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Kverneland and Fiske in the Footsteps of Great Artists: Re-tracing as a Tool for Artist Biographies in Comics Form

By Rikke Platz Cortsen

In recent years, the Norwegian comics creators Steffen Kverneland and Lars Fiske have made themselves known through their artist biographies in comics form; Kverneland as creator of the massive comic about Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, Munch, in 2013, and Fiske with the biography about German, Dadaist multi-talent Kurt Schwitters, Hr. Merz, in 2014. Both comics were published by Norwegian small press comics publisher No Comprendo Press and Munch was translated into English and published by SelfMadeHero in 2016. Lars Fiske also recently made a biography about German painter George Grosz, George Grosz. Berlin-New York, published in 2017 from No Comprendo Press, and in English by Fantagraphics. However, though these works are published individually, they were made in a very distinct collaborative practice that has been a foundation for a specific way of conceptualizing artist biography in comics which Fiske and Kverneland have been perfecting for many years.

In this article, I examine their method and underline how Kverneland and Fiske makes use of comics’ ability to juxtapose text and image in their portraits of famous artists. Specifically, I suggest that their method can be understood through the prism of a double re-tracing that Fiske and Kverneland performs when they engage with an artist. On the one hand, they follow physically in the footsteps of their chosen subjects by travelling to destinations where the artist has dwelled for longer or shorter periods of time. In doing so, they activate a certain understanding of place in their biographical writing. On the other hand, they follow the artists’ aesthetic traces by re-creating known works on the pages of the comics and use the portrayed artist’s oeuvre as an aesthetic guideline for important visual aspects of the comics such as coloring, line, style, and page layouts.

In my analysis, I zoom in on the effects of this double re-tracing and argue that Kverneland and Fiske are not engaged in a mindless and uncritical copying spree but manage, precisely because of their double role as participants and art historian detectives, to reanimate the artist’s life, painting, and its reception and through this practice add a new (auto)-biographical method to the way art history is developed. Their embodied art history writing uses some key components of comics and in this original double re-creation of the artists’ lives and work, Kverneland and Fiske shows the potential of comics as a form of expression that can be used to great effect in the genre of writing about artists—simultaneously glorifying and criticizing the canon of art history.

Elements of a Method

Figure 1. Lars Fiske and Steffen Kverneland. 2004. Olaf G. Oslo: No Comprendo Press, cover

Fiske and Kverneland have both been active comics artists since the 1980s, but their unique collaborative approach really drew the attention of a broader audience with their biography about the Norwegian cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson (1873-1958). Olaf G. from 2004 chronicles the life of the newspaper cartoonist and begins with the duo attending an exhibit of Gulbransson’s works in Norway and the comics creators realizing that the artist is more famous and recognized in Germany. As both Fiske and Kverneland are highly appreciative of Olaf G.’s simple yet efficient and poetic line and celebrate his humor, their own comic sets out to re-establish Gulbransson and his work in Norway and afford him the celebrity they feel he is owed.

Just by examining the cover of Olaf G. our eyes already catch some of the elements of a method that Kverneland and Fiske employ in their collaborative efforts. At the center we have the protagonist himself depicted with his own signature placed as the title of the book. At the top of the page, the comics creators are seen depicted in the characteristic, geometric line of Fiske whereas Kverneland is the creator of the more muddled and coarse reproduction of the two artists placed in the bottom right corner from where they are worshipping their big idol on their knees. This cover helps us identify the most important parts of the art historian strategy these two artists make use of both in this and later works. The recipe is as follows:

They use themselves as characters in the work. Their dissemination of the main artist’s life and work draws on autobiographical and documentary comics because they themselves are present as personas in the work, lending an anecdotal and strong personal flavor to their often very ironic and self-deprecating story telling. This explicit reproduction of themselves in the comics frequently adds a meta-layer where Fiske and Kverneland can discuss the events and art works that have shaped the artist’s later reception and fame. Simultaneously this self-promoting practice serves the purpose of guiding the reader into the world of the artist with a very engaged and knowledgeable pair as tour guides. As happy fans, Kverneland and Fiske represent the reader who wants to know more about the portrayed artist, and their often-embarrassing admiration for their main subject becomes a communicative strength because they shamelessly allow themselves to deal with both the artist and the man—his work and his life. As an example, it is obvious in the biography about Gulbransson that Kverneland and Fiske are equally fascinated by the cartoonist’s eccentric lifestyle as they are with his accomplished caricature drawings. Their child-like fascination of Gulbransson’s naturist tendencies is related to the reader with the same explosive enthusiasm as their competent analyses of his line work for the notorious magazine Simplicissimus.

