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Finland's Finest: Pekka Alan Manninen

A comics interview article by: Terry Hooper
Pekka Alan Manninen holds a Doctorate in Education and may only be known to a small, select group of fans outside Finland but he deserves much wider attention in the comics world. In 1990 I published Zine Zone International’s Look at Finnish Comics and Creators, but had not interviewed my favourite –now I have! Sit back and don’t worry –the interview isn’t in Finnish!

Terry Hooper (TH): When and where were you born?

Pekka Alan Manninen (PAM): 17th of August, 1959….in Tampere.

TH: I’m presuming that, as a child, you read comics –was reading comics encouraged?

PAM: Whatever was published I read; my parents didn’t think one way or the other about reading matter. There were translations of Disney, Warner Bros. and Hanna & Barbera comics and Superman, Batman, Spiderman and so on. Tarzan was my favourite, though….

TH: And later on?

PAM: ….And later, during the early 1970s there was a wide spectrum of comics available--translations of French and Belgian stuff, American Underground and, most importantly, a comic book called Shokki that used mostly material from the Warren horror books. That was cool. And even one Finnish comic book, Sarjis, came out.

TH: At what point did you decide "I wanna be a comic book artist!"?

PAM: Who knows?! I certainly can’t remember any specific point. Feels like I was born with this "condition". Of course, the Sarjis comic book was a real eye-opener--it showed that you could do this in Finland…..

TH: So, you decided to draw comics, how did you get started and when and where were you first published?

PAM: No information about drawing materials or anything was available, but I took a [really good] correspondence course on commercial illustration. My first published work was in a comic book called Non Stop. They had mainly French material, but one page in each issue was given over to “young artists”, or whatever. This might have been in 1976 or 1977.

TH: When did you first publish your own Finnish comic, Sarjari?

PAM: During the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an explosion of all kinds of fanzines in Finland. Somehow regional “comic societies” and their books also sprang up. So, it took about six people to start a society, and with that you could apply for small grants from the town council. The first issue of Sarjari came out in 1981.

TH: At the moment Sarjari is up to number 70+…you try to get a theme for each issue –ie. Wild West, Manga, etc.. Does this ever cause a problem in getting themed strips from creators?

PAM: There are many artists and too little space--on some issues a “specialist artist” is recruited…someone with a passion for the theme. But usually I just give the artists the theme and tell them how many pages and they take the theme and run with it. Sometimes the results are surprising.

TH: Very surprising. I can’t think of an issue of Sarjari I haven’t liked. In case anyone thinks “wow! He can read Finnish!”….I can’t. However, as a visual medium, comics can tell stories that don’t really require you to read a foreign language. And I love comics!!

Now, my all-time favourite Finnish character, as you know is your own creation, Kapteeni Kuolio [Captain Gangrene]. This is a marvellous cross between Dr Strange and those early Timely-Marvel short strips with a unique brand of weirdness intertwined. How did the good Captain come into being and can you tell us a bit about his background –he comes across almost like TVs “The Fugitive” at times.

PAM: Okay--the Finnish language is rather tricky, in this case, the actual core form of the word is “Kuolio”. “Kuoli” just means “somebody died”…and “Kuolio” means “gangrene”.

Well, Sarjari had a super hero special coming, and I was trying to find a character that I could identify with, and one that could work in a Finnish setting. I had long been intrigued by Dr Strange, especially with the way his actions went unseen by the ordinary people. So I came up with a character in whom this aspect was the central thing…you don’t know if Captain Gangrene is just imagining all the things he sees, or if these things actually happen. I don’t know that myself…I have been collecting works by real schizophrenics [a couple of Finnish writers who self-published their rants, for example], and these have been a source of material.

Some characters, like Kapteeni Kokko, the irrational neighbour of KK and the street apparitions in the “Gibberish” issue of Sarjari, come straight from my dreams. And there have been some super hero parodies among the episodes, with stylistical references to Dr Strange and the Legion of Super Heroes [these are still my favourite super hero comics].

