The comic world strives to break codes, kill borders, abolish standards. In these words, Max Andersson is one of his most faithful representatives. Introduced in France through the Association, which since 1997 publishes the works of this crazy Sweden, the man takes us by the hand and explores through its course the mazes of his universe. Mason of the dream, of the absurd, it wanders on the plains of an unknown territory and yet strangely familiar. It appears simple, whole, raw. It is only to better set up the world as an immense virgin canvas and project its strangeness. Between low temperature, high music, seductive indigestions and bitter humor, travel in a country where music is not always played where you are expected it.
I’m Max Andersson. I’m not using a pen name. I’m myself, without any apparat. I was born in Karesuando which is a town about as far north as you can get in Sweden, above the Arctic Circle. It’s right on the border with Finland. We didn’t live in the town, but in a small village far out in the wilderness, Lannavaara. This is traditional Sami country, which was colonized and exploited by the Swedish in the 17th century because of its rich natural resources. My parents, who were both originally from southern Sweden, were teachers in a school for the indigenous Sami children. It’s a nomadic culture so these children lived in the school part of the year while the rest of their families moved with the reindeer. I don’t have too many memories from there since we moved to Öland when I was three years old. But I assume that this culture with its shamanistic roots and imagery, which is similar to that of the native americans, also influenced me on some level. After that, I grew up in a very isolated place, with literally no neighbors within several kilometers from our house. I got used to being alone and feeling a strong connection to nature. It’s a very special environment on one of the bigger islands in the Baltic Sea, Öland, a flat and dry plain – almost desert-like, and a protected wildlife reservation. I have siblings so I wasn’t entirely alone, but I didn’t interact much with other people until I started school at 6. It was something of a cultural shock to me to suddenly be confronted with the rest of humanity. I didn’t understand the rules of the « normal » society, and it took me a long time to figure out how to survive in this jungle.
At that time, I was always drawing comics, but I didn’t think of it as sometning anyone could seriously do for a living. I thought I would maybe become a writer or a journalist, because I had heard those were respectable professions. Drawing funny cartoons was one of my strategies for becoming accepted by my classmates in school, so they wouldn’t beat me up. After a while I became friends with a kid whose mother was one of the teachers, and she let us use the spirit duplicator (an early copy machine which used alcohol to make blue-colored copies) after school to produce our own comic books. That was the first time I saw my work in print, and I immediately got hooked. We sold the comics and bought toys or candy for the money.
I was a Socially inept and shy teenager, compensating by drawing, living in my own world a lot. I went to high school in a small town on the Swedish mainland, where anything out of the ordinary was treated with suspicion or outright contempt. As soon as I could, at eighteen, I moved on my own to Stockholm and got a job in a hospital. When I worked in the hospital at 18, I was mainly in the cancer ward, where I had to deal a lot with death. Often patients died alone, with no relatives or friends present, and it was part of my job to keep them company. Afterwards I took care of the corpses, cleaning them and preparing them for autopsies or transportation. It was all very physical and practical, no big mystery at all. Mostly through my interest in punk and post-punk music I met people who were involved in bands and alternative culture in general. I soon learned to embrace my own « strangeness » instead of struggling unsuccessfully to fit into the norm, and ever since then I’ve been quite happy with myself. Like everyone in the early 1980’s, I wanted to be in a band. So I formed one together with some friends, but the problem is I can’t really play any instrument. I did play the clarinet in school but I had forgotten all about it and anyway it didn’t exactly fit into the aggressive rock’n’roll image I was looking for. I tried to sing but I wasn’t any good at it. We only rehearsed in a basement for a few months, then I gave up and concentrated on my drawing. You can find an obvious musical contribution into my work (Nick Cave, Laibach or The Cure are directly quoted) but music doesn’t really inspire my comics, though. I only listen to music while I do less intellectually demanding parts of the work, like inking. My films, on the other hand depend heavily on music. It’s the single most important element after the images themselves. Comics are of course also based on rhythm, in a sense they are music, but it’s a kind of music which only plays in the mind of the reader. The drawings have the same function as musical notes, like sheet music to the musician.