They employ different drawing styles to support the narrative. On the cover of Olaf G., it is immediately clear that at least three visual voices are present in this version of a biography because the two comics creators (when they draw “as themselves”) have very different drawing styles and line work, which instantly indicate the hand that made the line. When the two styles are juxtaposed on the page there is never any doubt as to who made which—Fiske’s angular and geometric clear line with hard edges and Kverneland’s fuzzier and more smudged colors clearly distinguish themselves from each other. This means that the origin of the drawing is easily definable, and the two artists are always present in the drawing. Simultaneously, the artists portrayed often also have their line work presented or mimicked on the pages so that their presence is also felt visually, as with Olaf G.’s signature serving as the title of the book.

They include text and visual elements from the artist portrayed. As mentioned above, the multiplicity of styles includes the style of the artists who are the main subjects of the biographies, but the works of this artist and text quotes from interviews, letters, and other written material also play a big role in Fiske and Kverneland’s biographical approach. Their method includes whole drawings, reproductions of paintings, photos of artwork, and extended quotes by the artists themselves. It is not unusual for an artist biography to reproduce the works of the artist, but Kverneland and Fiske use the possibilities inherent in the comics medium to juxtapose text and image in ways that bring together quotes about the author and from the author with the artworks, as well as an expression that is heavily inspired by the styles and structures of the artist subject. They do all this in a very complicated attempt at disseminating both the art and the artist responsible to the comics reader.

Collaboration is key. The co-work and interplay between Fiske and Kverneland are essential to their publications, even when they are listed as sole creators on the cover of some of their comics. The dialogic and co-thinking practice they succeeded with in their work on Olaf G. was carried on in the magazine Kanon from 2006 and onwards. The magazine became the playground where they started work on the later biographies on Munch, Schwitters, and Grosz and was published in five issues until 2012.  Kanon refers both to the canonical aspects of the portrayed artists as well as the potentially explosive nature of their work. Even if MunchHr. Merz, and George Grosz. Berlin-New York, are sold and presented as individual tomes with auteur authors, they are intermingled with each other and their creation happened simultaneously in ways that co- inspired the comics through numerous conversations.

Re-tracing as Journey – In the Footsteps of Olaf G, Munch, and Schwitters.

An indispensable practice in the collaboration between Kverneland and Fiske is that they accompany each other on their research trips and use place as a very concrete prism through which to access their portrayed artist’s life and work. It is both a case of them needing the visual references to draw from to get the artist’s environment looking right in their own visual representations, and also that they engage with a sense of place that praises a genius loci, adds new layers of meaning, and supports the way places can be constructed through narrative. Being in the right places together is a must for the biographical method of Kverneland and Fiske because it affords them opportunities to discuss both technical details in the artists’ work as well as the context of the artists’ lives.

Figure 2. Lars Fiske and Steffen Kverneland. 2004. Olaf G. Oslo: No Comprendo Press, 23 (excerpt)

In Olaf G. the two comics creators travel to Tegernsee in Germany to see Olaf Gulbransson´s house, and it is an important and often repeated point that the cartoonists are standing exactly where Gulbransson himself stood and thereby occupy his perspective. Tegernsee as a place contains an almost mythical meaning for Fiske and Kverneland, one that can be explored through various theories of place. In the discussions of human geography, a distinction is often made between space as the abstract, geometrical space, and place understood as where people have added meaning to space by relating to it in different subjective ways (Cresswell, 8-10). An important point here is that places are constructed in multiple ways so that many layers of meaning meet in the individual places. In her understanding of place, the human geographer Doreen Massey underlines that places simultaneously have qualities that are unique to this place and are created through the relations of this place to other places. She describes places as layered, constructed through various layers of historical occurrences and connections to people, as well as local and global geographical coordinates (Massey, 156). Places are dynamic and are constructed through the many meanings different people assign to them: the events that have taken place, the artistic descriptions of the place, and the way this place connects itself to other places and narratives.

