A skilled comic artist is able to conjure up an unarguably original and peculiar world which is immediately recognizable and could not be any different. Good art succeeds where the slushy reality fails: creating amazing scenery. There is a heaven – in the brain. The real virtuosos are capable of metamorphosis, turning the ways of the mind into what seem to be signs of what lies beyond. This is the secret of many Finnish comics: Nordic artists are fond of constructing realities where something is not quite right.
The first Finnish daily newspaper comic strip was Herra Pulliainen (1927–33) by Akseli Halonen. Comics that deal with topical issues or are otherwise boringly conventional tend to be forgotten quite quickly. Herra Pulliainen (Mr. Pulliainen) is something completely different: a feisty anarchist. Halonen did not create his character to educate children about good life like so many books and comics in his time. He depicted the world in all its grotesque splendor. Pulliainen is a small, fat and balding nervous wreck who has fallen out with his immediate environment. He’s full of ideas: he pours a pot of hot water into the sea to make it swimmable; he tears his hair until screws fall out of his head; he is infuriated by his lack of hair, so he draws a few additional locks on his head. Yet some may classify Herra Pulliainen as your average crazy humor, only with a twist. There is no way, however, in which Finnish underground comics from the 1960’s and 1970’s could fit into this category. In the 1960’s, Finnish comics began to shrug off the stigma of being merely children’s literature. Finland was undergoing a cultural revolution like the rest of the world. The barriers between popular and high culture were tumbling down; pop artists were bringing commercial imagery to art, while many comic artists were drawing influences from traditional visual arts.
The comics of Timo Aarniala (1945–2010) had everything: political commentary, slapstick comedy, a poetic flow of consciousness. Another central figure on the Finnish underground art scene was Kalervo Palsa (1947–1987). Most of the comics the artist created remained unpublished until his death. The seemingly nihilistic and weird stories later proved a great influence on Finnish comics. Finnish comic artists have never shunned away from harsh topics.
The straightforward Nordic attitude is present in art comics and commercial success stories alike. In fact, most of popular comics of this century are a bit lunatic to begin with. Viivi ja Wagner by Juba Tuomola depicts the relationship between a woman and a pig. Pertti Jarla’s Fingerpori boasts a group of characters that includes a flasher, a café waitress with an endless supply of bawdy puns – and Adolf Hitler. These popular, best-selling comics were first published in the nation’s number one daily, Helsingin Sanomat, the Finnish equivalent to New York Times.
Songs of freedom
Although some, like Juba Tuomola and Pertti Jarla above, have found success, it is very rare for Finnish comic artists to be able to support themselves by comics alone. Finland, a country of five million people, has never really witnessed the birth of a comic industry. This also means that Finnish artists are never under any illusions about their future; they know that they very likely have to earn their bread and butter doing something else. Although drawing comics can be a job, it must also be a passion. Artists make comics because they really want to. And as it will not make them rich, they also do not have to care about making compromises.
Despite or, in fact, because of this Finnish comics have attracted increasing attention in Finland as well as abroad during the new millennium. There has never been this many people taking this art form seriously. Sales may not always be huge, but the works are praised for their originality. The crème de la crème
Alienation is a key factor in Finnish comics. If a Finnish character is smiling on the outside, he is crying on the inside. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
Of contemporary Finnish artists, Tommi Musturi is in many ways a typical comic avantgardist. His stories are almost or entirely non-verbal, attracting the readers’ attention with their strange forms and almost irritatingly bright colors. There is a similar subtly disturbing quality to many other Finnish comics. The colors of Marko Turunen’s work are as from a beautiful nightmare. Matti Hagelberg challenges his readers by breaking the norms of storytelling and page layout. Jyrki Heikkinen’s humble, hunch-backed characters look like they are carrying the world on their shoulders but they are stubborn, the hardest of winds could not move them.
Freedom and the relationship between people and their fellow beings are central themes in Finnish comic art. Tommi Musturi’s Walking with Samuel is the story of a white humanoid who does whatever pleases him: blows red and green smoke out of his jazz cigarette; carves a self-portrait in his fort of loneliness and sets it on fire; climbs the moon to ride it like Baron von Münchhausen.
