Editor’s Note: This interview has been translated from Norwegian and originally appeared in the literary journal Bokvennen.
With the recent release of Munch, from Self Made Hero, the most renowned Norwegian graphic novel is available without learning the language of the great painter himself. Steffen Kverneland’s biography of Edvard Munch is the first and only comic that has received the Brageprisen for best non-fiction, Norway’s most prestigious literary award. Munch has also become a national bestseller.
Alongside Munch and his contemporaries, the book features Kverneland and fellow artist Lars Fiske. There is hardly any domestic award Kverneland and Fiske have not received for their comics, either together or separately. Jason is the major Norwegian auteur in international comics, but Kverneland and Fiske has spearheaded the leap of Norwegian comics into high society.
The weighty Olaf G. from 2004, a combined travelogue and biography of cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson, was a defining collaboration and high point of bromance in art. In the joint anthology Kanon (Canon), launched in 2006, they began ambitious biographies of Kurt Schwitters (Fiske) and Edvard Munch (Kverneland). The biographies have since been published in separate books, and are translated into several languages such as German and French.
Kverneland and Fiske have made their mark in Norwegian comics since the mid-1990s. Kverneland (b. 1963) with crime adaptation De knyttede never (1993, The clenched fists), newspaper onepager Amputerte klassikere (Classics Amputated) and contributions to the alternative comics magazine Fidus. Fiske (b. 1966) was also a contributor to Fidus, and did the album Matje – Debutanten (1997). Both are even illustrators. Kverneland has made portraits his speciality, while Fiske is doing various newspaper assignments, collected in the book My Style (2014).
The interview was conducted in two sessions. First surrounded by ten thousand comics and textbooks at the comics library Serieteket in Oslo. Later with seven pints of beer at a nearby café.
Morten Harper: If you were to choose some of the several thousand comics on the shelves around us, what is really a good comic for you?
Steffen Kverneland: I’m looking for innovative, different things. I’m not so much looking for the reading experience, I’m more after new ways to perceive comics. Honestly I’m most concerned with form. To me comics reading is curricular activity. This probably sounds terribly boring, but I do think it’s fascinating. I get a real kick out of reading something that is innovative, almost more so than a good story.
Lars Fiske: It’s been this way for quite some time. When I got to the point that I could do something other than copying what I read as a child, that I felt I could do something that no one else had done before, then I began to read comics in a different way. Looking at your first RAW Magazine – you did not read it. It was not like stepping into Tintin, it was about anything but easy reading.
MH: RAW labelled itself “Graphix Magazine“ back in 1980. In what way was this anthology a game changer?
LF: I had reached an age where it was not just comics that were interesting to me anymore. Music, art and literature were starting to be important. I had begun reading Kafka and that sort of thing. RAW was comics for an adult audience, it was intellectual and piled up of references to art and literature. And probably music too. That is why the magazine was such a convincing total package.
SK: You are speaking for both of us now.
LF: Also, it was visually absolutely huge. I was completely blown away.
SK: It brought a whole new mindset to comics. Incredibly bold and at the same time totally obvious.
MH: Are there any comics in particular that have impressed or inspired you?
LF: Something that struck me very hard was Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese. The series was outrageously good. The literary aspirations were so strong. Worn out sergeants sitting around quoting Rimbaud.
SK: While the palm trees whistled and sea gulls screamed.
LF: Pretty pretentious, huh. But it was so grand.
SK: It had this adult sensibility to it.
LF: Frankly, I did not like the drawings back then.
SK: No, they were too sloppy. Now I think they are wonderful. Another series that has been very important to me is Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware. It opened comics in a whole new way in terms of storytelling; how slowly you can tell, how to dwell on a moment. While it was unmistakably anchored in the comics tradition, it was different from anything that had been made before. He had taken all impulses especially from early comic book history. It was incredibly refreshing and inspiring. I have never copied his style, but he pointed at a new kind of freedom and opened up new ideas and concepts.
