Comic books struggled for years to shrug off the charge that they were irredeemably trivial. No more. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a unique retelling of the Holocaust, based on his father’s recollections of internment in the Auschwitz death camp, was the change-maker that lifted the genre on to a higher plane of cultural acceptance.
In Spiegelman junior’s Orwellian recasting, Jewish concentration camp victims are portrayed as mice and Germans and Poles as cats and pigs. A collected volume of his Maus comic strips won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992; the first graphic “novel” to earn such an accolade. From then on, no one could convincingly claim that the comic sector had an exclusive obsession with fictional square-jawed super-heroes and tales of intergalactic annihilation.
To some extent this modern-day “Munch” is a long-term beneficiary of that Pulitzer award, since it broadened the range of what subjects could be respectably included in comic books. It’s also a symptom of the general vigour and innovation of comics and graphic novels today.
Strictly speaking, Munch is a graphic biography, so it is tethered to the “facts” of a lived life. But there is so much that is hallucinatory, Rabelaisian and idiosyncratic in Edvard Munch’s own experiences that the lines between fantastical imagination and evidential reality blur without difficulty. That makes the life of the celebrated Norwegian expressionist painter and printmaker a near-perfect subject for graphic illustration.
Early on in the book, Steffen Kverneland, the author and illustrator, establishes a visual vocabulary, both hilarious and grotesque, in laying the groundwork of the friendship between Munch and the melancholic Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. Munch, his face a livid yellow and black-eyed scowl, is shown cigarette in mouth, smoke rings of outrage furling up from his brow, declaiming: “I hate everything and everybody but myself.” A chastened and wary yellow-eyed Strindberg responds: “You are lucky. I hate myself as well.”
And in terms of the Berlin milieu, where Munch began to earn an international reputation for his work, life doesn’t get a great deal better. Munch is regarded by his bohemian circle as a solitary egocentric – even when he joined with them in what Kverneland terms a “diabolical pursuit of inebriation and erotic licentiousness” – at their favourite Berlin haunt, “Zum schwarzen Ferkel” (The Black Piglet).
Elsewhere, the artist’s amours are illustrated in appropriately erotic panels, but Kverneland has done exhaustive homework about Munch’s psyche so there is no pandering to the trope that Munch was the classic case of an artist who exploited his models for sexual gratification. Indeed Kverneland, who spent seven years creating this novel, manages to be both deadly serious in mining the facts of his subject’s life as well as being a great hoot in offering discursive visual panels to background his research work, sometimes in the style of Mad or Viz.
Of course no review of Munch would be worth its salt unless it touched on Munch’s emblematic work ‘The Scream’ which Kverneland renders wonderfully well. He produces a fascinating kaleidoscope of photographs-cum-drawings to illustrate where Munch may have found the vantage point and location for his best-known painting. Kverneland also does a marvellous job of replicating Munch’s actual work. Whether proto-Expressionist, or combined-photograph-and-illustration, or ultimate-vulgar-Viz style, his illustrations are luminously brilliant throughout.
By John Munch
By Steffen Kverneland
Translated from the Norwegian by Francesca M. Nichols
Published by SelfMadeHero
John Munch started his journalism career as a reporter and editor on the Cambridge News. He then worked successively for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, The Guardian and the London Evening Standard. In the the 1970s, he lived in Canada and reported for the Toronto Star, before returning to the UK to spend 25 years on the Financial Times.
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