With the increase of interest in Nordic comics around the world over the last few years, it seemed a good opportunity to discuss with one of the emblematic figures of the Finnish alternative edition, and question the liveliness of this exciting production. Jelle Hugaerts, co-founder with Tommi Musturi of the audacious Finnish publishing house Huuda Huuda, shares his thoughts about the situation of comics in Finland today but also about sweating it out in the sauna of a public swimming pool with a bunch of naked beerbellied guys in complete silence…
Nicolas Verstappen : In the last couple of years, there’s been an increase of interest in Nordic comics around the world (translations by Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Rackham, FRMK, La Cinquième Couche…). There is this feeling of a Lost World of Comics suddenly being discovered. What would be the reasons of this sudden interest now ? Is it linked to the emergence of new generation of publishers, artists and groundbreaking works ? Or maybe to the work of Nordicomics, a project by the Finnish Comics Society and other cultural partners, to promote Nordic artists around the world ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : Yes, there do seem to be a steady interest in comics from up North and it’s nice to hear you consider them like treasures from a lost world. And I have good news for you, there’s plenty of gems still here that waiting to be unearthed here. We’ll stop harassing the world about the awesomeness of Finnish comics the moment the complete work of Kalervo Palsa and Jyrki Nissinen are translated (and let then the comics speak for themselves).
On a serious note, yes, finally the fruits of hard labour are showing. It was a long process to get the outside world notice that there are some ace comics being made here in Finland as well. A lot is owed by the enthousiasm and tireless efforts of the Finnish comic artists themselves who went to every major European comic festival each year, hauling all the books, making contacts, providing English subtitles to anthologies and outboozing everybody at the Angoulême afterparties (therefore gaining the utmost respect of all publishers). Things really started to get rolling after 2006 when two Finnish anthologies (Glömp and Laikku) won the price for best alternative publication in Angoulême. After that grant policy in Finland made it possible to do more prestigious projects such as for example the Kolor Klimax and Finnish Comics Annual anthologies. The best promotion are of course great books and with French translations of Aapo Rapi, Ville Ranta, Tommi Musturi and Marko Turunen the French speaking world gets a nice peak at what’s cooking here in Finland comicwise.
Nicolas Verstappen : You’re running with Tommi Musturi the Finnish comics publishing house Huuda Huuda. Would you say Finnish citizens show the same enthusiasm about Finnish works than foreign publishers and readers ? What is the cultural importance of comics for the Finnish people ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : It’s nice to see the outside world gather enthousiasm for Finnish comics but allow me to insert a cynical laughter to answer the question : does the Finnish audience share that enthousiasm. Because they’re not.
At least not in the overall picture. Just looking at the sales numbers of the books we publish with Huuda Huuda will crush the illusion that « Finnish comics are doing great ! » Well, of course Huuda Huuda seems to be more of a publishing house that publishes books dug by other comic artists, not so much the public. We are happy campers if we can get more than 200 copies sold of a single book within one year. But it would be unfair to be negative here since most of our books get relatively good press attention in the big newspapers. It’s the public that seems to be blissfully unaware of our existence and our books. But that whole battle to get books being noticed and bought by the people is pretty donquichotian here in Finland. To give you an idea, there are four real comic bookstores in Finland, two of which refuse to take our books and the other two sell about five copies per title. The biggest bookchain does not buy our books since we are too small of a publisher. When you count it all up, there are about seven places in the whole of Finland where you can buy our books, mostly museum/gallery shops and a few second-hand bookshops that focus on comics. God bless the Finnish library system that keeps this whole comics publishing world floating.
However during events we notice that the « general audience » is really open to what we do and when we sell at non comic related events (bookfairs, christmas-sales) people really dig what we do and buy our books. From personal experience in Belgium (Flanders that is), I couldn’t imagine some middle-aged women looking with interest at the latest hardcover Olivier Schrauwen book and pick it up at a 29 euro price tag, but here that’s exactly what’s happening.
