Thursday, 11 February 2010

Interview: Kolbeinn Karlsson, creator of "The Troll King"

"Comics' cuddliest Viking" (as described by Top Shelf)

Kolbeinn Karlsson, writer/artist of upcoming graphic novel "The Troll King", recently took some time to speak with us about his new book. Topics discussed included: his influences, the presence of nature in the comic, the process by which he creates characters, adapting his work to animation and the time he almost sent a copy of his 'zine to a member of ABBA.

Firstly, I’d like to ask you about Top Shelf’s "Swedish Invasion" event. How did you become involved in the project?

Well, Chris Staros has liked me since day one, and it was a little bit of a fluke that my book was released in Sweden at the same time as Top Shelf's visit to the SPX in Stockholm. But it sort of makes sense; my stuff represents a generation shift in comic artists in Sweden, a bit different from the usual autobio stuff that Mats [Jonsson] (and to some extent Simon Gärdenfors) represents. Why they signed me though, you have to ask them. I can't really tell what qualities other people see in my comics. I am sort of interested in seeing how the American comic readers are going to take my book though; it's always interesting to see how people react in different countries. And it's a lot of nature, it has a bit of a Scandinavian mindset. It's Swedish exotica!

Talking about the reaction to your work; I saw that in the press release for The Troll King, Jason Leivian compares you to both Hans Christian Andersen and Hayao Miyazaki. Who/ what are your creative influences?

Ha! I loved that! Especially Miyazaki, I've been watching a lot of his films in the past years, so I guess it shows. HC Andersen: maybe? A lot of folk tales, but not primarily. And of course a lot of comics. I grew up reading my dad's Underground magazines, along with the usual Swedish children's comics. I especially loved the Anarchistic figures that Joakim Pirinen and Max Andersson drew. And of course a lot of films. I'm a big fan of the Wicker Man movie, obviously.

A giant effigy burns in "The Troll King"

Nature seems to feature prominently in The Troll King. It seems that you created a whole ecosystem within the world of the comic, with different characters and species functioning within it. Can you tell me about the characters and the creative process behind them?

I love the idea of an ecosystem working on its own terms. I was pretty set from the start to create something that people will perceive as alien. Some figures, I can't really explain, and some just come naturally. I still don't know where my obsession with twins and triplets comes from, so when I write characters, I try to introduce a foreign element that I have very little control over. For example, the character of the green man was the result of me having a conversation with some sort of entity using some sort of online ouija board and on a couple occasions, I have used bird manuals to describe a character's behaviour. Then, it takes time to tie all the knots together. I am not incredibly productive, since comics take time for me. I feel like I have to understand what I am doing before I start to draw it. And the drawing is itself a pretty elaborate process. Not that I have to understand the thing I am about to describe in the comic, but it has to... make sense. It's a lot of gut feeling involved, a bit like making a collage really. It's also a pretty uncertain process. A lot of light tripping over crackling ice.

The environment of the The Troll King certainly feels like it is “complete”. A world full of mystery, but one that the reader is allowed a brief look into. I suppose, in a way, it feels like watching a wildlife documentary. The book collects several stories that appear to take place in this shared universe. Which section of the book is your favourite?

It's pretty hard to just pick one but... lessee. I'm really fond of the story of the two children. The book ends on a cliffhanger, and I'm working right now to see how I'm going to continue. I really don't know if it could be called a complete world, but it's pretty well defined. You could draw a map of if. It wouldn't even be very big. It was one of my early intentions that the whole story would fit in the geographical space of one or two kilometers.

Just like a real forest?

No, not really. I actually think that the underground world of the red hallway is a bit more honest about that than the surface. I wanted to remove any sense of distance. I wanted to make everything dense, like an exhibit in a museum. I like those. Time standing still. Moose and ducks are hanging around with eagles and rabbits. Nothing is really happening. I like that. I try not to include too much movement in my comics. That's why there are so many shapes and little spirals in the pictures as well. I want people to stop, and sort of get lost watching it. So I tend to try not to be to realistic in my drawings. I almost never copy any visual aids or - god forbid - draw from life.

