A Petic Comic-Master of the Vast Finnish Landscapes
Jyrki Heikkinen was interrogated by Kaja Avberšek
“I am 41 years old and have been seriously engaged in producing comics for about 4 years now. You may have seen my works on the pages of Napa, Glömp and Suuri Kurpitsa in Finland.”
This is how you presented yourself in Madburger, the special issue of Stripburger in 2002. That was when we got to know you and we found you … mysterious. Maybe a slightly crazy middle-aged guy. There was something mad about your story that of course fit the concept of Madburger very nicely. We felt a peculiar, not quite comprehensible energy of an eccentric creator. We found you interesting … and then along came the love. Stripburger has almost adopted you as its ‘outside-home artist’.
The story you created for Madburger was called This is my future where you still used frames, geometrically confined spaces for sequences. We found your style quite classical; the drawing was somehow firmer. At the same time, your somewhat shaky line – and eventually the content itself as well – indicated an airy and poetic human character that constantly, in its characteristic subtle way, questions the point and meaning of all. Much of your later work features landscapes and figures, as well as dialogues and onomatopoeic elements that seem to shimmer like water and flow one into another, like poetry. A strong tie between poetry and images is obvious: the way you handle space, draw the line, use ink and water colours … Were you first a poet handling words or one who works with images? Did you first start drawing or writing, in other words: “what came first: the chicken or the egg?”
You talk little but say very much. And when you speak, you hit the spot without blabbering. We kind of like that …
At first there were words. When I started to write poems in senior high, I thought that being a poet is the greatest thing in this world. Comics came along in my twenties and now during the last years illustrated poems and independent images joined them.
I believe that the way I use words and find expressions affects the lines I draw. When I draw, I pursue a certain tension in my characters and details. I search for an iron wire-like line that sometimes barely holds the whole picture together. The feel of intangibility and uncertainty is important.
A sleek and supple line rejects the eye. It isn’t real. People are bumpy and clumsy, anticipating a disaster and preparing for it. It is also about aesthetics and pleasure.
Then an independent image came along; for it enables detachment from words. The drawer is transferred into figurative thinking, to another level or is encouraged to employ other parts of his capacity, to move towards the dream realm.
In 2009 we invited you to collaborate at another Stripburger project called Greetings from Cartoonia. We established new comic lands with all their social, cultural and ethnographic characteristics, inhabited by residents of rare and special kinds … We put up an interesting exhibition of tourist posters in screen print, original comic pages and ethno-comic objects and then published Greetings from Cartoonia, a special treat by Stripburger. Foreign artists had the task to portray Slowenia (warning: not Slovenia!), inspired by these very Slovenian items. You got the Slovenian electrical transformer and the Easter bundle as key elements for your story. You entitled the story A promise, transformed the electrical transformer into a transformer robot and the Easter bundle into deer antlers. The story also includes a huge monstrous fish, a know-it-all monkey, a giant devil, half buried in the ground, a god on a cloud, an ironing angel, dwarves, bats … Where do you draw your inspiration from (mostly)? Is it dreams, hallucinations, or life itself?
I combine varied things, myths, everyday incidents, images from books and newspapers and dreams. Even though there’s often only one image from a dream or only the atmosphere, it is the key factor, it leads the way.
The work itself, moving on through scriptwriting, sensitises one to find usable material from all around. It sensitises you to recall things and shifts you to a dense and light space, where little things have vast meanings. I have noticed that the most important things are an arm’s length away. It can be a half-thought sentence uttered by a close person, an ornament in a second-hand shop or a toy figure. I need this material, these building blocks, to play with.
Cartoonia was an important project. Assignments often carry the work on with intensity. A promise is one of my key works.
Sometimes you use prayers and some passages in your texts sound like religious texts. Do you believe in God? In a God of your own, an ancient pagan one, in nature itself, in chaos and order?
The question of God is featured in my poetry and comics, for it is the question of people. Monotheistic religions are dangerous, they lead to madness and destruction. This certainty in one’s own orthodox beliefs leads to the conclusion that non-believers are wrong in some fundamental way. I guess I neglect any arrogant or condescending self-certainty. The more gods there are, the better. There has to be space and looseness and play in issues of faith.
On the other hand, I am a Western foster-child of Christianity. I can’t escape that. But it doesn’t have to be taken so seriously.
