Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Best Comics Are Still to be Made: an Interview with Tommi Musturi (Part One)

Way back in the halcyon days of January 2010, before we'd even dreamed of having an audience for Avoid the Future, we officially began our comic blogging lives with a review of Tommi Musturi's Walking with Samuel. So taken by it were we, that, in retrospect, it seems fair to say there would be no ATF without this book. When Judith and I stumbled upon it - tucked casually away beneath eye-level at the comic shop during the big Angouleme 2010 promotional push - it instantly reaffirmed our love of comic books, and art in general. 

So, you'll understand that we reacted with a certain level of uncontrollable glee when the Finnish creator recently agreed to talk to us about his work, his relationship with comics, as well as his projects past and present. Split into two parts, today's interview focuses on the immediate - Musturi's two fantastic ongoing comic series: Samuel and The Books of Hope. Detailing the inspiration and process behind these books, he also delves deeper, giving us an introduction into his history as an artist and a glimpse at his ideosyncratic creative outlook.

In Walking with Samuel, you create a fine between expressiveness and ambiguity. Consequently, Samuel becomes a very identifiable figure even though the reader knows very little about the specifics of his character. What were your intentions when creating him and the book?

The actual character, Samuel, was born in my sketchbooks a few years ago. I just wanted to draw a very simple figure without any expressions on its face and then try to express different emotions through it.

Later on, I spent two months in Benin, Togo, and Ghana in West Africa, and drew a lot more "free" drawings in my sketchbooks. These all came out with a very clean line and started to look like the environment Samuel could live in. I lived by the ocean for most of my time there and spent lots of time just walking around by the shoreline. The local nature and its forms made a big impression on me, which then appeared in my drawings. So, I made a 6-page short story with Samuel walking through these forms and in the end basically just "not giving a shit" about so-called "western civilization". That seemed a good statement to start working on more, so I sketched ten more episodes in Africa and drew them back home in Finland.

When you take a look at Samuel in general, there are few things to point out. As said, he doesn't show any emotions through his face, they're all more in his actions. This is what happens around us, real thoughts and ideologies are in what people actually do and how they act in real life. What people say is more just bullshit; it looks like we need new kind of language. I also present Samuel as naked male character which sort of underlines the fact that I want to present him as human as possible, with all the power and all weakness that implies. Like Linus from Peanuts, he carries a rag with him sometimes, representing safety. Samuel is a ghost-like figure, almost invisible. He’s some sort of average Joe that you don't really notice until after he does something, sometimes something reasonable, sometimes just random acts.

An image that would later become the source of the cover to the German edition of "Walking with Samurel"

Featuring no dialogue, it seems that symbols and allegory are integral to Walking with Samuel. Identity and nihilism seem to be two reoccurring themes, with Samuel setting alight his self-effigy and murdering his duplicate, etc. What do you see as the core themes of the book?

Well, the core consists mainly of my own thoughts, of course. But, let me explain a bit... This may be boring and spoil your reading experience, but, when working out the episodes for Samuel, I have always used a very simple way of approaching the script: I take one word - usually abstract to myself - and try to explain that through the comic and Samuel. I'm not searching for truth here as it's all written from Samuel's point of view, a character that already has a history. Truth is always subjective also, it changes depending on time and space. There are episodes that came out through words such as "friendship", "home", "hope" and "art". The last is the one where Samuel sets his self-effigy in fire. That's a statement that might be in words something like "art is a self-portrait put on display and set on fire". Nihilism here is more mental. The surroundings and landscapes can be also seen as something happening inside Samuel.

The Books of Hope (The First Book of Hope and The Second Book of Hope) is much more obviously grounded in the humanity, namely that of its elderly protagonist. What inspired you to begin this series?

The Books of Hope started few years before Samuel. There are now three books out in Finnish, with the first two translated into French and English. The series will have five books in total, for which I wrote the basic script five years ago. I'm letting it come out slowly among my other projects, not really pushing it. 

In the Books of Hope the starting point is in my childhood, the small village in the countryside of central Finland, in its people and surroundings, where and with whom I grew up with. There's a real life story that I used as background for it, based on an old couple living in the village when I was a child. They both were at that time already on their seventies, living a very simple life in a small grey wooden house by a small river, surrounded by grove. It looked like something from the old world. The house was heated with wood and they had tens of cats living there. The man was a huge guy that used to take his horse and make it to the nearest big(ger) village a couple of times a week. Basically, he just sat sleeping on the carriage behind the horse that headed very slowly to the village or back home. It took one day for him to make this trip, he was in no hurry. 

While the man was this big silent bearded guy, his wife was a tiny skinny lady who used to talk a lot when you had a chance to meet her. Anyway, they lived their life as they wanted, not really caring much of what happened around them. At some point the lady got sick and later died, her husband followed just a few months later. He died during a snowstorm, quite close to my parents' house, on a big road, driven over by a car one dark winter evening. I saw him dead on the ground as my dad drove us past him. "Don't look" he said, but I’d already seen it.

Soon after this, their place was bought by some colonist that cut down the trees, destroyed the grove and put asphalt over the ground. It seemed like this all happened in a blink - the couple was gone and so was their place. There was no mark of anything that would show they even ever existed... except the cats that became wild and lived in the forests. Some of them died on the road but I believe you can still find some of their offspring around, real wild cats. It's a really sad story actually.