In their travels, Fiske and Kverneland focus on the artist’s relationship with certain places and thus unfold these places historically and artistically by reproducing the artist’s own representations of the place, stories about the place, and recounting their own experiences with the place. In this way, the many specific places provide access to the many layers that these places contain, even if Kverneland and Fiske only focus on the places that have to do with Olaf G., Munch, Schwitters, or Grosz. Kverneland and Fiske’s travelling activities are staged as a kind of artistic pilgrimage to the holy places that are constructed as alternative sacred spaces because they have been stepped on by the artist or by subjects of the artist’s works. The comics creators engage with a sense of place that worships certain meanings that the places hold and ascribe an authentic mood or spirit to them which then becomes essential for Fiske and Kverneland to experience in person. In the above example, they talk about being given a private audience at Schererhof (Olaf G.’s house) as if being admitted into the splendid halls of the royals and they repeatedly toast their idol who is visually inscribed in the sky as a sun that keeps vigil over the small Bavarian town. Genius loci, the spirit of the places or its guardian angel, is seen through the eyes of Fiske and Kverneland, Gulbransson himself.1

Gulbransson also makes an appearance in Munch where he talks about a meeting with Munch in connection with the painter Christian Krogh’s funeral. This shows how Fiske and Kverneland very persistently build and create connections and relations between artists, works, and places. A small bar in Oslo becomes a pivotal place for a small group of people in mourning which then plays a big role in Norwegian art history and the way their paths cross contributes to the identity of the place (Kverneland, 257-260).

At the same time this paying homage to place gets undermined by the ironic and self-deprecating happenings that the reader witnesses in the comics. There are numerous scenes where the two comics creators present themselves as grotesque caricatures that roam the places in a drunken stupor while saying smart things about art. They are very vocal about the misunderstood genius of their preferred artists and tend to make social faux pas in different settings around the world. As personas in the comic books Kverneland and Fiske depict themselves as very silly and intoxicated Norwegians who go on manic fan travels around Europe to catch an indistinguishable aura of greatness that supposedly hangs on to the places because of their relation to great artists.  But as a dissemination strategy it is a very informative and knowledgeable way to treat one’s topic, because it addresses many different aspects of the artist’s production and lifetime by using the places as points of departure. By doing this, they can place the artist in a historical chronology based on where he was at a certain time and make the many connections between the artist and the people he met in his life through the visits to certain places. This eager enthusiasm for the places and the artist’s works also opens the possibility for the reader to make the journey themselves and experience the artist’s life and art by drawing upon the narratives these places contain. This means that the comics of the two Norwegian artists become yet another layer added to the meaning of the places—one you can experience by travelling around Europe, clutching their comics as an artist biographical tourist guide.

The travels following in the footsteps of the artists is a joy for the comics creators who willingly throw themselves into the role as fanatic fans, but they also work as a method to discuss the artists’ lives and specifically the way the artist’s persona and work is constructed in our collective imaginary. In an example from the Munch book, Kverneland and Fiske spend a large amount of time walking around Ekebergsåsen in Oslo trying to find the exact spot where Munch painted his famous The Scream. The narratives about Munch contribute to his iconic status and many people share an interest in capitalizing on his fame. For instance, the Oslo municipality has put up a sign that marks the spot where Munch painted the world-renowned painting, but Kverneland insists that the municipality has it wrong, whereas with their climbing trip Kverneland and Fiske are trying to get to the bottom of what is really the right place. Earlier in the book they have recreated several of Munch’s paintings with themselves as the main subjects playing the roles of the depicted girls, women, and men in photographs that are then juxtaposed with the actual paintings (Kverneland, 172-183). Kverneland uses a black and white simple line drawing to depict their escapades on the mountain, which gives them a sketch-like and documentarist look that underlines the journalistic, reportage elements in this sequence.

