‘Dunce’ comic strip is in a class all its own

10 With Tom

10 questions in 10 minutes

Jens K at work. (Photo by Agnese Zile)
Jens K. Styve, photo: Nicolas Tourrenc

Jens K. Styve is the creator of Dunce, a delightful Norwegian comic strip he created in 2016. What attracts you first are the drawings, each strip is a work of art; add the comic writing and quality to that, and you have an award-winning comic strip.

TOM: Is Dunce you? Why the name Dunce for the title character?

JENS: Whenever I’ve done anything autobiographical, it’s been me drawn with that pointy Dunce-cap. I think it’s all about that voice in your head, the self-evaluating critic. The voice that, each time you do more or less anything, goes “You idiot, why did you do that? Why did you say that? Write that? Draw that? Look, now you’ve made a mess.” I think this voice is pure biology, every human seem to be their own worst critic. You should probably check with a biologist, but I assume it’s how we all made it this far. I guess my inner voice is also a sarcastic, satirical writer that can add some fiction and transform these expressions into comics. When I started doing a daily strip with the pointy-hat character, the title Dunce sort of gave itself.

TOM: What is Dunce’s name? He has a son, what about a wife, I don’t remember ever seeing her.

JENS: The main character’s name is Jens K, maybe with a tiny reference to another resentful literary character (Kafka’s Josef K.). The son is named Gustav, I haven’t really figured out yet if the characters should have other names in English, I guess it’s part of the concept that this is actually in the far north of Norway, far above the polar circle. Gustav obviously has (or at least has had) a mother, many readers ask about her, but that part of the story isn’t told (yet).

TOM: Your drawing style is beautiful, is it digital, do you use pen and ink?

JENS: In 2014, I came back from a 14 year long hiatus from comics. Actually I thought I had quit for good, with my steady job as a graphic designer. I did miss making comics, I guess what I missed most was working offline and analogue, with old fashioned tools like brushes, nibs, good paper and the meditative “flow” of drawing. So I returned. I decided to do a daily strip, just for myself. My days were packed, but I found that if I got up insanely early, I could sketch and ink a complete strip each day before going to work. These were self-published in small zines, and this eventually turned into my Dunce strip. The whole point then, was to do this without using any computers. After a year or so, my strip won several competitions and ended up running in Norwegian magazines and newspapers. After doing maybe 150 strips on paper, I bought an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil, curious (and a bit skeptical) if these gadgets could recreate my analogue and “inky” style. One of the really good brush-makers for Procreate (Georg von Westphalen) came by and offered to make a brush pack based on my style. That did it, I switched to iPad.

TOM: What does your studio/workspace look like?

JENS: Since I went full time comic artist in October 2017, I’ve been working at home. I have a separate room for work, but when I have the house for myself, I move around. My dog Brego (who is introduced in the strip, and often seems to be stealing the show) keeps me company, when I move to another place to draw, he finds another place to sleep. Kitchen is for writing, I have a good chair by the large window for sketching, and I do the inking in my office. All my nibs and brushes are there, in close vicinity, and although I do most work on the iPad now, I try to keep them active. Ink on the hands, and those random accidents that can’t be undone, is still what gives the best “flow”.

TOM: Dunce is run in newspapers in Norway and that area of the world. What is the schedule like is it run daily? How far ahead do you have to have the strips in?

JENS: It is running daily, and has been doing that more or less non stop since January 2017. That means I have to produce at least five new strips every week. There has been times (up to quite recently) when I’ve been so far behind that I handed in the next day’s strip at 12 every day. That is not at all recommended. I’ve now been able to build up a buffer of around four weeks. Also, I now try to make six or seven strips weekly, so that I can have a vacation one day, or even be able to get sick.

TOM: I’ve read various quotes comparing your work to others but I don’t see it, I think you are totally unique. But who are your comic/cartoon influences?

JENS: My influences are pretty widespread, and they also change a lot. Some people mention Quentin Blake and Ralph Steadman, I admit those two have been great inspirations. I grew up loving French and Belgian comics like Asterix and Franquin, in the 90s I was hooked on Fantagraphics stuff (Hate, Eightball etc), and strips like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes have always been with me. Lately I’ve been looking into manga comics, working quite hard to find something to get hooked on. I’ve found a few gems, last one was The Girl From The Other Side, which I think everyone should read. Another artist who’s books I keep close these days is the Italian cartoonist Gipi.

TOM: What was the first thing you would seriously draw? I mean, I would draw Fred Flintstone, I always remember as a young child doing that. Did you draw a character or have a favorite subject at a young age?

JENS: Ah, I remember copying Beetle Bailey in very early years. I was maybe 12 when I decided I wanted to become a comic artist. My theory was that I had to draw every day, so that’s what I did. Much of the daily grind at that time was copying whatever I could find. Some comics were almost impossible to copy, and those were often the ones I liked most. I think I was early aware of the mystical quality in a line/stroke and how some drawing styles had more of a “soul.” Early on, I found it hard to do comics, because I was more into drawing than writing. In my recent comics hiatus I wrote and published two novels, so that was pretty much turned around in time.

TOM: What famous artist, dead or alive, would you want to paint your portrait?

JENS: I think Quentin Blake could do a good one, probably also Richard Thompson. Those would probably be ink drawings. If I was to be painted in oil, it could maybe be by Australian comic artist Ashley Wood. Or Norwegian Edvard Munch, he would have painted me as some sort of devious villain.

TOM: Who is your favorite super hero?

JENS: Ouch, I don’t mean to be cocky, but I’ve never been enthusiastic about any superhero comic (or superhero movie). Guess my reply just has to be «blank» on this one.

TOM: If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

JENS: I would have started doing this Dunce-strip in 1995, when all newspaper editors were happy and positive people with an optimistic outlook for the future.

Jens K at work with Brego nearby. (Photo by Agnese Zile)

Tom Falco writes about art and culture.