You wrote - or even better - drew the word ILOA (happiness) in my copy of Greetings from Cartoonia book. It seems that you deal a lot with human values in your work, ruled by love. Universal love and universal understanding. Am I right?
Polish children’s book author Janosch wrote in one of his illustrated books: “Joy is a wonderful thing”. Nothing needs to be added to that.
If you lived in Cartoonia, you’d be an inhabitant of Fineland. Is Finland truly a fine land? If not, what is it like? Do you believe in national stereotypes?
What about Slowenia (slow country)? When you visited it in 2009 with the exhibition of Greeting from Cartoonia, did you find it slow? We visited the Škocjan caves that fascinated you … I remember how you had an ecstatic smile and kept repeating: “This is magic!” and said that it was a very erotic underground landscape. Nature is the mightiest and biggest of them all, don’t you agree? Are you running back to nature, perhaps? (Where are you living at the moment? In a small town or a city? Does the city give you anything of importance?)
I experienced some kind of sense of ease in Slovenia; a sense that everything will work out after all , that there is no need to fuss, if one has direction and will. The atmosphere was peaceful and the people lovable. Yes, nature is everything.
Finland is the land of water in the north. When you are on the ice in freezing weather, you think you understand something about this country and its history but you don’t want to bother yourself with that. It’s almost always windy and under your feet is the same water as in the summer. The boat is under the tarpaulin. The sky darkens from gray to violet. People ski and skate. There seems to be room for everyone.
National stereotypes can be funny and useful as if a tool of understanding.
I live in Kuopio, a little town of ca. 100,000 people, and enjoy my life here. I also enjoy the countryside.
However, from time to time I still miss having people around me. And I miss the forms and space of a city and most of all the imprints of people, the layers of time.
I cannot forget how you danced here on Metelkova! It seems that the national stereotype was right, in this case, namely the stereotype that the members of introverted, quiet and pure nations let out their demons by screaming when alone (like Mieskuoro Huutajat – the Finnish choir that screams national anthems at the top of their lungs), dancing till they get bloody blisters or intoxicated from alcohol. They write, draw and paint the scariest monsters from their deepest subconscious.
Also, when you dance, you write and draw lines, directions and forms into space, as well …
You’ve sent us a story entitled Everything Happens for a Reason for the Brazilian flavoured issue of Stripburger #54. We’ve read you in the previous issue #56 too, your story was entitled Three Wise Men. It seems you’re totally tireless! You’re creating and creating and your creations are becoming more and more you. I have a feeling that you work using the stream of consciousness (and sub-consciousness),
it seems that your images and words are being poured onto the paper by themselves … is that true? What’s you creative process like? And what’s your most typical day like? Do you get out of bed, do a few exercises, prepare a delicious breakfast … ?
The mornings are my prime time, it is easier to concentrate than later in the day and the work is intense. If possible, I do the most important tasks in the morning after breakfast.
I had a late start; I was about 35 years old. Finding my own domain and quality took time. It was such a great relief to finally find my voice that I have been continuing the work with the power of the launching velocity. And I haven´t often stopped to think about what am I doing.
As for many others, scriptwriting is the most time consuming activity for me. It is the basis for what is to follow. When drawing, I have to brake often so that the line does not become sloppy.
We’re completely aware that you’re a master poet and comic artist. I’ve read somewhere that you also do metal shaping in the artistic handcrafting sense. Do you still work with this, how should I put it, hardcore material? Do you bend, bang, cut, burn and set up giant metal statues maybe?
The choice to work with metal arose from the will to learn something that I would not immediately choose, something that is against my nature. And I still think that I have to push myself to some place I’d rather not go. I search for friction. I hadn’t done metalwork since school.
At this moment you’re working on a huge 8-metre painting for Kiasma – the museum of modern arts in Helsinki. If I’m not mistaken, you also had to fulfil an order for an elementary school in Finland (which one, where?). You made a huge scale painting for them, too (or a series of paintings? For the staircase? I’m not sure). So you’re a painter as well and it seems you never run out of orders. In this case you must be a mural painter!
I painted two series of works as a commission for the elementary school of Martti Ahtisaari in Kuopio. It was my first artwork for a public space. It was an important project as it allowed me to do something really big.
The work for Kiasma is about to be ready. The exhibition called Päin näköä will introduce Finnish comic artists from 9th March to 9th September 2012. It consists mostly of sculptures, installations and paintings – not that many original comic strips.
