Icelandic illustrator and designer Elín Edda is still a student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, where she studies graphic design with a particular focus on typography. But in her hometown, and to the numerous tourists that have purchased her work in Reykjavik bookstores, she’s better known for her work as a graphic novelist, and creator of the melancholy adventurer known as Gombri.
“It’s all about Gombri, who is left alone in his home, and is tired of being there,” she says. “He has decided to go away and leave everything because he doesn’t want to remember what was, and can never be again. He takes a boat and sails away to a tiny island.”
Gombri is an anthropomorphic creature of unknown provenance—all we know is that he once had an extensive family who, through tragedy or other circumstances, no longer shares his home. Likewise, the fecund garden that used to surround him is now withered, but Gombri doesn’t know why. The reader spends the rest of the novel journeying with him as he ventures out into the world to uncover his origins, and break the curse of a world dominated by deception and natural disaster.
Over the course of his adventures Gombri meets Nanna, another voyager with a mysterious past, and together they head to the city—the heart of corruption in Edda’s fictional civilization—to root out the cause of their suffering and restore themselves to former glory. At the end “he meets with Mother Earth,” says Edda, “and she tells him to go back to the garden, because she thinks Gombri can save the situation. It’s an open ending, but we know that something good is going to happen again.”
Hopefully that description doesn’t spoil the story too much, but unless you read Icelandic it’s the only way you’ll know what’s going on—there’s no English language version available (cough, Fantagraphics, cough, Drawn & Quarterly, cough, Koyama Press). Regardless of the reader’s ability to read dialogue, Gombri is an altogether captivating experience, rendered vividly in watercolor and ink. Edda paces the narrative with colorful interventions, breaking up the otherwise subdued palette to emphasize drama or signal a flashback to the past.
Drawing on many traditions of Icelandic storytelling, Gombri’s narrative is entwined with the natural world, its protagonists attempting to rewind a process that has obliterated their natural surroundings. A vegetarian and environmentalist, Edda is keen that these allegorical messages are clear to the reader, “but I don’t want people to feel bad, it’s just a hint.” Edda has already begun planning the next installment, in which Gombri will meet the “Meat Monster”—maybe that one’s more than just a hint—the inspiration for which comes from an unexpected source.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make another book,” says Edda, “and that maybe I didn’t have a strong enough idea. But then one night I just worked out exactly what was going to happen, after I’d seen Bridget Jones III.”
“I like Bridget Jones one and two, and I thought number three was going to be terrible, but it was very fun. And then when we went home, I realized that I wanted to make another Gombri. It’s not that I’ve taken an idea from the movie, it just made me realize that it could work.”
Having found success so early on in her career (she started drawing Gombri when she was still in high school) it seems likely that Edda will become a celebrated artist beyond Iceland, and her work move to an international stage—she did, after all, write, draw, edit, design, and self-publish Gombri all on her own. But, unlike Gombri, she’s pretty content with her home. “I’m not interested in being international, I think it’s not necessary. I like to do things that are good, but good can be small too.”