maanantai 10. helmikuuta 2014

Decade of struggle

Today is a remarkable day for me for two reasons. First, I am turning 40 today, making me offically an old fart. Second, I have now been doing comics more or less very seriously for a decade now.

Yes, it was in winter 2004 when I first started seriously sketching my first album, Lopunperä 1 (=far end chronicles). I had no idea where I was getting to, and I had completely unrealistic and distorted perspective of my own skills, or should I say lack of them.

Looking at the first album now makes me embarrassed. I want to hang my head with shame thinking that how ignorant and arrogant I was to actually have nerve to offer this to publishers like Asema (and even more embarrassed now when I remember how encouraging and kind Ville Ranta was for me, while I was being an arrogant prick). I remember how I took major offence when I could not get a publisher and the art council of finland would not give me a grant to complete it, but I kinda understand it now. Looking at this album now, it visually looks like an fanboy's attempt to copy and replicate some of the experiences he had from popular culture in his happier days. This is a bit of a shame, since on conceptual level this still have some cool ideas, and the characters and story still do not feel calculated or forced. It still has some real heart, if you are willing to look past the surface.

I worked on this comic for every day after work, every weekend, on full 8 months, while having a stressful day at work making VMK (Virtual Magic Kingdom for disney) at Sulake (with the very same people who later went on to make Clash of clans, by the way). It was not easy. The work burned me out very badly, and it took many, many months before I was able to draw anything at all. During this time, I tried to find a publisher for this, in vain, while starting to work on a small comic that started as a joke when I was having a good time with friends.

So, I did "Muilutus Alpha Centauriin" [sic] which translates as "Snatchers from Alpha Centauri". I did it in order to learn to ink with nib tip (=mangaterä), and it won some kind of prize at the comics competition, while still not being included at the collection album that had all the winners. Dismayed, I printed it quickly and sold it by myself. Print was very small, and it had some bad reviews.

I would kinda like to continue the story, but I have major problems with some of the characters. While this is "fun" in very traditional comic-book sort of way, the characters are also pretty annoying and shallow. However, I have no idea how else I should portray them. Maybe some day I will, though I have no idea if anyone would care at all.

I finally managed to sell Lopunperä to a certain kids magazine, which was my last resort, as I really did not want my comic to be associated with that magazine. I felt that the magazine was shallow, pretentious vehicle that was aimed to brainwash kids into liking mainstream brands and popstars. My fear was that my comic, which I had shed some real blood and tears to make, would be forever associated with the magazine, and would be therefore duly ignored by everyone who hated the magazine. Looking at it now, I think I was right.

Still, I managed to get enough income, 500 euros per page, to enable me to work on it as a fulltime comic book artist. I realized that this may be the only chance I got to make the comic as amazing as I possibly can, so I started to think how should I make this comic as incredible visually, as possible.

At that moment, in 2006, I was already getting tired of computer-generated artwork, and I was hoping to utilize a technique that would make it stand out a little bit more, so I decided to use watercolors.

Ironically though, what I did not take into account was that most of the people were, and still are not, as tired of photoshop-generated graphics as I am, so the reception was not quite as warm as I would have hoped.

Also, the format of the magazine (2 pages month) proved to be a disaster for long story such as this. No one could really follow a slow-paced long story in a pace like this, and the format of the magazine was definitely more suited to comics that offered quick, cheap and easy laughs. Lopunperä was certainly out of place there, for it's readers it was too weird and too incomprehensible. Most of the adults did not want to touch it, as the stigma of "shallow kids drivel" was already attached into it. I continued my work under impression that this would be cancelled very soon.

By the time I had started the third part of the story, the comic had earned so much contempt from the readers and pressure from the editors that I was starting to feel severely anxious and depressed. I was fighting a losing fight, pouring every inch of my energy on a comic that had no chance and that I did not even own (as it was licensed from my employer when it was a video game concept I made).

During these hard times, I needed some kind of outlet to vent my misery before I would truly go insane, and thus "Matkailua Pelialalla" aka the Game industry comic was born.

In this comic, I took everything I loathed about game industry and every bad experience I ever had and made it into a new, fictional story, and let the bastards have it!