The name Kapteeni Kuolio came to me after reading Mike Benton’s book, The Comic Book In America…I noticed that the silliest super heroes were usually captains…and the silliest word I could attach to “Kapteeni” was “Kuolio”!

TH: [One thing I did learn from Pekka that I never knew before was that “Kapteeni Kokko” means “Captain Lumpy”!]. I have to admit I would like to see Kapteeni Kuolio in a comic album –no chance I suppose?

PAM: I spent a year making a graphic novel. It was ready in 1999, but such are the arrows of outrageous fortune in Finnish publishing that it took me three years to find a publisher. Who knows what happens next? Right now I’m half-way through a graphic novel length heroic fantasy that is published in 10 page parts in the Tahtivaeltaja sci fi magazine.

TH: I’m glad to say the Digest sized graphic novel Kapteeni Kuolio ja Tamperkele has seen print since then and is curiously a little smaller than A5 and the reason for this size is that the publisher published this way so it fitted into the racks alongside the Disney pocket books and the newest KK adventure, Pispalan Vampyyrit [The Vampire of Pispala] –an original panel from which I proudly own and display on my wall!

Pekka has also written an historical war comic album, drawn by the wonderful Petri Hiltunen for Egmont Finland based on Finland’s part in the Napoleonic War, Edesta Maan Ja Kuninkaan.

Back in 1989, you published a comic album, of which I am the proud owner of a copy, titled Igor Motor. Can you tell us a bit about this?

PAM: Well, it started as a “Dirty Harry” parody with a futuristic [and capitalistic] Russia as the background. Some episodes came out in a comic book called Kannus [published by Seinajoki Comics Society], and they wanted to publish a graphic novel…which managed to come out just before that particular society went belly-up! The episodes were reprinted by a Leftist youth organisation tabloid. Shows you the Left still had some sense of irony left, eh? But really, Igor Motor was most about just having fun while drawing!

TH: I think that is the most important thing! For years I just ground out work and couldn’t enjoy it because I wanted to earn a living and was worried what people might think of my work. One day I said “nuts!” and just started doing and enjoying my work the way I wanted to. One of the best reviews of a Small Press publication I ever gave was of one of the worst drawn comics I’d ever seen –but you could tell the artist was having fun!

I know some people see a major problem with KK is that the strip is in Finnish [reputedly the most difficult European language to learn!] but with national comic industries it’s good to see home grown comics in the face of all the DC, Marvel and Disney reprints. Have you ever felt tempted to just publish in the English language to try to get a wider readership?

PAM: Well, I would imagine that I could publish in English…but who would distribute a publication like that? I think it would take a lot of effort. And I’m too busy with all kinds of work to invest enough effort in a thing like that.

TH: What is the current state of Finnish Independent comics and the Mainstream industry?

PAM: Well, Finnish Mainstream consists mainly of newspaper strips. They are extremely popular. But anything alternative is hard to find. Only one book shop chain carries alternative stuff, and you can get a few copies in assorted second hand shops. But that is all. The few comic shops here just sell American stuff.

TH: What future plans have you for Sarjari and comics in general?

PAM: Well, Sarjari is still going on. We use the cheapest printer available, that is the secret of the long publishing history! Very few plans are made. The next issue is going to be something to do with horror. And the one after that about Finnish cinema. I would love to have a collection of Captain Gangrene episodes published but who knows?

TH: Just out of curiosity, how does your average day work?

PAM: For the record, my typical week day--get up, read the morning paper, the mail when it comes in. If there is illustration work to be done I do it. The mail is posted and I make my way to the Children’s Art School where I teach comics, and I draw comics as a practical demonstration while teaching, and then I go home. On weekends I usually have just the commercial illustration work to do…and in my spare time I usually want to lay down!

TH: Pekka, my friend, thanks a lot for answering these questions and best of luck with your future projects.

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