In his graphic novel The Labyrinth, Swede Simon Stalinhag leads us into a fascinating world of ruins. Some things are very familiar.
Something has gone seriously wrong here. The Earth looks uninhabitable in the images of the labyrinth. The wonderful sadness absorbs you instantly. The most recent “graphic novel” – one might also say a graphic novel – by 38-year-old Swede Simon Stalinhag, pared it even at first. As the story progresses, it becomes clear how hostile the Earth’s surface was, and how few people survived in a bunker complex called Kungshall – and at what cost.
Telling stories on death row
Stålenhag only shows a small shot at first, but the horizon widens into two flashbacks pushed into each other. A woman, a scientist, is sentenced to death in Kongchal. She narrates the final mission of her life: conducting a routine data-gathering operation on the surface of the Broken Earth with her brother, a military man, and the troubled teen she gave birth to. This is where the strange black balls gradually poison the atmosphere, soil and water. This expedition revolves around the emergence of Kungshall, about an apocalyptic scenario of choice: bunkers never have a place for everyone.
Stålenhag’s poetry-obsessed style, post-apocalyptic scenarios, and emerging apocalyptic lives are already familiar from “Tales from the Loop”, “Things from the Flood” and “The Electric Case”. But in “Labyrinth” the style is a bit more mature. Here the cold-blooded precision of surface-loving realism and the intensity of the dreary oil painting’s mood meet in crackling fashion. Moreover, everything is the phantom theater of the best quality: Stålenhag does not work with brushes and oil paints, but with tablets and computers.
Better than broadcast series
As great as Stålenhag’s paintings are, their greatest influence lies in their inadequacy. They don’t show everything, you always want to know more, skip them and then look over your shoulder or at least a little further to the left or right. By the way, sparse text stands as normal prose between pictures, never in bars or speech bubbles in pictures. Hence Stålenhag’s old description of the works as “graphic novels”.
Again, least is most important here. Based on a small individual story, Stålenhag scatters bits of information and hints that convey a vivid picture of the world and disaster, yet still keeps curiosity alive. One constantly notices how all this will be brought up and explained to the point that it is no longer possible in the current broadcast series.
Interestingly enough, one series, Tales from the Episode on Amazon Prime Video, once attempted to make Stålenhag’s book opaque and understated. This is an interesting guess and definitely worth watching. But where you are always gripped by a sense of dread in the books, the series sometimes veers along the lines of bland boredom.
There is no sign of boredom in the “Labyrinth”. The whole thing is not isolated, no matter how strange the pictures may seem. First of all, says Stalinhag, humanity simply tried to ignore the clearly unfolding catastrophe. This looks very realistic and familiar.
Simon Stalinhag: “The Labyrinth.” A graphic novel translated from Swedish by Stefan Ploschkat. 152 pages. 36 euros. Here is a sample reading.