I remember the video Lost on YouTube. A man (you in fact) walks in the deep Finnish snow, everything is shaking and flickering, accompanied by some kind of Jyrki-esque noise. Did you make more of these experiments? Have you ever been seriously into music? Were you ever (or are you) a member of an experimental music band?
I’ve never been seriously into making music. I did a video called Luomiskertomus (History of the Creation) with my friend Martti Mujunen a couple of years ago, where we combined live black and white pictures with poetic dialogues. Lost was created as sort of a by-product.
These days I play the mandolin just for my own entertainment, mostly Finnish folk music. After all the trying and learning it’s fun to just fool around with instruments.
Your life has recently turned upside down completely. The last time I met you was in Linz (Austria) at the international comics festival Next Comic Fest. You seemed like a new person, reborn almost, you stopped eating meat, grew a little goatee, you were dressed in colourful clothes in pastel colours, started smoking menthol cigarettes again … The overhauling of life is usually followed by an overhaul of creativity. What kind of impulse is needed for that? What changed in your creations / works?
It’s difficult to answer that. You could ask me that maybe after five or ten years...
From the specific towards the general (bordering slightly on the banal, but anyway): who are the authors that you admire the most and that inspire you? What about comic artists? I know you loved the Moomins by the Swedish-Finnish writer, illustrator, painter and comic strip artist Tove Jansson. Were you fascinated by any other comics as a child and later on?
I am easily inspired by artists. The enthusiasm usually calms down; the appreciation doesn’t. Last I was delighted by Sarah-Louise Barbett´s story in which the characters were very touching.
When I was a child, Philemon’s stories, where anything could happen, by the French drawer Fred, affected me in an indelible way. They are stories that I want to believe in, warm and wise in a quiet manner.
Another influence was American-based, an educational magazine called Kuvitetut klassikot (Classics Illustrated). The classic novels of world literature were squeezed into 40 pages with the aid of unknown illustrators. Something in that idea appealed to me and of course the combination of adventure and romance.
The story has to be real. It can be of fantasy or realism or a wild hybrid, but it must arise from a true emotion.
I guess my everlasting favourites are Ilan Manouahch and André Lemos. I don’t get tired with their works. And Bendik Kaltenborn. He moves in an agile way on his own level. I very much like the works of the Tonto-group; Michael Jordan, Helmut Kaplan and Edda Strobl are also significant storytellers.
Have you ever considered creating comics for children, too? (or maybe you already have?)
I actually haven´t done comics for children but I have held workshops for them.
We hear so much about the ‘Finnish comics’. Do you feel as a member of the so-called ‘Finnish scene’ or would you rather say you’re more of an einzelgänger, a lone wolf? Do you collaborate with other creative collectives? Or are you an independent artist and belong to yourself only?
I am not a lone wolf, I am an individual among other Finnish drawers, in a way we share the same agenda. I recognise my own scenery from Finnish comics; their stories speak to me about important issues; the mentality is the same. Yes, I feel I belong to this group. The term Finnish comics is maybe like a frame in which one operates, maybe forgetting or neglecting it. Regularly yet sparsely I collaborate, for example, in the magazine Kuti and in group exhibitions.
I don’t belong to myself only. I write and draw for fellow men as well, but I guess that creative work consists of personal need, obsession, ambition and compassion.
Riemupolitiikan hautajaiset, Karisto Publishing, 1984
U pui uje mui, Otava Publishing, 2002
Pois voihke ja valitus!, Otava Publishing, 2004
Hieno, pieni kiekura, Otava Publishing, 2006
Kalevanpoika, Otava Publishing, 2010
Tsirnam bai, Suuri Kurpitsa, 1999
Arjen vartijat, self published, 2000
Aamulla varhain ja muita Jyrki Heikkisen sarjakuvia, self published, 2001
Autuaat, self published, 2002
Punajäkälä, Asema Publishing, 2005
Seiniä päin, self published, 2005
Tohtori Futuro, Asema Publishing, 2007
Lichen Rouge, La Cinquième Couche, 2008
Kiitosvirret ja ylistyslaulut, Asema Publishing, 2008
Paparoad, Boing Being, 2008
Hauska on tietää, self published, 2009
The Moon Boy, Wormgod and Seriefrämjandet, 2010
Apua on tulossa, Asema, 2011