I wanted to go to art school but I was rejected by every major art school in Stockholm. Quite unexpectedly I was accepted by my last choice which was a school for advertising, where I studied graphic design to become an art director. Except I soon realized that I wasn’t interested in the advertising world at all. While still at the school, I had made my first animated short film, One Hundred Years (based on the song by The Cure), which drew some attention and eventually earned me a grant to attend a film-making workshop at NYU. This was just a summer course, not a full education program. New York in 1985, was a very inspiring place. There was a nice feeling of decay and creative anarchy everywhere. The art scene was dominated by people like Basquiat and Richard Hambleton (who was also an early influence through his « shadowman » figures which I had seen in streetcorners all over Europe, even in Stockholm), the various No Wave bands and the comics in RAW magazine which was at its peak at that moment. I absorbed everything like a sponge. Back in Sweden I immediately dedicated myself to making my own no-budget films and comics.
While creating Pixy, I was living under very unstable circumstances. Always moving around, because the apartment situation in Stockholm is terrible, no steady income, chaotic personal relationships, unhealthy habits. It was difficult because I had to do other jobs on and off, take breaks from this main project whenever I needed money. But it’s crucial to be able to focus entirely on one story for a long period of time if you want it to have some coherence and substance. I had been doing short works for several years, and I felt I needed to explore new territory, challenge myself. The narrative, the writing, has always been more important to me than the artwork. Also it was obvious to me that it was important to create something substantial in order to reach more readers, to get reviews and so on. So first of all, I spent a long time developing ideas and the structure of the story, until I had a complete and quite detailed synopsis. Pixy is basically divided in four parts. I was interested in myths and I read somewhere that many mythical hero tales follow a cycle of four stages, so I used that as a foundation. Once the structure was finished, I started writing the real script with dialogue and the narrative breakdown in pages and panels. I somehow ended up with a working process where I would finish about 10 pages of the script, and then I would start drawing those pages. After completing the first 10 comics pages, I would write the next 10 pages, then draw those pages, and so on. It helped me keep the story alive over the long process of finishing the book (about three years). I noticed that once I’d started drawing, the characters themselves would inevitably take over and change some aspects of the storytelling, so I kept things open to allow for that to happen. And I never got bored since there was an element of uncertainty that made me curious to see what would happen next. But I was careful not to abandon the general structure that I had built in my synopsis. When I was looking for names for my characters, I wanted original, interesting names, and I always liked how diseases sound like names of people. My experience in the hospital certainly was not for nothing. However, the careful reader will notice one exception to the rule. Every character has the name of a sometimes rather serious condition — heart disease, ulcer, venereal diseases etc — except for the main protagonist, who is named after a drug, but a completely lame one which is only useful, to some extent, against headaches and indigestion. It sort of defines him as the weak, helpless anti-hero that he is. Some told me that the story seems to have no end, it seems opened to a continuation. I never intended to continue the story, for me it has a very definite ending. But I deliberately left the decision of how to end the book until I was working on the last 10 pages. I found it more interesting if I didn’t even know how it would end myself.
When I first got published, printing in color was a lot more expensive than black and white. So I got used to not even thinking of doing color comics. I built my whole style of comics on a purely black and white aesthetic. People describe my comics as « dark » in an emotional sense, but I use a lot of black because it makes the images more pleasing to the eye, and it also helps to make it clearer and more readable. I don’t find my own work pessimistic or depressive at all. It’s true that it contains depictions of exceedingly brutal violence, but there are also many displays of tenderness and empathy. The act of creating art is in itself an expression of optimism, isn’t it ? I don’t believe in « No Future ». To be clear with you, I don’t believe in anything but I’m not someone pessimistic.. I don’t believe in any kind of Utopia. If I was a true pessimist, I doubt that I would spend years of my life working on books and films. Because in the end it’s absolutely pointless, so why bother ? I think Camus was right — Sisyphus is basically a happy guy. There is a long tradition of very dark humor in Sweden, and I see myself as a part of that tradition. For instance, a lot of people don’t seem to realize that artists like Bergman, Lars Norén or Gunnar Lundkvist are in fact terribly funny.
