In the borderlands between Turkey and Armenia, a young man lives with his mother and father. The boys fight to control streets and the girls who live on them, in a town shared by Muslims, Christians, and pagans. Hooded troops guard the ever-shifting border in the nearby forests, lying in trenches dug for past conflicts that hold the bones of fallen soldiers.
The Armenian genocide haunts Halfdan Pisket’s graphic comic Desertør, (The Deserter). The first in a trilogy, it charts his father’s early life, long before he arrived in Denmark as a migrant worker in the 1980s and met Pisket’s mother in the anarchistic community centre Ungdomshuset in Copenhagen. In stark black and white, the graphic comic takes us inside one man’s struggle to take control of his life while being unwillingly drawn into a conflict he cannot relate to.
“One of the scariest things I can imagine is not having a personality or history and that’s what the military does,” says Pisket, a 28-year-old illustrator and graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
Pisket is known for his dark underworld, characterised by sensual and deranged characters, sex, and violence. He is as prolific as he is unconventional, drawing live over the internet, creating trippy visuals as part of the underground techno group Alberstlund Terrorkorps and penning comics about his sex life. Fuelled by a steady supply of cigarettes and coffee, he says his illustrations are necessarily dark, for they are what he sees when he closes his eyes.
“Not feeling great is something real and has a big place in my life. It’s hard for me to accept feeling happy. I almost feel shameful. The sum of all of my experiences can make it hard to get up in the morning,” he says, smoking in the spring sunshine outside his little house in Sydhavn, a no frills and scruffy construction, much like himself.
Desertør is Pisket’s attempt to understand his father – a man formerly embroiled in the criminal drug trade in Christiania, who feared assassination and was imprisoned three times. As a young boy, Pisket longed for a relationship with him, but neither understood the other. It wasn’t until his father began to suffer from the consequences of his career – his anxiety strengthening as the criminal drug trade in Christiania hardened in the 1990s – that father and son began to bond.
“Spending more time together changed both of us. And the more I got to know him, the more interested I became in understanding where he had come from and why he became the person he was. In 2000 I decided I wanted to do a comic about his life, but mostly his criminal life. But every time I got the story finished, something new happened. At one point he came round to my apartment with a suitcase, saying he needed to say because someone had hired an assassin to kill him.”
Pisket stepped into his father’s life, enrolling him in a Danish class where he was encouraged to apply for Danish citizenship. And as they studied together, the stories began to emerge.
“At first he would only speak positively about the past in Armenia. But then he would suddenly say ‘It was really hard when my brother died’ and slowly I pieced together his story and related it to my own life and how I would feel if the same things had happened to me. The comic is really more my story than it is his story, or at least me trying to understand his story.”
A page out of Halfdan Pisket’s new comic ‘Desertør’
The story recollected in Desertør is not historically accurate. The soldiers were certainly present, but they weren’t hooded and faceless as he depicts them. Pisket had originally wanted the story to be as accurate as possible, but it was only once he started to depart from accuracy and interpret his father’s story his own way that the comic started to come together. Which is apt, given that his father is responsible for his relationship with dishonesty.
“I have a problem with lying and I’ve been thinking about why I do it, in real life but also in my books. When I started in kindergarten my mum explained that I couldn’t say what my dad did for a living. So at such a young age I became used to lying even though I was raised that lying is bad and stealing is bad. It’s never been a question that I lied, it was demanded of me as a child to protect the people around me.”
Pisket did not involve his father in the process of writing the story, only giving him a copy once it was complete. But his father declined to read it, and simply told his son to go ahead and publish it.
“It was very important that he made the choice in the end to publish it. But when it was released I felt like I had betrayed him. It’s not possible to know what it’s like to have someone else write a story about everything you are trying to put a lid on and hide away.”
In the comic Pisket’s father is caught between the desire to leave his small town and the duty to stay and continue his own father’s work. Ultimately the Turkish government assumes responsibility for his path and conscripts him into the faceless army – a destiny whose outcome is indicated by the title.
Pisket himself downplays suffering from an identity conflict through growing up between a mother from the Danish Bible belt and a father from a Middle Eastern crisis zone. But just like his father, the conflict sought him out.
“I never saw my myself as having an immigrant background, but there came a point when people started to point it out to me. It made me think perhaps that was why I didn’t fit in. But then I travelled to Turkey and Armenia and I felt even more alien in those places. I just think I got to a place where I thought no matter where you’re from, if you decide to become an ambassador of the dark side you’re not going to fit in anywhere.”
Desertør brought the former criminal and his artist son together though they remain separated by a cultural barrier. The title caused a rift between the two, with the father disapproving of being called a deserter, which he argued was too negative.
“I was listening to a radio program about Middle-Eastern culture where someone said that it’s Danish to be proud to talk about weaknesses. But my dad’s from a culture where it’s degrading to talk about being weak. So my comic is very, very Danish. It’s very western to embrace antiheros, which he becomes in the later stories. But in Desertør I see him more like a martyr.”
‘Desertør’ is published by Fahrenheit. An English translation is in the works and Pisket is looking for a publisher.
Visit Halfdan Pisket’s website here.