by Mari Laaniste (email@example.com)
Comics and the related phenomena date way back in Estonia: as the area was largely influenced by German culture, the verse-picture stories of Wilhelm Busch already became popular in the 19th century, and the works of an Estonian follower, K. A. Hindrey, were a huge success among children for decades since the 1900-s. However, within the bigger picture of Estonian culture, the significance of comics has remained rather minute.
There are many reasons for this, mainly to blame are some characteristics of the historic-political situation, and also the very limited cultural space itself. The circle of people interested in buying local comic books or magazines is too small, the likely income from selling those wouldn’t even pay off the printing costs. Estonian comics have always been produced by a few lonely enthusiasts, who, at best, can consider this activity a side job, but more often, it is more like a hobby. Thus, there is hardly such a thing as “mainstream” in Estonian comics, as almost all the works are produced by authors with the status of amateurs. And judging by more formal criteria, I doubt that anyone would dare call even the most phenomenally popular Estonian comic strip ever, “Pesakond” by Madis Ots, as “mainstream” (although it did bring about quite a few imitators).
The first attempts of creating an Estonian newspaper comic strip emerged in the late 1930-s, in order to offer competition to the extremely popular translated American strips, mainly Disney’s “Mickey Mouse”. Their target audience however seemed to be adults rather than children. The other difference was that the works of the famous cartoonists involved, such as Gori, Romulus Tiitus and Redo-Randel, didn’t yet incorporate any speech bubbles, only additional texts below the pictures. Nevertheless, it was all quite nicely in accord with the traditions of the newspaper comics in the West.
This development was soon interrupted by the occupation of the republic in 1940, as a part of the Second World War. After that, the authorities of Soviet occupation, that continued after 1944, begun dictating their rather different views on journalism: the press became a heavily censored vehicle for dead-serious propaganda. For a while, comics in the shape of newspaper funnies almost disappeared, and later stayed out of the daily newspapers for most of the Soviet era. However, the few authors attracted to the medium soon managed to find some new places for publishing their work. Since the mid-50s, the children’s magazine “Pioneer” occasionally featured some wordless comics and in 1954 included the first Estonian large-scale adventure story by young Alfred Saldre, based on J. F. Cooper’s text. This was a huge exception at the time – it took until 1970s for other original long stories to emerge. Saldre, who was the first one to produce “real” comics with speech bubbles, also contributed to the humor magazine “Pikker”, which throughout it’s existence since 1957 up to early 90s, became the main (though not quite regular) publisher of more adult-oriented comics. (The latter expression is by no means to be understood as having anything to do with porn – this was out of the question till the 90s.)
“Pikker” featured works by most of the active Estonian cartoonists throughout the Soviet era and thus it provides a good view on the overall tendencies in the field. From that basis, it can be stated that during the 60s, the average contributing cartoonist’s perception of comics as a medium with specific features had started to fade. For instance, we see a lot of strips that are relatively comic-like, but lack speech bubbles again, the pictures are very often arranged vertically, and in all, those one-gag-strips function more like single cartoons, without continuing stories or characters. It would be more adequate to name such strips “serial cartoons” rather than comic strips. This tendency was probably due to two influential cartoonists: the Frenchman Jean Effel and the Dane, Herluf Bidstrup, who were both hugely popular in the Soviet Union, and who both told their stories in a series of cartoons, that were not terribly comic-like.
However, there was a way of keeping in touch with the “real” comics, such as the ones that are likely to have influenced Saldre: some still had collections of the pre-war newspaper comics, and as time went by, more and more children’s comic books were imported from Finland (a great deal of Estonians understand Finnish). Also, the magazine “Pioneer” and the children’s newspaper “Säde” began to publish translated comics (of East German and French origin) more often. Probably influenced by these works a certain limited circle of cartoonists started producing occasional clear-featured comics (continuing strips and one-pagers) for “Pikker” during the 60s, and a bit later, large-scale works mainly (though not only) addressed to kids. However, it seems that the censors working on “Pikker” weren’t always very welcoming when it came to comics, as it was considered a “shallow” phenomenon, too obviously borrowed from the West. “Picture-books” for kids, on the other hand, bothered nobody, not to mention that they offered far more space for artistic ambition. Under the circumstances, it made sense that during the 70s, Estonian comics made their first big breakthrough as a subspecies of children’s literature.
