A Look Abroad: An Interview with Danish Comic Creator, Halfdan Pisket

I wrote this for Sequential Planet. It’s a piece of an interview I conducted with Halfdan Pisket last summer while in Denmark. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Here at Sequential Planet, we focus on the newest and biggest comic book releases the market has on offer. But what about the comics you don’t hear about? That was my mission while in Copenhagen, Denmark, last summer.

This idea didn’t occur to me until I was on the streets of Copenhagen, in the heart of the city, the Indre By district, just a block or so from Ørsteds Park. That’s when I saw a comic book shop. Comics. Danish Comics. What would I find on those shelves? Inside the shop, Fantask, were the standard releases. Marvel, DC, etc. There wasn’t anything uniquely Danish that I could see on the main shelves. That being said, the variety was impressive for such a small shop. Not only did they have comics, but a healthy display of fantasy and science fiction novels, as well as a manga section, and D&D/Pathfinder corner. A well-curated shop, to be sure–but almost everything was in English. I approach the woman behind the register, tentatively.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m visiting and love comics and would love a Danish comic as a souvenir, do you have any suggestions?”

She did. She guides me to a small section of Danish graphic novels and floppies. “But you don’t speak Danish, do you?” she asks me. I do not, I tell her. “This one,” she picks up a wide thin book, “this one has no words in it, but it is beautiful and he is local. This shop is even in the book.” I take it and flip through it. It is beautiful. It’s not a comic, but it’s not just a picture book either. It’s inks and watercolor and each couple of pages is its own story. The artist’s name is on the back. Adam O.

“He’s local?” I ask the woman. She tells me he is.

That night, I look up Adam O. and his book Kakofonia on Google. I find his email and ask him, politely, for an interview. I explain I’m trying to find the pulse of the Danish comics scene. Within the hour he emails me back. He doesn’t live in Denmark, but in Sweden, and he doesn’t make comics much anymore–though he knows someone I should talk to. Halfdan Pisket. He tells me this is the man I should see. This is the most famous Danish cartoonist/comic creator. He includes Halfdan’s email. I am thankful.

Halfdan Pisket’s graphic novel trilogy is not translated into English yet. It presents me with a difficult task. How do I interview someone about their writing and story when I can’t read it? But also, this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to hear about what I didn’t already know about. Isn’t this perfect?

On the morning we meet, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s mid-August–the people of Copenhagen are beautiful. Halfdan lives a mere 10-minute bike ride from where I’m staying and he comes down to let me into his building. His apartment is nice and modest and clearly an artist lives here. He has some bookshelves lined with comics and graphic novels. Some are ones I recognize. Elf Quest, Black Hole, but there are others I don’t know. He pours me a cup of coffee and we sit on his balcony overlooking the street. Every once in awhile a car drives by, but there is little traffic here. Most people ride bicycles.

When I tell him my idea, this concept of bringing the Danish Comic scene back with me, in a way, to the United States, he cracks a half-smile on his thin, lightly stubbled face.

“But it is funny,” he says, “because I grew up reading translated American comics. And when you are a kid, it’s superhero comics, it was X-Men and Spawn and later I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and after that, I thought, I could read more of something like this. . . It wasn’t until I started making comics, myself, in Danish, that I realized there were other people doing it. That was when I started reading Danish Comics.”

Before I go any further, I should note the profound impact Pisket’s work has had in the realm of Danish Literature, but also on a continental stage. Dansker (Translated Dane, in Danish), won the Politics Literature Prize in 2016, the Ping Prize in 2017, and in 2019, just before I met with him, the Dansker trilogy won Best Series at the third-largest comic book festival in the world, the French Angouleme Festival. Back in 2015, Pisket was also awarded the largest art grant in Denmark worth 850,000 Danish Krone (around 130,000 USD), the first graphic novelist ever to be awarded the grant.

