From Finland, With Comics: Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen's US Visit [Interview]by Caleb Goellner
Cartoonists came from far and wide to attend our GoComics Creator Showcase at Planet Comicon Kansas City 2017, but Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen may have racked up the most frequent-flyer miles. Hailing from a legitimately small town in the relatively small country of Finland, Lehkonen traveled to the United States for the first time last month to promote her webcomic Immortal Nerd, along with numerous self-published works. Despite requiring a little bit of Ibuprofen, we're pleased to report it was a successful trip -- but surprised about a few key observations from the journey, namely the differences between America and Finland's comics (and, yes, food) scenes. We'll let Lehkonen break it down for you in our interview, below:
GoComics: We were happy to have you and our other awesome cartoonist guests at Planet Comicon. How did you like attending the show?
Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen: I loved attending the show. I love traveling to new places and I especially love meeting new people. Finnish people are all very introverted and I'm nothing like that so I really enjoy the American culture to the fullest! I love how open people are and how they are so easy to talk to! The show itself was also so well organized. The tables were great and on a really good area and everyone from GoComics was so helpful. I hurt my drawing arm the second night (by falling asleep on top of it) and everyone was so kind to me helping me get painkillers for the rest of the weekend. Especially [comics editor] Shena gave me so much ibuprofen! Tell her I said thank you one more time.
GC: In addition to Planet Comicon, you also exhibited at C2E2 in Chicago during your visit. Did you get any downtime during this trip, or were you mostly busy with tabling at these two shows?
HPL: In C2E2 I actually didn't have an exhibitor table, in there I was just a speaker. I was on a panel hosted by the Ladies Night anthology people Megan Byrd and Lauren Burke. We were discussing how to present your portfolios and how to apply to comic projects. It was pretty intimidating to go to talk on a panel in front of a huge crowd only two days after my flight when I was still a bit jetlagged but it went really well! I didn't really get any downtime during the trip though, while I was out of conventions, I was still doing networking meetups and working on my webcomic Immortal Nerd. I love my work so much and this time my trip to the US was purely for business.
A post shared by Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen (@hannapirita) on May 3, 2017 at 8:06am PDT
GC: I heard that you had some help from your community when it came time to travel abroad. Did Finland send you to America as a kind of Finnish cartoonist ambassador? What's the story there?
HPL: I was born in a really small town called Kauhajoki. The population there is just about 14,500. Every year they give out grants to people who live there or who were born there. This year they gave me a grant of 2000€ for my travel costs and to print my new comic booklet Short Gay Stories. The culture foundation of Kauhajoki wanted to support me because I'm currently writing a script for a new webcomic that's situated in the village in Kauhajoki where I was born in! So basically the small town of Kauhajoki wanted to support my networking with other cartoonists!
GC: I must confess I don't know anything about the Finnish comic book scene! How would you compare the Finnish or broader regional scene to the comics environment in the United States or other places you've traveled?
HPL: Well the weird thing is, in Finnish comic scene indie comics are actually the mainstream and the mainstream is not as popular. Finnish people love newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes and Fingerpori, that's a Finnish strip comic based on puns. Finnish people consider comics also to be a form of contemporary art and not just entertainment. This is why you can find a lot of really weird comics in Finland. For example, we have a quarterly comics magazine called Kuti, that showcases some very artistic weird comics! I have also drawn comics for Kuti twice myself. It's funny how my comics are considered to be very indie and a bit weird in America, but in Finland, they are almost too mainstream for some comic fans! The cultures are pretty different! I also travel a lot in France, as the comics scene there is huge! French people love comics so much! The French comics culture, in my opinion, is something in between the American and Finnish ones.
GC: Travel can be time-consuming and expensive. How important have you found traveling and engaging fans in person to be in building your audience and professional profile?