In reference to the red hallway: recently, you worked with the UK-based Happy Endings Productions, turning “Sleeping and Dreaming of Food” into a short animated film. How much input did you have in the creation of the short?

It was a bit of a process, but I sort of felt good to lay it in other people's hands and let them do the hard work. One of the things that made me the happiest was a chance to include music and a soundtrack in my work, and to finally work with sound. But it felt good leaving the animation work to Emie at Happy Endings. I really liked the crude feel of the animations. We agreed that we would aim at the type of animation they used in a lot of children's shows in Sweden in the 80s. A slow narration, with very basic animations, mostly panning the camera over a paper. And also, it was great working with Kallioinia, who are a band that I feel really understands both my storytelling and my visual style, and it shows. So, since the film got such a good reception, me and Emie have decided to start working on an original short during the summer. I'm really looking forward to that.

"Sleeping and Dreaming of Food" (Happy Endings Productions, 2008)
(starts around 1:38)

Can you tell me more about that, or is it top secret?

It's still a bit early to talk about, mostly since we haven't got a finished script yet. But it's going to be an original story. It may even be a bridge between this book and the next.

During our research for this interview, we read that at one point you lived in the forest. Is this true? If so, how did this experience affect your work?

No, it's plain bullshit. I have no idea where they got that info from.

(We suspected that might be the case)

I think someone wrote that on my lambiek page, I might as well dement it here. I have no desire to live in the forest. I'm used to suburbs, and living in the outskirts of it. I like things like running water, hot food and fast internet. Also, I'm far too socially oriented. I would probably just run around naked after a couple of hours. But I sort of guess that it's easy to see that in my comics as well. They could be read with a pretty romantic view on nature, if you like that sort of thing.

Aside from your upcoming animation project and the next Troll King book, are there any other projects you're working on?

Right now, I'm trying to do some shorter comics, both in Sweden, as well as abroad. I have a comic in the next Strapazin, for example. It feels a little weird to limit myself to just a couple of pages, but it's hard to get my pretty long stories published otherwise. I work in the same way as my longer stories, so I sort of have to make a world, and then scrap 9/10 of all my good ideas. It's very frustrating. So, I'm about to start on a series of minicomics. Three of them, that will be called Flower World Variations. Just three different variations on the theme 'Flower World'. Actually just finished the script for the first one. But it's going to take a while, as always. At least a month or two.

We dug through your blog and found an image entitled “Benny Björn Will Never Return”. Can you tell me about it?

Benny Björn? That was a zine I did together with Hanna P, called Hatgubbe. Benny Björn was the third or fourth issue I think. Usually we used pretty loose ideas; in one issue we used a Disney animation compendium for drawings. In Benny Björn, we could do anything we liked, as long as we included ABBA. It's sold out, unfortunately. We were supposed to send our last copy to Benny Andersson's studio, but we chickened out. So I got the last one.

It's probably for the best, Benny seems like he could get pretty fearsome.

I heard the contrary. I heard that he's a big comics fan, and got a pretty good sense of humour and a healthy sense of self irony, but we chickened out since Hanna made a couple of pretty rude drawings of Agnetha peeing on a floor, and I heard she had a pretty unstable history since ABBA. So we decided to spare her the agony. Or was it Anni-Frid? I can never tell them apart.

I don't think anyone can.

It's a bit of their charm. Gnomish men and tall insane women. Very scandinavian. A bit like Nico.

We are planning on attending the World Beard and Moustache Championship in Norway next year. We couldn't help but notice that you have a pretty amazing beard. If you enter the competition, we'll definitely buy you a beer!

Awww, I trimmed it last summer... Now, it's starting to regain it's former glory but it's not huge anymore or anything.

There is plenty of time! This has been a great interview. Once again, we are very grateful that you gave your time to us this afternoon.

No problem, it gave me plenty of time to do some arts and crafts.

Once again, ATF would like to thank Kolbeinn for giving us such a great interview. His great graphic novel, The Troll King, is available for pre-order on the Top Shelf website (link below) or via your local comic shop (Diamond code: FEB10-1096).

  • Our review of The Troll King
  • Pre-order The Troll King via Top Shelf
  • Kolbeinn's Karlsson's Blog
  • Official Swedish Invasion Blog

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