are several scenes where Krantz uses a style that is clearly inspired by said series.

It’s all told with great gusto, and with art to die for. Krantz uses black and white like a master, designs each character with very specific features, physiognomies and clothing, and fills his panels with tons of detail. It all adds up to a really scary horror story, that had me thinking quite a lot about it after having finished reading. The only thing that I have a problem with is the lettering, which is very obviously done by hand. Normally I applaud this, as it can create a harmonious visual experience when the same hand draws the images and writes the text. In this case, though, it’s not up to snuff, and I wish someone would help Krantz design his own font, which would get the text more even and would stop it from detracting from the reading experience. This is but a minor detail, though. The one thing that stops me from giving this book five stars is the fact that it is so obviously the first part in a longer story. The overarching title is Den svarta jorden (‘The Black Earth’), and the title of this volume is Vandrande stjärnor (‘Wandering Stars’), though with the number one appended to it. This indicates that this is the first part of the the first cycle, and that this will indeed be a long series. As Krantz really seems to know what he’s doing and where he’s going, this is indeed a good thing. As you can tell, I’m enamoured. This is one of the best, most promising Swedish graphic novels I’ve read in a long while and I encourage all international publishers who read this to get in touch with the publisher Kolik and secure a copy for assessment. You’ll be glad you did.


Psykiskt sjuk
by Mikael Sol
Egmont Publishing Kids AB

This second volume in Swedish artist Mikael Sol’s ongoing quest to record his life in comics starts where the former volume, Till alla jag legat med (‘To Everyone I’ve Slept With’), ended, with Sol trying to take his own life and ending up in a psychiatric ward. What follows is a number of short stories chronicling Sol’s attempt at getting his life back together, flowing back and forth between forays into often short, sexual relationships and quiet sessions with his new shrink. After a while, the story takes an unexpected turn, when Sol’s father turns terminally ill. The autobiographical comics of Sol resemble few others, as they are often presented in a form that looks like commercial comics, short episodes, often with a joke at the end and very iconic, “humorous” characters, while at the same time as the stories have a serious content that clashes heavily with the “funny” form. The only real comparison I can come up with are the comics by another Swedish autobiographical artist, Simon Gärdenfors, which are clearly related. The autobiographically inspired Swedish comic strips Rocky by Martin Kellerman and Elvis by Maria and Tony Cronstam also come to mind, even though they have never been as personal/psychological in their depictions of the lives of their characters as have Sol and Gärdenfors.

There is much to like about this book. One important aspect is the very open-hearted treatment of the subject of mental illness, which is still rather taboo in our society. There is of course nothing that says that this is all straight autobiography, but I see no reason to doubt the main themes of the book, which do nothing to hide the fact that Sol had a nervous breakdown and had to use various prescription drugs to get by. The stories never take on the whiny, self-pitying tone that are so common in autobiographical comics, and are instead presented in a liberatingly humorous, satirical and self-deprecating style. Another positive thing is the way Sol uses visual style to play with realities. Most often he is presented as an iconic comics character, but once in a while, when he manages to actually be frank and open with another person, the style changes and he is drawn much more realistically, indicating that he is aware that he often wears a mask, a persona, in front of other people. This gets really effective when he gets the message of his father’s illness, and his character slowly turns into more or less a scribble. Visual storytelling at its most effective. The only thing I hold against this book, is that it feels more like the second volume in a continuing story about Sol, than a self-contained graphic novel. Now, I don’t have anything against this, as I really like Sol’s comics, and look forward to the next volume, but I felt a bit cheated somehow by the admittedly very personal and emotionally engaging end of the book.


Viktor Kasparsson: Syndaätaren (Viktor Kasparsson #4)
by Dennis Gustafsson
Albumförlaget

Dennis Gustafsson is slowly but surely becoming the leading Swedish artist working in the traditional French-Belgian oversized album format. Gustafsson made his book debut in 2010 and has since delivered one album each and every year, like clockwork. Impressive, not the least considering that he is not, yet anyway, making his living drawing these books. I already wrote in my review of last year’s volume, Viktor Kasparsson: Blodsband, that I was strangely lukewarm in my reactions to this series initially, even though it’s done in the classic album format, which I love, set in my own part of the world and in an era, early 20th century, which I also really like. Still it wasn’t until last year’s album that I was won over and finally realised that Gustafsson really knows what he’s doing. This book continues the story of the reluctant occult detective living in the south of Sweden in the 1920s. In this story he faces an unnamed horror in the woods, seemingly set off by the grief of a woman who was rejected by the people in the nearby village as a witch and doubly rejected by her fiancé, who went to America to get rich and send for her, but never did. There is much more going on in this book, and it is well paced and very professionally done, both in the visuals and in the storytelling.

The fact that I’m not giving this book five stars, as I did with volume three, is because it in many ways feels like a “transition story”, the equivalent of the second Star wars film The Empire Strikes Back if you like, i.e. it does contain an exciting story, but it’s really a vehicle for getting to more exciting bits ahead. There is also a sense of Gustafsson doing a retcon, as he here gives an explanation as to why there has been so much occult activity centring around the main character in the earlier volumes. In short, I could more easily discern the storytelling devices that Gustafsson has deployed in this album and was thus not as emotionally engaged. That is not to say that it’s uninteresting. On the contrary, Gustafsson is slowly but surely building his world and I for one am happy to be part of the ride. So, if you’re looking for the ongoing story of a Scandinavian Hellblazer, you’re in luck. If you can’t read Swedish, go pester a local publisher to pick up this title, it really deserves wider recognition outside of Scandinavia.


Kunskapens frukt
by Liv Strömquist
Galago / Ordfront Förlag

The latest book by Liv Strömquist, Sweden’s foremost comics educator/humorist is not as disparate as some of her earlier collections, but based on one unifying subject, which makes for a better, more coherent read. The theme is female genitalia and how it has been treated throughout history. Strömquist starts out by listing men who have been “far too interested in female genitalia”, i.e. they have in different ways through history changed the way we view it (almost always for the worse…). She then talks at length about how the female external genitalia is, at least in Swedish, almost always incorrectly called vagina, i.e. the interior genitalia, and not vulva as is the correct term and shows that there are many misconceptions about this in our society, invariably leading to women having problems relating to their own sex. In one comic she shows how female orgasms were kidnapped by men in the 19th century and deemed as more or less unnecessary. And finally she discusses the changing attitudes towards menstruation, from divine to disgusting. If this sounds a bit heavy, it’s because it is. It’s done with loads of facts and numerous references, as Strömquist is slowly making her comics more and more like academic papers. But it’s done with a lot of humour as well. Strömquist is very, very good at conveying information that otherwise would have been hard to digest, in a simple and funny way. Her way of talking directly to the reader in a colloquial language and showing many funny little details in each panel, while at the same time discussing some really serious subjects is unparalleled.

I really liked the fact that this book feels more of a whole than the earlier collections of Strömquist’s comics. It is still made up of parts that are interrelated but not always clearly linked, though. Had this been a textbook, an editor would have probably handed the script back, asking for a more coherence and a clearer thread of ideas. I would love Strömquist to make a book from start to finish, a planned book that has a start, a middle and an end, instead of being made up of parts that at least partially have been pre-published. I realise that there is an economic side to this, and that Strömquist might need the money from pre-publishing, but I still feel that she would benefit from having more of a master plan for her next book. That said, this book is still great. It should be compulsory reading in Swedish schools, and be translated to many other languages. Men and women need to learn more about this subject, and there’s no better teacher than Liv Strömquist.

Posted: January 15, 2015

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