Last year Finland celebrated the 100th birthday of Finnish comics with events and exhibitions throughout the year and now there is an exhibition in Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art here in Helsinki. Finns are avid comic readers : looking at the statistics of bestselling books per year, you will find that more than half of the top twenty are all comics. All Donald Duck. Almost every second household in Finland is subscribed to the Donald Duck weekly magazine. Also homegrown comics are popular around these parts, especially humoristic newspaper strips the likes of Fingerpori, Viivi&Wagner, Kiroileva Siili and Fok_it. The funny thing is that the Finnish comics people are raving about abroad are virtually unknown here in their homeland. Especially alternative, « artistic » comics have to struggle to get a foothold in the cultural landscape. Press attention to comics such as reviews or even articles are rare in the mainstream media, The amount of grants for comics are only a fraction compared to similar art forms, comics are not officially part of the educational program so teaching of comics in Finland is mostly organized by institutions that are not really part of the real vocational educative program. That all maybe sounds like I am giving a bleak image of the situation at hand here, but on the other hand it has forged into the mind of all comic artists and activists here that whatever you are going to be doing in comics, you’ll have to do it yourself and the reward for your hard work is just a lukewarm sip of vodka, shared behind the booth at the comic festival. 95 % of all comics being produced and published in Finland are purely amateur in the strictest sense of the word : for the love of it.
Despite all obstacles Finland still has a really active comic scene, there are about 7-10 indie publishers, two major comic publishers and every big literary house have their own comics / graphic novel department. If you are a Finnish comic artist and you have made a decent comic, you will definitely get published. On top of that I have to admit that last year was a really good year for Finnish comics, a peak in creativity and diversity. When in 2010 two Finnish comic books (Ville Ranta’s L’Exilé de Kalevala and Aapo Rapi’s Meti) were nominated at the Angoulême festival for best book (or whatever the prize was called), I think the 2011 harvest of Finnish books will hopefully find its way to French publishers and of course directly towards the Angoulême awards. I am talking about books like Invisible Hands (Ville Tietäväinen), Perkele (Jeskanen), Santala (Jeskanen), Alhaiset Taajuudet (Kuikka), The Shepherd (Sailamaa), Trophy Hunters (Pallasvuo), Neljännes Yhesti Paikas (Ville Pirinen), Champ Poo (Eronen), Neljäs Toivon Kirja (Musturi)…
Nicolas Verstappen : On the Huuda Huuda website, it says : « Huuda Huuda felt it as a task to publish comic books that otherwise no other publisher would touch« . This sounds like what JC Menu aimed for at L’Association in France for many years (if I’m not mistaken). Do you feel close to the approach of this publisher ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : I would be flattered to be compared to l’Association of course, that’s a great publisher. There is a distinct difference though. We specifically started out to translate comic books whereas I believe Menu and co wanted to publish French comic artists. Huuda Huuda got its start in 2006 when Tommi and me decided to gather strengths and start putting out books that we like for some reason or another, there were very little important (at least important in our eyes) books being translated into Finnish. Persepolis and Monsieur Jean, that was about it that was getting translated in Finnish at that point (we are talking 2006 here). From the get go we wanted to do books that other publishers would never release, we felt it wasn’t our task to put out already known names (such as Marjane Satrapi, Seth or Charles Burns) but to introduce the Finnish audience with the canon of alternative comics from exciting artists like Olivier Schrauwen, Gary Panter etc. There is not a single sensible publisher in Finland that would want to touch Gary Panter’s Jimbo stories since it takes about a year’s work and sells only 150 copies. But we do (in fact it’s probably the only translation in the whole world). It’s not that we would only do difficult to understand, « artistic » comics that are a financial bottomless pit ; it’s always nice to put out a book that does well. But the main criterium for putting out a book is still that Tommi and me must really like it, love it enough to get a kick out of publishing it. We are just a small unit with very limited resources, neither Tommi or me ever got any money out of Huuda Huuda. We are very careful with what choose to publish, not because we are scared of losing money or so, but more because we know we will have to sell and deal with the book the next five years or so. The work has to be strong enough that we are still excited to sell any extra copy even after five years of looking at the book. Sorry, no room for mediocre books with us, they bore too easily.
In the course of the years we have also published works of Finnish comic artists, mostly of artists that share a similar vision and aesthetics. We keep a look out on what’s happening in Finland, scouting the small press tables at comic festivals, checking comic blogs etc. When we see something we like, we’ll contact the artist. However usually it’s a lot more organic : the scene in Finland is so small that basically all comic artists kind of know each other and « pitches » are done very informally over some coffee or beer.
All in all I would say that Huuda Huuda has a very random array of books that we have published, a kind of eclectic roster that reflects the taste of Tommi and me.