Figure 3. Steffen Kverneland. Munch, London: SelfMadeHero, 2016, 229

Their challenging of the myths surrounding great artists and their art is illustrated in this example with the search for the origin of The Scream. After a long sequence where the two friends have used much energy to try to find the right place, Kverneland recounts that this project is impossible because Munch painted The Scream from memory in Berlin. Thus, Kverneland emphasizes that the preoccupation with finding the exact spot of the place the painting was made is not as important as we might think, but also that the journey of the two comics creators might not always be productive. More than finding the precise spot, it is the journey itself, the conversation they have, the attempt to put oneself in the place of Munch that becomes important, because the sequence on Ekesbergåsen allows Kverneland to tell the many stories that are associated with the painting: how it was made, the many versions of it, and the spectacular story of when one of the versions was stolen. These stories are all at present part of the history of The Scream and can be made available through the walks Kverneland and Fiske make in connections with their explorations of Munch and his practice.

When Fiske and Kverneland depict themselves in a caricature style that brings forth how ridiculous they are it serves as a reflection on the idolization that surrounds many great artists. They are completely aware of how nerdy they are, but they choose to share this with the reader. On the one hand this call for skepticism (both towards art historians and ordinary art lovers); on the other hand it leads by example, showing the reader that it is perfectly okay to be enthusiastic about something to a degree that goes far beyond what your surroundings might find reasonable.

Their work suggests that there is nothing stopping you in being an eager worshipper of artists, but you should always be critical of the versions of reality you are presented with. It is in fact the best way to experience things for yourself and form you own opinion, something that is done best in the company of a good friend and equal.

In the research journeys for Lars Fiske’s book about Kurt Schwitters, the places are not only important because the artist himself has been there, but to a large degree also because Schwitters built his imposing Merzbau artworks at his home addresses where these gigantic geometric installations took over several rooms and continuously grew with new add-ons. Thus, their excitement knows no end when Kverneland and Fiske realize that Schwitters, on several occasions from 1929 and going forward, lived in Molde in Norway which makes it possible for them to pay a visit to a genuine Merzbau in their native country (Fiske, np). By seeking out these places, the two cartoonists get the opportunity to wander around in the art works, but unfortunately have to confront the fact that Kurt Schwitters’ art has been haunted by bad luck and has not always been kept for later generation. This forces them again to make do with a sense of place that can be experienced from the mere being in the same spot as the artist. Standing there, stepping in bits of Merz evokes a deep feeling of awe for the artist and his work. Fiske says about Schwitters’ late unfinished work from his time in England: “Schwitters picked up materials and inspiration from his surroundings. Therefore Merz-barn2 is much more organic and inspired by nature than the cubist and urban Merzbau”[3]. To look up Schwitters’ different dwellings allows for the suggestions of an analytical point where Fiske can read the works into various periods of Schwitters’ oeuvre by relating them to their places of making.

Re-tracing as Line, Style and Structure – the Aesthetic Path

Schwitters’ Merzbau also plays a central role in the other kind of re-tracing the two comics creators employ to examine their favorite artists in which they mime their artistic predecessors’ stylistic and structural features. In comics scholarship it is often discussed how there is a structural likeness between buildings and architectural drawings and the layout of a comics page. The connection between architecture and comics has been used by both artists and scholars to discuss how the founding principles of comics can be used in the making of architecture, but also how comics can use elements from architecture, such as scaffolding, in the telling of stories that deal with alternative interpretations of time and space4.

The urban is situated at the center of modernity and even if many of Fiske and Kverneland’s research travels take them into the countryside or the woods, the urban space is important, both for the identity construction of the portrayed artists as well as the later reception of them and their work. Kverneland specifically in Munch uses a naked, descriptive drawing that depicts the buildings in Munch’s environment in minute detail. He juxtaposes these with chaotic recounts of the intimate spaces that retells the mythical meetings between, for instance, Munch and Swedish author August Strindberg in Berlin. In terms of style, Kverneland changes between the objective showing of streets, buildings, and urban space that anchors the story and depicts the relationship of modern man with the city, and a subjective, expressionist drawing style that, with violent and unrealistic colors, is both like Munch’s own choices of color and mimics Munch’s intention of painting feelings on the canvas. When the reader is presented with the bar ”Zum schwartzen Ferkel” it is on a full page that in almost photographic detail reproduces the building’s details. As soon as we follow the famous artists inside, the room is transformed with hard, tilted lines, blubbering and torn panel edges, strong colors and geometric field that turns the bar into a fighting ground for the exploits of the artists, portrayed as they are as if caught up in and held prisoner by their explosive emotions (Kverneland, 37, 85-86, 91-93). In his various choices of line and style, Kverneland manages to express the artists’ own style, their thought and emotional conditions while situating the action in a reality that is recognizable to the reader. Through these multiple references, Kverneland re-activates the meaning of places and connects it the concrete building, visualizing the complex understanding of place that Doreen Masseys puts forth.

