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Fattigt skryt review

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Issue number: 2024:1


Fattigt skryt

(Empty Boasting)

by Cecilia Vårhed
reviewed by Darcy Hurford

At first glance, this is a graphic novel that feels very much now. The pastel colours and rainbows that appear frequently, the references to Tinder, job agencies and couch surfing all very much suggest the present day. On more sustained reading, however, there are plenty of more timeless elements, and it’s the combination of the two that make this debut so enjoyable.

Take the structure, to begin with. Fattigt skryt (Empty Boasting) consists of a series of short stories involving the same characters, a similar approach to that traditionally taken by publishers of comics from Disney’s to Bunty to the Beano, albeit in book form. This cast of eight is introduced in a double spread at the start of the book: Älskling, (Darling), Mållgan, Alfons, Love Warrior, Zacke, Action, Ingrid and Giraffa. Giraffa quite definitely looks like a giraffe, while Alfons is a duck with more than a passing resemblance to certain famous American cartoon ducks, although none of the characters ever say anything to imply that they are animals, and both Giraffa and Alfons behave like humans. And in a world of online avatars and filters, the idea of choosing to appear as a giraffe or a duck is not as unreal as it might at first seem.

Love, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme. Darling, who feels like the main character, is crashing at Giraffa’s and has been dumped by her boyfriend. Over the book she pursues some fairly disastrous dates, struggles to find a place to live and also manages a brief – very brief – stint working at a job centre. Mållgan, a man with an absurdly pointy hat, has an equally absurd propensity to fall head over heels in love, which is where Ingrid and later Love Warrior come into things, while Action is a girl Alfons meets online. Zacke is a cynic in a black-and-white striped jumper. Darling, Mållgan, Alfons and Zacke are clearly friends, living in Stockholm, and at a life stage before they have settled down, and are still searching for partners and jobs.

Visually, the novel is rich in associations. There are plenty of pastels, particularly pink and green, which is as evocative of Comet in Moominland-era Tove Jansson as it is of contemporaries like Moa Romanova. But there’s also a lot of a black, and a withdrawal into dark colours or purely black-and-white is deployed several times to convey atmosphere; the story in which Giraffa finally gets tired of Darling living with them and throws her out is rendered more melancholy by the complete absence of colour, while a scene in which Zacke loses consciousness at a party and is threatened by a vampire is told mainly in black with white and a touch of dark blue. Something in the style evokes Japan; whether it’s manga-large eyes, the way that sound-words like ‘BRRRING’ or ‘SLURP’ are often written vertically, or a colour palette that is not a million miles away from the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away (not to mention some of the physical transformations certain characters undergo). It’s a technique suited to conveying feelings rather than realistically depicting situations. Which is the great thing about graphic novels: they can do just that. Empty Boasting is daft, at times quite surreal, but also feels very personal. While it is a lot of fun to read, there are also some sharp observations about the jobs market, housing mental health, and romance in modern times.

The story ends in Malmö, where they have travelled by train to attend a party. Having bought a falafel, as one does in Malmö, Darling catches up with an old friend and gives her an update: ‘Alfons is dating an eighteen-year-old and has like basically lost the plot, Mållgan is totally exploiting my friend Love Warrior…just because he feels lonely. She needs to find herself first! And Zacke oh my god…’. It’s an ending that seems to be asking for a sequel. Hopefully this is not the last we see of these characters.

Cecilia Vårhed sitting in front of posters
Cecilia Vårhed. Photo: Elisabeth Vassiliou.

Fattigt skryt

Galago, 2023

232 pages

Foreign Rights: with the author

Cecilia Vårhed studied at the Comic Art School in Malmö and at Konstfack, the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, and is a regular contributor to various Swedish comics magazines. Fattigt skryt is her debut.