News Column

Welcome to the world of 'Wumo'

November 4, 2013


Nov. 04--In Denmark, there's a law that forbids advertising that calls a product "No. 1," or "the best" -- otherwise you might be dragged to court and forced to prove it.

The creators of "Wumo," a quirky, off-beat cartoon strip, have no such problem. Danish writer Mikael Wulff and artist Anders Morgenthaler have turned "Wumo" into one of the most popular comics in Europe, and now they're ready to break into the U.S. market.

Today "Wumo" joins the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's comics page along with about 170 other U.S. newspapers. It will appear daily, replacing "Betty."

"In Denmark, we are the best strip ever," said Morgenthaler with a laugh in a phone call from Copenhagen. "And I would gladly say that in court."

Filled with visual non sequiturs, anthropomorphic animals and sight gags ranging from satire to slapstick, Wumo is a deceptively simple cartoon. There are no regularly appearing characters to get to know, but from their expressions, with smiles and scowls but especially through their bulging, popping or squinted eyes, it's easy to tell what they're thinking. It's a subtle, but focal point of the art.

"We work in this universe of human awkwardness," said Morgenthaler, 40. "Things are awkward or different. And we found early on that the way to get people to identify with the strip -- that is being told with the eyes."

Dialogue or text in the comic strip usually doesn't go beyond a single sentence and sometimes is limited to a simple label or less.

"Our rule of thumb is 'as little text as possible,'" said Wulff, who comes up with most of the jokes. "Even though I'm the 'word guy,' I like it when there's no text."

The strip started 10 years ago when Wulff, a 41-year-old stand-up comedian, got together with Morgenthaler, a film director in Europe, to do a short animated segment for a Danish television show. They found they worked well together and started publishing some strips online, refining it over the years as it gained in popularity. Wulff said the strip's online roots are big part of its success.

"People's attention spans are almost nonexistent, so you have to make your point really fast and simple to grasp," he said.

Wulff also credits the "Airplane" movies for some of humor reflected in the strip. "It was just a movie crammed with jokes, and jokes coming at you from all angles, constantly," he said. Woody Allen's early films, and especially Gary Larsen's "The Far Side," the popular single-panel comic that ran from 1980 to 1995, also provided inspiration.

Wulff said his cartoon work provides a nice complement for his standup career, allowing him to go beyond what he can present on stage. "If I start talking about messed-up strange things in standup, people will go 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" he said. "But if they see it drawn, they can see it's a dragon, and the dragon's doing the laundry."

Morgenthaler, whose animated film "Princess" was screened at the Cannes festival a few years ago, hopes someday that one of his films will be shown in Hawaii. "My children are 5 and 10 now, so we would love to come out there."

He came to art in an unusual way. As a child, he was "unable to read or spell until the sixth grade," he said, and was being labeled as "potential loser" by frustrated teachers.

"I had to survive somehow, so I escaped into this drawing world," he said. "From there I could create a base for learning how to read and write. So I'm an artist out of survival of the fittest."

After 10 years working together, the two have their work routine down pat. They meet once a week, with Wulff bringing 10 to 20 jokes, and the best of them are developed into full panels. (The duo graciously agreed to create a cartoon, shown above, marking their debut in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.)

Though the strip is now translated into several languages, from the beginning they worked on the jokes in English, a practice they continue today, so American audiences will be getting their original sensibility.

"We're so grateful about this American launch," Morgenthaler said. "The biggest credit for a strip cartoonist is to be picked up in the States. You're the birth ground for this kind of work and being able enter that in such a successful way, we're really, really grateful."


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