Last issue, the Grapevine’s own featured cartoonist, Hugleikur Dagsson, gave us an enormous map with Icelandic horses abusing each other with anal dildos. This issue, he informs us he’s been signed to Penguin. We met with the next big thing.
/// So when the hell did you get so famous?
– This week. I’m not famous yet. Give it another week.
/// And you’ve sold an Icelandic comic collection to an enormous English publish. I had always thought these comics were meant only for consumption here. Aren’t they exploring the Icelandic mentality?
– Yeah, I think so. I wasn’t really sure at the time, when I first did them. I really didn’t do these kind of comics to publish them, I did them without thinking.
/// How did this all start?
– Actually, there was this arts show in Seyðisfjörður in 2001, the summer of 2001, and I was participating in a art show with two other artists and there was like an hour until the show started. I just wanted to put more into my show, and I had these small pieces of paper in front of me, and I drew two little figures, stick figures, and one of them said ‘Fuck me’ in Icelandic. And then I just got another piece of paper and drew something else, and I did like 30 drawings in 20 minutes, that’s the first 30 pages in my first book.
/// Which isn’t Avoid Us?
– No, it’s Love Us. Which was self-published.
/// It’s a long way from Syðisfjörður to London, though. What happened after the show?
– I kept on doing this ‘cause I got a really good response at the show, and I graduated in 2002 from art school and started working with like disabled teenagers, artistic teenagers in Garðabær, FG. I had these comics, so, when you graduate from art school you have to do some art, and I had these drawings, and I decided just to print them and staple them together and try to sell them. I put them in stores like Dogma and Eymundsson and 12 Tónar and they got some really good attention.
I did that for three Christmases, next Christmas I did ‘Kill us’ and then ‘Fuck us’.
/// Nothing says Christmas like Fuck Us.
– Then JPV contacted me and I made a deal with him and published AVOID US, Collected Works, and the same year I did Save us.
/// And you’ve been with the grapevine since kill us?
– I think so. The first thing I did for Grapevine was Whaley, I had done Kill Us and was working on Fuck Us by then.
/// I have to ask, as an artist, isn’t it shocking or appalling having these simple sketches be the work that finds success, not the work you trained for?
– No it’s not shocking. I never even considered them sketches, just really simple drawings.
Yeah, I was just happy, actually, because of everything I did, the thing that was the easiest was the one that succeeded. The easiest thing I do is what I live on now. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes I have a deadline and I have to do maybe 40 or 50 drawings in one day, and I usually do it when it’s late at night. When you’re in the middle of that, your mind gets kind of worked into a weird state.
/// I still want to say, how do you print these works in a place without the social context? These are works of social criticism, right?
– Well, I went to a Danish comic book convention in April, with ‘Avoid us’, and you know, people liked it. Americans, British people and like Danish people, and many Danish people said it was very much like the Danish sense of humour. But I’m not really sure what the Icelandic sense of humour is. I guess it is a cold humour, cold and dark humour, that’s what Icelandic sense of humour is. You can see dark humour everywhere.
/// Yes, there is dark humour everywhere. But here, in a country where the media and public dialogue is required to be positive, then your work functions as social criticism.
– That’s a good point. Yeah, I can see the social commentary in my own work but it was eh, that was almost accidental, when I got my first review, when people started talking about how I was doing this, and I was very pleased because at one point I felt extra pressure, because now I had to keep writing relevant comics.
/// And in England they’ll be as funny but they won’t have the same function.
– That’s probably true. Maybe I should move to England and work on my book there, and then move to the States and you know, conquer the world that way.
/// You could finish up in Japan.
– Yeah, I’d like that. But they have the sickest shit in Japan.
/// You mean manga about little schoolgirls.
– Someone told me, though, because of all the countries I’d really like to be published in, Japan would be the coolest, but people told me they don’t have sarcasm there. So I see all the sick comics I read from Japan are not sarcastic, they’re just really sincere.
/// That’s gotta be disappointing. They have to have sarcasm, they like Godzilla.
– Yeah, but maybe the sarcasm is very fine. Almost invisible sometimes.
/// Let’s talk about subject matter. In our last issue, you went crazy over priests. You were once censored for criticising priests. But you’ve told me that priests love your work.
– Well, I did that map over two days and spent probably eight to ten consecutive hours on that. And when you’re just working for a short time I have to find something to do and don’t repeat myself, so there was a lot of priests and a lot of ass on it. One time, there was a priest singing about ass.
/// And to think that we didn’t get any complaints. I’m alarmed that a newspaper’s website censored you. After one complaint. Is that the way things work around here?
– I’m not sure about that. Maybe the priest had some friends at Morgunblaðið. That’s how things work here, people know each other.
/// Yeah, but they don’t have to apply reason or logic to their complaint, they just have to…
– Not always, no. But I think usually priests are very smart people who have a big sense of sarcasm.
