Karlsson, Kolbeinn (2010), The Troll King, Top Shelf
I have never read a graphic novel by a Swedish creator before, but if The Troll King is any indication, Swedes like their comic books like they like their rock music: weird and intense. I think the only book I read recently that approaches Karlsson’s interests and the direction of his work is Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of novels. The Troll King is a novel-in-stories, I guess, but given how coherent the whole narrative turns out to be when we read the last story, it may just be a novel, full stop. The book starts off strange and then just keeps getting stranger until a surprisingly emotionally resonant ending. Reading the book I was so overwhelmed by its themes, its art, its contradictions and its metatextual elements that I didn’t even consider the direction the narrative was taking until the final of the book’s stories just took me by the hand and led me down a narrative path that proved to be as poignant, as it was strangely common, almost formulaic. Karlsson draws on a broad range of influences, from Nordic myths to anime/manga, he writes a story that is both tender and emotional as it is filled with a strange physicality. If you feel weird about two large bearded men/monsters having a loving and sexual relationship, depicted fairly directly, you won’t even make it past the first section, and you’ll miss fever dreams, the murder of birds, a lot of other (small) male genitalia, death, birth and rebirth and other topics. All of it realized in an art style that somehow straddles the divide between crude and precise drawings, colored with inspired abandon. It is a dark tale with a sweet ending, a violent story with quite a few funny visual jokes. If we look for the way the book relates to its audience, how it employs perspectives and speakers and voice, we (or rather: I) get the feeling that Karlsson is sometimes seduced by his own powerful artistic vision to the detriment of really mapping out all the book’s details. Would I recommend it? The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Karlsson and Miyazaki are kindred spirits and that’s not far off the mark. If you feel like reading a version of Miyazaki that is darker, more physical, more violent, more racist/reactionary, more explicit, but similarly inspired of and reverential towards nature, dreams and folklore, then read this book. I personally greatly enjoyed reading it, and I can assure you that the book only becomes better upon rereading. This is quite something.
For all its skill with visual elements, for the ingenious way the author uses color both in backgrounds as well as in lines, the most impressive part of the book is its narrative discipline. For much of the book I thought I was reading a couple of stories set in the same part of the world, united by the trippy visual imagination of the author and nothing else. The final section or story however ends up tying up all the book’s strands, even though it doesn’t do so neatly. Some asides, like an odd, seemingly LSD-fueled vision of the Wild West, don’t really find a place in the book’s final narrative concerns, but most do. It is, as we find out at the end, a story about family, humanity, about modernity and modern man’s resistance to it. For all the book’s violence, the underlying emotion is a gentle sadness, a longing for a more natural time. The two odd characters on the covers are not trolls or beasts, they are “mountain men,” as the back of the book proclaims. Their beards and body hair are just drawn with such attention to detail that it flips over into mild surrealism. Hence the hair helmets. The artistic goal is one where the way the mountain men are drawn and the way trees, grass and bushes are drawn resemble each other. The men are truly becoming part of nature, and in the process they lose some part of their humanity. This is where Miyazaki is likely most relevant, with his stories of nature resisting man-made modernity, of some pockets of humanity allying themselves with nature and with the magic that is fundamentally linked to that nature, magic that has its roots in the connection of people with the soil and animals. There is a reactionary element to that kind of story, which has been discussed a few times in scholarship, but Miyazaki leverages that reactionary element with his intelligent manipulation of gender and class discussions. Karlsson…doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a moment. At this point I’d just like to stress the way Karlsson’s book, despite looking like a surreal tale of madness, really does fit many of the ecological tales. In her influential 1962 study of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes that, “[g]iven time […] life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world, there is no time.” In some ways, The Troll King is a resistance to the loss of time in the modern world. Events in it happen in some kind of dream time. While there is a clear chronology that connects many parts of the book, others appear to speed up or slow down time to allow for things (skulls, mushrooms, trees and dead cowboys) to grow and die. Human agency doesn’t shape time, the processes of nature do.
