Drawing your emotional baggage

Fans mourned when Stine Spedsbjerg took a hiatus from her cult comic strip 'Stine Stregen' due to depression. Now she's back with a new series of awkward adventures. The cartoonist talks mental illness, underarm hair and how broadcasting your emotional baggage online can ruin a first date

I almost miss Stine Spedsbjerg in the café. We decide to meet in a dimly-lit joint packed with bearded hipsters and clusters of sleek women sipping cortados. I’m hunting for my mental image of the cartoonist – a round shape with a bun atop her oversized head, framed by black lines and with two dots for eyes. Instead, I’m waved over by a svelte, three-dimensional Scandinavian.

That’s how hard it is to separate the cartoonist from her eponymous creation – Stine, the awkward, plump heroine of the Danish-language online comic strip ‘Stine Stregen.’

“People always think I’m fat in real life,” says Spedsbjerg with a big laugh. She’s wearing thick-rimmed glasses and an oversized earring. The bun on her head wobbles as she talks, quickly and animatedly – the same iconic hairdo sported by her hand-drawn alter ego.

“I don’t draw how I look, but more how I feel I look. I guess I never feel like a tall Danish blonde, but more like a chubby nerd. Not in a bad way though, I don’t hate how I look!”

It’s this raw honesty which helped build Stine Stregen’s enormous fan base during its eight-year run.

Some fans even have Stine tattoos. “One engineer dude messaged me a picture of the Stine inked on his forearm,” she says, scrolling past the Instagram picture.

Powerfully relatable, Stine Stregen portrays both the funny side of gut-wrenching experiences like depression and heartbreak, while also celebrating the mundane. Break-ups, baking mishaps, and the effort of shaving leg hair are some of the themes Spedsbjerg has transformed into little stories of helplessness and hope.

She’s landed design work off the back of that success, and currently serves as head of the Danish Comics Council – not bad for someone who professes that she started out as a “really bad amateur” at drawing.

However, Spedsbjerg pulled the plug on Stine Stregen last year after relocating to Copenhagen from Aarhus, going through a break-up and being diagnosed with depression. It doesn’t mark the end of her career, just a shift in direction – she wants to focus on healing, release a book, and  focus on her new English-language series, ‘Perfectly Grim‘. But when you’ve made a career out of narrating the embarrassing details of your life to strangers on the internet, can you ever just detach?

Readers have been touched by her willingness to depict depression in the comic, and many have reached out with messages of support or to share similar experiences.

“When you use yourself in your stories, you have to give something from your core – some honesty. But at the same time I’m not just pouring my heart out – I turn my emotions into stories that people can mirror themselves in. I’m technically a terrible artist, but I channel emotions, I guess.”

Spedsbjerg says it’s important to clear up misconceptions about the illness and open it up to discussion.

“I now think I had depression for longer than I realised. I thought that if I wasn’t suicidal, and wasn’t in a bad mood all the time, then it couldn’t be depression! That must be because it’s not discussed enough in the public forum. A few media personalities have written me emails telling me how brave I am for talking about it, and shared that they have depression too – but they just don’t talk about it.”

Even when we discuss her struggles with the illness, Spedsbjerg is cracking jokes. It’s a testament to her ability to use humour to dissect tough issues, which explains how the cartoonist’s woes became a comic series.

“In a way, it’s kind of embarrassing that I have depression. A good mood and a good life is the most valuable asset. I want to be able to say, ‘I’m not that person, I’m cool!” she laughs.

“But ultimately, I want to be the kind of person who stands by their emotions. I imagine that’s what readers get out of reading about my life – knowing they’re not alone.”

Stine Stregen

Stine Stregen

Stop liking my salads
Stine Stregen resonates strongly with women in particular, in part because of its warts-and-all portrait of a woman struggling to live up to modern beauty standards. Spedsbjerg paints the reality that is buried beneath everyone’s stylised Instagram pictures, one that involves underarm hair and wobbly body parts.

“I get so annoyed with myself when I take part in lying with my own instagram posts. ‘Oh look, I’m eating a salad!’ Come on, I do that like once a month. But that’s what gets the most likes – pictures of my cat, or me with a fun shirt. Or pictures of coffee and salads. But it’s not an accurate picture of real life. Most of my life I walk around with mascara running from my eyes to my tits, or in bed with a cat who bites me all the time. He’s such a douchebag.”

