Nordic Comics in the Expanded Field

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Tomorrow, I’m off to Finland for the Helsinki Book Fair, where there will be a substantial comics presence. Making up for missing the recent Helsinki Comics Festival, I’m looking forward to meeting the Finnish cartoonists present, as well as to see the apparently substantial contingent of international authors, primarily Scandinavian, who will be converging there, smack in the midst of one of the most interesting comics scenes right now.

I wrote the following piece for the book fair comics paper, published by the Finnish Comics Society. More when I get back.

Comics right now are in a heightened state of evolutionary flux, headily promising great things as they go off in a multitude of previously unexplored directions. A century-and-a-half as a popular, patently lowbrow mass medium saw them define and refine a pictorial language by now built in to our visual culture, but it also restricted their expressive field to a handful of genres and circumscribed rather narrowly their visual vocabulary. Although this pattern has been challenged consistently since at least the sixties, it is only in the last decade-and-a-half or so that a kind of critical mass has been reached. An expanded field is opening for the art form.

The trend that has come to define this development more than any other is the advent of comics published as self-contained books independently of the traditional genres, popularly called ‘graphic novels’. The historical centres of comics publishing and innovation—North America, the Francophone nations of Europe, and Japan—remain in the lead, but over the last decade especially, the Nordic countries have shown themselves acutely attuned to what makes comics one of the most dynamic and exciting art forms today.

Scandinavia has a history of comics reading that rivals the great comics nations when measured per capita, though each country has its own publishing tradition, which continues to inform the approach taken by contemporary cartoonists, albeit less and less: comics are becoming a globalised art form, accelerated by vigorous international exchange. The thriving, if still fledgling, Nordic small press scene has become a hotbed of creativity, occasionally influencing even the larger mainstream publishers. And the internationally faltering tradition of newspaper strip cartooning remains fairly strong in Scandinavia, though most enterprising young cartoonists are joining a broader exodus online in search of a new mass audience.

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Nordic comics went through a rough patch in the nineties, fostering a deep-seated pessimism in most any involved observer, such as yours truly, but I can state without (much) reservation that there’s much to be excited about these days. In breaking so consistently with established norm and form, it seems at times that comics can look like and be about anything these days: they deliver sustained narratives as well as they do limerick-style pictorial verse; they may concentrate on the fantastic as well as the mundane; they might be painted or sculpted; they can be fact or fiction, dream or reality.

Finland has long been the leader of innovation in the North, breaking early the barriers between comics and contemporary art, taking both in exciting new directions. Sweden has followed suit, bolstered by its consolidated small press and long-running anthologies such as Galago. The strong tradition for newspaper- and magazine-published strip cartooning in Norway has created a healthy, if creatively somewhat limited industry, which however has seen encouraging diversification in the last few years. Historically the biggest market for translations of international comics, the appearance of homegrown Danish product has been erratic, but nevertheless truly fine work has continued to appear. And Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Baltic countries all have their own emerging scenes.

As the Nordic epicentre of international trends in cartooning, Finland is the ideal place to bring together these individual traditions with the best in international comics. The ambassadorial publication par excellence for the last few years was the now-defunct anthology Glömp, the spirit of which is not only being kept alive, but expanded upon, in the free comics paper KutiKuti. But comics in the expanded field transcend any one publication or tradition and now’s as good a time as ever to discover it.

Samuel image by Tommi Musturi, watercolour by Bendik Kaltenborn.

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