Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Interview: Simon Gärdenfors, creator of "The 120 Days of Simon"

Earlier today, ATF interviewed Simon Gärdenfors, Swedish cartoonist and creator of the upcoming graphic novel “The 120 Days of Simon”. Autobiographical in nature, the comic details Simon's four-month journey in which he imposed two rules: he wasn't allowed to return home and he couldn't spend more than two nights at the same place. He spoke with us about his part in Top Shelf’s “Swedish Invasion” event, upholding the truth in an autobiographical story, his inspirations as a cartoonist and his rather impressive collection of candy packaging.

Hello there!

Hey hey!

Obviously, in the Swedish comic scene you're well known for having made three graphic novels and also for your work in music and television. How do you feel about The 120 Days of Simon being your first exposure in the American market?

In one way it feels good because I like the 120 Days of Simon work. I think it's a good introduction. Maybe it gets a little bit misleading about me as a person because that book is very focused on scandal. Both when I went on the trip for doing the research for the book and while picking the material I would use, I focused on... sex and drugs and scandal, in general. So, maybe it gets a little misleading. People might get a little nervous when meeting me, like, “That guy’s only got sex and drugs on his mind!”, like, “What kind of character is that?” (he laughs). My other work has got some of that in it too, but it’s also more focused on other things.

When you were writing the book, did you approach it as you would when writing fiction?

No... When I wrote the book The 120 Days of Simon, I was keeping a diary, like a real diary with just text. I was writing and taking photos for four months. When I went home and started doing the book I went through the diary and underscored the parts that I wanted to keep in the comic. Then, I focused on fifteen events or so; fifteen anecdotes from the trip. I tried to keep it as real as possible, but that’s a difficult question, you know.

At the end of the book there is a long list of people that didn’t feature in the comic itself, but helped you during your journey. So, in a way, it feels like there is still more to tell. Was there anything that you withheld when writing it? Were there any stories where you thought “I can’t write this”?

There was not that much that I censored for the book. Anything that was embarrassing, I put in the book. I was thinking of censoring stuff because it was really embarrassing, but then I realised that they were probably the most fun parts to read. Of course there was a lot of stuff that didn't make the book: I could have made another type of book where I’d have deeper discussions with people and gotten closer to them as a person. I was told private stories from their lives that I couldn't just handle in one or two or five pages. If I had wanted to do it in a good way I would have needed to make a 20 page comic for each person, and that would mean I’d have to drop the focus of my own story. So stories like that couldn't make the book.

Of course, you changed the name of the motorcycle gang. I mean nobody wants to get killed. I can’t blame you!

Yeah! That was true! (laughs). No, no... I changed the names of some people in the book too, if it was too sensitive. And even some details. I changed just, like, relatives and stuff, so they wouldn’t be recognized.

For me, one the funniest moments in the book is where you promise your friend that you won't draw him taking drugs...

Only a few people realised that I just put a moustache on him. We were at this party and then he just disappears from the sofa and in comes exactly the same character but with a moustache. He's got the same clothes, the same haircut and stuff, I just put a moustache on him. I was like “I’ll blur your face or something”. Only maybe 10 people told me that they got that joke. But people think it’s funny anyway because I just promised my friend not to show him and I do it anyway. (laughs)

The moustache in all its glory.

You said just now how you recorded it as a diary and then picked out anecdotes afterwards. In the book, you show that you get beaten up by a group of kids who then steal your things, including your notebook. Although you got the notebook back, it must have been very worrying for you...

Yeah! That was one of the worst moments on the trip. I had scanned some pages while I was at a friend's house, but just ten pages out of a 200-or-something page diary. So yeah, I was devastated. I don’t know if I was able to picture how bad I felt at that moment. At that point I had so many other big problems that I couldn't focus on just that one; it was like one piece of the jigsaw of problems.

At the time, did you consider how the theft might have affected the ultimate book?

Yeah, I thought about it. I was like “Shit, dude, this book will get so much worse”. Losing all the details, all the fun jokes I took notes on. (Sighs) It was horrible. I didn't get the camera back, so there were lots of pictures that I lost. So, I got pictures of the people's faces and stuff from Facebook. Facebook actually appeared during that trip, in my life. In the book I’m on Myspace and it wasn't that easy to find people like that. While drawing the book, Facebook exploded so it was easy to get in contact with the people I stayed with for photos.

