Norwegian Cartoonist Steffen Kverneland on Biography, Obsession and The Scream Painter Edvard Munch

Comics Features Steffen Kverneland
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Norwegian Cartoonist Steffen Kverneland on Biography, Obsession and <i>The Scream</i> Painter Edvard Munch

Published in North America in May by Abrams/SelfMadeHero, Munch is the fat, titular biography of the Norwegian artist best known for his painting, The Scream. Its creator, Steffen Kverneland, is scheduled to appear at this year’s Small Press Expo next week in Bethesda, Maryland. Also a Norwegian, the cartoonist researched, wrote and drew every page on watercolor paper over seven years, resulting in a book intensely invested in its subject. Far more interesting than the average comics biography—of any type—it also manages to achieve this feat without innovating on the format or content. All the dialogue comes either from Munch’s own written words or from those of his contemporaries. The book utilizes a combination of meticulousness and free-spiritedness (Kverneland himself appears as a character, boozing it up and talking about his difficulties with the book) that is unusual, to say the least. Kverneland answered Paste’s questions via email, patiently delving into a good bit about his career in the Norwegian comics scene.

Paste: You seem like a bit of a comics prodigy from what I know about your background. Did you always draw? Do you make a living from comics?

Steffen Kverneland: Thank you. I guess all children draw, and I’m one of those who never stopped. I got into comics as a child, even before I could read. Actually I learned to read from Donald Duck. I started doing comics and other drawings already when I was a child. Later on I also started doing fine arts stuff, painting myself through the Renaissance, realism, impressionism, pointillism, cubism, expressionism and surrealism. All the while drawing comics as well.

In the ‘90s in Oslo, I tried to pursue three separate careers simultaneously: as a fine artist making paintings and drawings, as an editorial cartoonist doing political satire (for the money) and as a comic artist (both commercial stuff, like the Norwegian edition of MAD, and my own experimental comics). When I discovered Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW magazine, it made a huge impact on me. Suddenly, everything was possible in comics; there were no limits to how far you could go artistically. It suddenly dawned upon me that I could combine my three separate careers in clever highbrow comics with radical graphics.

At the same time, I became part of a literature milieu, largely consisting of literature students. They started the highbrow literary magazine Vagant, which is still going strong. They asked me if I wanted to do some comics as well as illustrations for them. At the time, I was really into modernism and avant-garde, like [Samuel] Beckett, absurdism, William Burroughs (especially his cut-ups), stuff like that and RAW magazine. So I did some cut-ups from literary texts, mixed them up and drew some naked politicians uttering these mashed-up fragments and subversive, anarchistic stuff like that. It was all very spontaneous and improvised and great fun to make. Later, my works became increasingly refined, controlled and less nonsensical, and the cut-ups were chosen deliberately, not by chance. But I stuck to the doctrine/dogma of not cheating with the quotations; they had to be accurate.

It’s very hard to make a living making comics in Norway, so I’ve always subsidized my comics by doing illustration, which pays better by far.

Munch Cover Art by Steffen Kverneland

Paste: Did Munch start out as a collaboration with Lars Fiske and then grow into a longer work? Did you start from scratch when making the full book?

Kverneland: I made Munch on my own, but the presence of Lars Fiske is very evident in the book. In 2004, Fiske and I released our 180-page collaboration Olaf G., which was a comic biography combined with a nerdy and boozy gonzo travelogue. A lot of the storytelling devices and techniques used in Munch were developed in that book. We went to München and Bavaria in search of the Norwegian master illustrator Olaf Gulbransson, who was headhunted to work for the excellent German satire magazine Simplicissimus from 1902 until he died in 1958. We both wrote and drew the story, and the collaboration was great fun. The book was published in Norway, Sweden and Germany, and was supposed to be published by Fantagraphics, but was “postponed indefinitely” after the tragic demise of Kim Thompson.

We wanted to work together again, but not as tight as we had done in Olaf G., so in 2006 we published KANON no. 1, which was meant to be an annual book containing new works by Lars and me. He made chapter one of what was to become the graphic novel Herr Merz (a biography of the German dadaist Kurt Schwitters), and I made the first chapter of Munch. From Olaf G., we were used to having the other guy as a sidekick, so that instead of an old-fashioned, all-knowing omnipresent voice-over, we could do the text as dialogue, making it less stiff and artificial, more alive. So we just imported that meta-layer into our new works.

Paste: Is Munch’s work as omnipresent in Norway as it is in the United States, with Scream posters and blow-up dolls decorating college dormitories? What’s his place in contemporary Norwegian culture?

Kverneland: Norway is a small country, and we don’t have so much to brag about, besides fjords and vikings. But we do have Edvard Munch. He’s huge in Norway, we even have his portrait on the 1000 kroner-bills. There’s news about him almost constantly: record prices at auctions, well-visited exhibitions abroad, new exhibitions in Norway and a constant controversy and quarrel about building the new museum.

Paste: Are you an art historical autodidact? Do you read about other artists for pleasure or more for research?

Kverneland: Actually, I’m an autodidact in every sense of the word, although I prefer the less pretentious term, “self-taught.” I don’t have any higher academic or artistic education; actually, I was never accepted into the Norwegian art academies. I guess being a solid craftsmanship-fetishist was very out of fashion in the ‘80s, considered old-fashioned and downright reactionary.

