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The Webcomic Overlook #70: Anders Loves Maria

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The world is going through a reverse Tower of Babel. Everyone’s speaking one language: English. And one of its victims is the once proud French music industry. An article in the Wall Street Journal, “France’s Lyrical Movement,” reveals that France — a country highly protective of its language — requires, by law, “that at least 40% of all songs played on radio or television are in French.” However, the French language seems to be losing ground. Musicians who want to be recognized globally and reach the largest audience possible know that they must perform in English.

In a nutshell:

The French debate over English lyrics is part of the country’s larger struggle with the forces of globalization—whether in the world of business or pop culture. There is the France that acknowledges English is now key to most successful business careers, and that introduces the language at ever-earlier stages in its educational system. And then there is the country that refuses to accept English as the language of international communication and forces companies and advertisers to translate every document and slogan into French.

What’s changed? Mainly, the internet. When people go looking for music, they don’t turn, exclusively, to the cultural microcosms of radio or TV anymore. The article mentions that, for the new generation of fans, “the favorite tune on their iPod playlist might have come from the band’s site on MySpace, a YouTube video or an MP3 from a friend’s memory stick.”

There are strong parallels between French musicians and comics. Comic choices, previously marginalized on the shelves of comic shops or in specialty magazines, are now subject to the global whims of an international fandom. With that advance comes with the same perils. We all need to communicate with each other, somehow. And the way to communicate to the largest audience?

English.

But what does that mean from the standpoint of culture? If, as the French government believes, that French language is tied to French culture, does a foreign comic done in English mean a break from the home country’s culture? Will anecdotes by the local people just go over the heads of the audience in the New World Order?

Before webcomics.com went down (and I’ll post a link when it goes up again), a Norewegian webcomic creator posted an excellent piece where he pondered these issues. Can Norwegians get away with a joke about a children’s story that only fellow countrymen could get? He never really arrived at an answer. I suppose that right now non-English speaking webcomic creators are going to have to wing it, buffeted by the forces of Mother Econ.

The webcomic featured in this review, however, is one of the few that pulls the non-English to English transition rather successfully. Anders Loves Maria, by Rene Engström, is a Swedish webcomic that boasts a healthy audience in English speaking countries. Yet it is also ineffably Swedish, which is one of the comic’s greatest strengths.

Incidentally, this comic is about sex. It’s not exploitative, and sometimes it’s sweet. It does, however, contain various images of naughty bits and characters involved in intimate congress. So, dear reader, you would be safe to assume that each and every single one of the links in this post are not safe for work. Also, they’re probably something you don’t necessarily want your kids to peruse, so … not safe for the nursery as well.

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So, only the most mature of ye venture below the cut!

I’d bookmarked Anders Loves Maria to review more than a year ago. Rene’s simple art style caught my eye. While I was writing this review, I, from time to time, would think back about what that earlier review would have sounded like. Needless to say, it would be very, very different from the one I’ve written now. The comic was only two pages past a key scene that would alter the course of Anders Loves Maria, transforming a somewhat light-hearted romance drama to a more realistic, yet angsty, look at a dysfunctional relationship. Additionally, the comic itself has since risen in acclaim. Anders Loves Maria has attracted the positive notices from peers like Scott Kurtz (PvP), Jeph Jacques (Questionable Content), and Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie).

But what do webcomic peers know, really? They’ve been wrong before. Besides, most webcomic artists, understandably, are really quite concerned about crafting and promoting their own webcomics, and they don’t have time to read the work done by others. It was time for me to delve into the phenomenon that is Anders Loves Maria and check it out for myself.

Anders is a young celebrity photographer in Sweden, and thus some sort of celebrity. Which, as Rene comments, is actually not at all that exciting. He’s at least popular to run in the same social circles as Nina Persson. You know, of the Cardigans? Lovefool? Team-up with Tom Jones to create the most awesome music video ever? Anyway, Anders is a bit of a milquetoast. He’s also aching to grow in maturity. He wants to take his relationship with his girlfriend, Maria, to the next level by having a baby.

Maria, on the other hand, is not quite a celebrity. In fact, she’s from the complete opposite social class. Her family is the equivalent of what Americans would call rednecks. She’s also a bit immature, hot-headed, and a loud-mouth. However, when she finds out that she is preggers, she does some soul-searching and decides that it might be a good idea. It looks like our cute little couple is headed for a “happily ever after”!

Or are they?

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At the start of Anders Loves Maria, Rene’s artwork is pretty crude, and it looks, very much, like a beginner’s attempt at Flash. Not that it doesn’t have its charms. There’s a scene where Maria, suffering from morning sickness, makes barfing look adorable. Eventually, the style eventually evolves into something more polished, stylistically resembling Scott Pilgrim or Octopus Pie. (There’s got to be some sort of term for this style. Post-manga? McCracken-esque?) The characters also change to look more distinct: Anders inherits an avocado-shaped chin, and Maria seems to have gotten more fish-eyed.