For the audience, the most influential comic book of the decade was a collected volume of translated Disney books titled “Piilupart, Miki ja teised” (“[Donald] Duck, Mickey and the others”) printed in two rather small runs due to censorship in 1972 and 73, which instantly became a cult item among children. It also generated a fresh demand for more kid’s comics. Since then, the stories of a generation of remarkable Estonian cartoonists: Edgar Valter, Olimar Kallas, Priit Pärn and Raivo Järvi began to make it into books and onto the pages of “Pioneer”.
Pärn’s two album-like books have the most to do with art, including hints to both pop and post modernism, just as jokes far too sophisticated for child readers to understand. One of them, “Tagurpidi” (“Backwards”) is a rare example of an Estonian comic book that has been translated and published abroad (in Finland and Denmark), most likely due to the author’s soon achieved fame as a master of independent animated cartoons. He is not the only talented artist that Estonian comics have “lost” to animation. There is even a theory that Estonian comics have been all the weaker because of the fact that it has been rather easy for the artists here to get a chance in animation: Estonian school of independent animation is far more known in the world than our comics.
Olimar Kallas’ works include Estonia’s most impressive series of funny adventure stories in comics form, the “Kiviküla” (“Stoneville”) series, whilst the terribly talented “grand old man” Edgar Valter has simply been extremely good and unbelievably versatile in everything he does: book illustrations, cartoons, comics and children's’ books. Teet Kuusmaa’s nice kids’ gagstrips published in “Säde” were collected into several booklets as well.
In the mid-80s, the point of attention started shifting toward the adult audience, as the fading censorship now tolerated edgier jokes. This was the era of high-rise for comics in “Pikker”. Another highlight of those years were the great, oddly philosophical post-hippie strips by Andres Ader, which also meant that for the first time since pre-war years, an important daily paper “Edasi” featured a comic strip again (albeit only in the weekend humour extra). Ader’s slightly absurd, 70s-nostalgic jokes along with the iconic star of his series, the sweet, innocently sexy brunette named Alice, were very popular among young adults. The shift of attention however left a hole in the field of children-oriented comics, which in the kid’s press was soon filled by more or less clumsy fanboy-stuff, influenced by more and more foreign comics flowing in. Sadly, the tradition of producing original and good-quality comic books for children faded.
The change of the decade between the 80s and 90s was a miserable period for comics just as for any other printed medium: because of the lack of paper, the lack of printing ink, the lack of money, the lack of certainty. However, regaining our independence also meant the beginning of the era of free press, and within just a couple of years, it was already booming. It brought about huge amounts of different papers and magazines. Everybody tried to make their own newspaper just as they were made in the free world, or, in local terms, fashion them after the example of Finnish and Swedish papers. Which of course meant that newspaper comics became a basic necessity for any respectable paper. By that, the local comic strips also boomed more than ever before.
Of course, as there was little tradition and experience in this field, most of the mass of the strips produced during those few years were rather dodgy and forgettable. However, it was a good era in the sense that it was easy for the artists to find a place for publishing their comics, if they wanted to. This brought out a whole lot of noteworthy artists and some quite phenomenal works.
The fact that only a few had any idea about the essence of a traditional mainstream comic strip caused the general approach to appear rather unconventional. It is in fact hard to find anything from that era that fits into the Western idea of a nice daily gagstrip.
