Finnish Comics Annual 2011:
The Finnish Line
You couldn’t miss it if you tried. It’s very big (250 x 320 mms), very heavy (two kilos) and comes in garish, almost fluorescent pink. Few countries have made such an impressive plea for attention and acclaim for their comics as Finland with the publication in English of this first Finnish Comics Annual. But do they deserve it? How do Finnish comics, or sarjakuva (serial pictures), celebrating their centenary this year since the pioneering Professori Itikaisen tutkimusretki (Professor Itikainen’s Expedition) by Ilmari Vainio in 1911, really compare to the output of other nations?
Fortunately, editor, journalist and critic Ville Hänninen does not attempt some generalised impression of the state of all Finnish comics today or stick to safe ‘Greatest Hits’ or a Top Twenty of Best-Sellers. Instead, he provocatively cherry-picks 33 stories by 20 “real virtuosos”, all solo writer-artists who do everything, born between 1958 and 1982, eight of them women. Cumulatively, they represent Hänninen’s perception of a rich seam in Finnish comics of “bizarre atmospheres and peculiar worlds”, of “realities where something is not quite right”, comics that can be “a bit strange, sure, but damn funny.” I have been following with interest the blossoming of 21st century Finnish comics and I was initially surprised to find certain exemplary cartooning Finns missing here, such as Ville Ranta or Juba Tuomola of Viivi ja Wagner fame. Reading this selection, however, I came to appreciate the editor’s particular, narrower focus on his choices’ absurdist tendencies and their often “moral pathos as well as a parody thereof.”
Nothing is hidden. Most of the comics are confidently, even brazenly, presented full-page, many blown up bigger than their original printings. With 312 pages to play with, Hänninen has room for some meatier, immersive examples. The longest by far is Jyrki Heikikinen‘s idiosyncratic 51-page evocation of an eccentric collector’s anxieties about a mouth infection, which he is fixated will gradually destroy people’s ability to speak and to remember. Forced on an errand to save his mother’s gravestone from sinking into the earth, Aulis is swept up en route by “the unexplained flow of events” involving a delivery van of piano-tuners and an organ mounted onto skis, as memories, folklore and dreams blur. A maverick poet of comics and the book’s most senior contributor, Heikikinen writes allusive, choppy, sometimes awkward dialogue, following multiple trains of thought. His curiously driven characters, spouting slanting speech balloons and shaded in grey washes, remind me of the American Ben Katchor‘s urban oddballs, uprooted to a Finnish wilderness.
Equally original are Aapo Repi and Matti Hagelberg, both finding some success abroad. Repi’s The Ladder delighted me with his odd couple of glum salesmen on the road, shifting gears between metaphysical musings and the daily door-to-door grind. Hagelberg has carved a worldview all his own through his intense scraperboard tableaux, here counterpointing paranormal wonders from history with his own supposedly remarkable revelations in his everyday life.
Not everything is current or even recent; a few pieces date from the Nineties, one as early as 1986, and why not, to show their influence? So spikily hilarious comics by Riita Uusitalo and Kati Kovács demostrate their pioneering examples to other Finnish women cartoonists who followed. Of these, Ina Kallis stands out to me as a special voice, though apparently only intermittently productive; I am not alone in hoping to see more from her. Further pleasures abound in a pair of Jukka Tilsa‘s nonsequitur sketches, one from 1993, which offer lessons in the sheer freedom of imagination unfettered.
From the outset, this anthology holds little back and is not for the prudish. Kovács reveals almost all in the seamy escapades of her uninhibited, first-person heroine, her cast’s breasts, buttocks and genitals barely covered by their clothes. Similarly, Jarno Latva-Nikkola dredges up his wayward, misinformed, sex-obsessed adolescence with a cruel, aggressive stridency. The apparently gentler pastels and embroideries by Hannerina Moisseinen only thinly disguise her anonymous confessors’ secret embarrassments. She is part of the younger generation invigorating the medium with punk, crafting, children’s book and avant-garde art aesthetics. Naturally, not everything here will convince everyone and a final proofread could have avoided some typos and mistranslations, but this is a remarkably diverse yet coherent survey.
During the first century of Finnish comics, only two creators ever became world-famous, both ‘discovered’ by English-speaking publishers during the Fifties: Swedish-speaking Finn Tove Jansson, commissioned by the London Evening News to develop her Moomins into daily newspaper strips; and Touko Laaksonen, hired by the American magazine Physique Pictorial, where he redefined the post-war gay male as Tom of Finland. So as Finnish comics enter their second century, will any of the comic artists in this volume find global fame? This is already happening. The French translation of Meti, Aapo Repi’s tender memoir of his grandmother, was nominated for an Essential prize at the 2011 Angoulême International Comics Festival (and so was Kajaani by Ville Ranta). As for English-language successes, Matti Hagelberg’s graphics have dazzled in the cult American showcase Blab! and Amanda Vähämäki sensitive watercolours were spotlighted in the Canadian Drawn & Quarterly Showcase. Seven Finnish works have made it into my next guide this year, 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.
Without multi-media promotion, however, via movie blockbusters and a huge animation industry, Finnish comics may never become an invasion like manga from Japan or superheroes from America. Nevertheless, given this chance, given the exceptional, five-year promotion in this series of Annuals, the culture-specific observations in these individualistic Finnish comics, as much as their world-building visions, deserve to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. In this increasingly fluid internet era, the national can become international, the personal can become universal.
You can buy this book for 30 euros plus postage from the Finnish Comics Society by emailing info[at]sarjakuvaseura.fi or direct from the publisher Huuda Huuda.Posted: May 15, 2011
This article first appeared in Finnish on May 11th 2011 in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.