I learned French in school so technically I’m able to speak it, but I never practiced it for a longer period of time so in reality I’m on a very low level. I grew up with the Franco-Belgian comics so naturally I had a big interest in the region. I came to Paris in 1983, travelling around Europe on my own. I thought I was going to be a photographer at that point, so I spent a lot of time just walking around the streets taking pictures. I was of course fascinated by the prominence and range of different comics for adults in bookstores. I was already into French artists like Moebius, Tardi, Gotlib, Lauzier, Reiser, but I didn’t know yet about the really good stuff like Pascal Doury and Marc Caro. Ironically it took me a couple more years to discover them — through RAW in New York. I met Killoffer, David B and Menu at the festival in Helsinki, Finland in 1996. I’d never heard of L’Association before that, but they were a lot of fun to hang out with. We belong to the same generation and had very much the same ideas about comics. I showed them a copy of Pixy and they quickly decided to publish it. It was one of their first non-French comics. They invited me to Angoulême the year after that, and I’ve been working with them ever since. They care a lot about the production quality and details of their books, things that are essentials to me.
I did a lot of shorter comics again after Pixy. Part of the reason for this was that I had to make a living, and magazines and papers only pay for short stories. The longer narratives generate very little money relative to their time-consuming creation process. So in the period following the conclusion of a long book I am generally broke, and need to catch up to pay my rent. By the way, my third graphic novel-length work, The Excavation, came out in 2016, this was however mostly because I spent about six years in between working on my feature film, Tito on Ice. So in any case, it seems it takes me about a dozen years between every major comics release. I’m very old-school about materials. I use steel nibs, brushes and ink on paper… basically the same technique the Egyptians used a few thousand years ago, except they had reeds instead of steel nibs. I try to buy as many of my favorite brand of steel nib as possible because there’s always the risk that they will stop producing them. It already happened with my favorite ink and paper, they disappeared and I had to go through a lot of trouble to find acceptable replacements. Many of my colleagues tell me similar stories. Then again, many others don’t understand what I’m talking about. They’re happy using disposable plastic pens or working entirely digital. With digital technique and globalization, printing in full color has become affordable for most publishers, but I still find it difficult to use colors. I’m slowly developing a feeling for it, but since I’m not entirely comfortable with it, it takes me a lot longer to do a color page than a black and white one. And computer coloring looks awful, so for me everything has to be hand-painted.
Dead Sexy, Inc.
Some were made before, some after Pixy. They were created for different papers or magazines. The story « Death » is special. I did the first page as a separate page for a magazine, which paid quite well but only accepted one-pagers. I’m often frustrated with these jobs, because coming up with a good idea, establishing characters and building a story around them is a lot of work even for just one strip or a page. It feels like such a waste to throw all of that work away before I’ve had a chance to explore all the possibilities of it. I was looking for a way to continue the story, but I was desperately out of money and I needed to get paid at least something for the rest. I noticed that the first page was drawn with four strips. So I got the idea to convince a daily paper to run a longer version as a daily strip, like a classic serial with one installment each day. But I also wanted to be able to publish it later as full pages in a book. This meant I had to construct each strip as a self-contained narrative segment, which also had to function smoothly and look good as part of the 4-strip composition of a full page. It almost drove me insane. The story became very dense, because the newspaper only wanted to run about 60 strips. I always felt that I could have made it even better with more space and more pages as a whole book. But the good part of being published, for once, on the normal comics page of the biggest morning paper in Sweden, was that it reached out to an audience who normally wouldn’t get to see my work. Many children liked it. At one point, two little kids came up to me at a book fair, with big smiles on their faces, telling me : « Death is so great ! » I felt very proud.
The fact that I bring life to objects and elements of everyday life probably originates from my shamanism roots (laughs). But seriously, animism in different forms is one of the oldest and most fundamental parts of the human perceptual experience. It is so basic that it’s even beyond the common definitions of religion. So I’m just following natural human instincts in this respect. But there is a major difference in the way objects are represented in a photographic medium and in comics. I’ll give you an example : In my live-action short film Spik-Bebis there is a real door which suddenly starts moving on its own, following the main character around. That is simply and literally an ordinary door that moves and seems to have a life of its own. In my comic Containers there is also a door which talks and moves. But because of the way the comics language works, we perceive everything as a character if it has a speech balloon. Then it’s no longer simply a door, it is a person that is characterized by its resemblance with a door. It’s a huge difference. So in a comic, a little boy with a head that looks like a car is not literally a car-headed child. It’s something much more complex, and open for interpretations.