Read the full feature at Sequentialplanet.com

Comic Review: Grass Kings, Issue 2

Before I dive into the meat of this second issue I’ve got to give a little bit of love to Comixology. For those of you who already read a lot of comics no doubt Comixology is known to you. For those of my readers who don’t read comics, or are new to comics, like myself, then Comixology is worth a look. One of the biggest hurdles I’ve comes across when it comes to reading comics is the sheer number of them. I walk into a comic book store and I don’t know where to start. How do I find issue 1 of anything? Is this volume different than that volume? I’m not a fan of superheroes, I lean more toward the indie-side of. . .well pretty much anything in comics. Boom! Studios has come out with a lot to admire lately, as has Vault, and obviously, Image comics is a front-runner for best comic book publisher of the last decade or more. But if you don’t know what you like about comics, it’s daunting walking into a shop and seeing the number of issues strewn across the shelves. It’s a commitment spending cash on a collection of #1 issues you may not like. Furthermore, I’ve found that a single issue typically isn’t enough content for me to really know if I want to continue with the comic. In the past, I’ve erred on the side of caution and just stopped reading the comic altogether because the risk was a bit too high for me. Comixology cuts downSee the source image on this risk. It’s a bit like Netflix for comic books. It’s a digital marketplace. Without a subscription to Comixology Unlimited, you’ll be paying retail prices for anything you want to read, but for $5 a month, you’ll get access to a huge database of comic book content. It’s tricky, they sucker you in, make the first 3-4 issues of a comic free for Unlimited subscribers, get you hooked, and then you end up buying subsequent issues because, well, you know you like the comic, and you know the $4 an issue you’re spending is worth the money. This is why I binged 5 issues of Grass Kings last night. I don’t know how many issues are part of the Unlimited subscription, but it’s a fantastic and beautiful comic. One I’ll continue to explore, bringing you breakdowns of each issue in the coming days. So, without further ado, let’s get started, shall we?

(MINOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT: References from issue 1 and 2 ahead. No major spoilers, however).

Set up: In my last review I started with setting rather than set up. The setting is important in a first issue. In many ways, a first issue is a guide for readers. A #1 tells the reader, “this is the world you live in. This is how you read this comic.” First chapters of novels often do the same thing. So, since we know how to read this comic, thanks to #1, the setting is less important than the setup, in #2.

The first two pages here remind readers what this comic is about. It’s about land. It’s about ownership. It’s about theft. 1760 A.D. A Native American man fishes with a spear. He hears something behind him and is shot through the chest. The narration is about how this land has blood spilled on it. The violence passed down from parent to child. The captions are in reference to a white man who has killed the Native American–for no reason. In the woods, behind the white man, a young boy, one that is implied to be the white man’s son, stands shocked by the violence. The time then shifts to a more contemporary time.

Robert, the Grass King, the ruler and drunk of the Grass Kingdom, helps a woman out of the same river the native man was fishing in. She has bruises all down her legs, her arms. She is young-ish. Robert can’t help but equate her appearance with his lost daughter–a daughter that disappeared near the lake some time ago. He was there, taking a nap and when he woke, his daughter, Rose, was nowhere to be found. He thinks this woman could be her. It is no surprise then that he will do anything to help her.

Character: The fact that Robert first identifies this woman from the river as his daughter is a subtle and clever construct. The woman is not much younger than Robert, so a romantic relationship could otherwise feel imminent. But the paternal aspect Robert takes on from the first moment he sees her, make the whole situation less creepy than it would otherwise be. He is immediately this woman’s guardian.

Plot: At first, the woman from the river may seem like “the damsel in distress” a tired trope, for sure, but readers’ perspectives of her will change in subsequent issues.

In the immediate, however, Maria is used as a sounding board for Robert to tell his past woes, which, again, is a bit tired = woman as a construct for a man’s story. *Facepalm* But it does get better. Anyway, it’s revealed why and how Robert’s family fell apart after his daughter went missing. His wife blamed him, he blamed her. Everything went to shit.

At the same time, the Sheriff of the neighboring town, Cargill, has sent his main man, Big Dan, to go find this woman. A time stamp is finally put on the piece, as a young black man who goes by the name of Pinball and his young friend listen to records and talk about all the crazy ideas they have. Steal a plane and fly it across the country. Be the Kerouac of the sky. When Pinball is on his way home, Big Dan is waiting for him. Big Dan wants to start a war. Anything for the Sheriff to finally destroy The Grass Kindom. Pinball gets pretty roughed up.