When I was making Lopunperä, I took so much time and toil to make something beautiful and nice looking, and I had my ass kicked so hard, that I just did not give a shit any more. I knew I had no way in hell enough time and energy to make this look good, and, frankly, I did not give a shit. I knew the people who made and played games understood and preciated nothing but shallow eye candy, so I made it as quick and ugly as I possibly could as that was all what those assholes deserved. And what do you know, the god damn thing became a cult hit with the very same audience it had contempt for. Talk about absolute irony of life!

While making "Matkailua Pelialalla" at sunday's, I struggled to make Lopunperä 3 at the same time. The old editor was retiring and decided to cut down the amount of pages by half, which seriously hurt the story. If I felt already before that this comic was doomed, now it felt like it was condemned to death.

Not surprisingly, the new editor appeared to me as a cynical career shark and bean counter who was not the kind of person who would give a shit on nurturing an unique, weird and long, expensive children's comic so naturally he replaced it with comics made by readers. Funnily I cannot even feel anger at him, because I felt it was simply something that could not be avoided, a natural and obvious move for a character like him to do so. So I went back to full-time job and finished Lopunperä 3 on a cliffhanger, hoping that some day I would somehow get to finish it.

Dream of being a fulltime comic book artist was over, but hey, I still could sacrifice my weekends and holidays as long as I took special care of not burning out. So, I continued the game industry comic while forming my own publishing house.

The thing you have to understand with modern, big publishing houses in finland (or anywhere) is that while they usually have been around for couple of decades, it is obvious that the people who originally formed them are not running them any more. Those who are left are usually bean counters who'se main job is to maintain their position at any cost. They are sometimes good with office politics, while having as much eye and sense for entertainment and culture as pocket calculator might have, on a very bad day. I have been around in entertainment industry just long enough to know, that even if they (by some mishap) think that you could be of some use to them, they would proceed to do every thing imaginable in order to royally shaft you, and since the market in Finland is so small, it's just not worth the pain.

This granted, there are also lot of fantastic, smaller comic book publishers, like Lempo, Asema, Huuda Huuda, Kreegah Bundolo and Arktinen Banaani, who all put out stuff that varies from interesting to absolutely fantastic, but they either are unable to pay any money, or are publishing stuff that is so different to what I make that there is just simply no point trying to offer them anything. It would be waste of time. I know it and they know it. So, Lehmäoja is born.


I proceeded then to make my first three Lopunperä -albums suitable for publishing. That meant lot of redrawing (for Lopunperä 1) and lot of additional pages that were cut (for Lopunperä 2 and 3). The experience of publishing was very interesting to say the least. The first album sold reasonably well (50% of the print run), as it got quite a few reviews and publicity (some due to fact that it was developed from a videogame concept), but when the 2nd and 3rd album came out, newspapers simply refused to write about it any more. Reason seemed to be that they "dont usually write about sequels", and consequently, the sales for 2nd and 3rd album diminished 50% and then 75%. I found their logic of refusing to write about sequels quite hamfisted. Do you refuse to review Empire strikes back because it is a sequel? Maybe the real reason was that we simply get much more stuff published than there really is room in paper.

Still, though the sales were disappointing, I still got back the money I invested pretty much on every album I had put out. But in the meanwhile I was getting real tired on this whole thing and wanted to do something else.

(I have to say that I don't understand artists who first "develop their style" and then just stick at it for the rest of their lives. Isn't that monotonous and boring? I love to do and try all kinds of different things, and experiment with different styles. Why wouldn't anyone want to do that? But never mind.) Now, I was thinking of resurrecting my old story about a strange mole-looking creature and demonic/undead girl who was it's guardian angel, combined with apocalypse. The problem was, the whole story was so weird that I didn't know how to handle it. But then, colleague of mine, Pertti Jarla, encouraged me to start anyway.

So I tried to do couple of sketches but it did not go anywhere. The problems and expectations felt insurmountable. I was not sure I was able to do it at all, and I was deathly afraid of burning out again.
As a kind of last resort, I sent application for residence in Prague to Art council of finland (who had at that point rejected every single application I had sent in every single year) as a half joke, as I did not expect it to come into anything. They accepted it, out of more than 70 applications.

At Prague, I started working on D'Moleyk, I was on fire again. I had resurrected the thing I always wanted to make but never had confidence to start. And it was shaping to be something more strange and beautiful I could have ever expected. I got 15 pages done, which was pretty good kickstart, and started to think about how to publish it. I was thinking of putting it all online, but I was wondering that how I am going to be able to really kick myself to see this all the way through on the weekends? That would take years and years. I needed something or someone who would kick me to do it, and give me motivation to carry on.