I try not to use references to specific contemporary places, persons or events. The exception being Bosnian Flat Dog, of course, which is a special case. I want everything to be recognizable but in the way that you sometimes clearly recognize a face or a situation, but can’t quite remember from where or when. I like literature where all the characters can be seen as different sides of one. In Pixy for instance, the environments include 1980’s fragments of Stockholm, Berlin, Barcelona and New York, among other places — every geographic location where I had spent some amount of time and been influenced, sometimes subconsciously. This plurality speaks to me. In The Excavation I used actual dream geography — cities and landscapes I’ve visited in my dreams. It doesn’t look much different from my other comics, though, since that kind of « familiar-yet-unknown » territory is what I always try to achieve anyway. Surrealism is not influencing my comics so much. I always stick to a very strict narrative logic, a cause-and-effect scenario, which is something a true surrealist would never do. I enjoy combining elements that seem incompatible, but I did that long before I even knew what surrealism was. This is not to say I don’t like surrealism — I do — but pure surrealism can get a bit tiresome and, paradoxically, predictable. My early short films were partly influenced by Buñuel and Jan Švankmajer, so there is definitely a connection. I am aware that my work is often superficially described as « surrealist », but I don’t agree with that definition.
I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in May 1999 for a comics event organized by the people at Stripburger. Lars was also there, as was my wife Helena. The original plan was to go from there to Pančevo, Serbia, for a similar event organized by our friend and collegue Saša Rakezić (Aleksandar Zograf). But right at that moment, NATO decided to attack Serbia and make it impossible for us to go there. We were really upset over this, and we felt it was unfair and totally unacceptable that our governments were trying to kill comics artists like Saša. But we still wanted to travel somewhere, so instead we ended up driving all the way to Sarajevo in Bosnia where Lars had a friend who worked at the Swedish embassy. We only spent a few days there but the atmosphere was really heavy, with fresh traces of the war that had recently ended, and at the same time a new war starting right before our eyes (or rather over our heads — we could hear the NATO bombers passing over us on their way to bomb Aleksandar Zograf from their US bases in Italy). It was obvious that this was a very crucial moment in history, although I certainly didn’t understand all the implications of it right then. My first idea was to do a very short « comics reportage » on my own, but then it struck me that the theme of disintegration, balkanization of previously unified territories would be perfect for an experiment of combining two different artistic sensibilities. So I asked Lars if he wanted to try that.
I’ve known Lars for 30 years, since we both first got published in the alternative comics magazine Galago in Sweden. We have quite different styles and working methods, but that was part of the challenge. One major problem was that Lars works in a small format, sometimes smaller than the printed page, whereas I need a lot of space, up to four times as big as the book, to get my compositions right. The solution was a compromise, he had to draw bigger than usual and I had to make do with smaller drawings than usual. I still feel that the book suffers from too much detail and too little space inside the panels. There’s no « breathing room » except in the few half- or full page panels. The goal was to mix our personal styles on such a fundamental level that it would be impossible for the reader to tell which one of us had done what part of the drawing. To achieve this we constantly kept switching the original pages between us through the whole process, from the pencil sketches to the final inking. Once we got started, we had so much fun that it evolved into a much longer work than we had intended. It took us about three years to finish it. The method of trading pages all the time really slowed us down, because whenever one of us had to take a break for some other job, the whole project was on hold for as long as the pause lasted — the other person couldn’t continue working on the pages in the meantime, since we had decided it had to be a certain balance in the mix. Over the years as we were working, the US and NATO proceeded to balkanize Afghanistan and Iraq, and it became even more obvious to us that the events we were describing were only part of a much larger story. Sometimes it’s an advantage to work slowly, because time provides a perspective that allows for a greater depth of field. With this work we didn’t even try to make an objective report out of our experiences. We did the exact opposite : we made no distinction between reality, fiction, dreams, past or present. And we were careful not to pass judgement on the real events of the war, assigning blame on either side. Our goal was much more complex than a simple representation or analysis of the facts as they appeared on the surface. We also wanted to question our own role as narrators. Even if the work is autobiographical or journalistic, the narrator is always also a fictional construction. At least for my own part, I was interested in exploring that contradiction.