This attitude towards human agency also feeds into the book’s relationship towards language and myth. The longer the book continues the fewer lettering we get. The story starts relying on expressive images rather than on explanatory captions. Yet even before that, what few words we are given are rarely explanations and more emotional commentary by one or more of the people depicted in the panel in question. Karlsson’s lettering looks like very personal handwriting, so when he switches to a different character’s voice, I was at first taken aback (this, I suspect, speaks to the density of the book which made me assume that all details were calibrated exactly). The first two chapters, consisting of the marriage of the mountain men, and of a dwarf’s fever dream, are basically the only parts of the book with consistent words and voices. In a way, these two sections ease us into the book’s themes and concerns and having words at the beginning helps us jump the hurdle of the strangeness of the rest of the book. But there is another way to see this change. As the book progresses, it dives deeper into its themes of myth and creation, culminating in the tale of two chubby hairy green men burying a skull and digging up the dead cowboy from a vision they had. In Walter Benjamin’s discussion of language and divine creation, he discusses, I think, the idea that things have, originally, no name. Their mute language is a residue of the divine word of creation. According to this reading of Benjamin, it is with the Fall that language loses this immanence, this magic quality and starts referring to abstractions, to outside sources, to broad constructs of knowledge and culture. The book, for a while, until the two last chapters, reverses this process, stripping its story of the reliance on words and constructs. The mountain men, for example, describe themselves as “Ewoks,” and their marriage dance is maybe related to pagan rites, maybe to Dragonball Z (I admit that was my gut association because I am philistine trash, but, you know, why not). This relationship to language and signification seems to be an essential part of the book, and if we assume its centrality, then we immediately connect it to the overwhelming masculinity of it all. The book abounds in small chubby penises, and all the processes of procreation are specifically framed as bypassing the female element. Despite the book’s buoyant joy in using visual references to all kinds of pagan and neopagan takes on rites and liminal spaces, it does not appear to refer at all to the bible of neo-pagan nuttery, Robert Graves’ immensely readable book of questionable scholarship, The White Goddess. Graves’ story of the maiden-mother-crone, the universal Goddess, is completely subverted by Karlsson, whose book features a brown God of the woods, who looks as if he had been created from mountain men beard hair.
This odd masculinity of myth can, I suspect, be read as a commentary on feminist theorists like the extraordinary Helene Cixous and concepts like the phallogocentrism. Given how central the binary is to Cixous, Derrida and other critics of phallogocentric thinking, it’s interesting that The Troll King has removed all womanhood from its text, in full embrace of phallocentrism, even as indeterminacy increases. Of course, the slanted take on procreation always implicitly engages discourses of feminity, and the way the book’s ending fits neatly into the canon of Western narratives also shows up the indeterminacies in the book’s middle as mere skirmishes with signification. But if we look at the way myth is masculinized here, we can ask more questions of the text. One is the connection of nations with its folklore. Surely, myth and similar narratives are among the most important stories that hold together the ‘imaginary communities’ of nations, as Benedict Anderson called them. And just last week I read a really good book on how masculinity shapes nationalist discourses and debates, Charlotte Hooper’s Manly States. The point here is that this book, which is set in a vaguely Western/Northern wood, with high rises merely shown in a few panels, should, I think, be read in the context of modern Swedish national anxieties. I cannot possibly do that, my knowledge of Swedish culture is meagre at best, but I have some pointers. One is the reflection of this topic in Hans Henny Jahnn’s immortal masterpiece Fluss Ohne Ufer, the largest portion of which is dedicated to two German men who move to the Swedish countryside to escape modernity. The other is something that turns up in two and a half panels, but is extremely specific – and both racist and possibly misogynist. These panels describe the mountain men going to town to buy groceries. In order to hide their strange exterior, they wear burkas. Black embroidered burkas. What’s more, the panels that show us the burkas are panels of their return to the wild: depicted are two humans in burkas, carrying a plethora of full plastic bags of the Swedish ICA supermarket chain. That image, of women in burkas carrying plastic bags of groceries is one that is exploited by various caricaturists. The humor here is based both on racist and misogynist assumptions.
These two panels are instantly distasteful and repugnant, particularly since they are clearly supposed to be humorous, but there is nothing else in the book that directly takes up this line of discourse – except for the book’s take on myth and masculinity as I suggested before. It is quite impressive to what extent the book ties up all its concerns like that. It makes me dislike Karlsson as a person, but the artistic power behind this book is undeniable and the focus and density of it all is exceptional.
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