The avant-garde is no place for a squeamish cartoonist — let alone two. They need unshakable faith in their medium, supreme confidence in their skill and it helps to be from Amsterdam, where razing the norm is a national pastime.
Dutch cartoonists Tobias Schalken and Stefan van Dinther are poster boys for the front lines, and their Toronto Comic Arts Festival reading in May was one of the festival’s highlights. In broken English, aided by a translator and a glowing laptop, they held the modest crowd at the Victory Café; in thrall with their psychotropic cartoons and comic experiments. It was as though a pair of extraterrestrials had landed with a satchel of cosmic comics, and we would never be the same.
Back home they’re known as Toob and Steef. “Over here,” says Schalken by email, “comics are mainly an infantile business and I don’t feel very comfortable in the scene.” By way of rebuttal, he and van Dinther make a serial called Eiland, published by Belgian imprint Bries, that treats the comic form like a squash ball ricocheting between its artists’ imaginations. Every issue has a cluster of stories that vary wildly in style and tone, from maundering musings to cold silence, from freehand swirls to suffocating realism. It’s an alternating current of chaos and confusion… or so it looks at first. A careful reading reveals a quietly wrought order beneath the cacography and a set of firm, if grandiose, convictions — like the malleability of time and space — that the comics’ recurring motifs and lateral presentation convey with baffling clarity.
Every time you read an Eiland story, you discover something new: another detail, another pattern, another way one panel relates to the next or to the whole. The correlations are dizzying.
Perhaps it’s only natural that their climb to the heavens began outside the comics field. Though both eventually enrolled in art school, van Dinther first studied computer science. His website displays his Boolean tendencies. It’s full of lofty, logic-twisting comics and animation, and games, including one that kills your avatar if you don’t leap hurdles, shake hands and kiss feet as fast as possible. “How to tell/show things is really my main interest,” he emails. “I’m not much of a storyteller.”
Schalken’s methods are more tactile. He’s a sculptor, an art instructor and former ballet prodigy. His unsettling sculptures (see them at his website) sport the same corpuscular flesh as his painted cartoons and his installations use the tawny metals and stained wood of his comic scenery. His voice is the gristle — roughly the Lennon to van Dinther’s whimsical, if nowhere as syrupy, McCartney.
Their extracurricular work sets the stage for their comical tinkering, their constant futzing with the medium’s strictures to isolate then override its circuitry. Time, place, perspective, character, story — the medium’s sacred components — are mere signposts. “I just try finding an authentic way of telling the stories I want to tell in the best possible way, which means partly (re)inventing the language,” Schalken emails. “And with the possibility of becoming pretentious and silly, which is not that bad.”
One Eiland story draws character and background in separate panels, a poignant metaphor for isolation. Another runs simultaneously through the eyes of a fly, a girl reading a comic book (which gets its own spin-off a page later), a man fondling a woman, and said fondlee reading his thought balloon. Many of the pieces are silent, a concession to non-Dutch readers — though animation at the pair’s website, http://www.eiland.cc, is aptly scored in baroque strains. Despite the slim semantics, a single story can occupy the reader for days.
The pair plow headlong through the objection that comics are unfit to juggle with profundity. R. Crumb once wrote, “To imbue comics with serious literary subtlety seems absurd to me.” Toob and Steef beg to differ. “I have always preferred a heroic failure,” says Schalken, “above a safe success.”