Friday, 26 February 2010

Review: Kolbeinn Karlsson’s The Troll King (Top Shelf, 2010)

"The Troll King"
Story and art by Kolbeinn Karlsson
Price: $14.95 (US)
Full-colour; 16.51 x 23.50cm; 160 pages.
Published by Top Shelf Productions
Released: April 2010
Diamond Code: FEB10-1096
ISBN: 978-1-60309-061-2

The more I think about writing a review of Kolbeinn Karlsson’s The Troll King, the more I realise that  it is one of those comics where there's something new to be found in each successive reading. Heavily saturated with imagery and symbolism, this naturalistic, sometimes-macabre, other-world is largely left to the reader to deconstruct. As much a story as it is an introduction to a parallel universe, the setting of The Troll King feels like a micro-ecology, and reading it often feels like watching a nature documentary on weird and wonderful newly-discovered species and their environment.

Nature plays a central role in the book, and the strange flora and fauna help to produce a world that seems familiar whilst remaining completely alien. This skewed version of the natural world evokes both comfort and concern and creates a feeling of unease that exists throughout the comic. Although there are brief references to an industrial world existing outside the perimeters of this woodland, the focus never strays from  a “geographical space of one or two kilometers” (as described by the author in his interview with us). 

Spiraling ever upwards: One of Karlsson's beautifully-rendered trees

Complementing this natural landscape is an eclectic cast of species which includes: hairy giants, carrot men, quasi-sexual dream-creatures and an all-consuming obese race of green men. Karlsson's obsession with twins is visible throughout, with most of the aforementioned groups being populated exclusively by doppelgangers. Notable then, is the re-occurrence in each subplot of a mysterious, solitary and silent figure: a small brown clump of a creature with hollow black eyes and a conical nose. Often seen wearing antlers made of twigs, this character seems to carry central importance and to be objectively aware of the processes of the forest.

Structurally, this character is important and creates a centralising thread in a comic where the sprawling strands of narrative grow as organically as its content. So intertwined are the various  sub-plots, that it often seems impossible to know where one ends and another begins. Rather than a complete mess, Karlsson has created a world that is rich, complex and that actively engages the reader. With no direct exposition offered, it is left to the reader to assess the meaning behind the events of The Troll King.

Probably the most accessible section of the book is that of the self-assessed Ewoks: two near-identical , ubiquitously furry. male humanoids. Although never explicitly revealed as human, their joint-narration seems to suggest that they are societal drop-outs who have come to live a purer life in the forest. Spending their days in their log cabin and body-building in the sunshine, they live a happy, content life. Detailing their relationship (which seems to be both fraternal and romantic in nature), the first section of the book leads up to them participating in some kind of Wicker Man-inspired wedding/fertility ritual that causes them to give birth (anally) to twin boys. The author manages to make this bizarre situation a charming, funny, sweet, and, at times, genuinely touching tale of devotion and partnership. 

Yes, I did say "most accessible". 

Admittedly resilient to drawing from life, Karlsson's visual depiction of his world has a very engaging idiosyncratic quality about it:  his linework and colouration feature a kind of warped unity that is perfectly suited to the off-kilter fairytale setting. Often, his use of colour is paradoxical, with cartoony yet atmospheric shades that comfort and repulse simultaneously. This visual juxtaposition gives the more transgressive segments of the The Troll King a certain gut-churning edge. During a particularly raucous Wild West-inspired fantasy sequence I found myself drawing (faint) similarities with Johnny Ryan's recent tour de force of brutal vulgarity Prison Pit. Which is no bad thing.

A violent psychedelic interlude. We have our theories.

Already drawing critical comparisons to the flawed fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen and  the movies of Studio Ghibli auteur Hayao Miyazaki, The Troll King is a stylistically dense trip to another world. Complex at times, creepy at others, Karlsson's graphic novel disposes of the boundaries of traditional comic narrative  structure to create a world that feels like it will keep on existing even after its pages are closed. We definitely have our own theories regarding the behavior of the characters and subtext of the book, but to describe them would do disservice to a story that is open to so many interpretations.

If you like your comics stylised, imaginative, slightly creepy and featuring body-building ersatz-Ewoks, you should stop reading immediately and go pre-order The Troll King now. Go!

If you're still uncertain about it, below you will find a short animated adaptation of a section of the graphic novel,  entitled Sleeping and Dreaming of Food. If this doesn't sell the comic to you, nothing will.

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


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