For Schwitters, there was a very close connection between his collage art and the Merzbauhe built. The juxtaposition of various found objects, preferably with straight, geometric lines and patterns are visible in both kinds of works, working with the relational effects between elements that preoccupied Schwitters as an artist.

Figure 4. Fiske, Lars. 2014. Hr. Merz. Oslo: No Comprendo Press: np

Fiske takes advantage of this connection between collage, Merz-bau and page layout in the way he recounts significant scenes from Schwitters’ life. A dadaist poetry reading in Holland develops into a physical fight where the artists in ”dadaist triumph” tumble around the page in a fierce boxing match with police and audience. The violent events are contained within a multiframe that in choice of color, line, and structure is very close to Schwitters’ collages and Merzbau without being simple copies (Groensteen, 31). Fiske catches the dynamic events in diagonal panels that simultaneously are very tight in their composition and tilt with chaotic, Dadaist energy. To a certain degree, Fiske then mimes Schwitters’ own method and art. At the bottom of this page, Schwitters expresses his wish of being able to “instill a strong will and longing after style. Then the most important work begins. We turn towards dada and only fight for style.” (Fiske, np )5. Fiske’s comic both narrates and presents visually, but in his presentation, he has chosen to turn towards Schwitters’ style which he traces both structurally and in his choices of line, color, and style. By doing so he takes in Schwitters’ artistic expression and art philosophy and partakes in a stylistic community with Schwitters that becomes a meta-reference and supports the layers of Fiske’s narrative. This community indicates the artist’s life, work, and Fiske’s staging of these through his use of visual traits that are immanent in the artform of comics—even speech balloons are edgy, bright red Post-it Notes in the Schwitters universe as told by Fiske.

The double re-tracing of their subjects that Fiske and Kverneland make takes place on two levels as a kind of embodied and gestural doubling. When they travel to stand in the same place as the artists, they inhabit their position and fill out the space, where the artist’s body has once been, but when they draw at the heels of their idols, they also point towards the artist’s body and movement. In his thoughts on the importance of line in comics, the semiotician Phillipe Marion notes how the line is a direct impression of the movement of the hand of the artist and thereby always caries a trace of the artist himself which then in turn impacts the situation of the utterance in comics (Marion, 36). Comics have a direct connection with the comics artist because we as readers are looking at a reproduction of his or her impression on the paper. In an expansion and clarification of Marion’s thought, Belgian comics scholar Jan Baetens explains how all drawings mark a trace of the act of drawing itself and hereby points towards the hand that made the movement. This directly links the artist to the trace that a reader is looking at, but it is important not to take this trace as a statement about how this artist is as a person. The semiotic sign points towards the comics creator but has many functions whereof the connection with the artist is only one (Baetens, 147).

Because Kverneland and Fiske work in the (auto)biographical field there is a complication of the situation of the utterance with regards to the creators themselves and the artists they work on in their comics. As Baetens notes, semiotics is not interested in real people, but looks at the sign on the page as a visual reference to a narrator or as a pointing out of a point of focalization. But precisely this point, that all drawn signs contain a trace of their graphic utterance, is used by Fiske and Kverneland in their biographies because they with this trace can refer to themselves by using their own unique drawing style. At the same time, they can trace their portrayed artists by making signs and visual traces that point to Munch, Grosz, Schwitters, and Olaf G. through a repetition of their works and stylistic features.

In the case of Fiske and Kverneland it is both that they re-trace the lines of the portrayed artist and also that they improvise stylistically with the artists own brush strokes and movements of the pen as their point of departure. It is always abundantly clear who has drawn which panels in the works of Fiske and Kverneland because they each have a very distinctive line that are distinguished even more when they are juxtaposed on the page in a sequence. The lines in their comics very directly point to the comics artist as a specific subject and show the gesture of his hand on the page. This is then combined with facsimiles of the portrayed artist’s works and versions of the biographical story that stylistically is very inspired by this same artist’s visual expression.

