Around ten-and-a-half years ago, in April of 2000, the first issue of Rackham was released to a mostly indifferent Danish audience. The comics market had been in a slump for a decade, very few comics of interest were being published, the underground was struggling to find its sea legs after years of neglect, the comics internet was in its infancy, and there was no comics criticism to speak of. In its own hopelessly overblown fashion, Rackham was an attempt to set all that straight. How my co-editor, co-publisher and compadre Thomas Thorhauge and myself figured that was going to work, I don’t recall, and in any case I guess the ambition was mostly unacknowledged, even by ourselves.
To make matters worse, the magazine had been almost two years in the making, mostly because I was learning the ropes of producing such a thing, and had to rely on a designer who understandably had better things to do than work on a sophomoric vanity project for the gutter of a subcultural niche. So it actually felt a bit old when it arrived, focusing as it did almost exclusively on the 1990s apotheosis of the so-called “British Invasion” in American comics — Alan Moore’s masterwork From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s triumphant finish of Sandman, and Dave McKean’s flawed, but still pretty great and now inexplicably overlooked Cages (to my mind, none of these creators have burned as brightly since then, though Moore still occasionally sparks).
What was starting to happen, however, was comics reaching a critical mass as the diverse art form it is becoming acknowledged as today. Chris Ware’s long-serialised game changer of a graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, was published in collected form, Dan Clowes kindled pale fire in David Boring, David B. was in the middle of his oneiric magnum opus L’Ascension du haut mal, Anke Feuchtenberger was expanding the field of comics into the uncanny, Fabrice Neaud was making the personal political in his Journals, and Joe Sacco had gone to former Yugoslavia.
This, really, was the development we foremost wanted to chronicle, and we caught up with it as well as we could manage in issue 2 that October, an issue that more reliably set the tone of what was becoming both an aesthetic and political project, and which culminated in our book, Forandringstegn — De nye tegneserier (‘Signs of Change — The New Comics’), at the very end of 2004. Originally intended as our issue 6, this book introduced to Danish readers much more emphatically the new wave of comics, both through in-depth interviews with and short comics by a number of key creators (David B., Ben Katchor, Anke Feuchtenberger, Martin tom Dieck, Jim Woodring and Dylan Horrocks, to be precise).
But to return to that first issue, it expressed — inarticulately, but still — what we wanted to do. Rereading the editorial, I realise to what extent the ideas it expresses embryonically anticipate our thinking about comics to the present. Here’s an excerpt:
“God rest his dark soul!
It was with these words that the ancestor of Captain Haddock, the Knight of Haddock, dispatched the villainous pirate Rackham the Red. While Haddock was on the floor, ecstatic, with a painting around his neck and a cutlass in his hand.
For yours truly, that was between fifteen and twenty years ago, and it made a big impression. The kind of irreverent, yet sophisticated humour, combined with an exquisite sense of adventure and the imaginary that Tintin represents should not be underestimated. The fine arts are torn off the walls and unabashedly employed in the service of storytelling. Ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
While we were certainly aware of the central characteristics of postmodernism, I don’t think we quite realised at the time how important the still ongoing revaluation of the heritage of modernism and the dissolution of high and low distinctions in culture was becoming to the evolution of comics in the following years. What we did believe was that the aesthetic relativism of postmodernism was a theoretical and ultimately suffocating cul-de-sac. Rackham was always about judgement, aesthetic and beyond.
What the editorial further evinces was our commitment to comics history and its importance to understanding the medium today, something we dealt with especially in our third and fifth issues — the former mashing up Carl Barks and Prince Valiant with Joe Sacco, the latter examining superhero comics as a tradition. The rediscovery, redefinition and revaluation of the classics and their peregrinations through modernity are naturally foundational of the creation, but also crucial to the understanding and appreciation of comics today. This is evident not only from the glorious wave of reprints of historical comics through the past decade, but their creative resurrection at the minds and hands of a new generation of cartoonists.
The only image I have of myself and Thorhauge together is this authors’ photo from Forandringstegn, taken by Rasmus Dengsø in the summer of 2004.
Rackham was our contribution to the ongoing conversation about comics in Denmark, such as it was — an attempt at rejuvenating the at the time faltering and always rather modest tradition of comics criticism in the country. To what extent we succeeded or not I’m not really in a position to say, but it certainly got hot once we strode into the still but troubled waters of the Danish comics scene. Our fourth issue was an attempt critically to catalogue the work and career of a selection of our most significant cartoonists of the last 30 years. Let’s just say that not everyone sympathised with our selections.
This project became an ongoing concern for us, first in 2003 with an exhibition of Danish comics in Paris accompanied by an anthology published by the great people at Le Frémok, and since with the 2006 anthology BLÃ†K, which united 28 Danish artists, many of them working the field between traditional comics and the fine arts tradition, to suggest where (Danish) comics might head when guided by creativity and innovation.
