The Graphic Theatre

By Isabella Nilsson

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Max Andersson is one of the Swedish comics artists who emerged in the mid-1980’s, originally also making his mark as a talented film animator. He has developed a highly unique, expressive style rich in contrast with stories from the dark side of life. With an existential blackness his work explores the conditions of our lives and inner, psychological landscapes. Max Andersson displays a kinship to contemporary comics artists such as Pascal Doury, Al Columbia, Mark Beyer and Gunnar Lundkvist and in historical retrospection also to Oskar Andersson through the black humor combined with satire.
Max Andersson is commonly described in terms of dark, bizarre, even macabre, but his tales also carry an almost tender feeling for those most vulnerable. And these, the most vulnerable, are often depicted in the form of the child. Despite his reputed focus on solitude, brutality and anguish, Max Andersson’s tales often points at courage, upheaval and friendship as central concepts. They are modern fairy tales for a complicated contemporary life.

In Max Andersson’s iconography, life is often depicted as a burlesque and macabre struggle in a dehumanized society where people are victims of the circumstances. Still we cannot speak of an absolute, metaphysical evil. Instead it is fear, egocentricity and the exclusion mechanisms of society combined with existential questions surrounding the conditions of human life which create the anguish and sense of meaninglessness in the individual.
The stories literally take place against a dark setting; the background is black and the characters engaged in an eternal as well as absurd battle against chance, profiteers and general misery. In terms of genre, Max Andersson’s stories are a mix of fable, fairy tale, pulp fiction, social and moral satire with a rich undergrowth of references to popular culture. The graphic solutions are rich in variation, and since the image so effectively carries the story, an epic depth is created and thus the possibility of a reading on multiple levels.
Although the tales circle around the logical impossibility of being, and the absurd consequences of seemingly ordinary events, heroes, or antiheroes, are not absent from this dark underbelly of life. And like those of the fairy tale or the myth they describe, in symbolic form, our development towards awareness and maturity.
A central theme of modern myths is the manifestation of something unfamiliar and threatening inside the modern, well-organized society. In the story of Pixy not only Pixy himself is an odd element in everyday life, but this everyday life in itself appears increasingly nightmarish and unmanageable. When Pixy enters the stage he has nothing to lose. He is aborted and lives with his fellow foetuses in the nether world in an enclosed ghetto known as the Foetus District. Pixy is as mischievously anarchistic as ever Rudolph Dirks’ legendary comics characters the Katzenjammer Kids from 1897. Like these bad seeds, Pixy is rebellious, singular and capable of just about anything in order to have some fun. But where the Katzenjammer Kids battle the whole world in an escalating mix of comedy and violence Pixy introduces a deeper element of melancholy and sorrow. It’s true that he terrorizes his mother by way of phone calls from the nether world, the subconscious, forcing her to read aloud for hours from works dealing with existential primary questions such as Fiodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Franz Kafka’s The Castle or Jean Paul Sartres Nausea. But who can really blame him for that. He’s a cousin of Barbro Lindgren’s wild baby who likewise demonstrates the revolt of the child by claiming it’s right. His philosophical grounds are naturally of a dark kind, but he is capable of warm emotions for his little girlfriend – who wears a beautifully crafted hat made from a dead primary school teacher. And in the nether world, the Kingdom of the Dead, which appears to be a kindred city to the outlaw society in films like Escape from New York or Bladerunner, he gets along well with a mixture of Elmer’s Glue, missiles, threadmines, alcohol and a Hershey bar. Pixy is a fable creature, a burlesque changeling, who by means of lowbrow slapstick symbolically describes the existence of the rejected street child.
The graphic novel Pixy contains several disturbing elements; on one hand there’s Pixy who manifests himself like an incubus, on the other the perfect replicants who threaten to take over the bodies and souls of the ordinary people – like the aliens in one of the greatest film shockers of the cold war; The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the everyday life of the ground level and the anarchy of the nether world lie the opposition between the well-organized and the untamed. The distressing and uncontrollable is expelled from daylight, away from the conscious thought down to the human subconscious. For the hero, the path to liberation leads through all that which threatens to wipe out his independence – eventually he must risk the journey to the nether world. In this particular case the father personally, through a transformation process, descends to his son, primarily to shut him up but, as we shall see, to mature himself and be able to move on.
A central theme in every hero myth is the struggle against monsters. In Pixy they exist in the shape of the profiteers of the nether world depriving failed individuals of their only asset – time – and the officals of power at the National Monetary Farm and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Dead, gross caricatures which call to mind both Roj Friberg’s mockery of capitalists in the 1960’s and Berni Wrightson’s horror comics character The Swampthing. Consequently, Pixy is branded as an illegal alien as he returns above ground and sent back to the nether world by security personnel – no manifestation of the subconscious is allowed in the new, perfect world. Pixy turns into an exploration voyage to the dream world of the subconscious. But stranded between the subway stops of life and death Pixy and his, like once Orpheus to Hades, descended father encounter the true power. In the shape of a classic hot-dog stand, landing on top of an IKEA pyramid, appears the one who writes on the milk cartons, i. e. society’s consensus, the Truth.
The narrative indicates the way of the maturing individual; on one hand Pixy who rebels against consensus and with a hero’s attribute in the form of a bazooka causes the stand to break in a million pieces like the evil ogre of a fairy tale, on the other the father who, in a western paraphrase, finally takes off towards the light and the future driving a mix of a 50’s Chevy and a batmobile.

