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BEYOND THE VALLEY OF DEATH WITH MAX ANDERSSON
By Sasa Rakezic a.k.a. Aleksandar Zograf
Long live comics! In the world of comics, you can break many barriers. Your hero can easily travel from this world to the Kingdom of the Dead, or you can even have a character who is half human and half machine called Car-Boy. This is all possible in the comics of Max Andersson . Max Andersson is breaking few barriers himself - he is a Swedish artist currently living in Germany who become internationally known by publishing in the States.

I was supposed to meet Max in the spring of 1999 when an exhibition of Swedish comics was planned in my native Serbia. The exhibition was postponed because of the NATO bombing campaign, of course, but I met Max the next spring at an art festival in Italy. It was fun to speak to him, finally, in the relaxed atmosphere of Turin. Max Andersson's comics were translated into several languages, and his works, dark and yet artistically appealing, seem to have a universally recognized quality. His comic novel Pixy, published by Fantagraphics, gained much attention in the ‚90's, and the same publisher put out his Death and Candy series.

It seems that you were one of the first European artists (as far as I know) to break into the American alternative comics scene... How do you explain that?

I don't know. I really wanted to get published outside of Sweden, since my readership there was always quite limited and it didn't seem possible to expand it in any other way than to start looking abroad. And I had no idea what was going on in Europe. Even though there are some good comix shops in Sweden, they import almost only English-language stuff because the market for books in French or German is simply too small.

So I sent my book to Fantagraphics, which I actually didn't know much about either at the time. But I happened to meet Art Spiegelman at a book fair and he told me they were the ones who'd most probably be interested. You see, what really got me started doing comics again in the mid-eighties was the work I saw in RAW magazine by artists like Mark Beyer, Gary Panter and Burns. I was aware of the underground comix of the 60's and 70's, but it somehow failed to affect me very deeply. Maybe it had too much of a "hippie" feel to it - I was more into punk, and hippies were then regarded as something quite pathetic.

Anyway, Fantagraphics reacted positively and published me - and it was only after this American edition was printed that I started to get in touch with other European small publishers and artists. In fact, I doubt that I would ever have made the connection with L'Association in France or Jochen in Germany if they hadn't first been able to see my stuff in this U.S. version. That's the biggest problem within Europe - the language barriers and the lack of interest in what's happening on the other side of the nearest border. I still meet readers and journalists here who assume that I'm an American.

What is your opinion about the differences or similarities between American and European alternative comics? I would say that good old Europe was much slower in development and more conservative when it comes to comix... What do you think?

I think it's difficult to talk about a "European" comix scene at all - it doesn't exist and never has. There are different waves of activity appearing at certain times within certain countries. Then they die out and something else gets started in some other place. It's usually connected with someone publishing an anthology magazine or someone starting up a really good comic book store, or a combination of both. This draws the attention of local artists who see the possibilities for self-expression through the comix medium, which draws the attention of readers and the media, and everybody is happy for a while. Then usually economic reality catches up with things. Too many mediocre products are being put on the market. Media interest drops when it's not a novelty anymore, and people realize that they're working their asses off for nothing. Since they don't want to die poor they begin to change their careers into something more profitable. Luckily, this mechanism seems to repeat itself infinitely, so that there's always something new already about to get started in one place or another.

In Sweden for instance, the big peak for independent comics was in the late eighties to early nineties, when there was a lot of money circulating. Then, as the financial market crashed, alternative comics did too (the big publishing houses monopolized the distribution system to protect their own profits, and small publishers were kept out). It turned out that "independent" comics weren't as independent as they thought... Actually, this seems to be also more or less what happened to the comix scene in the U.S. around 1997 when the only distributor that cared about non-mainstream stuff went bankrupt. I hope the current wave of small press and alternative comix in places like France, Switzerland and Germany can still go on for a while, though...

Regarding differences and similarities, I would say the North Americans emphasize the story-telling over the art. Even guys like Gary Panter, whose comics may look chaotic and "arty", is always telling a great story if you care to look for it. There are quite a few Panter-inspired artists in Europe, but as far as I can see they would rarely bother with trying to communicate a story. The pictures seem to be enough for them. On the other hand, one of the greatest comics story-tellers of all time, Hergé, was European, so I don't know...

It seems that many cartoonists who became sort of "established" in the 80's or the 90's were in their youth influenced by punk.… It is sort of a generation thing, I suppose. What sort of "frame of mind", in your opinion, was that? I told Julie Doucet about how I used to sit in class in high school, when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I would make thin lines on the skin of my wrist with a razor blade, until the blood started to show... I was sitting at the back of the class, so basically nobody saw it, but from this distance I really can't figure out WHY on earth I did it... I don't really find anything exciting in self-destructive behavior, and I've been always considering myself quiet and introverted ... Anyway, I was really surprised to hear that Julie had done exactly the same thing when she was young in Quebec!!! It was also hard for her to explain.