What motivated you to draw and write comics?

In my family, I think drawing was the one thing I was better at than the others. I felt a little bit stupid as a child because the other members of my family are real bookworms, real smart. My dad is a professor, and both my Mom and Dad are real intellectuals. My brother and sister always got top grades and could read from four years old or something. But in drawing it seemed like I was almost as good as - and maybe a little bit better - than my brother, who was two years older. Neither of my parents draw so I felt that was my own thing.

It was a way to break away, to find your own identity?

Yeah. I felt like “I’m good at this, I’m quite good at this”. And then at school, I started to have friends who were a little bit older, who also drew comics and were interested in superhero comics. I thought it was cool, I hung out with guys that were like one year older than me (laughs). We drew comics after school, and then they stopped and I continued. I started discovering underground comics at an early age.

What’s the influence behind your visual style?

I think that from the beginning it was a Swedish cartoonist called David Liljemark. I discovered his comics in a magazine called Python, which I later started working for. And then I later checked up his influences. Later on I studied the extreme cartoon style, cartoons from the 40s and a lot of candy packaging and stuff too. I collect candy.

A (small) sample of Simon's extensive candy collection

I get inspired by candy packaging and stuff while doing the pictures. In my coming work, it will be more evident that I’m into candy packing. In The 120 Days of Simon I tried to do it in a simple style that's easy to read. But yeah, I’m influenced by Ivan Brunetti and Chris Ware, and Joe Matt.

You mentioned your coming work. What are your current projects?

I’m working on an autobiographical story about a friend of mine who died when we were in high school. The visual style there is a little bit different. It’s in colour and I tried to make each whole page look like a candy box or a candy package. So it takes me a really long time for me to do. Each page takes almost a week for me to do, because I put so much time into the visuals.

Do you think there is any chance of that being published in the English market?

Yeah! I think it will published in English too. I think it’s more impressive visually, so that will make it easier to get published. For The 120 Days of Simon, it's more the idea that gets people interested, but I think the visuals will attract people more directly in the next one.

What your thoughts on Top Shelf's "Swedish Invasion" event? Do you think that, globally, comic culture is beginning to merge?

Yeah! Yeah, I think it’s a really great step for Sweden. Now I think it’s open enough for more Swedes to know that it’s possible to get published in English and get read. Yeah, I think stuff will start to happen eventually. Maybe not like an explosion, but more like... Sweden will become one of the big alternative comic nations, after the US, France, Japan, etc, I think Sweden will be in the top ten or so...

Like a global Eurovision of comics?

Yeah! (He laughs)

I do have one more question. Did you ever find out what the character Miranda meant by “water damage”?

No... Actually not! She was the one who got the most angry at me for putting her in the book. She didn’t sign up for the project, I just met her at a friend’s house. So she was really really angry. She even threatened me with violence. And my friend, he was like “I think Miranda asked for your address... She’s sending you a letter.”. So I started getting a little nervous, like, "A letter? That sounds like she’s really upset.". So I called her and she was really really upset. She really hates me still.

This is really the last one: Do you have any regrets?

(Pause) I don’t know, really. I haven’t thought about it that much. But... No regrets that I can think of. I don’t believe in regrets that much.. If I had known at the time what was going to happen, it would be much easier; I wouldn’t have started talking to the kids at the subway station. I regret that, like, I didn't want to get beaten up. But I wouldn't have gotten the story I did if none of the bad stuff happened. I don’t believe in regrets.

ATF would like to thank Simon Gärdenfors for giving some of his time to us for this interview. His book ,"The 120 Days of Simon" is available for pre-order via Top Shelf's website (link below) or at your local comic shop. Priced $14.95 USD (Diamond code: FEB10-1095).

  • Our review of The 120 Days of Simon
  • Pre-order The 120 Days of Simon via Top Shelf
  • Simon Gärdenfors' Myspace
  • Official Swedish Invasion Blog

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