Of pigs and ducks

{mosimage}This will come as no surprise to anybody as
the Aku Ankka weekly magazine is still the biggest-selling magazine in Finland.
In few other countries does Donald Duck gain such great popularity as in
Finland. In the US, for example, sales of a Donald Duck magazine are
practically non-existent, Alas, if you hold any illusions that this all due to
Finnish craftsmanship and quality work, I must disappoint you. As these things
go in this globalised world, the actual work for Donald Duck is done in small
animation studios around the world and then assembled and translated by
separate companies. Finnish artists are hardly involved in this process. Since
this article deals with Finnish comics, we should therefore focus on other
works.

To get an understanding of the Finnish
comic market one must first realize that the reading market is not so large.
With a total population of around 5.2 million, the potential readership of
comics is going to be rather small, of course. Even more so, since the
popularity of this medium has been in a steady decline since the fifties. In
actual numbers this means for example that the book Persepolis (a memoir of the
young Iranian Marjane Satrapi moving to Europe) was considered a surprising
bestseller even though sales did not peak over 5,000.

But even though the whole comics scene is
small in size, the production is surprisingly high and of good quality. Proof
of that can be found in the growing interest abroad in what’s happening around
here. Finnish artists were asked this year to show their works in several
exhibitions during important comic festivals in France, Holland and Belgium.
Also, many works by Finnish artists are being translated and published in
English and French.

Comic books that sell well here are not
particularly popular elsewhere. Every country has their own equivalent of
newspaper humour strips like “Viivi ja Wagner” or “Virtanen” so who in France
or Germany would be interested in reading these comics? On the other hand, the
young and sometimes rather unknown artists that make their own brand of
alternative comics are appealing to foreign readers. Names like Tommi Musturi,
Ville Ranta, Matti Hagelberg, Marko Turunen, Kati Kovacs may not ring a bell to
many readers but they are widely known amongst comic connoisseurs abroad.

{mosimage}Ville Ranta, for example, is a comic artist
living in Oulu who started his own publishing company, Asema, in 2000, through
which he has published several books. Lewis Trondheim, one of the biggest names
in French comics nowadays and founder of the renowned l’Association publishing
company, specifically asked Ville to put together a comic album. The result is Célébritz
(Dargaud), a witty satire on our celebrity-obsessed society. The main character
invents a pill which turns people into instant idols but the fame lasts only
from 3 seconds to two weeks. Ville’s own work is mostly autobiographical in
nature and he draws in a loose, sketchy way. Earlier this year, however, Ville
Ranta was the focus of plenty of media attention after being banned from the
Kaltio culture magazine and being censored by too-careful Finnish politicians
of the Oulu city administration due to the whole Mohammed cartoon craze. In his
banned comic strip, Ville and the prophet Mohammed have an animated discussion
about Islamic and western differences and later Tarja Halonen and Matti
Vanhanen are shown burning the Danish flag “as a sign of friendship towards the
Muslim world”. As an hilarious comment on the always-overcautious Finnish
foreign policy this worked quite well, but three major sponsors of Kaltio left
and the chief editor was fired.  When the
whole media attention had died out, however, Oulu city rehired Ranta as an
illustrator for the Snellman book they had been planning.

Matti Hagelberg has also been published by
l’Association and several magazines all over the world (most notably Blab in
the States) thanks to his well-known scratchy drawing technique and absurd
storytelling. His 200-page masterpiece about Urho Kekkonen (published by Otava
in 2004) has also been translated into Swedish.

A third name to keep an eye open for is
Tommi Musturi, who is not only the editor of Glömp magazine (more about that
later) but he most recently gained fame with First Book of Hope, which has
already been published in French. This comic (in English) captures very nicely the
mental state of a typical middle-aged Finnish man who contemplates his lost
childhood. While stuffing himself with greasy food and complaining about his
missing longjohns he mumbles to himself and engages in countryside activities
such as building a bird’s nest, going to the sauna and walking in the forest. The
Second Book of Hope is scheduled in January 2007 and will be simultaneously
published in English and French. Otava will at the same time publish The First
Book of Hope in Finnish.

One event is marked in red in the calendars
of every Finnish comic lover and artist; the yearly comic festival in Helsinki.
During this occasion, which usually takes place on the third weekend of
September, the whole comics industry comes together and presents their newest
publications side by side. The 2006 comic festival gathered more than 6,500
visitors over its two-day period and his been growing in popularity quite
rapidly these last few years. It is no wonder, because the main guest of this
year, Garth Ellis, said it was “the best small-sized comic festival I have ever
attended”. Lectures, exhibitions and sometimes hilarious stage acts entertain a
mixed crowd of comics collectors, artists, urban hipsters and families with
children.

The comic world is in general very male
oriented. In the States, 90% of the comic readers are male, and female comic
artists are just a handful. The comic stores are considered safe havens for young
nerds and sweaty, unwashed comic collectors. This is nicely illustrated in The Simpsons with the Comic Book Guy
character, a sarcastic 45-year-old overweight virgin who still lives with his
mother. Girls hardly ever enter a comic book store, and why would they? There
are no books that they would be interested in and they would be scared away by
the clientele and staff alike. In Finland, however, the situation is a bit
healthier. From the top of my head I can list at least 10 female comic artists:
Jenni Rope, Kati Kovacs, Katja Tukiainen, Roju, Kaisa Leka, and Tiitu being
among the most important. In Tampere the Irtoparta magazine (False Beard, comes
with English translation sheets) publishes female cartoonists only and has
already 7 issues out. I honestly don’t think there’s any other country where
the female presence is so strong in the comics scene. The readership also is
almost equally divided.

{quotes}A good start for getting to know the
artists listed here would to buy comic anthologies such as Laikku or Glömp.
{/quotes}
They feature a healthy array of all the up and coming Finnish comic artists and
come with complete English translations on the bottom of each page. The 8th
issue of Glömp especially was critically well-received and managed to sell out
completely in a matter of months. It should still be available in several
stores, though. The book is a colourful 225-page collection of experimental
graphics and painful youth trauma stories shown with every possible drawing
technique. To illustrate the international appeal of this book (and Finnish
comics in general) even more, a quarter of all copies were sold in the States.

The main problem with all these fine books
is finding them in the stores. Print runs often don’t exceed 1,000 copies, and
when they are sold out, there’s very little chance of reprinting. Nationwide
distribution as well has proven to be very difficult. It might take some
digging and snooping around in several bookstores to actually get your hands on
these books. Fortunately, the libraries usually have a good collection of
homegrown comics in the adult comics department. If you would be willing to
sample these Finnish comics, they are out there – just go and track them down.
The lucky finders will be rewarded with some good reading material.