No, I don't remember doing anything like that myself... although that's normal behavior for teenagers, I would say. For me, punk was very much about creativity (and by the way destruction can also be a form of creativity...), about the right to express yourself without money or a "proper" education. And comic books are the perfect medium for that since it's so cheap and low-tech and is regarded by most people to be the lowest form of trash imaginable. Before I really got started with comics I did films on super-8, which is as low-tech as you get in the film business. ( There was a quite big "no-budget" film scene in Europe for a while, which also had its roots in punk.), But in the end even that was too expensive to keep doing without any kind of financial sources.

Speaking of bizarre anecdotes, what is the weirdest thing you've received in the mail from a fan? And what does it signifies to you?

Some girl from Portland ordered one of my handmade toys that I advertised in Death & Candy #1, the soft Johnny Gun doll... I sent it off and didn't think any more of it. Then many months later, around Christmas, I got a huge package in the mail. There was a big Xeroxed photo of a girl holding an opened tin box full of chocolates, and a note that read something like "Thank you so much for the doll, you should have ripped me off for more money". Underneath was that same tin box, closed and wrapped in plastic. It was very heavy but I never opened it because I know what rotting blood smells and looks like, and that's what was oozing out from under the lid... I have no idea what that was about, but it wasn't funny at all. Maybe the doll got lost in the mail and she thought I never sent it, who knows? Or maybe she figured I'd think it was a "cool" thing to do? That's even more disturbing, it makes you wonder what kind of readers you have and why they're attracted to your stories in the first place. Anyway I guess there's a lot of frustration around these days everywhere, and a lot of people are just waiting for an excuse to let it out on someone else.

You said that your stuff was accepted in Europe only after you published in US…The funny thing about Europeans, from my experience, is that they are always complaining about US and still, they are sooo deeply impressed by anything that comes from the other side of the Ocean... Where do you think this is coming from?

I think it's a double-sided thing, a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence...
Americans have a "cultural complex" in relation to Europeans. Many of the U.S. cartoonists I've met expressed an envy of their European colleagues. They felt that comics are taken more seriously and are allowed to be more "artistic" in Europe. But at the same time Europeans envy the Americans for the exact opposite reasons. They lack the unpretentiousness, the freedom of not having a heavy "cultural heritage" and the ability to simply concentrate on telling a story and being entertaining. Of course they also complain, because of the overwhelming market position (and stupidity) of the American mainstream entertainment industry...

What sort of films have you been producing? Animated or live action?

They were all different technically. At first I did animation, some cell animation and some cut-out stuff, and also one with just objects and dolls. Then I switched to live-action because I got tired of working so much (actors move all by themselves), although I used bits of animation for special effects in those films, too.
They're all narrative in one way or the other, but I never had any dialogue in them since I found that too expensive and difficult to deal with. And anyway I primarily tell my stories in pictures. In fact, the last one I did was a pure silent movie without even music or sound effects. I got the idea from watching old silent classics at the Swedish Cinemathéque when they didn't have a copy with a music score available and no one to play the piano. I found that some of the drama became even stronger that way, it had almost a hypnotic effect sitting in that dark room and watching something in dead silence for almost two hours.
On another occasion, when I had been watching too many films (with sound, so I guess it must have been at some festival), I also found that some films actually get better if you fall half asleep as you watch them. My mind always filled in the parts that I didn't "see" and replaced them with much more interesting dream-scenes. And as I occasionally woke up, they mixed themselves perfectly with the real film. Sadly, I never took notes, so I can't remember any of it now...

What is the story behind your comic novel called Pixy? What was your idea when you started to work on it?

I don't really know anymore... It feels like a long time ago. In the beginning I had a quite clear synopsis, but once I started working on it, the characters started reinventing themselves (which I think is always the case) and forced me to change the story in many ways. And I wanted it to be entertaining, so mostly I just concentrated on telling the story as well as I could. I don't know what's the point of doing something if you know exactly what it's about and what it's going to be like. Then there's nothing left to discover.

As I said, Pixy was one of the first books by a European alternative comics creator to be published in US. Was the book originally published in Sweden or the US?

In Sweden. I didn't have any thoughts of translating it as I was working on it. I did that later because I was so disappointed by the fact that nobody bought it in Sweden.

My final question will be about something that I noticed while reading Pixy... When Pixy visits the world between life and death, there is an "Ikea Pyramid". As Ikea is one of the most famous Swedish companies, I was curious if there was a political idea behind that?

Not really. I have nothing in particular against Ikea. In fact, I often buy stuff there. It's cheap, has a nice and simple design, and nowadays the quality's not so bad either. I guess I just picked it as an example of these big warehouse-type of cash & carry places that are usually located way out in the middle of nowhere, lit up by a million lights, and where you can only go by car. I always found that so strange, like something from another world. So somehow it became this sort of Aztec pyramid with gas pumps in front. It's interesting how it was later revealed by the media that the founder of IKEA had been an active Nazi in his youth (something quite common in Sweden in the 30's and 40's), but I had no idea of this at the time...