After a rather delayed return from Oslo, which included an unwilling nightly sojourn through London for alternate transportation to Cambridge (courtesy the combined – and perpetual – ineptitude of British Rail and the London Underground) and an even more unwilling stopover at a hostel, I am now sufficiently rested to take a proper look back at the inaugural Oslo Comics Expo, which I just attended. Overall, it must have been a success: it was well-attended and well-organized, there had been a good deal of media attention, and the atmosphere was very pleasant. All of which is made extra impressive by it being a first-time event. However, in some ways one could argue that the copacetic and unassuming attitude of the organizers was also the weakness of a festival that could have attained a higher profile with a little more ambition brought to the programming.

Held in and around Serieteket, Oslo’s well-assorted comics library, in the youthfully hip area of Grünerløkka, the setting was perfect for a festival whose focus was predominantly the diversified field of contemporary comics, with emerging auteur and so-called ‘alternative’ works taking pride of place over mainstream work. A cozy community centre-cum-hip bar as well as an art school studio in the converted and refurbished factory area along the river, Akerselva, provided the perfect locations for additional events, and the afterparties Friday and Saturday night.

On the website and in the published programme, which also contained a diverse selection of short comics, the festival was headed by a somewhat polemical editorial that maintained the primacy of the medium in and of itself, as well as the importance of the alternative, non-lucrative iterations of it. This somewhat missionary rhetoric was wittily challenged in the opening speech delivered by veteran cartoonist Knut Nærum (a markedly historically aware strip cartoonist whose work to an extent echoes Art Spiegelman’s experimental and intertextual cartooning efforts). Nærum challenged the ‘team comics’ spirit of the comics microcosm that he saw exemplified by the editorial in a good-natured but also emphatic way, questioning the wisdom of championing the medium rather than the message – a discussion that continued at the panel I participated in the following day, which closed the festival’s programming. All in all a good discursive subtext to the proceedings.

Focus was on the national, ie. Norwegian, comics scene, with some of its finest contemporary practitioners featured in the program. The country’s most internationally famous cartooning son at the moment, Jason, headed a roster of interesting cartoonists, most notably Lars Fiske and Steffen Kverneland, whose both energetic and insightful gonzo biography of the great Olaf Gulbransson, Olaf G., from a couple of years back, is unquestionably one of contemporary Norwegian comics’ most notable works, and who have recently teamed up on a similarly conceived examination of the work and careers of Edvard Munch and Kurt Schwitters with the recently released Kanon. Unfortunately, my perambulations prevented me from attending the on-stage interview with the former, and the conversation between the latter, on the theme of embarassing youthful works (which, btw, was packed, and reportedly hilarious).

I unfortunately also missed Lene Ask’s presentation of her notable autobiographical debut Hitler, Jesus, farfar og meg (‘Hitler, Jesus, Granddad and me’). My bad. Also present, and representing the newsstand-distributed, humor anthology scene that is the Norwegian mainstream, was Mads Eriksen. Eriksen helms what is probably the most progressive of Norway’s strip magazines, M, and is the man behind its eponymous leading strip – a confidently composed geeky twentysomething post-slacker affair. Eriksen turned out to be a thoughtful guy with an infectious faith in the strip form, despite its obvious stagnation in newspapers and the delerious proliferation of mediocre examples of it on the web.

While my knowledge of it is too rudimentary to fairly judge how representative of, and attractive to, the Norwegian comics scene the roster of Norwegian guests and programming around them was, it seemed to me to be lacking somewhat in the international department. The headliner was, arguably, Argentine cartoonist Leonardo Manco, artist on a run of Hellblazer and various other American mainstream titles. Interesting though he may be, he seemed a little out of place and can in any case hardly be called a major name in comics. One would think that a budget that allowed inviting an artist from across the Atlantic could be spent better. However, this issue became moot because it turned out that he unfortunately could not attend because of passport problems.

This left the festival with only two foreign names (as well as yours truly, I guess): the Swiss cartoonists Kati Rickenbach and Andreas Gefe – of the classic Strapazin studio in Zürich. Both very talented cartoonists deserving of wider recognition (and fine people to boot), but virtually unknown outside comcis circles in Switzerland and Germany. I should think the programming could here have gained significantly from a more commanding presence from the European scene. Add to that that their panel, which did provide a fine showcase of their work and working methods, was slightly ponderous and could have benefited from a better prepared interviewer.

On the other hand, it was as mentioned in many ways the laid-back but enthusiastic attitude of the organizers (very “we’re gonna get who we like”) that made for such an eminently pleasant festival, and it is possible that aiming too high would have compromised that. Here’s hoping the evident success of the inaugural edition has motivated the organizers to continue, and that the festival will see the organic, sustainable growth it deserves in the future.

Images of organizer Andreas Wang at the OCX table and of Rickenbach and Gefe, taking a break from signing. Check out our entire photoseries from OCX 07 here.