The Haunting Beauty of Johan Egerkrans’ Art

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Johan Egerkrans has made a name for himself drawing the many creatures of Nordic Folklore. His artwork has been featured in many mediums, and his creatures are both striking and oddly unsettling. With such fantastic art, it is no wonder he has risen to fame with his book Vaesen and the RPG from Free League publishing under the same name.

The latest edition took to Kickstarter and managed to surpass expectations in under an hour, with people excited about each new iteration and the potential to explore his haunting world a bit more. Taking time out of his busy schedule, Johan Egerkrans jumped on a call with CGMagazine to discuss his career, his art, and what is still in the works for Vaesen.

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Johan Egerkrans

You have worked on some video games, could you tell us which ones you have been a part of?

Johan Egerkrans: Computer games? Oh well, I guess the most famous one that is still being played is Star Stable.  I did that with Nelson Tom. We did the prequel of Star Stable called Star Shine Legacy. I worked on that and designed all the characters in 2006. I worked designing the world and the characters, then another company took that ball and ran with it. I have been jumping in a few times and redesigning for Star Stable as well.

The company I worked for called Idol FX, the legendarily horrendous Drake of the 99 Dragon games, which was lower than the others, but the one with the most promise. I think that’s why people got disappointed because there was just something about it. People still like it; they still have fan groups for Drake. This week I saw they are selling Drake of the 99 Dragon T-shirts with the dragon motif that I designed way back in 2003 or 2004.

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Art by Johan Egerkrans

You do the art for the books and RPG of Vaesen is that correct?

Johan Egerkrans: I did. The role-playing game is based on a book I did decades ago. Exactly nine years ago, in 2013. It’s a book about Swedish and Scandinavian folklore focusing on Sweden in the style of Fairies by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. That was the main inspiration, then pretty soon after it came out, Free League and I started talking about doing a role-playing game on it. The game reuses a lot of the art mixed with a lot of new art as well. In the main book, almost everything is by me; then there are a few character studies made by Anton Vitus, another fellow Swedish artist.

I want to discuss the art style you brought forward in your original book and the RPG, which has a very unsettling but beautiful look to it. How did you come up with that style and view the reception so far?

Johan Egerkrans: Well, the book was a huge success when it came out. I don’t think anybody has done a book like that in Swedish before. Like I said before, you have the Fairies and Spiderwick Chronicles books, which sets a precedent in Canada and other countries, but nobody has done that in Sweden. So, it got a lot of attention here.

It is very rooted in Swedish or Northern European art traditions from 100 years ago and the early 20th century, with illustrators like Yan Bauer and Arthur Rackham in England and Delack and France. There are illustrators like Kate Nielsen and Gustaf Adolf Tenggren. They are all part of this sort of Nugent-style movement. I took a lot of inspiration from that.

Then I mixed it up with the sort of contemporary comic book writers I grew up on, game artists like Paul Bonner, Simon Beasley, and Mike Mignola, who came onto the scene when I was formative 13. My style is a mix of classic early 20th-century golden age art and late 90s comic book art. At least, that is what I was striving for; I like that mix when I get it right.

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Art by Johan Egerkrans

I think it is a very unique style that does make it stand out amongst the other RPGs on the market. You mentioned you did work in role-playing games before this. Could you talk about how much input you had and how that process worked from start to finish?

Johan Egerkrans: The Free League guys started up at the same time as my book Vaesen came out, about 10 years ago, and that was the start of the revival of the role-playing genre, not just in Sweden but internationally. It was a resurgence, and those guys were at the forefront. They started up with remakes of classic Swedish role-playing games because we had a strong game scene. We have our version of Games Workshop, and the target games selling were Swedish, which I grew up on.

Part of the inspiration for the Vaesen book was the [D&D] Monster Manual, but based on folklore and without stats, then we started talking about doing a role-playing game, so it became a sourcebook. I always had a profound fondness for role-playing games because that’s what got me started.

So, in the meantime, I did the illustrations for the Swedish equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons called Dragons and Demons. It is such a blatant rip-off in the name, but it’s not a Dungeons and Dragons clone, it is based on the basic engine, on what’s called The Room Quest. There’s also a Donald Duck style character in the game which I love; it’s my favourite avatar to use, so I did a new version of that.

I have started going back to the role-playing game as well. I never left it, but didn’t do much for a while. We wanted to do it and had a lot of discussions about how it should be done and what they felt— if it should be contemporary or set in the 18th century or 19th century. Pretty soon started narrowing down that we wanted to do a Monster of the Week kind of game that could be developed into larger campaigns, just like the main inspirations, the TV show, Supernatural but in a 19th-century context.

I was inspired by twisting the classic folklore myths. We wanted the feeling of someone standing with a duster and a lantern in a graveyard looking at something behind them, so there is a sort of gothic element in it as well, but a more folksy kind of gothicness, and of course, Call of Cthulhu and all that stuff. 

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Art by Johan Egerkrans

We also wanted someone that investigated these creatures, there is this lore in Northern European and England that some people have sight of. The characters should be people with a sight, so they can see the Vaesen, and then we wanted some setting where we based our Arkham, which became Uppsala, a very old university town in Sweden, old by Swedish standards. I do not know when the university was founded. Probably in the 1600s or something, but it is still pretty old.

Everything fell into place, then I wrote another game for them, and they were really happy with it, as was I, so he wrote the book, it is all based on my book. To begin with, I was involved in the process of the tone and how it should handle the Vaesen and wanted them to remain as mysterious as possible. That is one of the cool things about the Free League: their motor, their engine, you are rolling against the world.

The characters are the only characters with proper stats, that works in this game because then you don’t know how strong the monster or troll is, you just roll against it, but they’re kept mysterious. The problem with many other games is that you can just look up Cthulhu and see his stats, “Oh, he has got 5000 in strength.” That is a lot, but it is still sort of finite, and it takes away some of the magic and mystery, so the game engine works hand-in-hand with the material. Then we did it. I made some new art. We reused a lot of art from my book. Then it came out, and people liked it.

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Art by Johan Egerkrans

Vaesen was funded on Kickstarter in 30 minutes with it, far exceeding its goal. How does it feel to have a game that you helped establish that is widely loved just out of the gate?

Johan Egerkrans: It was amazing. Nobody thought it would go that well, but that is all up to the Free League. They make such fantastic products. They are popular, and people just love their stuff. I think that has got more to do with it than my humble contribution, but I think people also like folk horror and are interested in the resurgence of Scandinavian culture recently.

What do you have planned, and do you have any more plans for the Vaesen universe?

Johan Egerkrans: Yeah, I mean, coming up is Mythic Britain, which did three times as well as the first. People liked the first one. It’s an expansion as well, but it made around 7 million Krones which is at least a million Canadian. After that is my new book Dragons coming in April.

Then it is yet another new edition of Drakar Demoner, which is a Swedish role-playing game that is also made by the Free League, only published in Sweden, and then I am planning to have the first free summer for about 10 years, but there is some stuff coming out. After that we are going to do Vaesen 2.0 with more creatures. The first book is a bit Swedish-focused, so in the new book, I want to add Vaesen from Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland—the whole north. So, that should be out in late 2023.

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