HPL: Well for me the most important thing in traveling is the networking. I love meeting other professionals. I also love engaging with fans, but so far most of my fans are from Finland and Sweden (and other European countries), so I don't meet that many fans when I travel to the USA. Maybe some day I'll have more readers in America too! But like I mentioned once before, I love meeting new people because I am quite extroverted as a person so I enjoy traveling even if I wouldn't meet hundreds of fans every time. Just building the friendships with other comics professionals is worth it. Thanks to my travels I have met some of the best people I know! Only sad thing is that now they live so far away from me. But well, I have the internet! Also traveling has been helping me get more freelancing jobs in comics... People like working with people that are fun to hang out with too!
GC: Finland has a relatively small population (about 5.5 million -- roughly just twice as much as the Kansas City metropolitan area). How do you think this has factored into your personal ambitions in comics?
HPL: Well I actually kind of started out making comics as a form of contemporary art instead of entertainment. And I have also been using my comics in activism a lot. I am a feminist and an LGBT activist and I'm trying to make things better for everyone here in Finland, so using comics as a form of education has been my deal. At some point, I landed a job in webtoons.com and after that, I have used my LGBT characters and themes in making comics for entertainment too! I love mixing up the important LGBT representation with my humorous comics. But yes, because Finland is a small country, inside Finland I wasn't really trying to become a professional comic artist. There I was mostly being a contemporary artist and an activist. I also teach comics in Finland as my side job! Educating others really is my passion too! After I started reaching out to the international webcomics scene I started to actually work more on being a full-time comic artist.
A post shared by Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen (@hannapirita) on Apr 14, 2017 at 6:14am PDT
GC: How did you get into reading and creating your own comics? I heard that Donald Duck may have played a role in your cartoonist origin story...
HPL: Donald Duck is a huge thing in Finland! Pretty much everyone reads it. The favorite artist of most Finns is Don Rosa. He has even made one Donald Duck story based on our national mythology, Kalevala! It was a really good comic. When I was little, my father had severe dyslexia, so he couldn't really read books to us. But something he could read was comics, mainly Donald Duck, because comics not only have text, but also images! Thanks to the images my father was able to follow the stories on the pages and read the comics out loud to us kids. I have such fond memories of those times when my dad was reading us comics. Even as a child I was able to see that comics were actually more accessible to many people than just plain black text on white pages. I had always loved drawing but comics being something I could use to combine drawing and telling stories and making them easy for everyone to access was the thing that made me want to make comics myself too!
GC: What are your favorite comics to read these days? Which ones inspire you to keep creating cooler and cooler things?
HPL: I am a huge fan of comic zines. I have an enormous collection of the weirdest zines from all around the world! Zines are so weird and because the print runs are small, you get to make some really interesting things in them. I get most of my own inspiration from them, zines are really my favorites! It's hard to point out which ones would be my favorites but if I have to say someone, I'd say the Swedish comic artist Anna Syvertsson is amazing! She's now published by the Swedish PEOW! Studios too! I also love the webcomic Check, Please! by Ngozi Ugazu! And I need to mention I really love Doodle for Food by Megan McKay! It's so funny!
A post shared by Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen (@hannapirita) on Apr 29, 2017 at 6:51am PDT
GC: This has nothing to do with comics, but according to my bad Wikipedia research, there's some contention regarding the quality of food in Finland. How do you rate your nation's cuisine? Is it generally better or worse than, say, the cafeteria at Ikea?
HPL: Finnish cuisine is amazing, but people don't really get why we don't use more spices. My answer is, come to Finland, try to grow spices, our annual temperature can be something like 25 Fahrenheit so you really think something other than potatoes grows here? My favorite Finnish dish is cabbage casserole, which is a bit weird food because it has both cabbage and brown syrup in it. It might not sound like something that would mix well but it does! I love cooking it to my friends when I travel. But I'd say Finnish food is better than the cafeteria in Ikea. In Ikea the food is made in factories, but if you make the same food at home, it's so much better. The worst thing about Finnish cuisine though is that Finnish people don't really care how the food looks like if it tastes good.