MH: You have mentioned three series – RAW, Corto Maltese, and Jimmy Corrigan – to select from the shelves.
SK: Two superhero comics were also especially important to me, both drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and written by Frank Miller. It was Elektra: Assassin and then there was an album with Daredevil. Sienkiewicz changed his style of drawing constantly. Everything from painting to pencil sketches. Very cartoony things – and very realistic. He denied himself absolutely nothing. It was an unwritten, or it was actually a written rule, that you should keep the same style throughout a comic book. You must stay true to your style, your whole life. The most important choice you make as a cartoonist, is when you choose your style, because it will stay with you till death to you part. You see what I mean? Most artists stick to this, but I change styles more freely.
LF: Ever since we started Kanon, we have had an ongoing conversation about why we should be locked into one kind of art style all the time.
SK: I was never able to marry one style. This is where we differ very much. I’ve been jumping between cartoony, realistic and whatnot. While you have kept to a much more tight path.
LF: That’s true. Also you were more concerned with becoming something else than a cartoonist. You aimed for the great, fine art, and wanted to become a painter. I have not been there. I decided when I was twelve that I wanted to make comics.
MH: Are there any particular comics or other books that inspired your major biographical projects?
SK: For me it started with Classics Amputated, where I did adaptations of established texts, preferably books. Fairly quickly, I discovered that if I made the authors into characters of their own stories or took on a biography and drew the protagonist, funny things started to happen. It was very easy to make fun of the author by putting him into his or her own books, especially if I used the most pretentious parts. Easy, but it was very comical as well. I could also use politicians. I realised that biographical sequences worked very well.
LF: Fine art is of course extremely important, if you think ahead towards Herr Merz about Schwitters. The earlier Matje is inspired by a lot of writers. This kind of isolated, self-centered individuals that Matje represents, are everywhere. I read the lot, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is bull’s eye to this kind of universe.
SK: Yes, that‘s a nice book.
LF: Matje is mostly fiction. It was only when I met Steffen, that I started making reality based series. I hadn’t really considered it at all.
SK: Two authors who have been important to me, are Aksel Sandemose and William Burroughs. In his novel The Werewolf, Sandemose does not write chronologically. The book is designed as a kind of mosaic, consisting of fragments which together provide a very large picture of something that has happened. This kind of puzzles appeal to me. I’m bored to death if I have to tell a story from A to B or from A to Z. I’m unable to work, really, I completely lose inspiration. I can do it of course, but then it’s no fun anymore, and the result will be inferior. What I’m always concerned about, is that the series must be readable. The quality isn’t better, it doesn’t get more sophisticated, if you make it unclear. Precision and clarity are very important. It can be complex, but still easy to read. That’s what I’m aiming at.
MH: You both contributed to the anthology Fidus in the nineties and were in the same milieu of cartoonists, but what was it that made you start collaborating so closely?
SK: What was important and decisive was the comics festival Raptus in Bergen. We thought the programme was too mainstream and boring. There were old superhero artists and stuff that we had outgrown. We ran away together from the whole thing, and drank beer and chatted instead. This was in the late nineties.
LF: I think of the trip to France in 1997, when it was a Nordic exhibition at the comics festival in Angoulême: Gare du Nord. I had released my first album of Matje, and Steffen read it on the train back home.
SK: I was totally hung over, of course.
LF: He came running to the restaurant, where I was having a beer. He couldn’t praise highly enough how brilliant he thought it was.
SK: I had a kind of cartoony laughter, neverending, as giggly as you just might be the day after a long night out.
LF: That’s when it started.
SK: The ice was broken.
LF: When we ran away and talked during the Raptus festival, I think this was the following year, we realized that we were really on the same cultural planet.
SK: We clicked and had a great range of subjects that we could talk about: art, music and comics. Not about mainstream comics, but the interesting stuff. We could learn from each other and get professional advice. And we also really enjoyed drinking beer.