Figure 5. Steffen Kverneland. 2013. Munch. Oslo, No Comprendo Press: 220

Kverneland and Fiske use many different visual markers in their comics that in various ways point both towards themselves and their biographical subjects. In the example above, Kverneland has carefully reproduced one of Munch’s paintings and lets the accompanying caption be the title of the painting, so it looks like a facsimile copy, but has added the extra layer of the biographical method that emphasizes the biographer’s process of selection and creative co-writing. Kverneland is drawing Munch, who is painting his painting, which in many ways is the perfect image of the re-tracing that the two Norwegian artists practice. They are mimicking their artists’ works, bordering on direct copy, but add their own artistic traits to the stories. Munch is clearly drawn as Kverneland’s version of Munch, even if Kverneland has let Munch’s choice of color inspire him.

In a passage from one of Fiske and Kverneland’s conversations in Munch, they posit Edward Munch as a possible predecessor to the kinds of autobiographical comics that started appearing in the 1960s. They categorize some of Munch’s text-image experiments as proto-comics and through this create a connection between the artist and themselves. As a proto-comics creator with an emphasis on the autobiographical, Munch not only becomes a stylistic inspiration but also shapes his own biography in comic book form through form and genre (Kverneland, 94-95).

The aesthetic re-tracing at play in Kverneland and Fiske’s biographies takes place on several different levels. As mentioned, many of the scenes in the comic show Munch in with other artists at bars in Berlin represented in a drawing style and color choice that do not necessarily cry out “Munch,” but which signal expressionism and therefore sidle up against the artistic trends that Munch and his group of friends were preoccupied with. These many different traces of the comics creator and the artist in the works on the one hand underlines that the artist’s style is an important point of the biography. On the other hand, this practice indicates that biographies are always the biographer’s version of events and just shows one interpretation of the artists and his circumstances. In comics biographies, the comics creator has the possibility to put emphasis on this subjective take on the biographical material by visibly being present in the biography through his or her aesthetic choices.

Nerds and Squirters

It can seem paradoxical that a work like Munch, which is so visually shaped by the creator’s presence, is in fact created with an ambition NOT to be present in the biography. In a sequence at the beginning of the book, Kverneland explains with great conviction to Fiske that his Munch biography will only have text that is Munch’s own words or quotes from letters and stories by those who knew him. This means Kverneland will not be present in the biography’s text and he substantiates this choice with a vision of how he will NOT write his biography: “Such artist romantic in-the-head-of-Munch biographies in the present tense is a bunch of crap. Nerds that have never met Munch is sitting around a hundred years later and playing tough6” (Kverneland, 7).

Kverneland is extremely conscious of the power a biographer has in his selection of the biographical content and his ambition is to begin with very humble, but it is clear from reading the comics that there is something more at stake than an objective re-telling of Munch’s life. Later, Kverneland clarifies: “My contribution is going to be my subjective version of Munch and that is mostly in the visual interpretation and the selection of what goes in and what does not7” (Kverneland, 7). So, there is no doubt that Kverneland is very careful about his own role in the biography and to a certain extent sees the subjective and the objective as a question of the relationship between text and image. Kverneland also explicitly points to the biographer’s role in a sequence that includes one of Olaf G.’s drawings:

Figure 6. Lars Fiske og Steffen Kverneland: Olaf G. Oslo: No Comprendo Press, 2004, s. 75. © Olaf Gulbransson/BONO 2017.

In this cartoon that makes fun of the role of the critic, the big dog is clearly supposed to be the great Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen, who self-confidently marks the pole while the smaller critic dogs have to settle with squirting on top of the master’s trace. Kverneland uses this comic to indicate his own and Fiske’s roles as Olaf G.s biographers:

Figure 7. Lars Fiske og Steffen Kverneland. 2004. Olaf G. Oslo: No Comprendo Press: 76 (excerpt)

In Kverneland’s interpretation, Fiske and Kverneland are just small squirters that must settle with making small puddles on the spot where the great Gulbransson made his big mark. But in the very way that Kverneland makes this point, he illustrates how his and Fiske’s method goes beyond making small puddles. In a speech balloon, he presents Fiske and himself as the dogs simultaneously depicting himself in a self-portrait that also undermines his point by ironically directing the reader’s attention to his small, green sun glasses. Constantly drawing themselves into the biographies, tracing the artist’s line, and self-deprecatingly exposing their own position are essential elements in the artist biographical method the two comics creators have developed collaboratively. They explore comics’ potential to visualize different places and events both in their own and other’s visual presentation, while the text can work as repetition of important quotes, by telling the narrative, or leaving the speech balloons to the protagonists themselves.

