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Emma Rendel:

An Awkwardist

Emma Rendel has coined the term "awkwardist". Social awkwardness, repressed drives, and their sometimes sinister repercussions, lie at the heart of all her cautionary graphic short stories. A daughter of a Finnish mother and Swedish father, born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden, Rendel might never have applied her art to the comics medium if she hadn’t been given free rein to experiment with it in Le Gun magazine while studying in London at the Royal College of Art. This spurred her to self-publish The Awkwardists, tales involving odd animal-headed misfits losing themselves in outer space and in a familiar amusement park, tapping into her "huge hang-up" on Walt Disney’s creature-human hybrids.

Prior to this, her main endeavour was a trilogy of facsimile diaries from the scratchy, scary pen of Deathgirl, an isolated adolescent whose rabbit head is seething with her unrequited hormones and her compulsion to harm and mutilate. The intimate entries we read disclose her interior delusions and depressions, whereas the images on the opposite pages counterpoint her unsettling external reality as her head gradually becomes more humanoid. In no way autobiographical, Rendel insists, these journals end with Deathgirl’s doting, dotty parents buying her a flat-pack Ikea coffin.

Rendel has re-drawn all three picture books for her debut book from Jonathan Cape, Pentti & Deathgirl. For her new tragi-comedy Pentti, she draws on two of her deepest Finnish influences, film-director Aki Kaurismäki and Tove Jansson, the woman behind the Moomins, especially her vividly detailed textures and landscapes. Pentti is a closeted farmboy who starts drunken brawls with the men he fancies, to him the only acceptable way for men to touch each other. Aroused by such close physical contact, he leaves his number with his victim but is let down again when a phone call from him never comes. Pentti’s repression and guilt warp into violence against two neighbouring farmers whom he spies in their lovenest, only the latest targets of his killings which his loyal brother helps him to bury.

Rendel plays here with common Swedish misperceptions of Finns as taciturn, boozy and aggressive, and with traditional ideas of manliness, making arms, legs, buttocks exaggeratedly muscular, while hands, feet and ears are tiny, the torso like a barrel, the penis always visible. These distortions subvert the cocky confidence of Tom of Finland’s macho gay icons and more generally challenge the rituals which society expects men to adopt. All of Rendel’s painfully "awkwardist" characters expose how society’s rules can trap anyone in cycles of conformity and self-denial.

Below is my interview with Emma conducted in December 2008.

Paul Gravett:
You were born in Uppsala, Sweden. Can you describe this place, the landscape, people, please? How long did you live there?

Emma Rendel:
I lived in Uppsala until I was 19 and moved away from home. It is a small, flat university town, the oldest university in Sweden. Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander is set and shot there. The headline in the local paper on a typical day: Car crashes, no one is hurt.

What were some of the specifically Swedish and local influences on your imagination and creativity? Not just from comics or illustration , but from other artforms, the people, culture and landscape perhaps?

The Pentti story is very influenced by Tove Jansson and Aki Kaurismäki. I am half Finnish and I’ve read Tove Jansson since I was a kid, in fact, I’ve read her so much that I didn’t really realize that I was influenced by her until someone pointed it out to me. Other influences are Disney, outsider art and folk art, Russian icons, Breugel, Van Eyck, Popeye, Jockum Nordstrom and Karin Mamma Andersson, Chekhov, Tintin, Finnish tango, country and blue grass music among others. There are also a few great comic book creators in Sweden, such as Joakim Pirinen and Max Andersson. And I am a big fan of Matti Hagelberg.

How did you get involved with Le Gun at the RCA and how has this group and collaboration affected your output and creative development?

Le Gun was started when we studied at the RCA. Without Le Gun I don’t think I would have ventured so far into comics or narrative illustration and art as I have. My work is quite different from other comics and wouldn’t have had a natural venue. Le Gun became a platform for all of us where we could try out new things without having to worry about fitting in to someone else’s commercial or creative agenda. I don’t think there is anything quite like Le Gun in Britain at the moment. It is not an art magazine, nor a slick design magazine, nor a magazine for comics, it doesn’t have any kind of commercial strings attached to it and yet it is quite well distributed, this makes it uniquely creative.

Le Gun #1-4

There’s a complex relationship between Swedes and Finns - how does that inform your story of the boozy repressed farm lad Pentti?

Yes, this is actually a sour spot on my conciousness. Swedes have many prejudices against Finns, as do Finns about Swedes. Swedes often think that Finns are quiet, drink a lot and fight when drunk (with knives), which is a perception that Finnish people until quite recently have been happy to uphold, as they think Swedes are weak and talk too much. But recently a lot of Finns have tired of this perception of them, and as there has been a bit of a mini wave of children of Finnish immigrants to Sweden (such as myself) writing novels about their inheritence and background, using and strengthening these prejudices for absurd or tragic effect, some Finns have started to complain about this. Which I can understand. All my Finnish relatives are pretty talkative, they don’t drink to excess and I’ve never heard about them being in a fight. Just wanted to make that clear…

Finland is famous in gay graphic culture for the very masculine icons by Tom of Finland. Was this also in your mind when creating this story about gay denial and violent homophobia there?

Hehe, I didn’t think of that until after Pentti was finished. I came up with the character when I lived in Clapton in London. Groups of quite big, macho and scary-looking men used to roam the area, and to make myself not scared of them I used to imagine that they were actually in relationships with each other, but that they were too afraid to show it, and therefore tried to look as angry and macho as they could. Which made me in the end quite like all these angry alpha males.

