Celebrating Finnish Comics in London

Text by Athanasía Aarniosuo 

Illustration by Kimmo Lust


HCF GOES LONDON introduced Helsinki Comics Festival to a British audience during a full day of comics, zines, presentations, and panel discussions. The pop-up event encouraged international movement and collaboration and aimed to enhance recognition of the Finnish festival. 

The programme included interviews with comics creators Virpi Oinonen, Kimmo Lust, Emilia McKenzie, Janne Parviainen, Gareth Brookes, John Allison, and Max Sarin, as well as presentations by other comics professionals. During the packed day, collaborations were initiated and future plans were announced. 

Ever since 1971, the Finnish Comics Society has aimed to promote the awareness and critical reading of comics and to gain respect for the art form, and especially to create international opportunities for Finnish comics creators and comics artists living and working in Finland. This has been accomplished through organising Finland’s most international comics festival, the Helsinki Comics Festival, taking place each year in August-September, and also through various cultural export projects. As the challenging circumstances of the past few years had rendered international travel difficult if not impossible (anyone remember the COVID-19 pandemic?), one of the main goals of the Finnish Comics Society for the new era, starting in 2023, has been to increase the amount of international initiatives it partners in and encourages.

In this regard, 2023 was a great success for the Society. Its delegation has participated in comics festivals around Europe including Fumetto Comics Festival Luzern in Switzerland, Stockholm International Comics Festival in Sweden, and Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. And finally, in November 2023, as the biggest single international export endeavour, the Finnish Comics Society has re-booted its concept of international pop-up festivals and organised HCF GOES LDN: a one-day event celebrating Finnish comics at Space Station Sixty-Five project space in London.

The 38th Helsinki Comics Festival

Helsinki Comics Festival was held for the 38th time at Korjaamo Culture Factory, Helsinki on September 16-17, 2023. The themes of this edition of the festival were travelling and German-language comics. The themes were reflected in the programme and the presence of several invited guests. 

Kimmo Lust, who won the 2023 Comics-Finlandia award, was the selected festival artist, creating all posters, t-shirt designs, visual identity, and illustrations for both the Helsinki Comics Festival and the related event in London. 

Ella Tahkolahti and Athanasía Aarniosuo photo Emily Witham

(Producer Ella Tahkolahti & director Athanasía Aarniosuo, photo: Emily Witham)

London collaborators

With one of the themes of last year’s main festival event being travelling, the festival itself decided to take a trip to London. The event at Space Station Sixty-Five project space took place on Saturday, the 25th of November from 11:00 to 19:00 GMT. 

Space Station Sixty-Five (SS65) is a project space, gallery, curation, and a contemporary art organisation. Space Station Sixty-Five started in 2002 and in 2020 became an ongoing project of Space Art, a contemporary art charity set up for this purpose. The help of Jo David and Rachael House, co-curators of the space, as well as all their colleagues, was invaluable.

During the day and in-between artists’ interviews, several comics publishers and organisations also presented their activities and shared what all creators want to know – how to best approach them with an idea for a book, exhibition, or collaboration! Breakdown Press, Gosh! Comics, LDComics, and The Feminist Library all took the stage, making the day buzz with information and excitement.

The day was kicked off by Finnish Comics Society’s producer Ella Tahkolahti and director Athanasía Aarniosuo presenting the activities of Finnish Comics Society, including teaching, courses, and summer camps, the CUNE CiR residency programme, the Sarjainfo magazine, and of course the Helsinki Comics Festival. 

However, what makes a comics festival, is, of course, the books themselves and the people behind them. Which is why the Space Station Sixty-Five space hosted over 20 comics creators who signed books, and sold books and merchandise, and also several interviews and panel discussions of both Finnish and British creators.

Tove Jansson

HCF GOES LDN was, although initiated by the Finnish Comics Society, a collective effort. One of the people responsible for suggesting British artists to be interviewed alongside the Finnish ones was Comica Festival’s Paul Gravett, who also presented his own book on the life and work of Finnish artist Tove Jansson. Tove Jansson is, alongside perhaps Tom of Finland, is the most well-known Finnish comics creator.

Jansson herself, however, wanted to be, first and foremost, a painter. She grew up with artistic parents and made her first comics at the age of 15. In 1941 she was selected as Finland’s best cartoonist. Her comics career really kicked off in Britain, though, when in 1954 her comics strips were commissioned by the London Evening News. During her life, Jansson created comic steps, paintings, theatre plays, and novels, which in their turn were adapted into films and animation series, all these days vastly popular.

