29th Helsinki Comics Festival Helsinki, Finland September 5 - 7, 2014
In the 1980s, only a few Finnish comics books were published annually. Now almost one hundred graphic novels and strip collections come out every year. The Helsinki Comics Festival has also grown from a minor event into an international festival, with dozens of foreign artists visiting each year. How did that happen? How has the Finnish comics scene evolved to this point? To find out more about Finnish comics and their tradition, Irene Dimitropoulos from Helsinki Comics Festival team recommends one checks out the “Finnish Comics” homepage, where Ville Hänninen, a journalist and a writer specializing in comics, writes about Finnish comic history, trends, and the most important Finnish comic artists.
But during the week of the Helsinki Comics Festival, we are more interested in the latest developments going on in the Finnish comic scene. As Irene Dimitropoulos explains, an important step for Finnish comics was the foundation of the Finnish Comics Society in 1971, which presents comics both to the wider public as well as to the cultural establishment. Its aims are to promote the awareness and critical reading of comics and to gain respect for the art form. The Comics Center (“Sarjakuvakeskus” in Finnish) was founded in 2008 as an open cultural centre for comics and related arts. It is situated in Helsinki and includes a gallery, café and comic shop, and organizes comic’s courses for both beginners and professionals. There are also open workshops, lectures and other events, such as book launches and exhibitions; as a result, comics gain more cultural significance in Finland, and Finnish comics also get international attention. Works by Finnish artists like JP Ahonen and Ville Tietäväinen have been translated into several languages. Also, Finnish alternative comics and the Small Press get a chance at garnering attention in certain circles, instead of just the big international exports like the Moomins of Tove Jansson or the works of Touko Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland.
The “Finnish Comics Annual” is an anthology series that was created to present a broad overview of Finnish comics art. Each issue presents the best of contemporary Finnish comics and is published by the Finnish Comics Society. The first two issues were published in English in 2011 and 2012, and the third issue, “La bande dessinneé finlandaise 2013”, in French. The fourth publication is “Comic Atlas Finnland”, which was published this year in German.
We had three more questions regarding the largest comics festival in Northern Europe – the Helsinki Comics Festival, which will be held on the first full weekend of September.
Firstly, what is the history of this festival?
The Helsinki Comics Festival (“Helsingin sarjakuvafestivaalit” in Finnish) has been organised since 1979. The festival has grown to an international festival with several world-renown guests of honour each year. Last year, 28 000 visitors – a new record –took part in the event. The Helsinki Comics Festival is the biggest project of the Finnish Comics Society. This year, the aim is to highlight minority artists and critical and political comics. In general, the festival wants to promote the position of comics in Finland's cultural field. Furthermore, the festival wants to support better networking between comic artists and publishers, both in Finland and abroad. Each year, one Finnish comic artist is invited to design the look of the festival; this year's festival artist is Joonas Rinta-Kanto, who is known for his “Fok_It!” comicstrips. Besides this year's festival themes of “Queer Comics” and “Germany”, the programme also includes smaller thematic unities, such as comics journalism and feminist comics.
As you mentioned, the 2014 festival themes are “Germany” and “Queer Comics”. How did you arrive at this choice?
Comics were an important part of Finland’s Guest-of-Honour-appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2014, so this year, the Guest of Honour country at the Helsinki Comics Festival is Germany. The German theme is showcased by bringing in visiting artists, exhibitions, residencies and workshops. Switzerland and Austria are also being represented with their own artists and events. The German Guests of Honour include Birgit Weyhe, Marijpol, Sascha Hommer and Anna Haifisch.
Another festival theme will be Queer Comics, highlighting comics related to LGBT issues. Because of the 40th jubilee year of the national human rights NGO, Seta - LGBTI Rights in Finland, it was a natural decision to choose LGBT comics as this year’s theme. There will be, for example, exhibitions with works by the Finnish artists Touko Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland, and the Moomins creator, Tove Jansson. Laaksonen is the most famous Finnish artist in the gay community and has had an important influence on other comic artists. His illustrations and comics have had great effect on the whole iconography and interpretations of gay fantasies and fashion. Contemporary LGBT comic artists, such as the American Howard Cruse and Sebas Martín from Spain, have also been invited as guests of honour in Helsinki during the festival. As part of the 40th jubilee year of the national human rights NGO, Seta - LGBTI Rights in Finland, there is going to be a panel titled “Comics As a Pioneer in Norm Criticism”.
What else should everybody know about the festival's program?
The festival is held in the city's centre, at Lasipalatsi Square. Additional stages and venues are also located close to the heart of the festival, and the satellite programming and exhibitions are spread out all over Helsinki. The festival's programme includes, for instance, a comics market, the Small Press Heaven, artists, exhibitions, discussions, presentations, interviews, live drawing performances, competitions, animation, kids’ events and clubs. The festival, in general, has a planned concept of expanding into an even more inclusive urban event. There will be street food, a new café, and a music stage. The festival is also going to be more digital, and comics will be readable online during the festival. Apart from the clubs, festival entry is free of charge.