Yes, I like to read biographies, not only about artists, but just as well a politician, a historical figure, a musician, a nazi, an occultist, an author—it doesn’t really matter if the story and/or the person interests me. But alas, I can never read anything just for pleasure. I’m always, more or less consciously, considering if this is a good candidate for a comic project of some kind.

Munch Interior Art by Steffen Kverneland

Paste: This book is much livelier than most biographies, even those done in comics form. Is that just because of the subject? Or is it more because of you as an author?

Kverneland: Thank you. In all immodesty, I feel I must take the credit for that myself. I’ve read countless features, novels and biographies about Munch, and 99 percent of them are dry and dull chronological hagiographies.

Paste: How much did you study from original Munch works when re-drawing them for this book? Does it feel strange to re-create someone else’s visual artwork?

Kverneland: I live in Oslo, and I’ve been going to the Munch Museum and the National Gallery for ages, so I’m quite familiar with the originals. For most of the re-drawings, I just studied the reproductions in my art books on Munch. As for the Study/The Sick Child, I actually went to the National Gallery and got special permission to take close-up photographs of the scratched and scarred surface of the painting, since I was going into such great detail on that work.

It’s not really strange to re-draw. I also copied classical and popular art in my teens, learning a lot from it. But doing it as I did in Munch, making watercolor miniatures of large oil paintings, I had to analyze and study each brushstroke he made. In oils, you work from dark to light, painting the white highlights as the final stroke. In watercolors, it’s the other way round. The light in the picture is the white in the paper, so you have to save it and paint around it. So I sort of had to translate the oils to watercolor. This was a time-consuming process and allowed me to contemplate and wonder at every brushstroke he made—what was accidental and what was deliberate, how much detail and realism, and how much abstraction he put into each painting. It was like making a concrete or physical analysis of the paintings. I learned a whole lot from that process.

Paste: What’s your intention behind the repetition of visual motifs throughout the book (taken from Munch’s images)? Is it because Munch himself revisited the same themes multiple times? To create continuity? To make your own kind of Frieze of Life [a series of works that Munch worked on throughout his life]?

Kverneland: To create continuity, yes, creating visual echoes that gives the reader some sense of deja vu, tying the story tighter together. But maybe more important, to show them in connection with his life, showing how autobiographical many of his images were, dealing with specific scenes in his life.

Munch Interior Art by Steffen Kverneland

Paste: How did you actually draw/color these pages? They look to be done on watercolor paper. Do you always work on that?

Kverneland: Yes, it’s very analog and old school. It’s not a statement against digital techniques; it’s just the tools I grew up with and am familiar with. I start out with a rough pencil sketch of the entire page on a small sheet of paper, and do the adjustments I feel I need to the break-downs, the angles, the text, the sizes of the panels and stuff like that until I’m satisfied. Then I start with a larger watercolor paper, measuring and ruling the frames with waterproof pigment liners and writing in the text. Then I start sketching the actual drawings with pencil, and when I’m happy with them, I start inking the outlines with an old-fashioned dip pen using waterproof liquid ink, then adding the larger blacks with a sable brush. Then it has to dry, before I can finally start the coloring and shading with traditional watercolors.

Paste: What are your favorite comics about artists?

Kverneland: I’m afraid I haven’t read so many in this new wave of comic biographies on artists. I guess I’m quite prejudiced, but I have an impression that many of them are made as commissions from museums and publishers, and not made out of the comic artist’s own desires. To make something truly unique, fresh and interesting in any medium, I think one of the most important things is that the artist is “obsessed,” or at least passionate about the subject.

I think there are three major “traps” one can fall into when choosing to make a graphic artist-biography:

1: Indulging in the kitschy and romantic myth of the starving, lonely, misunderstood and always tragic genius. It doesn’t matter if it’s Munch, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Jackson Pollock or whoever, it’s always the same story. This is the most popular and long-lasting way of telling stories about artists in any medium, I guess.

2: Making the predictable crib-to-death recounts of the artist’s life as seen from a great distance: “He was born, exceptionally gifted as a child, got married… or not, had trials and tribulations, made wonderful stuff, finally got his recognition… or not, grew old, got sick, died (tragically).” Not one single surprise on any level. I suppose it’s okay for simply transmitting the information, but very boring as graphic novels.

3: Adding irrelevant and banal “artistic” elements to the story, most often elements of magic realism, like sculptures coming to life, or the artist (or someone else) crawling into, or out of, the paintings. This is probably done in fear of boring the reader, and indicates that one doesn’t trust one’s project and should never have started it.

Bitching aside, I love my friend and colleague Lars Fiske’s Herr Merz about the German dadaist Kurt Schwitters. It’s got everything I want from a graphic artist-biography: wits, authenticity, accuracy and, most important: personality, originality, graphic excesses and innovations. I also enjoy Joann Sfar’s more fictionalised Pascin. It’s very funny and very loose. I get the impression that Sfar was having a great time creating it. It shines through and rubs off on the reader. Great book.

Munch Interior Art by Steffen Kverneland