Rene is unafraid to experiment with the medium several times. Styles shift from page to page. The most prominent happens early on, when Anders recounts a story of how he accidentally killed some birds while he was young. Colors become more solid, and the black outlines disappear. It looks like those quiet European animated shorts. While the dialogue is in Swedish, we follow the story mainly by observing the changes in Anders’ facial expressions. Besides, those Swedish words adds that international flavor that makes Anders Loves Maria feel a little otherworldly.

Rene also switches from Flash to hand-drawn on a whim. The style is usually reserved for the flashbacks, but not always. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. The reader’s expectations shifts from the hyper-kinetics of a cartoon to something more mellow and downbeat. If you’ll allow me to wax poetic a bit, the hand-drawn images impart the feeling of chilliness, as if we, the readers, are being exposed to the winds and mists.

The key scene I was talking about earlier happens when Anders, in a stunning moment of chivalry, gets involved in a fight to protect the pregnant Maria. Anders gets trounced so badly that he ends up at the hospital. However, that’s not the end of it. Since he’s a celebrity of sorts, Anders’ opponent — whether its to make some coin or gain some publicity, who knows — levels assault charges against our hero. Naturally, the press is all over this like files to carrion. As they descend on the hospital, they manage to catch Anders with his pants down and Li’l Anders standing at attention.

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So, to escape the prying eyes of the press, Anders and Maria run off to the country to hide at the house of Maria’s family. Things go from bad to worse. First, there’s Maria’s rotten family, which includes her highly overprotective brother. Then there’s Tina, Maria’s rival, who Anders is working for at the local coffee shop. Sure, Anders and Maria have an “open relationship” … but that does not include making whoopee with mortal enemies!

And, from there, it’s a one way trip to Angstville.

The extent of sexual freedom featured in Anders Loves Maria always confuses the core of my straight-laced Midwestern American portion of my psyche. Anders is quite the Lothario. A common joke among fans is that Anders screws anything with boobs. (And, from time to time, pastries.) Heck, it’s something that the guest artists seem to pick up on.

However, he’s hardly an anomaly. Maria, for example, entertains some intimate touching while in the same room with her brother. The Puritanical portion of my brain leads me to wonder: “Wait a minute. Is this something completely acceptable in Sweden? Or is this just some goofy Scandanavian version of the American Pie sex comedy stuff? Good golly gee willikers.” You see, not being Swedish, I have no idea. I mean, I could ask my Norwegian aunt if this was true, but that would entail me having a conversation with my Norwegian aunt about sex. Not going to happen.

If this comic were only about sex, however, I probably would get bored by it very quickly. But there is something more. The underlying theme of Anders Loves Maria is relationships. Even in a free-love society, why do we gravitate toward a monogamous relationship? Anders and Maria sleep around, but they find that they always end up together. Is it just because of the baby? Or are they just using that as an excuse? There are times, too, when you know that the characters break off because they’re merely upset, and times when you know that they’ve reached the breaking point. There’s also the question about the wisdom of an “open relationship,” which starts to crumble when both characters get hurt when the other starts sleeping around. Plus… there are other consequences. If you wanted to make an argument that Rene was secretly a conservative subversively denouncing the free-love lifestyle, I think you’d have enough evidence.

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Now, for the bad news: as of late, the comic has begun to get repetitive. Let’s see: in the first arc, Anders has a tiff with Maria, Anders almost cheats on her with Jenny, they get back together. In the second arc, Anders rebuffs Maria, Anders gets it on with Tina, Anders’ life collapses, they get back together. In the third arc, Anders rebuffs Maria, Anders gets it on with a girl who looks like she should be in 5th Grade. Wow, it’s like the Last Temptation of Anders! I’m not sure how this ends, but I’m guessing Anders’ life collapses, and Anders and Maria get back together. It’s like that McDonald’s commercial with Jordan and Bird, only with sex instead of basketballs.

Also, over time, I grew to actually dislike these idiotic characters. This happens around the time Anders returns to the city after his country sojourn. Look, I’m not so naive as to think all relationships are perfect, happy, sunshiny fantasies. Hell, I’ve been through some bad ones myself, and I know how ugly people can get. But Anders and Maria are just stupid, self-centered, shallow children who are somehow in their late 20’s. Anders is clearly not learning anything, as he seems to jump in the sack with any woman after the latest argument. And Maria is too much of a petulant child. All the other secondary characters are similarly unlikable, being either balls of rage, manipulative, or just totally psycho. (The character who turns psycho, by the way, bothers me the most for several reasons.) The only one I cared about was Björn, Maria’s old boyfriend. Oh, Björn! You are such a supportive guy. You can play you guitar in the buff at my apartment any time, you Magical Swede, you!

Despite that, Anders Loves Maria gets 4 stars out of me. The first 170 pages were great; the rest, less so. It was a comic that was heart-breaking at times, funny at others. While the characters didn’t feel quite realist, at least, at some point, they were somewhat sympathetic. Yes, even that horndog Anders. However, it’s almost gotten to the point where I don’t give a crap what happens to these two.

Prove me wrong, Rene!

Finally, let’s end this with the reason you clicked on this review in the first place: hardcore sex!

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Posted in 4 Stars, adult webcomic, dramatic webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review Tagged: Anders Loves Maria