What Is Finland Doing Right?

Posted by on November 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

The comics society booth, with Executive Director Kalle Hakkola and festival producer Warda Ahmed at the center

I have long wondered what makes Finland such a regional epicenter of inspiring experimental comics, increasingly making waves internationally these days. What, for example, makes it different from the other Scandinavian countries, in which interesting work is also being produced, but not as consistently and across as diverse an expressive field? The conditions of production are comparable if not identical, and yet Finland has maintained the lead for at least a decade-and-a-half.

I won’t pretend to have the answers, but visiting the Helsinki Book Fair this weekend as a guest of the Finnish Comics Society at least gave me a sense of Finnish comics in the larger literary, if not cultural, context afforded by the kind of union of the tribes that a major annual book fair provides.

Comics on display at the Finnish Comics Society booth

The Finnish Comics Society is a grass-roots advocacy and educational organization, running largely hand-to-mouth on public funding. While their means vary from year to year, they seem to have built sufficient credibility with funding bodies that they have been able consistently to expand their operations over the few last years. Most of their budget is still dependent on short-term and often project-specific money, but they nevertheless manage to employ more than half a dozen full-time employees at the moment, plus a similar number of part-timers and interns.

These people form the spine of a larger group of people working to expand the knowledge and appreciation of comics in Finland as well as abroad, teaching cartooning, organizing festivals and exhibitions, helming national and international workshops and publications, participating in a grass-roots distribution network to the bookstores, etc. Their base of operations is a 400-square-meter Comics Center situated across the street from the Helsinki University of Art and Design, which includes a well-stocked comics store and coffee shop, an exhibition area, teaching space, storage and offices.

At the book fair specifically, the Society maintains a mid-size booth every year where it provides space for the country’s many small-press publishers and fanzine artists to sell their work without having to rent their own floor space. Here they host signings and events, all the while participating in the official programming (I had the pleasure of participating in a panel on Nordic comics hosted by cartoonist and publisher Tommi Musturi, along with international guests Bendik Kaltenborn and Rui Tenreiro).

Cartoonist Kaisa Leka and Ville Manninen, the designer of the comics tabloid, display their work

The main event for the Society this year was the fabrication and publishing, during the festival itself, of a 24-page comics tabloid. Essentially, it was put together in a day, with the involved cartoonists drawing their comics on-site on the Friday, while an editorial group consisting of three people laid it out and shipped it off to the publisher for free distribution in 10.000 copies at the Fair Center entrances over the weekend (again, I had the pleasure of contributing a short text on the Nordic comics scene).

Co-publisher Jelle Hugaerts at the Huuda Huuda booth

In addition to a number of book- and comics stores hawking their wares, other comics publishers were also present at the fair: that national institution Moomin, of course, was a distinct presence, occupying a large, somewhat merchandise-infested area toward the front of the fair; and likewise Scandinavian children’s book-and-magazine giant, Egmont, took up a lot of floor space. The biggest Finnish publisher specializing in comics, Artic Banana, which focuses mainly on collecting popular newspaper strips and translating fairly high-profile international books, stood out distinctly in the main alley of the fair, as did the major generalist publisher WSOY, which also maintains a comics line. Last but not least, Finland’s most innovative publisher Huuda Huuda, co-run by Musturi and Jelle Hugaerts, had a small booth where they displayed their formidable line of quality art-comics, Finnish and international—right now perhaps most impressively a flipped edition combining Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo’s Inferno. In other words, comics were an inescapable presence at the fair.

While this was merely a brief glimpse into the Finnish comics scene, I got the distinct sense that it has managed exceptionally well the balancing act between organization and independence. In contrast especially to Sweden and Norway, there is little in the way of a major domestic mainstream and thus only little money to be made drawing comics. Neither is there as strong a tradition for the publication of international comics as in Denmark, where several generations have been hampered by the wish to match not only the format, but also the approach to craft, of the classic Franco-Belgian album series.

Guests from Norway: Rui Tenreiro & Bendik Kaltenborn

This has steered a lot of the creative energy into more personal work and kept Finnish cartoonists more open to the possibilities immanent in approaches and idioms beyond those traditionally seen in comics, particularly as found in contemporary art. At the same time, the scene is sufficiently well-organized at a grass-roots level to enable and support this kind of work—no one is getting rich, but if you want to publish your comic, the structures to help you obtain support and distribution are there. And perhaps most importantly, a small but appreciative audience has been cultivated through two decades of quality comics publishing: from ’90s pioneers — and internationally known quantities — such as Kati Kovacs, Matti Hagelberg, Jenni Rope and Katja Tukkiainen; through more recent mainstays such as Ville Ranta and Tiina Pystynen; to the current, remarkably diverse crop of younger artists, many of which publish regularly in Musturi’s remarkable bimonthly comics tabloid KutiKuti.

I’m still learning about this — perhaps unlikely — but nevertheless redoubtable Nordic center of international comics culture, and all of the above are incomplete working hypotheses. There’s certainly room for improvement in Finnish comics, both structurally and artistically, but in the context of a European comics scene that seems in a bit of a slump when it comes to innovation, one could do worse than to look north for inspiration.

More photos from the fair available at the Metabunker.

*Correction: Jelle Hugaerts was misidentified as Viljami Jauhiainen. We apologize for this error.

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