Column: Global Ghoul: The Troll King

By Dale Carothers

Karlsson, Kolbeinn. The Troll King. Top Shelf Productions (May 2010). USD $14.95. ISBN: 978-1-60309-061-2.

The Troll King by Swedish cartoonist Kolbeinn Karlsson is peopled by cherubic beast-men. Some of them are hirsute. Some of them are green, with stubble and black afros. And some of them are carrots. And though they ripple with fat, we’re never given the impression that they are anything but healthy, vital men of the forest.

None of them have names. They don’t need seem to need them, so I’ll just refer to them as “they”.

The story is broken up into four narratives, blending together into a psychedelic ending that suggests that everything is connected.

The first story focuses on the hirsute men. They look like monsters, but their large, blue eyes suggest a deeper, inner world of peace and harmony. The go through their daily rituals, saluting the sun by flexing the muscles that lie under their shiny, brown fur, brushing their teeth and carb-loading on pasta. Their brotherhood is everything to them and it culminates in a woodland fertility ceremony. They don wreaths and masks, and dance before a burning green monolith to the delight of a creature that is somewhere between an anthropomorphic mole and a carrot-nosed Cousin It.

This creature may be the Troll King. It’s never explicitly stated, but he’s present at all of the major events – and in all of the stories.

The fertility ceremony ends when the hirsute men grow pregnant and birth their babies through their only available orifices. And yes, there is some homosexual subtext here (though it may be closer to supertext), but it’s all focused on taking masculinity to its furthest point. There is simply an absence of women – they don’t fit into the story and the men are left to procreate on their own.

The second story is short, trippy and has the least to do with the rest of the book. A man sleeps and dreams of a bizarre adventure through the woods. He’s plagued by images of gore and violence, until he’s eventually transformed into a sphinx-like creature and ridden to the moon. The Troll King makes an appearance – and the green, stubbly men with afros play a significant part in his story – but it feels like filler. The Troll King is confusing enough without this diversion.

The third story is also short and, at first, seemingly meaningless, but it gets woven into the narrative later on. A fat carrot-man enters a bathhouse and takes a dip in the steaming water. Roots grow from his body until he becomes a mighty tree. Not a carrot tree, just a tree. The growing roots don’t cause him any pain, and he accepts the transformation with grace and dignity.

Karlsson’s art is much like that of James Kolchalka. Fat lines and simple characters, but drawn with a care that belies their simplicity. The world is much the same. And Karlsson uses his fat, squiggly lines to illustrate the texture of rocks, trees and mottled skin to great effect. The colouring is flat and basic, but it works. Lots of primary colours that, at times, make Karlsson’s art look like it’s been coloured by children.

The fourth story stars the green, stubbly men with afros. They wander the woods: nude, fat and playful, and reveling in their camaraderie. They come upon a skull, which bears a striking resemblance to the heads of the hirsute men. They plant the skull in the ground. After the seasons pass, it grows into a new green man. And here the story veers off course into several useless and random pages depicting the violence of the Wild West. The story comes to a stop. Even though I’ve read the book a few times, I can’t figure out why Karlsson included this section.

After the diversion, we return to the hirsute men. They raise their children, showing them the ways of the forest, the ways of manhood and strength. But soon, the boys grow into teens, rebel against their fathers, and leave to build a life of their own.

The final section of the book is a rapid-fire stream of images, blending all of the characters together, showing their connections – in the microcosmic ecosystem of the story.

And in the end, we see the Troll King. Observer. Manipulator. Totem. This last image tries to tie the story together – the Troll King is the common thread throughout the book, but his presence isn’t strong enough to unify the story.

The Troll King blurs the lines between fantasy and indie comics. And though Karlsson has a distinctive voice and style, there isn’t enough to The Troll King to create any real connection to the story.

The Troll King has a 5 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber.

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