Condensing the problem

Cartoonist and illustrator Virpi Oinonen was interviewed by Wallis Eates of LDComics. Oinonen described her practice as mainly involving working with decision-makers, who want to change the world on some level, but struggle with explaining to audiences what the problem is and how to solve it. Oinonen explained that while her work in comics is recognised and recognisable, and while she has a career spreading over decades, her role is that of a communicator: she uses visual metaphors, storytelling, and humour in order to explain serious problems. Her art is, most of the time, for other people and businesses to use in their own communication.

Having said that, Oinonen does have a book coming out very soon. It is not so different to her other work, in that it is about the shift in thinking that needs to happen in organisations, which are not equipped as it is to deal with the problems the world is facing today: climate change, pandemics, and war, just to name a few. Oinonen expressed that her audience is of extreme importance to her (thus revealing her character to be that of a communicator, as opposed to that of an artist); her audience is the people who already have power, as opposed to grassroots comics and activism. “I go straight to the people who can and have the motivation to change things,” she explained. 

Working through grief

Kimmo Lust’s award-winning graphic novel Silmukka and Emilia McKenzie’s But You Have Friends are both the authors’ first graphic novels, although both authors have been working in self-publishing and online webcomics for years. 

Both graphic novels deal with grief, memory, and working through trauma. Perhaps addressing such a difficult process demands a longer format? 

Lust explained: “I started creating comics because I wanted to make Silmukka. Of course, it wasn’t yet called Silmukka back then.” Growing up in a household with alcoholism, and how Lust experienced the situation as a child, is a story he felt needed to be told, for personal reasons as well as more general, societal ones; it was always important for Lust to open up a discussion around children who have to grow up in these circumstances. 

Nimetön malli

(Silmukka (detail), Kimmo Lust)

McKenzie agreed with Lust that the need to process trauma through drawing urged her to create But You Have Friends. Losing a close friend to suicide, McKenzie wanted to create, in a way, a tribute to her friend and to their friendship. In telling a story that takes place over many years, McKenzie made the conscious choice to use a simple way of storytelling: almost resembling reporting, each event is preceded by a description of when and where the event took place. “I couldn’t describe every detail, the only thing that is really true is how it felt, and that is why I focused on the experience itself,” McKenzie added.

Lust, on the other hand, has no describing text in his book at all, no descriptions of when and where; everything is seen through the eyes of the child he once was. He felt a huge need to describe each memory exactly as he remembered it, but “the problem with memories is that they are not always exact,” Lust added, laughing.

Lust and Mckenzie were interviewed at HCF GOES LDN by Finnish Comics Society director Athanasía Aarniosuo.

Experimental materials

Janne Parviainen and Gareth Brookes were joined on stage by Paul Gravett, to discuss their work especially in relation to materiality. 

Brookes’ work really stretches what comics can do in terms of materiality; he uses a variety of different materials, for example watercolour, print, pressed flowers (including sometimes using the back of embroidered work as well), burning paper and other material, and crayon scratch-back. His work Home, created during the COVID-19 lockdown, uses Google Maps street views as a starting point for a sensitive, almost poetic work consisting of images in ink seeping through paper hand towels.

Parviainen, on the other hand, stretches the notion of comics as well, occasionally combining with drawing his other creative work in light installations. His light art is not meant to last; Parviainen draws on glass, using fluorescent markers, and after the few days the drawings get wiped off. The life-span of a few days as well as the sheer physical aspect of this type of creation (the works are usually rather big in scale), render the process very different to the solitary process of comics. When combining light art with comics, Parviainen creates “light sculptures” in a dark room, tracing shapes with a led-light inch by inch, which he then proceeds to photograph using a very long exposure.

Parviainen’s recent, more traditional comic book End of Rome is an autobiographical comic telling the story of three friends and a dummy named Slad Moloton, who travel the beautiful Via Baltica road from Helsinki to Southern Hungary in order to attend a light festival. The travelogue is based on real events, but is only “maybe 40 % true,” laughs Parviainen.

End of Rome detail Janne Parviainen

(End of Rome (detail), Janne Parviainen)

Drawing someone else’s world 

John Allison and Max Sarin have collaborated for several years on their successful comics Giant Days, Wicked Things, and The Great British Bump-Off, and were both on stage, for the first time in London, joined by Woodrow Phoenix who wanted to know more about what it is like to work together as intensely as the pair do. 

Allison, who also draws comics himself, explained that while Giant Days seemed like an idea definitely worth pursuing, he did not have time to draw it himself. So he decided to draw some issues himself and take them to a publisher. After the publisher expressed interest, Allison needed to find someone to draw it, and a mutual friend suggested Sarin, who had studied comics at Wrexham University in Wales. 

