The great Danish cartoonist and dramatist Nikoline Werdelin turned fifty today. Highly celebrated in her home country, her daily strip has chronicled the life and times of her countrymen since the mid-80s, with a distinctive voice blending quotidian realism with biting satire. Her plays supplement the ongoing narrative portrait of Denmark she has been building, making the oft-repeated claim that hers is the great Danish contemporary novel of the last 20 years seem less like hyperbole and more like fact with every year.

She debuted as a strip cartoonist in the large, progressive daily Politiken in 1984 with Café, a satirical big city strip that caught acutely the Zeitgeist of those vainglorious boom years. The strip ended in 1988 but was essentially continued under a new name in 1994 with Homo Metropolis, also for Politiken where it has run intermittently ever since. Werdelin debuted as a playwright in 1997 with Liebhaverne, which she also directed, and has since followed it up with another six critically-acclaimed plays, mining the same territory as her strip.

Although a couple of the plays have been performed abroad, she inexplicably is still virtually unknown outside Denmark. Only last year was a selection of her strips translated into English and published in the anthology of contemporary Danish comics, From Wonderland with Love. Universally (and unsurprisingly) singled out by almost every critic as the outstanding contribution to that book, her story “Because I Love You So Much” was nominated for an Eisner award.

As a cartoonist, she is primarily distinguished for her sensitive ear for the vernacular of her time and her sense of spoken rhythm as broken down into four daily panels. Her drawing was always less assured, relying very much on a certain set of formulae refined over the years. Her cool, relief-like approach to design — almost deco in ambition — has invariably been hampered by the gelatinous inelegance of her linework, but with time she has made a virtue of these qualities, commandeering her line into remarkably expressive, ugly portraits of her fellow man, sometimes almost scabrous in their satire.

And she is indeed merciless. A borderline if not full-blown cynic, her coldness is tempered by an exacting sense of humor that betrays her involvement. Plus it brings a rare clarity to her vision — she is a diagnostician rather than a nihilist. A refined observer of people, she has internalised the examples not only of such early cartoonist models as Claire Brétecher and Gérard Lauzier, whose work she has long since transcended, but more significantly the great 18th-century Danish playwright and satirist Ludvig Holberg and the modern tradition for urbane social comedy and satire he helped usher into European theatre and literature.

A cartoonist for our age.

Happy birthday Nikoline!

Werdelin’s website. Fine recent interview (in Danish).
From Wonderland with Love at Aben Maler and Fantagraphics.