Ex-boyfriend revenge

When you’re the lead character in your own narrative it can be hard to balance sharing your emotions with the need to respect others’ privacy, especially ex-boyfriends on whom you might want to exact revenge.

“I try not to tell other people’s stories and talk about them when it’s about my own emotions towards them,” says Spedsbjerg, who admits she’s been tempted to yield the power of her fan base when it comes to break-ups.

“There have been a couple of dudes where I was like ‘I COULD TELL PEOPLE THINGS ABOUT YOU…and everyone would be on my side!'” she laughs, shaking her fist.

“It is hard to restrain yourself from turning thousands of readers against someone who hurt you. There’s a common misconception that I’m the nicest person in the world, because I’ve held my tongue, but I’m not. I’m just trying to be fair in a space where I hold all the power.”

I point out that it probably isn’t fair when they don’t have the same skills to draw their own version of events.

“Actually, one of my ex-boyfriends used to draw! At a comic festival two years ago, he and I were the final battle in a draw-off. I won because I exploited his weakness. We had two minutes. I spent one minute drawing and the rest staring at him, because I knew he can’t draw under pressure. It was very satisfying, everybody should have a ‘HA, EAT IT’ moment with their ex.

“See?” she pauses. “I’m not that nice.”

Photo: Peter Stanners

Photo: Peter Stanners

Dating is awkward
There won’t be any obvious references to ex-boyfriends in her upcoming book – a series of drawings depicting the cycle of heartbreak. She says she’s too proud for that.

“I don’t want any of my exes to recognise themselves in the boyfriend character!” Spedsbjerg says. “That’s why I designed a generic guy with a top-bun hairdo – a man-bun – because I’ve never even kissed a guy like that. So none of my exes will pick it up and say ‘Oh yeah, this is about me – she never got over me!’ That’s my biggest fear, them standing in a bookshop, feeling smug with their friends or new girlfriend.”

Moving forward, Spedsbjerg says putting her life online has added an extra layer of awkwardness to first dates.

“I have to start out being really honest about everything because the guy can look me up and will know I’m not cool and that I have hairy legs most of the time. On the other hand, some men do idealise me a little bit, because the comic is a nicer, funnier version of me. But it’s not the whole truth about me,” she says.

“Although I do draw some of the bad stuff, it’s not like I draw about every single time I’m not able to get out of bed, or shower, or being left with no choice but to go downstairs and buy new underwear because I’ve run out and can’t bring myself to do laundry.”

Diary entries
Spedsbjerg didn’t originally intend for Stine Stregen to be an all-access exhibition of her life.

“It’s not like my life is special in any way – my emotional rollercoasters are just really normal,” she says, adding that drawing her little world has provided her with unique psychological insights.

“It became more of a diary entry as it went on. It’s a good way to look at my life from the outside. Like when you have visitors over and you can borrow their eyes to see your own apartment and think, ‘oh my god, I haven’t cleaned this place in three weeks!'”

“I also created an alter-ego, the ninja avenger, who does imaginary angry things when I’m feeling angry. At the time I thought it was just a bit of fun, but looking back I realised I had a big problem with expressing anger. That was such a ‘whoa’ moment.”

“I actually stopped using the character, because it was so obvious that I was just trying to escape having those emotions. This is an example of me being bad at things.”

"We need to talk about your constant need for attention."

“We need to talk about your constant need for attention.”

Boring old life
‘Perfectly Grim’ is a positive departure from Stine Stregen, says Spedsbjerg, who calls it a chance to start afresh in a new language. But while most fans have been supportive, not everyone is thrilled.

“I got an email from someone who said she doesn’t recognise me anymore and hopes I’ll find myself again. It was basically like ‘you’ve changed, man.’ It felt like a break up in way.”

As for Stine Stregen, Spedsbjerg is reluctant to transform the series into a book and maintains that it’s best left in its current digital-only format.

“If every drawing was a page in a book then you would soon be REALLY bored because life tends to go in a circle. If people went back to the start and read the whole comic from the beginning, they’d be like, ‘Jesus Christ you’re the most boring person I’ve ever met!’ And they’d probably be right,” she laughs, throwing her hands up in the air. “But that’s okay!”

And that’s why, time and time again, readers return to Stine Stregen – where a little, two-dimensional shape reminds them that no matter how overwhelming life gets, it’s all going to be okay. M

Features, Culture

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

Facebook comments