Who Knows Why "Anders Loves Maria?" Rene Engström

For more than two years, Sweden native Rene Engström has been producing the webcomic "Anders Loves Maria," an idiosyncratic look at a young couple and their circles of friends and family and the complications that ensue in spite of the fact that Anders loves Maria. It succeeds, skirting the many trappings of romance or soap opera because of Engström's ability to make characters so vivid in a story that, despite its many colorful and outlandish elements, remains a very relatable tale of young people in and out of love.

That ability to identify with the characters and the brutal honesty and sympathy with which Engström portrays them is undoubtedly what has earned the strip so many readers and fans, but the way that Engström uses the web itself also deserves special notice. Most webcomics have a format and a style, but Engström is constantly changing how she produces the strip and the way it looks, taking advantage of the web in a way that few ongoing webcomics have attempted.

The comic will be coming to an end this year, and though Engström knows how "Anders Loves Maria" will conclude, she continues to fiddle and experiment with just how much longer it will take to get there. Engström was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to talk to CBR News about the strip and her upcoming visit to the United States.

CBR: Tell us about the beginnings of "Anders Loves Maria."

Rene Engström: I was commissioned to do a strip for an online community, to attract members. They wanted a comic targeting young families in their 20s and 30s. From that I drew a couple, Anders and Maria. I fell in love with the look of them and the story and supporting cast started to form itself. I was almost manic when it was all coming to me, and I wrote obsessively for weeks.

When you started out, did you have a rough idea of the story?

I did. I knew who they were and where I wanted them to be by the end of the story. The road from A to B wasn't as complete.

How long was the story originally planned and to what degree has that changed?

The story was planned pretty much in its entirety, but naturally I have had time to adjust things as I go along. The main plot has stayed the same, you could say.

What has changed and what characters have surprised you in ways you didn't originally plan?

Anders has surprised me the most, and he continues to surprise me. Of all the characters, he is the most real to me, and I even regard him as a good friend. How crazy does that make me?

Most of my adjustments in the script are due to him fucking up in some way. As an example, originally he wasn't supposed to cheat on Maria. He was going to eventually get together with Tina, but I had imagined a clear and definite break between Maria and Anders before this was to happen. But when I finally came to that bit of the story it just didn't seem natural to Anders anymore. I think mostly because he isn't very confrontational. He is, at heart, a decent person but he can be kind of a passive aggressive dick at times.

I've cut out giant chunks of story as well, such as the side story with Yumi and Brad, because it was just taking too long back when I only updated once a week. I might have those included in the book though.

"Anders Loves Mariah" is in English with some Swedish words, and American and British slang. To what degree does this reflect how you speak and how the average Swede speaks?

It's a perfect reflection of the language Swedish people speak. The English taught in schools in Sweden is standard British; however, the majority of modern English slang comes from American television, and some British, but mostly American. So you have a very interesting blend here.

I translate most things, but sometimes there is no proper translation, and the Swedish remains. No one's complained about this, so I think I will keep doing it.

You've jumped between hand-drawing the strip and working on computer. What do you like best about each style?

Illustrator is very clean and precise, which I really adore when it comes to doing fine adjustments with things like facial expressions. My characters tend to say a lot without many words, if any. So that is very important.

The hand-drawn ones are really just a selfish indulgence, because they are so much fun to do, and it's very rewarding to hold a page in your hand.

You treat the artwork as a work in progress, you're always experimenting with style and size and shape and design, which makes "Anders Loves Maria" stand out among a lot of webcomics.

I guess I'm just taking advantage of the web-media. I can draw and present this story however I want, so why not? It's not that I am trying to shake things up though. Sometimes I just don't have access to a Wacom tablet or even a computer so I take advantage of the tools I have.

That said, I do like experimenting. I am really itching to do an update using live actors but that would be tough considering I don't live anywhere near Stockholm. But I'm heading there soon for SPX so maybe I can manage to organize something before this.

You also enjoy using as little dialogue as possible. Is that conscious or are do you tend to think in pictures like that?

It is very much a conscious act. I will write a page and then rewrite and draw it until it is completely stripped of all superfluous words.

How do you write the strip and how much do you have planned out in detail?

The story is all written out in many sketchbooks. In many cases I have detailed thumbnail sketches for future scenes because I see things happening visually and not verbally. The dialogue in the comic is really very secondary compared to the actions the characters take.

I will usually thumbnail a few pages at a time, usually the week before I start drawing them. Sometimes I forget to do this though, because I have a very unorganized brain.

Are you or your life in the strip at all?

Bah! We are all in the strip. Pretty much everyone goes through what my characters do in some form. We have all had our hearts broken and our expectations raised. We've all been deathly afraid of being alone and we've all been incredibly, horribly horny.

To what degree are you aware of the sexual content of "Anders Loves Maria?" It's explicit but it's certainly not done in a provocative manner. If anything, the scenes where characters are naked tend to be more poignant.

This is an interesting question that I wonder if directors of films, or authors of novels with sexual content get asked? I doubt it.

The snappy retort is that in America, there is an expectation of that, but what I was trying to get at was whether it's intentional that one of the only times characters are honest is when they're naked?

Sure it's intentional. We are at our most vulnerable when we are naked before someone and that has a very significant symbolic value.

I bring it up because in part you do deal with sex in a matter-of-fact way, which makes it stands out.

I suppose I do. I find it really frustrating that it's even "a thing." Sex seems to be pretty commonplace in most other media, but comics seem to be read differently by American audiences. Or maybe this is something that is just unique to the majority of webcomics because you see a lot of sex in alternative/adult comics, even from America. The amount of emotional mail I receive, both positive and negative, about the sex in the comic really surprises me. In one day I can be accused of being a pedophile and a literary genius. Both notions are absurd. I guess the important thing is that the comic does reach people and make them feel things.

For many of us, the word "bork" has been associated with the Swedish Chef on "The Muppet Show," and your use of the word as a sound effect adds a whole new wrinkle to the word.

I made it up. I did have the Swedish Chef in mind when I did it. We do not have a sound effect for anal sex in Sweden. Or at least we didn't. Maybe we do now. I know many people have added "bork" to their vocabulary. Never let it be said that I don't contribute to culture.

You're coming to Webcomics Weekend in March. What are you looking forward to in your first trip to the USA?

I am mostly looking forward to meeting some of my webcartooning colleagues, actually. I consider many of them friends at this point. I think that was the intention of the event to begin with. To just hang out with each other and meet some of the local people but it grew ridiculously fast. The idea of people booking flights and long trips to come and see us, especially little me, is a little hard for me to swallow. But I keep reminding myself that I have done the same for bands and artists I like and that it is a completely normal and fun thing to do.

You're in the final stretch of "Anders Loves Maria." Have you given much thought to what you'll be doing next?

I have several books/projects I'm working on and I haven't really decided which one will be my next webcomic.

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