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The Hairy Swedish Charm Of 'The Troll King'

For reasons that will shortly become apparent, it might be best to begin discussion of the new graphic novel The Troll King with the publisher's synopsis, printed on its back cover.

"A dwarf falls into a river and is taken to a place beyond space and time. A carrot takes a bath and finds itself transforming. Two reclusive mountain men rejoice when their wish for children is granted, but their sons make a terrible discovery. And throughout all these tales, the spirit of the forest walks on."

That elliptical-bordering-on-abstruse description is helpful inasmuch as it presages the profoundly surreal world we're about to enter, one in which events don't so much gradually unfold as wildly unspool. You may wish to keep it in mind as you read The Troll King, not because Swedish creator Kolbeinn Karlsson's storytelling is unclear, exactly, but because his art throbs with a sort of primal, allusive, pre-verbal power that at times seems too big for the tidy conceits of narrative to contain.

On page after page, Karlsson's fever-dream imagery lights up deep parts of the reader's brain in ways that obviate language. Consider how he depicts a pair of lumbering, hairy creatures in the first chapter. Karlsson's cartooning is bold and colorful here -- panels shimmer with supersaturated yellows and glow with the bright crimson of oxygenated blood -- and he draws these strange characters as simple shapes, flattened against the landscape like a child's drawing.

But there's where the childlike simplicity ends: He painstakingly delineates each hair on the creatures' faces, each branch of the forest's trees, in a way that sends The Troll King caroming into the realm of the grotesque: His beards resemble tentacles, his tree branches undulate like angry serpents.

It's the passion with which Karlsson commits to his often nightmarish vision that allows the book to stake out an emotional territory that feels complete unto itself. So complete, in fact, that some measure of cognitive dissonance arises: When you realize, for example, that those two tentacle-faced ogres are simply the "reclusive mountain men" of the book's synopsis, your brain resists that knowledge, because they seem to belong so thoroughly to some primeval world utterly divorced from our own.

Which is sort of Karlsson's point, or one of them: They are beasts and men both. He enjoys playing with the tension between the mythic and prosaic, as when he has the two beast-men walk into town to buy groceries; or make deadpan pop-culture references ("In the city we were barely people. Here we are Ewoks. Ewoks feel no shame."); or has them flex and pose like fitness models during a dark pagan ceremony before a forest spirit who resembles a cross between Cousin Itt and Frosty the Snowman.

There's much more to this uncannily beautiful yet defiantly unpretty book: terrifying violence, unspeakable pagan rites, tender love scenes and one very odd symbolist meditation on the Old West, of all things. Perhaps Karlsson's crowning achievement is that somehow, without relying on the conventional narrative scaffolding of character arcs and story beats, these disparate elements connect.

They connect and cohere, and Karlsson's ability to tap into the mysterious and willful emotional logic of dreams ensures that everything about The Troll King feels at once unexpected and inevitable.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.