This is where the venerable magazine called Tähtivaeltaja and it's editor Toni Jerrman came to the rescue. I used to be deathly afraid of his critique as a young man, as I remember his scathing reviews in Sarjainfo during 80's, when he used to breath fire over small finnish comic zines. But, he absolutely loved the 15 pages I did and was very willing to take the comic under his wings. So we made a deal that I would redraw the first 5 pages (because I wanted to), and start it during 2013. For this I am very thankful :)

However, now I had another problem in my hands; I had unfinished business. D'moleyk would take all my free time, while Matkailua Pelialalla and Lopunperä 4 sat still unfinished. Lopunperä was a case where there really was no demand for it from anyone, save occasional email once or twice in a year, while I got pretty much hammered with requests asking me to continue the Game industry comic.

By this time I had already accepted that getting any meaningful grant for completing a huge, 240+ graphic novel from finnish art council was as likely as finding a snowball from hell. No offense to anyone, but clearly me and my sensibilities just are not their cup of tea. So I figured another way to do game industry comic: crowdfunding.

While crowdfunding itself is illegal in Finland, thanks to our backwards and retarded legislation, (which would probably rule Wikipedia illegal if they only could find a way to do it,) there was a service called that enabled it by setting up a webshop, where you can presell a book

that is in production. If you sell enough copies, production will happen, if not, you refund the money.

The mesenaatti campaign was a success, thanks to all the readers who actually cared about my little comic there. I am forever grateful for the people who contributed to the campaign, for they made me feel that I, for once, have a some kind of value as an artist. It may sound weird, but these days there is so much entertainment and culture available to everybody, that you have to come up with something special (or be really, really, lucky) to make any kind of impact at all.

But, this presented another problem. Now I had to foresee completion of 244-page book, while still making D'Moleyk. I also had a small grant for Lopunperä 4, which was enough for making 2-3 pages, but had no time to do it.

In the end, I managed to put out "Matkailua Pelialalla", and it got good reviews and healthy sales. Mind you that the print run was extremely limited, and price frankly was bit too much, but there was not much I could do about it, if I wanted to ensure that the damn thing would happen.

Lopunperä 4 is still on the air, hopefully I get to do the few pages I got the funding for, and use it to find the publisher.

After skipping one issue of D'Moleyk, I now continue producing pages for Tähtivaeltaja, about 3 pages every month. I absolutely love it. Whenever I make a new page, I feel it could be the best thing I've ever done (while the previous pages I'm not so keen on).

One may think that this decade of struggle would have been awful and traumatizing experience, and you should never attempt to be a comic artist in any case, as you are surely heading for bankruptcy and heartbreak. Well, I tell you something. Absolutely NOT. I LOVE MAKING COMICS. IT IS THE BEST FUCKING THING I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE!!

You see, I have now been 20 years in game industry. The wage is fine and has enabled me to buy all the nerd loot I always wanted to own, plus I can sometimes run a small publishing house.
But as a tradeoff, the game industry has made me feel utterly worthless and disposable and unwelcome. 80% of the work I have ever done has been trashed. Now imagine how this would have felt, during a 20-year time, had I not started making comics.. I haven't got even an idea if the work I did in the game companies was good or bad, because the reasons were usually something else than quality, such as budget or direction of the project, etc. I have good reason to believe my work was NOT bad, or I would not have a job in the game industry any more, in the first place.

While making comics has been a struggle, no work I have ever put to them has ever been wasted. I have been able to improve and build my skills, something you can't often do in game industry, as game development is usually mindless, numbing exercise with cumbersome technical tools. With comics, I have been able to be actually creative without having to compromise. To put my work out for people to see. To get feedback. To express something. Something like that is an absolute life line for creative person, much better than the living death of working 9 to 5 and then proceed to home to play your video games or watch the soap operas or movies that have been compromised to death while recycling the same old ideas one million times. When creative person has no promise of money, the only important thing becomes is what he has to say. And what you have to say is hundred times more interesting than what any piece of shit commercial entertainment studio can ever come up with, while trying to steal your attention.

So. What I wanted to say was:
Cheers for my decade of struggle, it was awesome, lets do it again!!!!!!

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