You draw your men idiosyncratically and unflatteringly - with amusing tiny bulges for their knees, buttocks, chin clefts - and the most diminutive ears, hands and feet, and when aroused, penis. Where does this model of masculinity come from and what does it say about the ideal of the male physique? especially as drawn by a woman? If you’re familiar with the idealised, sometime androgynous male love in the manga genre by women called yaoi, yours could almost be ‘anti-yaoi"?!

I draw my female characters just as unflatteringly. I am not really that interested in the ideal other than as a something that I can use to comment on or reference to. In Pentti I have exaggerated some of the attributes of the idea of manliness, so that the muscles of the arms, legs, buttocks are huge and bulking, the torso like a barrell and the penis always visible. But I wanted to show that even though the characters subscribe to the traditional ideas of manliness, this is something they have inherited and maybe not really had the opportunity to reflect upon. They are not brutes, they are just playing a role that they’ve learnt. So I drew their heads big and their hands and feet small to counteract all this manliness. In a way I guess that Pentti is sexualised in exactly the same way as female characters are often sexualised in comics, they too get their female attributes exaggerated, and the rest is left childlike. Except this trick doesn’t really work the same way with male characters. Not in my story anyway.

How does your story address the way close physical contact between men - whether brawling or in sports like wrestling - can stir erotic responses between men? and how homophobes can sometimes be frustrated homosexuals?

Yep, this is basically one of the things that I wanted to explore. Pentti seeks out and starts fights just to get some kind of physical contact with the men he fancies, which is the only way he thinks is accepted for men to touch each other. The way men are allowed to touch each other in society seems to me to be encircled by so many rules and rituals. It also seems to me that if a man is a bit insecure (of his sexuality or just in general) the safe option is to follow these rules more strictly.

I found the scene quite sad where Pentti waits and waits for the man he beat up to ring him - what would he have said and done if the phone had rung?

I think that Pentti is actually ready to change, which is shown in the scene where he is waiting for the phone to ring. The tragedy in his situation is that he doesn’t have the tools to do it with. The one way he knows how to act counteracts everything that he wants and sends out the wrong signals to the men he is interested in. So he is doomed to walk around in a circle over and over. The story in my mind is actually a simple and slightly banal tale of morality, that you have to dare to admit who you are or you will never be happy.

Am I right that Deathgirl began as three of your self-published books - have you reworked, redrawn them for this book?

Yes, Deathgirl was from the beginning three stories that I self published separately. I had to redo them, since they were the wrong format, but I made a huge effort to try and make them look the same, since I did the stories over three years and I really liked that you could see the progression in drawing. Deathgirl is turning more and more childlike and less rabbitlike as the stories unfolds. The Deathgirl stories are not about me, even though a lot of people think so. I didn’t write a diary and I was a happy child.

This and your Awkwardist stories tap into the funny humanised animal cartoon characters - was Disney, and perhaps Carl Barks - an influence on you for these?

I have had a huge hang-up on Disney for a long time. When you draw animal human hybrids you also get a huge scope of new possibilities when drawing characters.

There’s a Grimm’s fairy tale feel to Deathgirl too, though brought up to date of course - do these tales inspire you?

I admire fairy tales very much for the effective and neat story telling. When you read them it’s easy to realise that they have been tried and tested, being told over and over again, and everything that is irrelevant, extra and doesn’t work, has been cut out.

Did you want Deathgirl to tap into many teenagers’ feelings of being trapped by their parents and their expectations and demands for conformity?

Actually, my idea was that the parents of Deathgirl and the brother of Pentti both stood for unconditional love and loyality….but maybe that didn’t really come through. I just didn’t want anyone to be able to blame the parents because that is such a boring and easy way out. Even though I guess it is often true. But not here.

You’ve left some disjunctions between what Deathgirl writes and what we see her doing in the picture opposite - so that it doesn’t always illustrate specifically what she’s writing about?

I have been working a lot with telling the story in both text and images. I think that making a graphic novel is a bit like making a film, except when you write and draw a graphic novel you are the whole film crew. In films there are a million different ways to tell a story, through words, body language, scenery, light, pace and so on. Most of these things I think are applicable to a graphic novel too. I don’t want the images to merely illustrate the text, I want them to carry a huge part of the story. It is a bit tricky since people are so used to reading text, and text is so dominant compared to pictures, and maybe I ask too much of people. If you read the book and only read the words you will get through the book in one second and think that the stories are really thin. Both Pentti and Deathgirl are socially inept, which is the root of all their problems and it is that which drives their stories. They are both struggling to understand unwritten social rules, and somewhere along the line they got something fundamentally wrong, which now, when they are really trying and fighting to get it right, is hampering all their efforts. The text is usually what they think and how they percieve the world, whereas in the picture you get more of an idea of what is actually going on, so often there is a disjunction between the text and the images.

What plans and projects do you have lined up for the future? Other graphic novels? Are their other media and artforms you’re keen to explore?

At the moment I am in Sweden working on a book of short stories, where the Awkwardists among others will feature. The deadline is the end of January. I am also, together with Anne Jonsson, working on a project at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm using local residents memories as a source for sculptural interventions and performance pieces that will exist in the neighborhood streets and public spaces. Among other things I will try to make a live comic strip out of a row of windows. I am hoping to return permanently to London as soon as possible though, as I am a bit homesick. I also have a few ideas for new graphic novels which are slowly turning around and around in my head.

Posted: February 1, 2009

The introduction to this interview first appeared in Art Review magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to contemporary art and is essential reading for a global community of artists and gallerists, collectors, curators and indeed anyone with an interest in art. Every issue of Art Review is available to read free online here.


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