Comics blogs need to kick it up a notch

On 15.11.2008 the Finnish Comics Society started a new online service for comic artists: sarjakuvablogit.com, an easy comics blog template that was specifically fine-tuned for the needs of comic artists. The (sponsorfree!) service hoped to gather Finnish comic artists under one roof. Sarjakuvablogit.com proved to be an instant success. A few notable bloggers (Milla Paloniemi, Mari Ahokoivu, Olli Hietala to name a few) were asked if they wanted to switch to sarjakuvablogit.com and soon afterwards the blogservice was a fixed feature in the Finnish comics world. One major thing that contributed also was the fact that ‘vuodatus.net’ (previously the most popular service for comic blogs in Finland) was owned by Alma Media, whose newspaper had just a month earlier fired their editor-in-chief when they found out she was a lesbian. Not a company you would want to support by using their products. Now, three years later there are about 3000 registered users, with more then 250 active users. Maybe a modest figure to some, but for me that’s a staggering amount. I mean, 250 comic artists in Finland alone! That extrapolates to roughly 15000 artists in the US. It seems that most Finnish professional comic artist (and by professional I mean ”being able to make a living off your trade”) don’t seem to bother with blogs at all. By my reckoning there are only about 10-15 professionals in Finland and only 3 keep up an interesting blog (Ville Ranta, Ville Tietäväinen and Milla Paloniemi). Others, the best selling Pertti Jarla, Juba, Kari Korhonen and Matti Hagelberg have little to zero web presence. Petri Hiltunen, on the other hand, seems to be satisfied with a good old fashioned web1.0 homepage. So it looks like comic blogs in Finland remain the field of amateurs alone. Which is fine. I for one couldn’t think of a better place to start making comics then drawing lots of stories and putting them online, awaiting feedback and trolls. It sure beats drawing alone in your ”studio” *cough* bedroom! *cough* and dragging your art to conventions and cynical editors once or twice per year, as the reality was until the 90s. There really is no reason to put off from throwing your art online and it seems the Finnish national disease (shyness) has been overcome in this matter, hence the 250 active users. That’s a lot of comics drawn, scanned and posted, man. However, that’s where the good news show ends because frankly, the content is a bit underwhelming. Sure, there are a few good bloggers out there, I’ll grant you that, but for the rest I’m bored just like the Deftones song. WHERE IS THE CREATIVITY, PEOPLE? Really, where is it? I know, I know: creativity is not something that can be taught easily (although you could study ”creativity” at the prestigious Aalto university when it named itself the University of Arts and Creativity but after student protests they unforfunately renamed themselves boringly University of Arts, Design and Architecture. Bummer). At least some more diversity would be nice. The Finnish comic blogs are all so similar. You don’t believe me? Let me break it down for you. First of all, there are roughly only two kinds of comic genres being used: three panel humour strips and autobiographical comics. I can be short about humour strips which seem to be the most popular kind of comics in Finland nowadays: I don’t like them. As far as I am concerned that genre died when Watterson decided to quit Calvin and Hobbes. Safe from Fingerpori (which I read to test my Finnish language skills), funny gag strips are few and far between. I haven’t yet laughed with a Finnish humour strip (or with recent Finnish TV for that matter). And if it doesn’t have a punchline, that gag is a waste of paper or cyberspace, if you ask me. When it comes down to autobiographical comics, you would think: here I am at my drawing board, no pressures or financial obligations. I can do what I want with the rich medium of comics. My teachers at Liminka/Orivesi/Muurla comic courses have force-fed me Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I have ”the infinite canvas” at my disposal. Yet for some reason the only kind of comics I produce are autobiographical comics. But where is all the other stuff? The epic tales, the story archs, the experimental comics a la Ruppert /Mulot, the heartfelt excursion of past memories? Maybe I just haven’t come across artists who draw exactly a different kind of stories? Could be. These invisible talents, however, have chosen not to make their work public so I am unable to comment on those works. You would expect maybe more from the manga warfront and their whole deviantart scene. The thing about manga is, that stories tend to be 1000+ page turners and the current average manga-enthused Finnish comic artist is between 15-22 years old. No offence kids, but it seems that you ain’t got the stamina yet for these kind of long stories. There are again exceptions of course but it’s not quite there yet. Aura Ijäs’ Miron comic for example is the kind of story I as a publisher would react to in the following manner: ”This is great! Now redraw and rewrite everything!” Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against autobiographical comics. Hell, how would the comic world look like without the works of Crumb, David B., Spiegelman, etc… But if it’s the only thing offered, it starts to make me wonder why. To top it all off, most comic bloggers here seem to be of the same age group (between 18-30), all well-off caucasian young people with first world problems. In fact, the work of Leo Kuikka seems all the more refreshing since he draws about the dpressive life of his middle-aged alter ego whose biggest pleasure is watching tv. Since I am not here to whine or to be a negative asshole, I would like to provide a few tips and pointers that might encourage people to broaden their spectrum as a comic artist. Basically I see three major fields where improvement/more variety is due. One: longer stories. Two: more interesting characters. Three: different ways of narration. I will indulge in proposing some solutions for that triumvirate. Longer stories. Requires effort and I am aware I am reading all these stories for free anyway, so you might think I am demanding too much. But making longer stories will obviously improve your skills as a comic artist. Every year the 24 hour comics event shows a surprising array of comics that usually wander away from the autobiographical genre. So why not do more of these experiments? I am not asking for long graphic novels, but more 15+ page short stories would enrich the blog world tremendously. Sure it demands more preparations, effort and skill but believe me: you’ll learn a hell of a lot more from doing these longer stories then from posting autobiographical anecdotes. Coming to our second problem, character building, I’ll be darned if there is a sure-fire way to create interesting characters. It requires empathy and a solid imagination, none of which are easily acquired. There are of course tricks of the trade that make dramatizing characters easy. Let’s start with an example: on your way to the store you see a totally drunken slob shooting off obscenities. Most bloggers would use this as an anecdote and illustrate the event literally as it happened. A shame! What could be a better exercise than to try and reconstruct how the bum ended up on that spot saying those things. Remember that poetic police officer who embellished boring police reports? ”Thief caught stealing alcohol in local supermarket” would receive the following treatment: ”Waking late afternoon, our professional pickpocketer looks in the mirror and sees a unshaven man in his forties with bloodshot eyes and a craving for nicotine and alcohol. Not finding any loose change around the appartment, he heads out to the local store and decides to slip beer into his pocket and leaves without paying.” You see, that’s what I am talking about! Place yourself in the mindset of your antagonist and really try to understand all his or her actions. Why not try, for example, to make a comic with your father/mother as a main character and live through them for one day? Which brings us to the last problem or improvement area: narration. Prose needs narration, it requires a voice that describes events and guides you through the story. Without narration you would end up with only dialogue, a bare-boned transcription of a theatre play. Comic art, however with its strong visual core can rely on images to replace most of the narration. We don’t need to write in a caption ” What terrible features he had, the kind of face that signals ”get the hell away from me”, you can just draw it. The very idea of autobiography is that the narrator is the same as the main character, who of course happens to be the author. How about we change that now and then, for example by doing something as simple as having the narrator and the main character be different people? Kraut, by Peter Pontiac for instance, is a long 160-page illustrated letter from Peter to his missing father Joop. In his letter he doesn’t address the reader but his father, who is the lead figure in this ”biography”. There is some kind of beauty in this schism, this thin line between the two characters, the narrator (an emotional rant by Peter) and the distant father (who can’t reply and whom we get to know thanks to Peter’s detailed detective work). So there you have it, those were my tips. I hope I shared some useful information and I dare say that any further theoretical discourse on the matter is all the more welcome. Just put some quotes on your Facebook wall and I’ll track you down to comment on them. Over and out. Originally published unabridged in Kuti magazine #22, Winter 2011.

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Jelle Hugaerts

Jelle Hugaerts is the co-founder of comics publisher Huuda Huuda. After abandoning his home country Belgium for Helsinki, Hugaerts opened up the comic store Pitkämies, which specialized in quality art comics. After closing the shop in 2010 Hugaerts has enriched the Finnish comics scene as an editor and comics journalist, writing regular articles for comics magazine Kuti. Hugaerts has also taught comics and held courses on publishing.
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