Many visitors to Iceland might be familiar with the work of Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir without even knowing it. Her sharply observed cartoons appear regularly in various Icelandic publications (including this one), and are often shared widely on social media. They vary between macabre vignettes, hot takes on Reykjavík streetlife and Icelandic politics, and living room scenarios, often featuring children dispassionately observing the innate craziness of the grown-up world.
They are also, as it turns out, largely autobiographical. “I remember these moments,” smiles Lóa, “like watching the kids in my neighbourhood running after the garbage truck and just thinking ‘Why are they doing that?’ And there were kids in the neighbourhood who would pee in buckets, and the other kids loved it and shouted ‘They’re peeing in the buckets again!’ I was watching and feeling lonely, because it didn’t make me happy—I had the feeling of being an observer rather than a happy participant.”
The children in Lóa’s books often seems world-weary as they watch adults binge drinking, arguing, fighting, partying, and passing out on the sofa. “My mum and dad had a lot of alcoholic friends when I was a kid,” says Lóa, “so I was always watching them behaving like lunatics. Me and Hugleikur Dagsson were at parties together when we were kids, watching them all and saying: ‘Well, it looks like they’re going to get a divorce.’”
Lóa is now a mother herself, but she still feels similar about things today. “I always feel out of place,” she explains, “so I always see things as odd and noticeable. I have a hard time at Christmas, for example—if you overthink these things, they get weird. I feel bad about having a Christmas tree. I just think, ‘Someone decided to kill this tree.’ And then I can’t get over that.”
Puking from anxiety
Throughout her childhood and teens, Lóa was fascinated by camp glamour, uncanny art, and all things macabre, from ‘The Addams Family’ to John Waters, Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. “I had a Vincent Price phobia,” she says. “I was puking from anxiety over this film called ‘Monster Club’. There was a guy who could whistle and melt your face! And I had a book with pictures of conjoined twins and Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. I looked at that a lot.”
These influences peek out from between the lines of her latest book, ‘Why Are We Still Here?’ We flick through the pages in fits of laughter as Lóa explains the situations that led to each cartoon. “This one is based on a true story,” she says, “when a tourist was trying to convince me that Leif Erikson is actually pronounced ‘Leaf Erikson.’ And this one was based on this disgusting, entitled tourist guy who was complaining about Icelandic women in the street…”
The cartoons sometimes betray a weariness of Reykjavík life. Indeed, Lóa and her family have started slowly hatching a plan to move out into the countryside. “I’m growing pine trees in my living room,” she says. “I have eighty little pine trees. It’s because we can’t afford to buy an apartment, so we bought some land out East instead.”
But as she publishes her fourth book, and works on a play—amongst countless other projects—something tells me that even if Lóa moves East, the sheep will replace the tourists, and her wry and affecting work will continue just the same.
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