In this sense many Finnish comic artists find kindred souls in Jim Woodring in the US, Moebius in France and Helge Reumann in Switzerland, for whom comics are songs of praise for freedom and wild imagination. The dream-like characters typical for Finnish comics, on the other hand, are reminiscent of David Lynch. “Blue Velvet Lynch” or “Straight Story Lynch”? Both.
The absurd mysteries of everyday life and the human mind
Many Finnish comics have an uneasy feeling to them. They do not reveal their true nature right away, leaving the readers wondering: is this the point where I’m supposed to laugh? Is this nihilism, black humor or is the artist making harsh moral judgments of humanity?
Again, there is usually more than just one right answer. For example, the comics of Marko Turunen seem very cold; he uses laconic language reminiscent of news pieces or hospital reports. Sculptor by training, comic artist by profession, Turunen combines surrealism with the most everyday of everyday life. Tiskipäiväkirja (2002) and Kuolema kulkee kintereillä (2004) contain elements of Turunen’s personal life, while Lihat puntarissa (2007) exploits among other things newspaper clippings of the wrestling career of Turunen’s father.
Many of his albums depict a world which is fascinating and scary at the same time. Man is a rather macabre creature in Turunen’s world. We may not be prisoners of our subconscious but we are steered by it. On the cover of this book, there is a character called Alien with a hole in his head. Who knows, it might tell you something about Turunen as well as about being Finnish. The violence in Turunen’s work is senseless and unpredictable, but that’s the world for you. Suppressed aggression is part of everyday life.
Finnish comic art is not dark throughout, however. It is true that many Finnish artists create bizarre atmospheres and peculiar worlds, but the stories are not immersed in darkness, only dominated by a dreamlike quality to the everyday.
Jenni Rope, for example, applies the same love and care to her description of the details of day-to-day life as Uncle Scrooge to his money. Rope sees immense value in ordinary acts – like hair drying or lying in a bathtub. Small things become huge and wonderful. The more you think about an unsolved mystery, the weirder it becomes. A similar mystification of the ordinary and praise for the power of imagination can be found in the comics of Terhi Ekebom and J. Tilsa.
Timely – and timeless
There is a duality to the Finnish reality. The white-collar elite identifies strongly with the money-stinking part of the US society and the golden part of Central Europe. It manufacturers reports on the brand of “Finnishness” and on “creative madness”. If they’d read Finnish comics, they might find words that have more truth in them.
Behind all the market economy jargon and rows of shiny Cheshire Cat teeth, there is a group of artists that actually represents ”creative madness” but does not subscribe to superficial nonsense. Their work can truly be called social criticism and political. Done originally enough, the ”bizarrisation” of everyday life is bound to plant seeds of thought. Every so often, the stories leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable, thinking that everything might not be as it seems – and that is their whole purpose.
Art that speaks to you is the kind that lives in the moment but is not stuck in it. Matti Hagelberg’s masterpiece Silvia Regina from 2010 is a prime example. In the album, Hagelberg combines heavy scratch cardboard technique with (seemingly) light narrative, making lots of references to popular and high culture. However, very soon you realize that these are just the icing on the cake: the stories contain moral pathos as well as parody thereof – very typically for Finnish comics. In the beginning of Silvia Regina, there is an image in which the ”Lovely Christ of Neoliberalism” is preaching: ”Blessed are the greedy”. His subjects bow down before him and say: ”We’re lovin’ it!” The smiling figure on the cloud is Ronald McDonald.
Is there a more perfect way to describe corporate supremacy in society or the process of reality – whatever that means – turning into symbols of reality? Art shows you the things you already knew but were not aware of, without being too serious or boringly moralizing.
Because the thing is, Finnish comics are first and foremost funny. A bit strange, sure, but damn funny. The humor may not always be the most obvious but it is all the more sharp.
Let’s be honest. Finland is a grim country. We have nine gray months per year. During the darkest time of the year, the sun has not yet risen when we go to work. And when it is time to go home, the sun has already set. If this is the reality and you do not have enough faith in the afterlife to carry you through the everyday, you have to rely on – imagination. In a country thirsty for escapism, surrealism is the only realism worth believing in. Comics are opium to the Finnish people.
The writer is a journalist and non-fiction writer specializing in comics.