Nicolas Verstappen : There seems to be a strong connection between Scandinavian and Nordic artists and publishers (Latvian publisher kuš ! printing a « Finnish special » and being close to Kuti Kuti for example). Or through meetings in comics festivals like those in Stockholm and Helsinki ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : Historically the Nordic countries (roughly said : Scandinavia + Baltics + Finland) have always collaborated together, and as a result there is a legion of foundations and trust funds that want to stimulate further collaboration between the Nordic countries on a more artistic level. It’s therefore « easy » to get grants for collaborative efforts (translations, workshops, traveling exhibitions…) which has for sure enhanced awareness of what’s happening in the comics field in each country. Also since distances are relatively short and traveling back and fro fairly cheap, comic artists and publishers meet up regularly during comic related events. Which brings me to the Helsinki Comics Festival and without bragging too much about it, that’s a pretty awesome festival whose role in bringing together artists from all over the Nordic countries should not be overlooked. Remember when rock festivals used to just two stages and with long enough breaks between the bands that you could almost check out all your favourite music outfits ? That’s how the Helsinki Comic Festival still is. On top of that, the event is very well organised (thank you uberlord Otto Sinisalo), two tents (one entirely for small press), interesting program and as a bonus for visiting foreign publisher : no table fee. Situated smack in the middle of Helsinki and without admission fee, it lured approximately 15,000 visitors in 2011.
With kuš !, I just know that David is quite the fan of Finnish comics and he has been visiting Finland several times. He seems to be doing pretty well with his anthology (and I keep wondering where he gets his energy from).
Nicolas Verstappen : Could you say a word about the Kuti Kuti comic art studio and association ? Are these fourteen artists, born between 1975 and 1985, the cornerstone generation of the renewal of Finnish comics ? Are there many other alternative artists out there in Finland ? And what are the links between Kuti Kuti and Huuda Huuda ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : Well, Kuti started out as a space, a shared workspace for comic artists. In Finland, with its high cost of living and pricey rent, it is very common for artists or freelancers to share a space and put some workdesks together. Kind of like an office but then on a more loose basis. There’s « studio’s » for architects, graphic designers, freelancers (usually there’s a mixture of all sorts of professionals) and Kuti Kuti (which means “tickle tickle” in Finnish, by the way) is a workspace for comic artists. In their current location in Helsinki there’s room for 10 artists I think. People come and go in these workspaces with Kuti as no exception. The connection between Kuti and Huuda Huuda is that Tommi is a founding member of both. Me personally I know most of the Kuti artists but I am in no way involved with their shenanigans.
On top of the studio there is the Kuti paper, which is a free comic tabloid that comes out 4 times a year. Issue number 26 came out a few days ago. Kuti got it’s inspiration from free comic tabloids such as Paper Rodeo. Nowadays there’s quite some free comic tabloids out there, but if you ask me not with the same high standard content or the stamina to put out an issue every three months. Kuti is mixture of comics from Finland and abroad and articles. All comics are provided with English subtexts. Visually some people call Kuti « psychedelic », which is a term I don’t really like. In any case, Kuti definitely has an international profile although it works on real grassroots level here in Finland with volunteers dumping stacks of Kuti‘s in bars, museums and some shops. For sure Kuti plays a big part in the raising interest in Nordic comics abroad. Kuti has a a print run of 5000 copies and a subscription abroad is possible and you pay just the postage fees, isn’t that neat ?
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the people from Kuti are the future of Finnish comics since Kuti is strictly Helsinki based, and there’s life in Finland also outside of the civilised world we call Helsinki. There’s a healthy scene in Tampere as well and all sorts of promising artists living all over the country. From the current generation of comic artists from Finland here are some names you should check out : Matti Hagelberg, Aapo Rapi, Ville Ranta, Marko Turunen, Tommi Musturi, Amanda Vähämäki, Ville Pirinen, Jyrki Nissinen, Roope Eronen, Katja Tukiainen, Mari Ahokoivu, Milla Palloniemi, Petteri Tikkanen, M.A. Jeskanen, Ville Tietäväinen, Emmi Valve, Reetta Niemensivu, Tiittu, Leo Kuikka, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Kari Sihvonen, Jarno Latva-Nikkola, Kaisa Leka. On top of the traditionally published artists there is a very active deviant art scene which I know absolutely nothing about since I am getting to be an old fart (check it out for yourself).
Nicolas Verstappen : I’m amazed by the variety of techniques and styles used in Finnish comics. There are drawings with ink, brushes, pencils, paintings, vivid colors or simple black and white. I wouldn’t have used « psychedelic » to describe visually Kuti but maybe « vivid » or « wild ». Finnish art seems to be « free » from established schools and traditions (such as the traditional Belgian « Ligne Claire », for instance).