MH: This is more than a professional relationship, also on a personal level you get along very well?
LF: Yes, that is absolutely essential, of course.
SK: It’s exceptionally good chemistry, almost romantic.
MH: What are the particular qualities of Fiske’s comics to you, Kverneland?
SK: He has many strong qualities. When it comes to story, I noticed it clearly when we made Olaf G. together. I am always expanding the story, it has to do with my fragmentary narrative style. I fall in love with scenes, which I build upon without any strict framework. Lars is quite the opposite. He is minimalist and very strict. This contradiction did really make the book. It had become a shapeless monster if I were to do it alone. I gave the book circular composition, that we begin with a journey from Norway and return to home. Between that, anything can happen. Lars kept the total view. He took care of the main threads of the story, and made sure all the important bits were included. Together we also managed to shave off unnecessary drivel.
LF: I can really subscribe to all that. It was a remarkably educational experience to make the book.
SK: We invented the wheel and did rocket science and all that. That was how we felt.
MH: What are the qualities of Kverneland?
LF: When I started working on Olaf G., I had not related to reality at all in my comics. Steffen, however, was a champion. He had made these insanely good caricatures.
SK: I was not done boasting about Lars.
LF: I could not draw caricatures, and was a little worried about that. By looking at what Steffen had done, and in the beginning we invited each other to draw individual frames in our pages, I began slowly to produce my own caricatures. It was all so incredibly stimulating, and I felt like I got more and more the hang of it. It’s quite evident in the book. I am more extremely Fiske at the beginning than at the end, where the art style has got kind of a reality anchorage.
SK: Your characters changed to having one knee on each foot instead of two.
MH: The collaboration changed the way you create comics?
LF: The clean cut, economical style of Matje was a product of me working very slowly. I figured that if I do not have a style that is really down to the bone, I will never be finished. When we started working together, I somehow increased the pace. I knew Steffen was waiting on a new page, in a positive sense. He looked forward to it, as I also looked forward to receiving a page from him. It was so incredibly cool.
SK: We were quite dependent on the continuity. I made a dummy, in which pages were added as they were done, and we could literally see the book grow. This was very inspiring. We have used this working method on Kanon as well, and we have our own dummies for Munch and Herr Merz. It is a very transparent way of working. Suddenly, while flipping the dummy, you realise that if you move a sequence, something completely new happens.
LF: That’s always exciting.
SK: The page or sequence gets a new synergy. There may be new associative and thematic contexts. In Munch, I was particularly conscious about this, the thematic context was more important than the chronological.
MH: Kanon is a joint project, yet separate as you make the comics on your own?
SK: Finishing Olaf G., we were exhausted and wanted to work alone for a while. Then, eventually, we both felt something was missing, the energy of the close collaboration where we sent each page to the other and received ovations. I then started pondering on some kind of mix between RAW, Tempo (the Norwegian version of Franco-Belgian Pilote) and Swedish Galago.
LF: Or ACME Novelty Library.
SK: Chris Ware’s ACME, yes. This should just be for Fiske and Kverneland. Strictly forbidden to anyone else. We decided on the goal of making one album a year, as thick or thin as it may be.
MH: Your series in Kanon was Munch, Kverneland, why did you want to make a biography about him?
SK: He is an artist I’m a big fan and admirer of. He has a strong biography and was a distinct person. I had also illustrated a book about Munch for young adults, and did some one-page «amputations» of Rolf E. Stenersen’s classic biography of Munch. I quickly noticed that he was an excellent cartoon character.
LF: We discussed doing Munch together, but it became clear to me that this was something Steffen had talked about as long as I’d known him. He had always thought of making a biography of Munch, it was so incredibly his thing.
MH: In the graphic novel you recreate Munch’s paintings, did you adapt them in any particular way?