/// I would have assumed that as you cover everything from rape, incest, faecal matter nonsense, that there would really be more reactions.
– Well, you know, reactions so far are to blasphemy and almost nothing at all about these incest jokes. At that convention I mentioned, there was this American couple looking through my book and they said, “You have a lot of incest jokes in this book.” I just said I was from Iceland. They just said, “Of course.”
/// They can just pretty much do that for every problem that comes up though. “I’m from Iceland.”
– Yeah. “I’m from Iceland. It’s cold up there.” I think Penguin are putting some information about Iceland on the back of the book, like Iceland has this many sunny days a year and people like putrefied shark, so that explains the book. So that’s what I do, I sit in the darkness and eat putrefied shark and then I make comics. It’s almost correct. I eat and I sit.
/// If you and I are going to do an interview, then we have to talk about the AIDS comic, whether I should have apologised for printing it.
– You don’t have to apologise to me.
/// That’s not my intention. I just wonder if you think it was justified?
– Well, I think it’s the only time ever when there’s been an apology by you guys, by the Grapevine. Is it the only time? Really?
– Well, that’s kind of an honour, in a way. I didn’t make an issue out of it, but I was very curious as to where the guy who complained was coming from because he got really offended because the fact that I mentioned AIDS in a joke context. So AIDS is something you shouldn’t joke about
/// I think he was referring to the 80s pop culture in the U.S. There, derogatory jokes about AIDS got mentioned all the time in pop culture, the most infamous example being Sebastian Bach’s Aids: Kills Fags Dead t-shirt. As I am an American, and I present a mix of American and Icelandic culture, I shouldn’t have presented something that only works in an Icelandic context.
– Yeah, you have seen, living in America, a huge wave of AIDS jokes. Living in America and knowing lots of people dying of AIDS, you’re going to find it offensive. So, I get it.
/// But the joke is more acceptable in an Icelandic context, because you guys have never had that negative stigma. You had a pretty responsible government when AIDS came in to Iceland, and they educated right away, that was the time the gay rights movement started getting going here.
– And besides, this is a story about a man who had AIDS and hid it from his girlfriend until they were married and told it to her going away from the church, so it’s a story about a very irresponsible human being who had AIDS. And it’s what most of the stories are about, like human behaviour gone wrong.
/// And this is why priests like your work so much? Because you focus on the fallibility of man?
– Yes. I think so. Also, I have God there (in my comics), but I don’t really draw God so it’s not really blasphemous. I just make his word balloons come out from the air.
/// What’s the most embarrassing comic you did? One you would be embarrassed to look at while someone else was in the room?
– One joke in Save Us has these three guys, typical stick figures like I draw them, and one of them says “So I’m an albino, so what. Stop looking at me like that!” And I thought it was really funny when I wrote it because I wrote it because in stick figures everyone’s an albino. That was the joke, making fun of the stick figures. But then later on I read it and published it, I thought it was crap.
/// Are there any that stick in your head as the ones that make you laugh as you look at them?
– No, well, I don’t laugh out loud at my jokes when I think of them, not anymore. I do it sometimes when I’m drawing them. Sure there is a lot of stuff I am pleased with, stuff I’ve done at the Grapevine, like the elephant, dolphin and the Christmas story.
/// I’ve got one favourite that is lodged in my brain. A couple on a blind date, and the women says “So that’s the worst thing I ever did. What about you?” And the guy says “I once participated in a gang rape.”
– (Laughing.) That’s one I had in my head for a really long time. I had it in my head before I started doing this. Because I was reading, I saw it in the newspaper a piece about how many people in ten had participated in a gang rape, something like that. A staggering amount of people had participated in rape, and I was kind of blown away that I could walk out of this coffeehouse right now and pass a rapist at one point. I was thinking that and also OK, what kind of lives do these guys live, do they wake up in the morning and go, “Shit, I can’t believe I raped a girl last night, I was soooo drunk.” Are they like that? I mean, how do they think? So I thought of this situation, of a rapist on a date and he would just tell her the truth, you know, it’s like truth or dare, like “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” “Well, I once participated in gang rape. I guess that’s the worst thing I’ve done.” I mean, how do people that do all those horrible things, how do they get through the day? That’s a huge mystery to me and a lot of my stories are a way for me to deal with that.
/// I’m sure that not many people consider it though, until they come across that panel. It’s a perfect and brutal joke.
– Thank you. Do you mean like because people consider the people on the date as soul-less monsters?
/// No, I think they have to think of them as people for just a second. Otherwise, the tendency is just to avoid thinking of bad people. I think it’s something in the Icelandic mentality because it’s a small isolated island and because of the history of legal persecution under Danish rule, that there’s an interest in trying to understand people who commit crimes.
– It really is a weird thing. Because it’s not really possible to understand it. Yeah. That’s what I have to say about that.