The pivotal strip of the era was “Pesakond” (something like “The Batch” or more literally, “Nestful”). It began as the bored scribbles of a highschool boy Madis Ots, and was first printed in a tabloid in 1994. The paper itself soon proved to be a short-lived one, but by then the strip was already famous enough to survive. For starters, the looks: the extremely plain, seemingly unfinished or sloppy-looking drawings of relatively animal-shaped characters (the one that looks like a burger, is in fact Hedgehog) appear to be loosely scattered into undefined white space. Then the gags, that are nearly absurd and often not understandable insider-jokes of a then late-teen, early-20s generation, more precisely, the stupid opportunist bum part of the generation. The animals are heavy-drinking mates, who hate each other’s guts, and thus constantly play mean tricks on one another, which, if you pay attention, often include hardcore violence. Yet, if you’re within the inside circle, it is completely hilarious and it is also a very promising ground for a semiotic researcher. “Pesakond” became a cult comic within it’s first months, causing the papers to compete for the right to publish it, students wallpapered their rooms with the collected strips and several web fan sites were created, etc. The characters have become serious pop icons, there’s even some Pesakond merchandise available. So far, there have been 12 books of collected strips published, which is the local absolute record in this field. The rest of the star strips have managed two or three booklets, and some of the most oddly adorable newspaper strips from that era have sadly left no mark at all. And a lot of the more talented comics creators from back then have left the field to do something else.
The press boom lasted until ca 1997, although papers already started disappearing or uniting earlier, and it has basically all gone downwards since then. The local market for printed press is rather small, of course, but the continuous closing of the papers and magazines has unfortunately wiped out most of the possible places for publishing comics. Also, the remaining press is no longer very interested. The papers still like comics, but their interest focuses on translated foreign ones.
The early 90s witnessed some dodgy and most likely unauthorized translations, but the field of translated comics cleared quite soon. Since 1992, the papers have published various foreign comics syndicated by Bulls. The most popular has proved to be Bud Grace’s sarcastic “Ernie” (which since early 2001 is also available in the form of a magazine, just like in Scandinavia). Alongside with the fact that the most popular local one is the rather gloomy “Pesakond”, this tells something about the local sense of humour. A certain amount of love for comics exists - there’s a full colour page of them in most daily papers. However, there’s reason to be glad if that page has even just one strip by an Estonian author: the remaining papers (which, since the end of the press boom, are owned by Scandinavian corporations) have by now made clear they do not really want to experiment with unknown local stuff. It has become almost impossible to persuade anyone to print original large-scale comics, and this has likely something to do with the fact, that even the translated children’s comics, that have been published since 1992 (mostly Disney monthlies, occasional Moomies, the curiously unsuccessful Asterix books, and most recently, The Simpsons magazine), are losing readers year by year. The comics market for teenagers and adults is basically empty, but no one with the means seems to believe it’s worth the risk to give it a shot.
By now it is obvious one cannot support oneself by drawing comics in Estonia. There’s simply not enough audience. The average adult Estonian thinks that comics mean newspaper gagstrips, and the kids just want their Disney. And the Estonian enthusiasm (or could it be practicality?) somehow does not really go as far as non-profit self-publishing or fanzine-making.
The present situation isn’t as bad as it could be, though. Estonian comics have not disappeared, they’re simply not keeping a very high profile these days. The public may remain ignorant, but within the last couple of years, we have still managed to form a distinct comics community in the shape of a small circle of more or less hardcore enthusiasts. The newsgroup at www.yahoogroups.com/~group/koomiks connects: artists, even though they’re forced to keep comics as a hobby rather than profession. Researchers, for in the past couple of years, people in different universities of Estonia have started getting degrees for studying local comics from various angles (as an art form, it’s connections with other fields, its language and whether it is literature, it’s social relevance, etc.) Although comics are not yet taught as a separate discipline in the Academy of Arts (as it is, for instance, in the Finnish art schools), some students there have presented comics as their degree work. Fans and collectors, most notably those of manga and The Sandman, and artistically, Dave McKean. Comics importers and sellers and the people from the syndicates that publish the translations. Etc.
The difficulties with
publishing the more pretentious works by younger artists with both the
ability and ambition (most notably Veiko Tammjärv, whose offbeat
sci-fi stories, like “Snaiper” - “The Sniper” are definitely world-class.
The young Joonas Sildre seems to be getting better with every month,
etc.) are also overcome by presenting the material virtually, on various
sites on the Internet. This form of self-promotion has occasionally helped
to find a magazine or a paper interested in printing some shorter works.
(In Joonas’ case, however, the papers and magazines tend to close within
a couple of months after assigning him. The quality of his works cannot
be the fault, though: see www.hot.ee/koomiks