Interview: Rene Engström on ‘Anders Loves Maria’
In all honesty, I might never have encountered Rene Engström’s excellent webcomic Anders Loves Maria if it wasn’t for the following recommendation:
I didn’t think there’d ever be a good, heartfelt character development that took place while characters were naked & having teh buttsecks.
It felt necessary to include that quote, because now that I’ve spent some time with Anders Loves Maria, I realize that it really sums up one of the most impressive attributes of Engström’s daily strip about love, life and evolution of a human relationship. The Swedish-Canadian cartoonist’s ongoing tale of a late-20s couple on the threshold of a new chapter in life is filled with evidence of Engström’s knack for adding depth to her cast of characters at the most unexpected moments, and an ability to find the true emotional impact of any experience, no matter how intimate or mundane.
The process of interviewing Engström, who is based in Brunflo, Sweden, is also worth mentioning here. In order to create a more personal atmosphere, the cartoonist had a friend sit in and ask the questions I had sent her. I bring this up only because I believe it sheds some light on the creator’s approach to her work and, well, it’s just important to give credit where it’s due. So, my thanks go out to Rene Engström’s friend, whoever you are, for being my stand-in on the following interview.
COMICMIX: What are you up to today, Rene?
RENE ENGSTRÖM: Today I’m working on Anders Loves Maria, specifically for today. And I am eating vanilla yogurt with apple and cinnamon müsli. Besides Anders Loves Maria, I’m also working on some conceptual design for an animated film. That’s about it. Oh, and I’m also trying to get out t-shirt designs so I can make some money. I’m poor.
CMix: It’s very strange, as Anders Loves Maria has been popping up everywhere I’ve looked since I decided to do this interview. I’ve worked on other interviews recently and people keep mentioning things like, "If you haven’t discovered Anders Loves Maria yet, you should do so." Can you tell me about the genesis of the strip?
RE: I started working on it because I was paid to do it! It’s the truth. A company wanted to hire a web cartoonist to attract readers to their Internet community that was targeting families. I spent some time, came up with plot lines, a story, characters… I presented it to them and they went for it.
I just started to sketch, really, I just started to draw. I knew I wanted to do a young couple, so I drew a young couple, in their mid- to late-20s, because that seems to be the age when people start wanting to have a family. I wanted it to be quite generic, and very Swedish, so I came up with some typical characters, with a few… eccentricities… so that young adults would recognise themselves in the characters. I drew them and I really fell in love with the look and feel for the characters. And the story started to form itself. I think within two weeks I had enough material for an entire year.
CMix: What keeps you working on it? So many webcomics die out after a short time. What keeps you coming back to yours?
RE: What keeps me coming back to it? I think it’s because I really love the characters a lot. [Laughs] No, it’s because I really am emotionally invested in it, and also because the story’s not finished. That’s a big thing, I want to see it finished. I get a lot of joy out of it, a lot of pleasure. It’s something I look forward to every day.
CMix: You’ve managed to establish Anders Loves Maria as local to your corner of the world, but it’s also very accessible to readers just about anywhere. How do you keep that balance?
RE: I think it’s because it’s about relationships, and everybody’s been through that in one way or another. Everybody has hurt, and been hurt. It’s a universal theme, and even though it’s very Swedish, it’s about people, all over the world. But I write it very Swedish, and the audience in my mind are Swedes. [Kettle begins to whistle] Oh, excuse me! [Runs off] I think just having the strip in an easily accessible language such as English is enough, plus I usually add the odd comment if there is something that isn’t translatable.
CMix: You seem to have a very happy, stable life with your family. How do you channel that "young, naive and tumultuous love" aspect of the story?
RE: [Laughs] I still remember what it is like to be all of my ages.
CMix: How much of your own life and experiences make it into the strip?
RE: Not a heck of a lot, I don’t think. Perhaps in an abstract way, things from my life find a way in. In that case, they are very, very abstract. There are certain situations which are directly from my life, but completely rewritten, regurgitated in an unrecognizable way. I just observe life.
CMix: What are some of your favorite moments in the strip thus far?
RE: My favorite moments, hmm… I can’t answer that. Each time the strip is updated, I come a bit closer to the truth, and that is a nice moment for me, I guess. So, I can’t say there’s one specific moment that stands out. I really liked when I went to going daily, that was a nice moment, because I really felt like I could hit the comic’s pacing in a good way. But as far as the story is concerned, it’s already written and in my head, so every update is my best moment. I get closer and closer to the story being completed.
It was difficult for me to have Anders cheat on Maria. That wasn’t in the original script. That moment stands out and was tough for me emotionally. They were going to break up and Tina was involved, but Anders was not going to cheat. That just happened because it felt more natural that way, so I had to do it, even though it hurt.
CMix: Anders and Maria don’t seem to be on very good terms right now. Is this a storyline that you had in mind for quite a while? Will the strip need to be renamed?
RE: Anders and Maria are not on good terms right now, but I don’t see any reason why that should change the title. I’ve had it in my mind for a long time. The story is progressing as it should, you’ll just have to wait and see.
CMix: You’ve experimented quite a bit with the art since the strip began. Have you settled into a comfort level with the current style, or do you plan to try out anything new in the near future?
RE: Yeah, I will always try out new things. I don’t think I have a comfort level – in fact, I’m always uncomfortable with the art! I always think, should I publish this? I think that’s the nature of webcomics. You can always experiment a bit more, you don’t have to be so perfect. I would be much more of a perfectionist if I were to do this for print. Here you can see the art evolve and change. It’s kind of special.
CMix: During your recent storyline, you told readers that you could be alienating people who link to your strip or turning them off with the sexual aspect of the subject matter, but the strip actually felt very poignant — well, as poignant as naked characters considering that very special type of sexual experience can probably be. Did you have any worries when you were planning this strip? Did you reconsider?
RE: Yes. I reconsider almost every time I put something up. But when I write these strips, I don’t think like that. It’s only when I go to putting them up, I’m thinking, "Oh dear, is this suicide?" or "Is this too ugly?" or something like that. I don’t read a lot of comics, to be honest, but I still haven’t seen a lot of webcomics approach sex this way. But the response has been positive. That very day I expressed concern, I got a link from Diesel Sweeties, which was really nice. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. I probably am.
I try to do things tastefully. Those strips were important, as it wasn’t just a random sexual encounter. It was important to show the dynamics of Anders’ relationship with Tina. Not that I think there is anything wrong with random sex in comics.
CMix: Have you received any unusual responses to the current storyline… or any storylines, for that matter?
RE: No, not unusual, I don’t think. To the borking storyline, or week… no. I mean, the response has been overall positive, actually. Most people found it very humorous, or they saw what I was trying to do and the message got across. The only unusual responses I’ve received to ALM are people getting really attached, and I sometimes get really personal letters, which is nice. They take it to heart, which is good. I like that. It makes you feel like what you do is important.
CMix: What are you reading these days?
RE: The comics I read the most? I’ll go with new ones that I’ve discovered. I’m really in love with Patrick Alexander and KC Green’s work. They can really draw funny, and that is something I think I have a hard time with, so I’m always studying what they do. I don’t have time to read a lot of comics, actually. There is a whole list of great comics that I go in and check when I have time. But I will leave it at those two for people to digest.
Anders Loves Maria is updated daily at anderslovesmaria.reneengstrom.com.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!