The title is coming from a joke someone told us in Bosnia — « The only indigenous breed of dog here is the Bosnian flat dog » . It was uncanny to me because at the height of the war in Yugoslavia, in 1995, I had a dream about visiting Krajina, a part of Croatia, and seeing flat, dog-like animals crawling around there. I used those characters later in a comic for L’Association (the Comix 2000 anthology), and it seemed only appropriate to incorporate them in this story as well. I’ve also made two stop-motion short films about these creatures recently so they are a quite established element of my universe by now. About the military corpses, I’m trying to recall how that happened, but I honestly can’t remember. I’ve been fascinated with mummies ever since I saw the 1932 movie The Mummy with Boris Karloff on TV when I was 10. Why Tito ? Well, if it’s a story about Yugoslavia, he definitely ought to be in it. Maybe the Tito mummy is what Hitchcock used to call a « McGuffin », something that really has no meaning in itself but which sets everything else in motion. Frankly, the Tito mummy as it is drawn in the book is more of a mix between a mummy and a zombie. We take this idea further towards the end of the book, when a number of actual Tito zombies are introduced. Any story will be better if you add some zombies to it. It’s a well-known fact that everybody loves zombies. There is something touching, very human, about them. So I figured if we included a whole army of Tito zombies, the book would be a guaranteed success. Most people also love dogs. The story is very complicated so it needed some zombies and dogs to be more appealing to a general audience.
Baby in Toyland
It started as a spin-off of the Bosnian Flat Dog project. We did an exhibition tour of the countries of ex-Yugoslavia with the artwork of the book before it was released, and to spice it up a little we built a life-size Tito mummy. Helena documented the whole spectacle with a MiniDV camera. I had a lot of Super-8 film stored in my fridge since the early nineties, and thought it would be a good combination to do stop-motion animation sequences and add that to the documentary material. As usual, once I got started I had more and more ideas, and eventually it turned into a feature film. It was a perfect opportunity to expand the themes of identity, nationality, drawing etc, which we touch upon in the book. The film is completely independent of the book, but together they also work as counterparts and complement each other as individual pieces of a larger project. I started working on it in late 2006 and it was premiered in 2012. Since then it’s been shown in more than 50 festivals, for instance in Annecy. Distribution has proved to be very difficult though, so far it only had a limited theatrical release in Germany. But now at last it’s available for streaming on the net. I fell in love with animation when I saw The Jungle Book as a 6-year old. It was the first movie I watched in a cinema theater. Once I understood the basic principle, I tried to make a film of my own. I think it corresponds well with my tendency to anthropomorphize objects, and my preference of mechanical techniques in general. Animation is a form of magic which is closely tied to the physical materials and textures being used. Computer animation doesn’t achieve this, and I’m completely uninterested in it. It can be fun to watch, but even when it is technically perfect in every detail, it’s so obviously fake that it can never be as convincing as a primitively handmade film such as Consuming Spirits by Chris Sullivan or Švankmajer’s shorts.
What influenced me as a child was mostly what I watched on TV. Hitchcock’s films, especially Spellbound made a big impression. It was the first film that made me aware of the director as somebody whose personal vision obviously shaped the film. The ending in which the bad guy turns his revolver on himself, and the camera, and shoots, totally amazed me. Silent films, Buster Keaton in particular, were favorites. I also saw all the classic Universal horror films from the 30’s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and some Godzilla movies. I remember seeing Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ?, not quite understanding it although it absolutely fascinated me. Later I went to the movies on my own and got into Brian de Palma, Coppola, Scorsese, John Carpenter…When I came to Stockholm I practically lived at the Cinematheque which showed retrospectives of all the classics but also odd things like John Waters and all kinds of independents and exploitation. This was before video so that was basically the only chance to get to see things that were outside of the mainstream. Plus they could show uncut versions since it was a membership club — Sweden at that time had a strict film censorship which severely cut violent scenes from films, and completely banned masterpieces like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whenever I was abroad I used to spend all night in small grindhouse cinemas to see as many zombie or splatter movies as possible. Although now when I can find any rare movies I want instantly on the internet, such as the Sasori movies or Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters, I sort of miss those days when enjoying culture was the result of a certain effort.