JELLE HUGAERTS : It is true that Finnish comics (or at least the ones that get published abroad) are quite diverse in style and for example the Marko Turunen’s use of colours are from subtle or Aapo Rapi’s palette are a sight for sore eyes. I guess you can call that vivid, but similar kindred comic spirits can be found in other countries as well (Le Dernier Cri, Canicola). Finnish art seems and is free from schools and tradition, you’re right on the dot with that one. Everybody kind of does their own thing and has their own style. I have a possible theory about this, but I don’t know if it holds any grounds once you scrutinize it. It goes like this : the most popular comics here are the Donald Duck/Mickey the Mouse stories, you know Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson etc : yet none of the students in comics I have encountered draw Disney style comics, most likely because it is very difficult to master. In Belgium or Flanders at least, the style of Vandersteen, Merho and Nys is a lot simpler, more like a « clumsier » version of clear line ; in France you have the Trondheim/Sfar school which is also an relatively easy style to copy so I assume that’s why there are more « copycats » or to put it mildly « followers » of that style. In Finland there’s nothing of that sort.
On top of that, one of the most influential comic artist, at least for the current generation, is a guy called Kalervo Palsa an outsider art painter whose comic Eläkeläinen Muistelee can compete with Spain or Marquis de Sade in the category of over the top violence and sadism. It is a brutal work (which he drew in 1971), yet with a certain honest black humor panache. Since Finland has a thing for outside artists, Palsa is now an icon in the Finnish art. Traces of his work can directly be seen in the comics of Jarno Latva-Nikkola and Jyrki Nissinen but hopefully publisher Rackham will keep their promise to translate everything ever done by Aapo Rapi so you will one day chuckle with Kelomökkien Mies, a comic parody on Palsa’s life. You can look at the drawings of Palsa (and also of Alpo Jaakola), see the ruggidness of them (what Japanese would call maybe heta-uma manga) and you might be hard-pressed to believe it has anything to do with the liveliness or vividness of the current Finnish comics. But the connection is there, definitely. Almost all Finnish comic artists that I have listed here will mention Palsa as a great influence. His work is really intense and the same you can say for the current body of work of the Finnish comic artists.
Nicolas Verstappen : In his introduction to the Finnish Comics Annual 2011, Ville Hänninen insists on the concepts of surrealism (« Finland is a grim country. In a country thirsty for escapism, surrealism is the only realism worth believing in« ), onirism (« stories […] are only dominated by the dreamlike quality to the everyday ») and magic realism (« Nordic artists are fond of constructing realities where something is not quite right« ). Do you share his ideas that about the strangeness of Finnish comics ?
JELLE HUGAERTS : It would be a bit of a cliché to call Finland a grim country. Sure, it can get pretty depressing during those long dark wet autumn days but Finland in the summer is a real delight : birds chirping, the sun never setting ; that’s hardly a moodkiller. I also like to remind Ville that Finnish people are the world record consumers of ice cream. Can you look like a grim badass when eating an icecream scone ? You can’t. Ian Mackaye and Guy Piccoloto from Fugazi already explained this to us.
I do however underline Ville’s opinion that surrealism is very much present in the cultural landscape here (as can be seen in a lot of fine Finnish movies). It’s a part of everyday-life, surrealism almost seems imbedded in the genes of Finns. Sometimes they play it out a bit and organize all sorts of « crazy » events during the summer (swamp soccer, wifecarry meetings, air-guitar championships,..) but those are to me more touristy happening. The actual daily life is already strange enough, like eating mämmi or sweating it out in the sauna of the public swimming pool with a bunch of naked beerbellied guys in complete silence. What I am trying to say is that I wouldn’t chalk up all this surrealism as a thirst for escapism, it’s actually the opposite : Finland just is friggin’ weird.
Amanda Vähämäki seems the most obvious example of « surreal » comics, she manages to capture so well in her comics that vague mindset between dreaming and waking, you know when you just rise groggy from your bed but still remember vividly what you just dreamt, that blissfull state of « unawareness ». Now, I wouldn’t call that magic realism ; that’s a term I have reserved for boring 60’s Flemish literature in the vain of Johan Daisne’s The man who let his hair cut short (well what do you know, if it isn’t where Olivier Schrauwen got his latest booktitle from), but that’s just splitting hairs. In any case I would recommend everybody to get familiar with Amanda’s work which has been published by Drawn and Quarterly, Canicola and FRMK.
[Interview conducted through e-mail for Nørdix.]