Sarin, albeit feeling “slightly terrified,” excitedly accepted the offer and has loved the challenge of drawing someone else’s world. “Working with John means that I have been able to develop and draw better,” Sarin explained. Confessing to being somewhat of a perfectionist, Sarin has spent countless hours researching, for example, narrowboats for some issues, or cars for others, in an attempt to accurately describe visually what Allison has described verbally. 

Occasionally, new information is revealed about Allison’s world during the process, and Sarin has to quickly adjust and adapt. Sarin gives the example of a scene in Giant Days in which the three protagonists move to an old house, and a second bathroom is shown upstairs in Sarin’s drawings – however, some issues later, there is some problem with the downstairs bathroom, and Sarin had to come up with an explanation for the upstairs one also not being in use. Allison admits to not having noticed the incongruence: “Drawing someone else’s world means you have to let go of details changing occasionally!”

Getting together, sharing knowledge

Dr. Nicola Streeten of LDComics invited co-curator of Space Station Sixty-Five, artist and zine maker Rachael House to discuss zines and self-publishing with Johanna “roju” Rojola, a curator working in the field of comics. Rojola is a member of the Kutikuti contemporary comics collective, the Femicomix Finland network, and the feminist and anti-racist studio Poimu.

On stage Rachael House Dr. Nicola Streeten and Johanna Rojola photo Emily Witham

(On stage: Rachael House, Dr. Nicola Streeten and Johanna Rojola, photo: Emily Witham)

“I am really into zines at the moment, because there is so much power in just doing things one’s own way, without having to succumb to pressure of publishers, or capitalism,” illustrated Rojola, thus setting the tone for the conversation. Rojola was a teen punk, who later became interested in comics as well as feminism, and studied comics in Angoulême, when the comics world was a more or less male one. House did not study art until she was a bit older, but she had been making zines and comics for many years before her art studies. “During my BA I was told that I shouldn’t make zines and comics,” House sighed; by her MA she had gained the confidence to make them anyway. 

Streeten, House, and Rojola all agreed on several things. First and foremost, zine workshops should always be free for the participants. Secondly, the ability to draw is not necessary; what is important is getting together and sharing knowledge, getting important messages across. Community is central: self-organised grassroots collectives, people coming together to exchange ideas and create in collaboration (as opposed to the solitary creative process of making a graphic novel, for example). Having fun is important; everyone is welcome to celebrate creativity with the group.

What they could not agree on, is what zines actually are, and whether or not zine workshops can be seen as a type of activism. In the end, it is clear that they have indeed managed to create in the Space Station Sixty-Five project space and within no longer than an hour, a community: a group of people are listening, laughing, agreeing, and talking about what matters, feeling excited, inspired, and joyous. 

Future plans

HCF GOES LDN was a great success. Drawing a crowd of 250, the event was buzzing despite the audiences not being familiar with most of the Finnish comics creators in advance. All interviews, presentations, and panel discussions had an interested audience, asking questions and demanding to see examples of images from the books discussed. Some English-language books by Finnish creators were sold, and some were included in the small press section of Gosh! Comics comic book store in London. 

Most importantly, however, introductions were made, collaborations were initiated, and future plans were revealed: with one of the themes of the 39th Helsinki Comics Festival being British comics, several of the artists and organisations involved in HCF GOES LDN will be travelling to Helsinki in August!



Who?

HCF GOES LDN was organised in conjunction with the Helsinki Comics Festival, by the Finnish Comics Society. The Finnish Comics Society is an association of makers, readers, collectors, and researchers of comics. The society presents comics both to the wider public as well as to the cultural establishment. It aims to promote the awareness and critical reading of comics and to gain respect for the art form. In recent years the association has been active in launching several new cultural export projects as well as new websites and online services for comics lovers.

https://www.sarjakuvaseura.fi/fi/in-english

Where?

Space Station Sixty-Five,
Building One
373 Kennington Rd,
London SE11 4PS

Space Station Sixty-Five (SS65) is a project space, gallery, curation, and a contemporary art organisation.

A not-for-profit platform for curation, research, creation, and artistic contemplation leading to development of work, practice, and potential participation, collaboration, and exchange. Space Station Sixty-Five started in 2002 and in 2020 became an ongoing project of Space Art, a contemporary art charity set up for this purpose.

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www.spacestationsixtyfive.com 
Facebook: @spacestationsixtyfive 
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Twitter: @SPACESTATION65 

In collaboration with:

The Feminist Library
Comica Festival
Breakdown Press
Gosh! Comics
LDComics

Supported by:

The Ministry of Education and Culture (Finland)
Grafia ry (Finland)
Frame Contemporary Art Finland

© Copyright Finnish Comics Society, Helsinki Comics Festival and Space Station Sixty-Five 2023. All Rights Reserved.