Art: The beginning of this issue feels a bit raw. The panels are smaller, and so there’s only so much you can do with watercolor as it bleeds outside the ink lines. Those panels are the ones where Robert takes in the woman from the river. While impressionistic in the extreme, and raw in their execution, they give a sense of vulnerability, just as the woman from the river is vulnerable. It is evident by her exhaustion as well as her bruised arms and legs.

The watercolors continue to stir emotion despite the grim and sad subject matter. The memory flashbacks use dreamy, lighter colors, and when Robert is narrating about how his wife left him, there are panels of her talking to him, but her speech bubbles are covered up by his narration captions. I’ve never seen this done before but thought it was effective in conveying the fact that Robert never listened to what his wife was saying to him. He was too busy rationalizing, finding some other reason for his daughter’s disappearance other than his neglect.

Conclusion: There’s a lot to admire here, despite the tropes that could be picked at. Robert, barely even spoken about in #1, takes center stage, and it’s easy to empathize with him.

I’m curious who the historic prologues belong to. Are those who live in The Grass Kingdom descendants of the white settles who killed the natives of this land with impunity? Or are they the descendants of the Native Americans, trying to take back what was rightfully theirs? Come to think of it, the narrator of those panels could be anyone. The Sheriff of Cargill. Robert. His brother, Bruce, or even Big Dan.

Free Comic Book Day

Today was Free Comic Book Day and I live directly across the street from my local comic shop, The Danger Room. So, at 10am I hopped on over and treated myself to 4 free comics (the limit), and went home to eagerly read each of them in the hopes I’d found something interesting and new to dig my teeth (or eyes) into.

Here’s what I grabbed and what I think of them:

Lady Mechanika, May 2018:

 

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Not Free Comic Book Day promo edition

 

Lady Mechanika, by Joe Benitez, is a late 1800s steampunk, the demon-hunting quest for identity. While there are a couple things I really like in that last sentence, namely steampunk and demon-hunting, the quest for identity is overdone and too tried. Lady Mechanika lives in a world that is pretty cool without needing to have horrible amnesia or some other type of memory loss, to form a plot. The premise of the story, absent of the setting or subgenre, is the Lady Mechanika needs to figure out where she came from–who she is. I just couldn’t deal with it. The art is cool, I guess, but I can’t help but feel this is one of those comics by men for men, about a woman. This is to say it has a masculine ideology of what a woman should look like. I was definately a bit dissapointed.

Harrow Country:

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Harrow Country is a anthology style comic of horror and the weird. #1 is about a witch that lives in the country town and is shot, hung, and burned. While she burns she speaks–even though she is already dead, and promises vengeance. That’s just the beginning. We meet Emmy, 17, who lives on the same property where the witch was hung. It becomes pretty clear that Emmy is the witch reincarnated, which is cool. The writing is really great, from the narration (in captions) on down to the dialogue which uses a lot of country dialect. The art is chilling as well, even though it uses a lot of bright colors. The colorist and line artist did a great job making even a lovely autumn time forest look creepy and sinister. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

Silver:

 

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Not the Free Comic Day promo edition

 

Silver is a black and white comic, which is automatically limiting, furthermore, the art is not among my favorite. However, when I finished the issue was totally into the story and the characters. Creator, Stephan Franck did a great job at creating an action-packed first issue that still gives enough background to let readers feel like they know the characters. By the name of the comic and the cover, I thought I was going to run into vampires (something I’m not thrilled with, typically), but the whole issue turns out to be more of a heist type scene. It’s super fun and I can’t wait to get more.

Shadow Roads:

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Probably my favorite of the lot (though Silver comes in as a close 2nd, I think). Shadow Roads is about. . .well I’m not completely sure. But it blends western and fantasy with a tad of steampunk thrown in and dabbles with Native American lore and myth. It also points a damning finger at the appropriation and commoditization of the Native Americans in England during a time of westward expansion and the territories. The cast of characters that are introduced are interesting and varried in backgrounds, ethnicities, and race, but it doesn’t feel like tokenism as much as essential to the story that is going to be told. There’s also a gunslinger who can see ghosts and doorways to the spirit world, which are the types of things I love.