The amazing cover image of Bendik Kaltenborn’s Adult Contemporary depicts a ‘man’ in a pink suit with a elegant line that becomes bolder as it leads your eye down to his ochre paws. This man is a fancy blonde. He is made up with a circle of dark blue eye shadow and a delicate lipsticked frown surrounded by a thin Van Dyke. Their sex unclear, they nevertheless comport themselves with absolute dignity…
The book’s french fold reveals a white kid glove, pearls and cigarettes, the luxurious accessories of this post-gender businessperson.
On the flip side of the french flap we behold, from the viewpoint of a frightened bumpkin, a huge Ogre, also blonde, lips covered in blood (another kind of lipstick?) as he munches on a severed human leg. The Ogre’s huge wang dangles.
Definitely a male.
With these first images, in his first solo book for an English language market, Kaltenborn signals his main themes: masculinity, role playing, culture and savagery. This book is about surfaces — of society, of business, of the costumes we wear and the language with which we try to disguise our foolishness. To be an Adult Contemporary is to act a charade in Kaltenborn’s world. The performance can be dignified, silly, or both. But the flip side of the man… is the Beast!!!
This is actually the umpteenth release of the Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, if you count the dozens of zines that he produced as a member of the Oslo-based artist collective Dongery. Dongery means “pants” (not Dong-ness). Along with Flu Hartberg, Sindre Goksøyr, Kristoffer Kjølberg, and others, Dongery have been a presence at North American comics festivals like SPX and MoCCA since 2004. A mind-boggling slipcase edition Just Sayin’: The Complete Dongery, was published by No Comprendo in 2012, collecting their entire mini comics output.
Rumor has it the Norwegian government bought enough of Just Sayin’ to place them in every high school library around the country, which inspires visions of a generation of youngsters thinking Dongery’s jam comics, papier-mache characters and nonsense internet collages are part of some sort of historical canon, with unpredictable results.
Perhaps the populace will simply chant “Bring Back Veslemøy!” as they do in the comments published here along with Kaltenborn’s surprising foray into newspaper syndication, BUM. The erstwhile Dongerian was tapped to provide a two-week guest strip for the major newspaper Dagbladet. Kaltenborn submitted a sort of Zits parody he had already drawn, despite his “strongly presuming that it was way too stupid or weird for publishing.” Kaltenborn’s comic was accepted by the editor but was received less enthusiastically by the readers. The longhaired teenage “Bum” wears a condom on his head, complains of foreskin problems, and mops up a parking lot with his…bum. Proving that opinions are like assholes, readers responded Freudtastically: “I thought is was impossible to produce worse crap than Veslemøy. I was wrong. But now we’ve definetily[sic] reached the bottom.” And: “WTF????….if you’re gonna make a funny comic there’s two specific things you should master: Above average drawing skills and something called HUMOR!”
BUM is a great comic but an even better sociological experiment.
In defiance of Dagbladet’s anonymous commentator, I find Kaltenborn’s drawing skills and humor to be exactly his areas of mastery. This volume collects mostly post-Dongery work and comics made outside of the collective. The energy of Kaltenborn’s drawing is striking: He has a loose, open line, angular but slightly quavery, influenced by classic mid-20th century cartooning– Donald Duck, but also Cowboy Henk, Beano, and everything in Kramers Ergot. Olivier Schrauwen and Keith McCulloch’s Utility Sketchbook are close neighbors. A joy in quick slapped-down Photoshop coloring is reminiscent of Ben Jones. But mostly, and on every page, one sees the inspired posturing and weird pantomime body language that comes from drawing tons of sketchbook comics, trying to elicit the biggest guffaws from friends.
There are a lot of comics in here about men behaving badly: A male secretary breaks his pencil from using too much force, causing his boss to get drunk and quote Hemingway; a feral CEO type blathers on the phone, “You know what I say? Use Brute Force!”; a fat naked hairy writer named Larry insults Bendik Kaltenborn’s design for his new book’s cover; in a series called “The Wolf Hour”, drunken men in suits teach a parrot to say swear words, and go to Rio, where they ride Segways; Stockbroker Hank throws a glass of wine on his dog’s face.
Nearly every story is about some sort of douchebag. I would call this well-observed Capitalist Realism: what you see if you find yourself in a sports bar where guys who work in the financial sector are letting it all hang out. This is an accurate portrayal of a male-dominated social order called ‘civilization’. Idiotic beastly men in suits acting like children.
The best story in here is probably “Our Heist”, the tale of Mortimer and his loser friends, who are emboldened by greed, beer, and boredom to knock over “Uncle Scrooge’s Money Bin…Lorenskøg Bank”. The vile men, taking over the basement and using Mortimer’s son’s toys to act out their scenario, piss off Mortimer’s wife to such a degree that she double crosses them.
In addition to its excellent use of Absolute Cartoon Language (the bank teller looks like Fido Dido and drags a humongous bag with “$” written on it), and its gorgeous use of color, this yarn feels like a complete short story. The “bungled heist” is a familiar trope, but this comic feels fresh. Perhaps it is the stupid cheerfulness of the merchants making their deposits in the bank (“I’ve sold enough Bruce Cockburn tapes to buy myself a waterbed!”), or the play with scale between Mortimer, his son, and the toys. “Our Heist” is both a satire of capitalism, and of those who naively seek to game the system- losing their family in the process. Interestingly, this story was based on an actual, unsolved crime committed in Norway in 1983– itself inspired by the Beagle Boys of Donald Duck!
Will you be as well nourished by all the one-pagers that make up about half of Adult Contemporary? It depends on your appetite for non sequitur. In the fragmentary nature of this book, Kaltenborn seems akin to other humorists of our times, such as Lisa Hanawalt, whose strength lies in short subjects rather than extended narratives, but whose books can feel a little like illustration portfolios. One thing is clear- Kaltenborn’s drawing is always brilliant, and his one pagers are revelatory on their own terms, occaisonally approaching the opacity of Zen Koans. The reader will wonder: “What is it that makes me laugh aloud at this cartoon of two frogs falling and falling through the air, to land in armchairs?”
Finally there are the double page spreads of watercolor drawings that punctuate the book, made for no particular assignment, while in a cabin in the woods called Blaffen, which translates to “Get Lost”. Kaltenborn says “I always listen to the radio or music while making these watercolors and the strange thing is that I can always recall exactly what I listened to while drawing the specific lines, like I record what I hear into the drawing.” Some draw their imagery from fairy tales– they are still funny, but the humor is more desparate and related to horror. Others are very dark, taking place in hotel rooms and apartments. They touch on a deeper, weirder reservoir of feeling. Silly, unsettling, banal, and stupid all at once, their concoction of moods recalls David Lynch. These watercolors are an important part of the book, a productive departure into a new and uncharted contemporary Hell.
And there is also a drawing of a woman farting while running a vacuum cleaner.