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Comic artist seeks to rekindle creative curiosity within his work

Tom Karlsson of Sweden discusses his quest to return to a state of youthful wonderment, and its centrality to his artistic practice.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jan 11, 2021

Swedish comic artist Tom Karlsson, or as he is better known on Instagram,, continues to evolve his striking practice out of a search for the youthful curiosity with which he began illustrating. As he tells STIR, he is a middle-aged man who grew up in Linköping, Sweden, and after delivering a ‘catastrophic’ interview that prevented him from finding his way into art school, developed a distaste for institutionalised creative learning. He would eventually leave for the island of Gotland, where he is currently located, and has spent his time there immersed in experimental animation and more recently, coding, while working part-time as a librarian.

Work in progress | | STIRworld
Work in progress Image:

Karlsson does not consider himself an illustrator in the strictest sense anymore. He rarely takes commissions as he does not wish to burn out, having already taken a five-year break from the craft. Instead, he immerses himself within his coding work, and only applies himself to his comic practice very sparingly and with the intention of locating what he describes as the “innocent playfulness” of his younger explorations. These early efforts at producing short, fast-paced comics were undertaken at a time before Karlsson himself became aware of his consummate skill, and this realisation has caused him great frustration. In his own words, “I became self-critical and vain. The battle between the playful child and the talented creator has been going on ever since. That struggle is one of the reasons I jump between forms of expression, all to escape the rigidity that occurs when you get good at something”. He extends his self-critique to the larger industry built around creative practice, and says, “The industry turns me off. The machinery. I want and need to produce in my own context”.  

Friends and Meteor | | STIRworld
Friends and Meteor Image:

When combining Karlsson’s internal and external outlooks, one may invoke the image of a practiced and highly introspective artist, who lives within a state of hermitage, applying his creative faculties towards excavating both, the craft he practices, as well as his own psyche. This is likely not too far off from the truth of his context, however, it does little to expound upon the nihilistic humour that is to be found in spades within his panels. His comics often feel as though they drop readers within the middle of darkly funny events, forcing them to piece together what came before and what may come after. Karlsson tends to agree with this assessment, and claims this narrative style arose out of him having spent many years hidden away in a basement, producing his work primarily for his own amusement. As he expands upon this, he takes on a fittingly humorous tone, and explains, “the absence of an audience can have a laxative effect as well as cause constipation. At least that's what I have experienced. You can easily become cautious and anxious if you feel observed. At least, that’s my experience”. He adds, “To devotedly illustrate an unimaginably incomprehensible or wholly meaningless event, that gives rise to a tickling uncertainty, which, in turn gives birth to an infinite number of possible scenarios, is to play with the least furnished spaces of the brain. How receptive you are to this is of course correlated with how empty it echoes inside”.

Emil the Happy Lion | | STIRworld
Emil the Happy Lion Image:

This aspect of emptiness and the possibilities it creates is a recurring theme within Karlsson’s work, most keenly ascertainable in the purgatorial landscapes that form his backdrops, often perpetuating the impression that there may be some entity, wholly unknowable to the reader, lurking just beyond the horizon or behind the trees. It is however, equally possible that his actors are, in the truest sense of the word, alone. Karlsson seems to be aware of this, “It is interesting that one can imagine that randomness is a form of universal dark force, when it is really only a presentation of connections that exceed our capacity to perceive, and thereby trigger confusion and capitulation in the face of something inconceivable”. He finds this aspect of his art immensely fascinating and calls it a “beautiful occultism” that he enjoys crawling within for shelter.

An example of the artist’s moody colour choices | Useless and Free | | STIRworld
An example of the artist’s moody colour choices Image:

Karlsson’s work oscillates between presenting itself in subdued, muted colours, and alternatively, none at all. He finds the topic of colour to be a sensitive one, and mentions that he generally hates using them. Before his hiatus from drawing, he admits to having been a hardliner on the matter and worked exclusively in black and white, as is par for the course with regards to the underground comic culture that informs his practice. Despite being older and more pragmatic now, Karlsson will only use colours as a means to lure online audiences into the folds of his work, and even then, will often relegate them entirely in favour of black and white line art.

To expand upon the comic culture alluded to above, Karlsson mentions that he was very impressed by the material published in the Swedish adult comic magazines of his youth, and cites artists such as Robert Crumb and Hans Arnold among his influences. He says that the impressions made upon him by these magazines, as well as some slightly more mainstream publications such as MAD are lifelong, but maintains that, above all, he prefers to create from a “consciously imagined no-man’s land”.

Bird Dude | | STIRworld
Bird Dude Image:

Karlsson has participated in a number of comic books and fanzines over the years, and has even held a few small exhibitions in Sweden. Additionally, he sells signed prints of his work on occasion and is currently in the process of growing a clothing line. Karlsson also explains that he has published a book called Stolle Bengtsson (Kolik forlag, 2006), which was intended to be the first in a series. He describes it as a “fragile project”, admitting that, while it was an enjoyable venture at first, it became increasingly hard for him to tap into the sense of playfulness he wished to seek out with the project, and hence, he closed it after the first book.

Finally, curious as to where the artist wanted to see his work go in the future, he hinted at a mix of fear and excitement at the prospect of expanding his online presence. “I have realised that I feel good about inviting strangers to my world, when I can do it on my terms. I can see myself continue to produce as I do now, which is when I have the time and nothing else needs to be done for cash. That would be ok, and the least risky path. But, at the same time, I feel a worrying and thrilling desire to shift up. Get more time to draw. Start working bigger. Have exhibitions. participate in unexpected contexts. And above all, spread the doctrine af brockbrock,” he said.

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