Stand Still. Stay Silent. by Minna Sundberg (Hiveworks)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
Maybe it’s the current political climate in the U.S., but I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian fiction lately. I’m about halfway through Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, and for the past few weeks I’ve been diving deep into the archives of Minna Sunberg’s award-winning web comic Stand Still. Stay Silent. (In a funny twist of fate, Mandel takes the title of her book from a fictional graphic novel written by one of the characters, which makes my reading life feel like one strange, interwoven loop of trolls and Shakespeare and doom.) Stand Still. Stay Silent., which wraps up our first special issue on translations from the snowy north, is an adventurous epic which weaves together language, Scandinavian folklore, humor, and stunning, detailed landscapes to depict a world torn apart by plague. It is one of the most captivating comics I’ve read in a long time, and Sundberg continues to post new pages four days a week, which means that unlike a standard novel, I get the thrill of knowing there’s still more to come.
Sundberg’s graphic novel – which would be a tome if it didn’t exist primarily in the ethereal realm of the internet – follows a hodge-podge, underfunded team of explorers as they explore the Silent World, a vast region of beasts and wild people left vacant by a plague that swept through 90 years before. In her synopsis of the comic, Sundberg writes:
“Most of the surviving population of the Known world live in Iceland, the largest safe area in existence, while the safe settlements in the other Nordic countries; Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, are small and scarce.
Countless mysterious and unspoken dangers lurk outside the safe areas, the Silent world, and hunters, mages and cleansers will spend their lives defending the settlements against the terrifying beings. Because of a great fear towards everything in the Silent world no official attempts to explore the ruins of the old have been made, and most of the information about it has turned into ancient lore, known by few.”
The comic blends magic, mythology, folklore and popular culture to create a world that feels both eerily modern and otherworldly. Sundberg’s art is incredibly detailed and uses primarily greys, blues, and reds to depict a violent, unforgiving, frigid landscape – her characters, though, are stunningly human, flawed, hilarious, and entirely relatable.
My favorite parts of the comic are the pages that Sundberg devotes to world-building – she writes on beasts, giants, and trolls, the role of cats (or “the blessed felines”) in this new world, where every other mammal has gone extinct, and draws maps and advertisements both for reference and to create an intricate fictional space. These extra pages captivate the imagination and serve as funny and beautiful chapter breaks between sections, as the characters embark on their adventure into the Silent World.
I chose to review Sundberg’s comic for this special issue for a number of reasons, but primarily because I feel that it captures a kind of loneliness that many of us feel in the long, winter months. Though this comic often makes me burst out laughing, there are moments when that humor becomes haunting, as in this page, where Sundberg writes:
“The First Rule
for survival outside the safe areas:
If you come across a Beast, a Troll, or a Giant,
do not run or call for help
but stand still and stay silent.
It might go away.”
While funny in a way, this comic talks in a really subtle way about fear and isolation, and the difficulties and lack of understanding that comes with exploring beyond the realm of what’s known. Sundberg will often go for pages without dialogue, creating a kind of quite cacophony of action and images – and always, underneath, the Silent World looms, a dangerous dark chasm filling the map, the black ink that clouds the pages. It does not surprise me that Sundberg won the Reuben award for “best online comic – long form” in 2015 – this is a beautifully human, complicated, magical tale of adventure and survival, which refuses to take itself too seriously. I look forward to Sundberg’s future installments, and to continuing my tromp through the archives.
Read the comic here.
Or buy the book: Hiveworks