This unfortunately happened just as the shit hit the fan in the depressing tragicomedy surrounding the so-called “Danish cartoons” on the theme of the Prophet Mohammad. Our rejection of a contribution from the great strip cartoonist Ivar Gjørup, which we found below his usual standard, led to a minor cartoon crisis of our own, as our act of censorship was suddenly plastered all over the Danish media for what amounted to a short week before it was forgotten again.
Needless to say, the Danish cartoons occupied much of our time through 2006. Rackham had been running as a website since 2002, which expanded our critical mission to include news coverage and debate. We still believe that we created a lively resource somewhere at the centre of Danish comics culture during those years, and that the website in many ways succeeded in generating the critical discourse around comics that the magazine had not to the same extent. This is no surprise of course, seeing that those were the years when the comics press was gradually but surely leaving print behind.
The double whammy of cartoon crisis and BLÃ†K-related controversy, plus the fact that I am living abroad, however led to our choice in January 2007 to close down Rackham as a publisher and website. Though a little sad, this was also a liberating decision, resulting amongst other things in the creation of this blog and my being able to devote more time to writing about comics elsewhere. And Thomas, whose remarkable debut as a cartoonist, Det der går forud (‘What Goes Before’), more or less coincided with the launch of Rackham, was finally able to complete his second, more ambitious, and critically acclaimed graphic novel, Kom Hjem (‘Come Home’) last year.
In the ten years since Rackham was first published, comics have changed immensely, not the least in Denmark. Shortly after we commenced publication, the later contributor to Rackham and editor-to-be of Kom Hjem, Julie Paludan-Müller, started pushing a certain comic named Persepolis on the Danish publishers. It eventually became the first in a by-now fairly impressive wave of Danish translations of the best international graphic novels by several publishers. Concurrently, manga arrived in force on Danish shores, for a while energising the market for kids’ comics. Although we did our best, it remains our biggest regret that we never managed to devote as much time to Japanese and East Asian comics at Rackham as we wanted — an ambitious project was in the pipeline for a while, but went nowhere.
Not even manga, however, has been able to revive what remains a small, fragile market. The big two mainstream publishers, Carlsen and Serieforlaget, fused a couple of years ago, which led to an EU-prompted monopoly investigation, resulting in a large part of their comics division being separated into a new, independent publisher, Cobolt Comics. The consequence has been an increasing apathy on their part; they seem practically to be shutting down comics publication these months, firing or reassigning their editors and keeping on keel only their faltering flagship Disney comics. Add to this the problems experienced by newspapers worldwide and the concomitant problems for the newspaper strip, which has always been a strong tradition in Denmark.
Fortunately though, a number of independent publishers have shot up in the interim, most interestingly Aben Maler, run by Steffen Rayburn-Maarup, another occasional Rackhamite who has joined the by now venerable house of Fahrenheit as a guarantor of new quality comics in Danish — most recently, remarkably, and indeed poignantly, with a beautiful Danish edition of Jimmy Corrigan. And more importantly, a new generation of cartoonists are coming to the fore, bringing ambitious new ideas to the medium, expanding its potentialities in new directions, even if Denmark is still somewhat lagging behind its Nordic brethren as a comics nation.
Thomas and I have continued our work in Danish comics, co-founding last year the Danish Comics Council, a grassroots organisation working to increase and promote the knowledge of, and appreciation for, comics in Denmark. We are also part of the group behind the new Danish comics website Nummer9 (‘Number 9’), which unites a broader range of viewpoints and brings a more egalitarian sensibility to criticism and journalism than did Rackham. On its editorial board, among others, sits also Henry Sørensen, who for years has been an invaluable part of the Rackham team. An occasional contributor to this site, he remains one of the best writers on comics in Denmark. If only we could get him to write more…
And its (dis)appearance notwithstanding, Rackham is not quite dead. As it did continuously through its years of high activity, it is merely in the process of mutating further. Soon, a major book project, which once again has me collaborating with Rackham‘s brilliant and award-winning designer Frederik Storm, will see the light of day. It’s significantly bigger than us, both in scope and in terms of who is involved, but it retains the core values of our operation and I for one believe that it wouldn’t be as good had it not been for our decade in comics.
To celebrate Rackham‘s decade in comics, the Metabunker will be running English translations of a number of our pieces on key works of international comics in the naughts for the next months. This should give an impression not just of Rackham as it evolved, but more importantly of some of the great achievements of the comics form of the past decade. To alleviate somewhat the embarrassment that our youthful scribblings is sure to bring, we will be supplementing the offering with a few fresh texts as well.
For an overview of Rackham‘s publications, see our ‘works’ section. The illustration at the top is Thorhauge’s interpretation of the Tintin sequence from the Secret of the Unicorn that inspired that first editorial.