The history of Icelandic comics has many prophets, but a small flock. After an influx of European comics through local publisher Fjölvi in the 1970s, and the translated Marvel and DC comics of the legendary Siglufjarðarprent in the 1980s, something akin to a scene began to form, with issues being published irregularly through the 90s and the early 00s. Today, bigger publishers like Forlagið have taken over, publishing the work of Hugleikur Dagsson, Grapevine’s own Lóa Hjálmtýrsdóttir, and just recently the first volume in a new Viking series entitled ‘Vargöld’ by Þórhallur Arnórsson and Jón Páll Halldórsson. You might therefore think that Icelandic comics have made it into the mainstream—but for most up-and-coming comic book writers, finding kinship among other artists can be difficult.
Paper, pencil, imagination
“There was a great scene here in the 90s, with magazines like Neo-blek, Bandormur (“Tape Worm”) and GISP!, all of which left their mark on what little comic book culture there is in Iceland today,” explains Björn Heimir Önundarson, who, along with his coconspirator Ægir Már Magnússon, has just put out a new self-published comic book called ‘Mergæxli’ (“Myeloma”), credited to the noms de plume of Inferno Ostur and Tælanól Æruvík.
Björn laments the lack of a real underground scene In Reykjavík. “Or at least, none that we’re aware of. Only a few self-published books or magazines that get passed around at Nexus (the local comic emporium). But we’re not really hoping to get a scene going. We just wanted to use the form of comics to make our ideas come to life. The process is so much simpler and easier than producing a film or a play. It’s just paper, pencil and imagination.”
The fruit of their labor is a slim black and white comic book sold solely at Nexus and Lucky Records. It’s gritty, messy, and at times both self-indulgent and puerile; everything you would associate with the early stories of Peter Bagge’s ‘Neat Stuff’, Gilbert Shelton’s ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’, and other key reference points from the wave of American underground comics of the 70s and 80s.
“We try to put our stuff out unfiltered, without worrying about how it will be received,” says Björn. “We don’t really have any high aspirations—if we did, we wouldn’t be doing comics. But still, we don’t want to become bitter old farts with drawers stuffed with unpublished work. Getting your stuff out there is important and also pretty easy in this day and age.”
Crumb and Panter
For Björn, drawing has been a constant factor from childhood, when he used to draw puking robots murdering mutated dinosaurs for his own amusement. Approaching it in the context of artistry was a new experience. “Before I discovered people like Robert Crumb and Gary Panter, who showed me what you could do with drawing and storytelling, I was just your classic back-of-the-classroom doodler, drawing in schoolbooks and on the whiteboard when no one was looking,” he recalls. “It was always just fooling around. I never really thought about it much, but it’s something I’ve always done.”
There will certainly be more to come from the ‘Mergæxli’ boys in the future—Björn can’t imagine that he will ever stop drawing. “It’s kind of like having a shit,” he says. “You have to do it. If you don’t, your shit just builds up until you die.”