A comic book depicts a life in a creative way

Steffen Kverneland, Norway’s bold and brilliant cartoonist

Photo: Lise Åserud / NTB
Steffen Kverneland is an award-winning Norwegian cartoonist of international acclaim.

Tove Andersson

Norway’s cartoonist No. 1 has done it again. Steffen Kverneland, born in Haugesund on Norway’s west coast in 1963, is the creator of the cartoon book Munch (2016), but in 2014 he exceeded this work with En frivillig dødA Voluntary Death—which is an insightful biography that reflects on his father’s suicide.

Kverneland, who was bold in his interpretation of Edvard Munch, is once again bold in his description of what seems like a traditional family—if it were not for his father’s many projects.

In the course of creating the book, a series of drawings made on a board his father once gave him, the author learned more about his family of seamen.

As an illustrator and cartoonist, Kverneland was the winner of the 2018 Ministry of Culture’s Prize for best cartoon, winner of the 2018 Book Blogger’s prize for best non-fiction, “Årets vakreste Bøker” (The Year’s Most Beautiful Books), and the Swedish Academy of Comics’ international prize.

The Munch biography, the result of eight years of demanding work, was called the strongest single work in Norwegian comic book history. NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, named the work one of the 10 most important books over a decade.

For Munch, Kverneland was the first cartoonist to receive the prestigious Brage Prize in the non-fiction category. Munch has been translated into 11 languages. Kverneland also received The Library’s Literary Prize 2022—and it does not stop there.

Kverneland’s biography of Munch is told exclusively through firsthand sources, completely without any reverent distance to the material. The approach has been called innovative. The book depicts Munch’s relationships with colleagues, authors, critics, and women. Connoisseurs of Munch’s paintings can enjoy Kverneland’s interpretations, exaggerations, and burlesque humor, and novices will have a completely different introduction to the artist, who is known for using autobiographical material. And now, all of that is exactly what we encounter in A Voluntary Death.

En frivilig død—A Voluntary Death—is a deeply personal look at the death of author Steffen Kverneland’s father.

In 1981, Odd Kverneland took his life by carbon monoxide poisoning. His son Steffen was only 18. This heavy story Kverneland manages to tell with drawings, pictures­—and even humor—without creating a one-dimensional image, is quite the opposite.

While Munch was described as playful, A Voluntary Death is described as a dark masterpiece. In it, the author takes the reader back to his childhood, with a father who invented exercise equipment and received a prize as an inventor. As in the biography of Munch, narrated exclusively through first-hand sources in the form of quotations, A Voluntary Death can be compared to the method, with quotes, and letter from a family member is drawn. The text is often in dialect that are not familiar to all Norwegians, some of the expressions are probably his father’s invention.

The use of color in the books may seem gloomy, tearing at the soul, but then it brightens up in summer holiday memories and fun details such as a 59-foot staircase to the cabin, built by his father and a hose from the well through the wall to the kitchen. Odd was employed at the barrel factory Østensjø Tønnefabrikk after having been a machinist at sea—and he applied his inventive talents at home.

The text in A Voluntary Death is handwritten and reader-friendly. As each page contains little text, it is almost like leafing through a family album, only the pictures are mostly drawings, skillful and tasteful, humorous and dark, even melancholic.

The development of the story explains both the feelings a young boy is left with, the impact on him later in life, and an explanation. Finally, a feeling of forgiveness can be gleaned from the text; there is no blame in this biography.

In 2021, the Financial Times named the Oslo-based independent bookshop Tronsmo “the best bookshop in the world.” Established in 1973, it is located in the heart of the city. Tronsmo placed Kverneland’s Munch and his most recent book SkyggerShadows—on its bestseller list. This last book published in 2023 is about everyday happiness that can be crushed at any moment by sudden crises such as war, pandemic, illness or death, but also about the love between father and an adopted son.

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.