In Max Andersson’s iconography the child is often depicted as alone and exposed, here interpreted in small, bizarre fable creatures wearing attributes from the horror as well as the clown genre; e. g. Death as a child’s skeleton with a bow-tie and oversized shorts, or Car-Boy with his infant’s body and grinning hood-of-a-car face. And as in the fable world it applies that the smaller, the more singular. The outsider status of the child is emphasized by odd physiognomies, names connecting them more to objects and conditions than to human ties; Wreck-Boy, Tractor-Girl, Death, or a fundamental skepticism, even hostility, towards adults. Yet it is the imagination of the child, and its capability of survival in the most perilous of situations, which is often brought to the fore in Max Andersson’s stories. A motley crew of children of nature defile in dark, twisted tales of contemporary life; raped, aborted, abused or neglected. The radically simplified and exaggerated graphic style creates the distance necessary to avoid sentimentality or a realism that would prohibit the satire and humor which carries the content. Indeed Max Andersson’s ability to find a balance between empathy and distance is a fundamental cornerstone of his storytelling.
Johnny Gun is another of Max Andersson's characters. His problem is that he has a tendency to shoot those who he wishes to play or chat with, a defect where his "nature-given" language inhibits the development of long-term relations and emotional ties. But even this creature finds understanding and friendship. By employing an unusual method with tales balancing on the thin edge between the absurd and the emotionally charged Max Andersson finds expressions for a number of difficult subjects without getting either lugubrious or pedagodic in a negative sense. When Car-Boy saves his car relatives from slaughter he is being thanked with the words ”We all have our place in the cosmos. If more people realized this, the earth would be a better place to live.” The words are effectively contrasted by the lonely shape of Car-Boy in his window, a final image telling of a lonesome, neglected child. In Winter, the child is subject to the adult’s manipulations by removing its scalp from the skull bone - no skin, no sense of pain -, pulling out its milk-teeth - without teeth no cavities - and the future removal of its tear-ducts - no tears. Anything to make the child less of a disturbance to the adult.
Today jokes about suicide attempts, funerals, executions, abuse or death are common practice and they are constantly a balance act on the extreme limits of what we are able to cope with. The children in Max Andersson’s world value play, friendship and integrity highly. But the setting is black and the adults are no longer the correctives and role models they used to be. As in the case of Donald Duck and his nephews we sometimes find a pattern of substitution; the children, not the adults, are the ones showing the way towards maturity and liberation.
In Containers Max Andersson has developed the side layout by introducing wide comics margins containing animated everyday objects which serve as extras in the main character’s search for his stolen identity.
Gradually and in reversed proportions to his environment becoming increasingly alive and mobile – the door leaves with a warderobe, his apartment goes looking for a new owner and doors come alive as in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, the alienated protagonist is reduced to a state of total stillness. In an act of revenge for having been broken, a window cuts him to pieces and leaves him, like one of Samuel Becketts immobile characters in the novel The Unnameable, without arms and legs.
Parallels to the scenery of the absurd theater can be drawn without difficulty; a few simple, symbolically charged props lit with hard contrasts. As a matter of fact the comics panel has been compared to a graphic stage with immobile players.
The perception of the panel as a system of signs, and in one sense also as a psychological landscape, in which pictorial and formal elements visually communicate a content parallel to the purely literary, has proved to be yet another access to the comics language through the semiotic research of recent decades.
As for the contents, Max Andersson offers his own interpretation of the conditions and confinements of life; on one level it’s ink-black slapstick, on another pictopoetic moral satire.

Text © Isabella Nilsson 2002

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