In 2007, I was invited to an exhibition directed by Jean-Christophe Menu for Art Décoratifs. The exhibition was called « Toy Comix », later recapitulated in a book of the same name at l’Association. The project was to gather different artists around toy universe. Each chose one toy from the museum’s collection and made a comic about that specific toy. My choice was to do a story about an old « Felix the Cat » doll. I was attracted to it because unlike the mass-produced merchandise toys of today, it didn’t look like Felix at all, in fact it hardly even looked like a cat. I like toy universe. Above all, I like all objects that are twisted representations of reality. Masks, puppets, toys, ritual statues, everyday objects with an antropomorphic design. Sometimes I’ve made my own toys based on my comics characters, especially the Car Kids. These peculiar children are something of a mystery even to me.They are easy to draw because they don’t really have facial expressions. This is an advantage in comics storytelling, which is all about reducing and simplifying characters until they become a kind of multi-purpose tools. It allows for the reader to project more of their own feelings on the drawings, so they seem to come alive. It’s a bit like magic, but like most magic acts it’s an illusion of course. It seems to be part of the human nature to produce toys or figures. It’s weird because they serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Yet we all feel they are very important, even necessary. Maybe it’s because we don’t know who or what we really are ? But I’m not a collector. I own a few things that I like for different reasons, but I don’t feel the need to organize them or to build complete collections around them.
Archeology of dreams
Yes, it’s autobiographical. I wanted to do a book about my relationship with my father and mother, and the subject of family in general, but the problem is I don’t know them very well. I left home when I was 15 and after I moved from the area where I grew up, we only had sporadic contact for many years. So instead of basing my story on my real family, I used them as they appeared in my dreams during all that time. The first dream I used is from 1986, and the last one from 2011. That makes it truly epic, spanning a quarter of a century. Everything in the book actually happened to me, but never when I was awake. I normally don’t use dreams in my art, but a lot of people asked if I do, so eventually one day when I didn’t have any other ideas, I decided to try. I had been writing dreams down just for fun for several years so I had a large collection of dreams to choose from. I picked one of the best and made a comic, the little book The Excavation, published in 1997. But once I had started, I couldn’t stop. There were so many good dreams and they often had the same characters and the same locations, so I began to connect them all, edit them into one big novel-size story. It was an experiment, a one-time project. I don’t think I’ll ever do something like that again. Plus I’ve used up so many of the really good dreams that I’m running out of interesting material by now.
The book was released in a shorter version in 1997 and I started working on the long version right after I had finished the first short story (which is now the first chapter in the book). But I didn’t work on it continuously, I took long breaks between chapters to do other projects, other books. About half of it was finished in 2006, when I stopped to be able to concentrate on Tito on Ice. I picked it up again in 2013, and finished the latter half in a couple of years. It was kind of strange to begin working on it after so many years of doing something so different. I’d thought it would be difficult, but it felt very good and the strangest part was that I discovered that I had managed to develop my skills as an artist, after 8 years of really not doing much drawing at all.It was always intended to be a book of about this size and this format. Limitations or restraints of the form can be very inspiring, because by excluding a large spectrum of possibilities it’s easier to focus on what’s relevant. And it’s a challenge to solve the problems of how to tell your story with a limited set of narrative tools. I found that the claustrophobic atmosphere that is established by the panel size that never changes (with one exception) fits the theme very well. The storytelling changes radically compared to a format where you have many panels on the page. Each panel, each drawing, needs to carry a lot more weight because it’s unique. It doesn’t necessarily have to contain more information, but it must be a complete little story in itself. It’s a good exercise.
[Interview conducted by email between December 2016 and April 2017]