Because Fiske and Kverneland never hide their intentions and show their editing of the material to the reader makes it possible for him or her to judge the information themselves. They are not attempting to create an authorized version of the artist’s life but acknowledge that the stories that are passed on always need to be viewed in a context and cannot always be taken at face value.

I am claiming that Kverneland and Fiske avoid being small squirters that follow blindly in the tracks of a great artist because they are so conscious about what their position is and because they draw on humorous elements that traditionally are strangers to the serious art biography but have a long, well established tradition within the comics medium. In their unique combination of travelling anecdotes, tall tales, quotes, and visual representations, they expand the biographical function and manage to get around the artist’s life, work, and reception. Fiske and Kverneland can match the highest cultural art lovers in their knowledge about their subjects, but at the same time they are not ashamed to be über comics nerds—they are viewing art history through a lens that notices the grotesque, the sound effects, the caricatures, and the colorful. This is precisely why they can expose some of the many clichés and myths found in the field while they also embrace the curious enthusiasm which a romantic genius aesthetic ignites. As serious documentarists they try to sort through the information (which is documented in Kverneland’s long reference list in Munch), but they also underscore that the link between life and work is important and that form and content can be inseparable.

Through their use of individual styles, autobiographical content, research travels, and re-tracing of the artists’ work, Fiske and Kverneland create a very engaging and informative way to make artist biographies. It is a method that uses place as a prism to highlight various pasts through the present by connecting artists to their audiences—a movement that applauds the journey as a way of gaining knowledge. On top of that, they use the spatial subdivision of the page and its structure to juxtapose various styles, places, and times to both represent the depicted art works as faithfully as possible and, in an attempt, to disseminate the artist’s life in all its complexity.


[1] For a discussion of genius loci both in the original Lantin meaning both “the spirit of the place” and the later “sense of place,” see for example Norberg-Schulz. Genius loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New Rizzoli, 1980 or Jackson, John Brinkerhoff. A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time. Yale University Press, 1994, 157-158.

[2] A version of a Merzbau in a barn/shed, hence the name Merz-barn.

[3] In Norwegian: “Schwitters hentet materialer og inspirasjon fra sine omgivelser. Derfor er Merz-barn mye mer organisk og naturinspirert enn det kubistiske og urbane Merzbau” (Fiske, 2014, np).

[4] See for instance Van der Hoorn, Melanie. Bricks and Balloons, Architecture in Comic-Strip Form. 010 Publishers, 2012, Bredehoft, Thomas A. “Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 54, no. 4, 2006, pp. 869 – 90 and works like Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012).

[5] In Norwegian: “vekke en sterk vilje og længsel efter stil. Da starter den viktigste virksomheten. Vi vender os mod dada og kjemper kun for stil.”

[6] In Norwegian: “Sånne kunstnarromantiske inni-i-håvet-på-Munch biografiar i presens e’ nåke jævla drit. Nerder som aldri har møtt Munch sitte hundre år ittepå og tøffa seg.”

[7] In Norwegian: ”Mitt bidrag blir min subjektive versjon av Munch, og det ligge mest i den visuella tolkningå og utvalget av ka som ska’ med eller ikkje.”

Works Cited

Baetens, Jan. “A New Theory of Graphic Enunciation.” The Language of Comics, edited by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, University of Mississippi Press, 2001: 145-155.

Fiske, Lars. Hr. Merz. No Comprendo Press, 2014.

Cresswell, Tim. Place – A Short Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Groensteen, Thierry. Système de la bande dessinée. Presses universitaires de France, 1999.

Kverneland, Steffen. Munch. SelfMadeHero, 2016.

Kverneland, Steffen and Lars Fiske. Olaf G. No Comprendo Press, 2004

Marion, Philippe. Traces en cases: travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur: essai sur la bande dessinée. Academia, 1993.

Massey, Doreen B. Space, Place, and Gender. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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