By Amanda DeMarco
REYKJAVIK: I meet Ólafia Svansdottir and Hugleikur Dagsson in Tíu Dropar, a garden-level cafe in central Reykjavík with faded wallpaper but fast internet. Hugleikur makes comics. In fact, according to him, he’s “the only comic book artist in Iceland actually selling books at any rate.” He and Ólafia run Okeibækur*, a publishing house that they founded to “make something that looked like a comic book industry in Iceland,” says Hugleikur.
Ólafia and Hugleikur make for a fun but difficult interview. They’re witty and sarcastic, and both profess a hatred of “boring stuff” which seems to cover much of what makes up normal publishing life. (Luckily the large publisher Forlagið takes care of their distribution and advertising.) But behind each joke they make, there’s an insight, and a real sense of impatience with anything bloated, button-downed, or uninspired — my questions included!
Just don’t peg them as naïve or unrealistic; Ólafia has a publishing background and Hugleikur’s long history of success with his comics makes him no stranger to the book industry. It makes sense; if you’re surviving in a tiny market with narrow margins, running a lean business and having an allergy for bullsh*t would be real assets.
Okeibækur publishes comics and graphic novels by Hugleikur and other authors, some children’s books, and “other kinds of geek culture” such as Zombie Iceland, a zombie-apocalypse novel/Reykjavik travel guide, all in one.
I downloaded a copy of Zombie Iceland a few days before meeting with Ólafia and Hugleikur, and in the mean time it taught me that Icelanders own a lot of firearms, that Iceland has a herd of reindeer numbering around 7,000 originally imported from Norway, that those sweaters I see everyone wearing are called lopapeysa, that Icelandic parents actually still force their children to take fish oil . . . and I’ve been entertained by what I must say is not too shabby a zombie tale. I’m not someone who puts much stock in guidebooks, but this is an approach I could warm up to.
As for the children’s books, they’re “a bit different from your typical Disney book,” Ólafia says. So far two of them have been translations, including “an old Danish hippie book” about how babies are made. “They’re books we remember from when we were six years old. We didn’t even think about selling them for children. It’s all about adults and nostalgia.”
I ask Hugleikur if he thinks there’s something particularly Icelandic about the humor in his comics. He says that whenever he talks to foreign journalists, they ask him if his sense of humor is particularly Icelandic. This seems to be his answer, and I spend a strange moment anxiously wondering if all of my questions are the sort that foreign journalists typically ask Iceland’s most prominent comic book artist.
“I have this theory,” Hugleikur says at length, apparently conceding to give me something to write down, “if it’s a cold country, the sense of humor is cold as well.” It’s clear he’s said it before.
They’re simple affairs, his comics, line drawings, often just one panel. What’s so great about them is that they’re smart but not afraid to be stupid. Or disgusting. Or violent. And yet they don’t insist on it. You’re as likely (okay maybe somewhat less likely) to see a silly pun as an incestuous scatological disembowelment. His books are displayed prominently in all of the bookstores here, and some of them have been published abroad by Penguin, among other houses.
Ólafia and Hugleikur’s enthusiasm really shines through when I ask them to “tell me about the fun stuff,” upcoming projects, that is. At first I’m surprised when Ólafia brightly tells me that they’re doing “a lifestyle book,” based on a fashion blog, “you know, one of the ones where the girl gives style advice.” But she quickly explains “it’s totally ironic.” “She’s in character all the time as this crazy bitch!” Hugleikur finishes with gusto.
There will also be a new series of graphic novels about different possible ends to the world, all written by Hugleikur but illustrated by various artists. The time span for the releases: five years. Fun and far-sighted!
I meet up with Hugleikur again at last month’s Frankfurt Book Fair and we sit outside in the sunshine to talk about how things are going. “It’s very inspiring as an artist. I got tons of ideas just walking through the comic section, and even the stationary section. And as a small company, the world is opening up to us here. We get a broader view of things, especially other small publishers.”
This was Okeibæ’s first fair, but since Hugleikur’s comics have been translated before, they have good contacts. Publishers in the Czech Republic and France who didn’t know about his more recent books “jumped at the chance” to get them, and there’s a lot of interest in Zombie Iceland too. “And,” Hugleikur says, “we’re still just scratching the surface!”
*Okeibæ means “Okay bye.” Bæker means “books.” Which makes Okeibækur a cute little untranslatable pun.
Amanda DeMarco is a contributing editor of Publishing Perspectives. She also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.
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