SK: The idea was to make the paintings as identical to the originals as possible, but in watercolour. I’ve always liked to copy. It’s like meditation, only using your craft. Painting in oil and watercolour, as I did use, are very different techniques. I had to distil every stroke of his brush. This took a lot of thinking, and I learned very much about Munch’s way of painting. It was almost a physical analysis of each stroke he had done, which made me see the pictures in a more slow and thorough manner.
LF: You did it incredibly convincingly. It wasn’t exactly easy to see if an image was a Munch or your copy.
SK: My wife goes on about it: nudge, nudge – look at that house. If you could just put a couple of Munch paintings for sale, we would’ve been able to afford it.
MH: Are you now done with Munch, or is there a Munch 2 in the works?
SK: That would actually have been very easy. Or if not exactly easy, there are at least good stories that could fill a book without being an embarrassment. I have material that did not make it to the book. Material that can stand on its own. It may well be that I will make such a book, eventually, but it’s not the first thing I do.
MH: Was Kurt Schwitters an equally obvious biographical subject for you, Fiske?
LF: What was obvious, was that I would do something within modernism or dadaism, within this incredibly exciting period in the arts where really a revolution happened. This is a period that has always been dear to me. Schwitters appeared almost at random, through a book Danish painter Per Kirkeby wrote about Schwitters as a painter of landscapes in Norway. Now, this was an interesting figure, I thought. It was something with that guy who did not quite add up. I could sense some kind of an inner conflict. When I began to read more about him, the same thing happened as it did with Olaf G. Schwitters appeared as a perfect character to do a comic about. There was no limit to the fun and dramatics surrounding him, or how crazy he was.
MH: You are yourselves present as characters in the series. Why did you choose such prominent meta levels, rather than a more conventional biographical narrative?
LF: Working with Herr Merz, I felt that I had to include me and Steffen one way or another. The source material was not sufficient, there weren’t enough people who had written about everything I wanted to include. We did four visits to the various Merzbau projects that Schwitters had built, and I quickly got the idea of making these travels part of the book. In fact, I made these visits the framework for the project.
SK: The meta level has been very important. In the late eighties when I came to Oslo, I was lucky and ended up in a literary environment, around the journal Vagant. At the time, postmodernism and meta perspectives were the order of the day. The Vagant crowd was not into that, and neither was I. To be critical towards the text and any sources, however, that is something I have been very conscious about. A text is something different from a truth. I want to be honest and open about my comics being something I make after things have happened, that they represent how I interpret what has happened based on the sources I have. I can’t designate truth one hundred years afterwards, because I was not there when it happened. When sources are conflicting, I have no qualifications to choose what is true, no more than the reader. Hence, I present all sources. One of them is true, and the other is lying. I have just drawn it. Then there’s another reason as well. I think our journeys and comments are fun. They enrich with humour and personality.
LF: You are very specific on the use of sources in Munch. The manifesto approach is there immediately. Steffen came up with this dogma of Kanon, which is also the dogma of Munch, to use only primary sources.
SK: Yes, but it’s only for Munch, that one.
LF: Ok, ok. But I used it also. It was in a way the dogma of Kanon too. I used it in exactly the same way. Apart from the sequences where we visit the Merz buildings, my biography of Schwitters is only made up of primary sources.
SK: Is it?
LF: Yes. Only Schwitters’ own words, and those who met him. None other. I have not used art historians at all. Only people who have been with him and known him, and his own words. And in between, it’s us who are wading in the ruins of Merzbau.
SK: Then it’s particularly important to have this meta level, bridging the story.
LF: Important, indeed.
SK: The sources don’t cover everything wall to wall. When we establish continuity at the meta level – such as sitting in a café, talking – we can make sudden and extreme leaps and still keep the story flowing.
Editions in English
Munch by Steffen Kverneland. Published by Self Made Hero, 2016.
My Style by Lars Fiske. Published by No Comprendo Press, 2014.
Angst – The Best of Norwegian Comics #1-4. Anthology series published by No Comprendo Press / Jippi Forlag, 2007-2011.