In Moomins' footsteps, Finnish cartoons eye fans abroad

FRANKFURT, GERMANY, Benoit Toussaint- Beyond the Moomins, the bulky hippo-like creatures that are one of Finland's best-loved cultural exports, its bumper comic book market remains largely unexplored abroad, but publishers are trying to remedy that at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The cartoon book market has steadily grown in the Scandinavian country in recent decades and producers now have their eyes firmly set on the much larger German market, said Maria Antas, head of the Finnish Literature Exchange programme.

The literary culture of Finland, which gave the world the hit video game "Angry Birds", has been under the spotlight as guest of honour at this year's fair in Germany, the industry's biggest annual get-together for publishers, editors and writers from around the globe.
"Finnish artists of comics have been globally very active, first in France, and now we are focusing on Germany because it's a different culture" with a market for cartoons and graphic novels that is less established than that in France, Antas said.
"We want to bring out the great amount and the great quality of Finnish comics."
Finland's comic book tradition goes back to 1911 when the "Expedition of Professor Itikaisen" by Ilmari Vainio first appeared, recounting the tale of a scientist who sets off to explore the world by steam ship.
Thirty years later the Moomins were born -- Moominpappa, Moominmamma and Moomintroll, with their coterie of other eccentric characters living close to nature.
The charming, quirky books and cartoons were the brainchild of the late Tove Jansson in 1945 -- the nine books have been translated into nearly 50 languages from Chinese to Esperanto.
- 'Published in every newspaper' -
One reason behind the success of comics in Finland is that "they are published in every newspaper", said Kalle Hakkola, director of the Finnish Comics Society. "Newspapers are very widely read in Finland, it is our tradition."
Outside of Finland however, the Moomins' success has proven the exception and many of the cartoons popular in the country of around five million people are not known abroad, he added.
Sales of comic books came to 9.7 million euros (more than $12 million) in 2013, or just under four percent of Finland's book market -- compared to comics accounting for 400 million euros in France, with its established comic book tradition and far bigger market.
"The market in Finland is very small," Hakkola said, but he highlighted that this also had an upside for the artists.
"There is no big industry (so) it gives a lot of freedom to artists who don't feel obliged to write the stories that the publishers want to hear," he said.
"Many authors are more oriented towards an artistic perspective, their work is very experimental."
Without preconceived ideas about what a cartoon should or shouldn't be, Finnish artists have been able to develop their own particular comic book world.
They've taken their inspiration from traditional popular culture, or by taking a whacky view of daily life, such as Juba Tuomola's series "Viivi and Wagner" -- the unlikely comic tale of an emancipated woman and macho pig.
Also at the fair in Frankfurt were comic book artists Maria Bjorklund, who is behind "Madonreikia", tales about the strange goings-on on colourful Planet Z, and Ville Rantas, whose work delves into religion and original sin.
Two main trends have emerged in Finland for comic book stories, Antas said.
One is to follow a biographical theme, with a view of the world from the narrator's perspective, she said. "Other books are very political... with hard topics that trouble us in many, many countries."

Saturday, October 11th 2014
Benoit Toussaint

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