Taken from the excellent "Second Book of Hope" (published in English by Bries, 2008)

The story I've written is not the story told here, but owes a lot to it. What I came to think of was the simple life in general; what is visible and what is not, what is important and what is not. I also started to think how, in a couple, one half defines the other, how something needs something else to really exist. The Books of Hope are also a story of manhood and nature, which I put above it all. I think the couple that lived in our village knew their place in the nature and had everything they wanted. When I think of the Finnish society these days, in my opinion many of the problems actually come from the fact that people don't know their place in nature. “Human” is seen as something not part of it at all, which of course is very stupid. Nature defines us and understanding it makes it easier to understand ourselves.

Which do you see as the bigger challenge, creating wordless comics, or ones with dialogue?

For me it's more difficult to do comics with dialogue. I started to do comics quite late, when I went to art school in the north and met some people who had already published some fanzines. I had done some fanzines before that, but they were merely about music and trash culture, which I found interesting back then. John Waters and gonzo documentaries like "Shocking Africa" were a big influence to me and my friend as teenagers. I had been doing some comics for those early fanzines, but they were more just for fun or to fill some pages. During art school I decided I would try out doing comics and really started to spemd time on them. I had already developed a specific style to draw with, so that wasn't a problem really.

The first comics I made contained lots of dialogue and text but it took a few years for me to really get it working. I was never really satisfied with the results, mainly because, even though I could draw the way I wanted, the balance and comic narration were lost. So, in the end I just started to take away text and leave the images. I took more and more away and the stories started to work better. In the end there were maybe no words at all, just one sentence or the title. At that point I felt I had finally found something, my own comic language.

At the moment I'm still pretty much doing comics without text or very few words. However, I've been forcing myself to do comics with dialogue also and there's a bigger project with the working title "The Future" that is very textual, actually. I won't say more about it as it'll take few years to finish. I think wordless narration is kind of a natural way for me to express myself through comics. I don't talk that much in general either, so guess it has something to do with visual thinking.

"Walking with Samuel" (2009)

Can you tell us more about the evolution of your style over time?

When it comes to the variety of styles and formats I'm using, that actually goes back 15 years in time. Back then, I had already been drawing for a long time, for most of my teenage years and later at art school. I had developed a specific style of my own which eventually didn't vary a lot. You could see influences of Didier Comès, Joakim Pirinen and Charles Burns in it. It was expressive, simplified, graphic and very black and white. Back then, I was merely drawing just illustrations for mail-art scene -small print fanzines distributed via snail-mail over the world. At some point I was working on simplifying the drawings even more and suddenly started to feel very very bored. For me, one interest in drawing is the fact that, in the end, it’s a way of having fun; a struggle, but fun anyway. 

During my teenage years I usually drew at night and still remember the powerful feeling and joy when managing to do something I couldn't before - to succeed in creating something the way I wanted - I would really jump around my room. That sounds bit comical now, but guess there was this world of my own that I was drawing, actually. We lived in a small village of approximately 30 people and what I did was mostly just draw, listen and collect music, read books and skateboard with my friends.

At the point when I realized drawing wasn't fun anymore, I realized that I should change it immediately. When you create something it's very important to be invested in the work, at least for me. If you don’t have the interest to do something, it can be seen in the result; a bored artist makes boring art. In comics, the really personal content comes from the artist's imagination. That's something that interests me and also where I see the power of comics - that whatever you want can happen.

So, I started to change my drawing, just by using different equipment and materials. Basically I started to work more towards actually be able to draw anything. My sketchbook was the main tool for this but I also created some excercises, such as "draw one strip per day" which lead to small magazine called Italo Sport or "draw until you drop" which lead to Moving Plastic Castles which presents just one blank emotion drawn again and again during two weeks with very little sleep.

In the end varying my drawing strengthened it all around and actually has kept me much more motivated. After a few years "on the road", it was fun again to go back to the old simple, classic style. This resulted on the Books of Hope series. 

People should try out doing things differently. There are many artists that seem to just repeat something they've already done and you can smell that in their work.

From "Speedgun", a hand-made silk-screened collection of Tommi's art (Le Dernier Cri, 2010)

What can readers expect to see next for Samuel and in the third and fourth Books of Hope?

Actually, The Third Book of Hope has already been released here in Finland, over a year ago, with the title The Dream of Hope. The other language editions have been delayed, but at last the French one is coming in Spring 2011. I'm not sure if Bries [Belgium-based publisher of the first two Books of Hope in English] is going to continue the series so maybe I'll put out the English one by myself. 

The third issue is an album-long dream which takes place in the Wild West. The main role is played by an alter ego of the male character of the series - a gunslinger named Jack. It might be the most difficult of all the five books, being even more monologue-based than the past two parts. it presents the expectations set for a male, asking what does "being a hero" mean and how little it has to do with an ordinary life of an ordinary man. At the moment I'm working on the fourth part, which is scheduled to be out in Finnish next Spring. I'm won’t talk much about it, I'll just say that is a happier book than the previous three.

What comes to Samuel, I'm slowly starting to work with the second book. It took three years to finish the first one. First, I had an idea to do many smaller books with different approach and format each, but now it seems like I'll collect it all into one big book. What I can say is that it'll be a bit different to Walking With Samuel, which was quite strictly episode-based. In the new book episodes are just one third of the book. Also, I'll present a new character: Little Samuel. Actually it's just Samuel as a kid; I'll just scale the body smaller, add a cap and erase his penis. So, it'll be partly child-friendly, even.

I just had a break from drawing comics for one complete year. I just did lots of free-drawings that got published as three separate art books (Big Beat, To a Stranger and Speed Gun) and in couple of anthologies (Adios III and Limbo, by Ilan Manouach). I needed that break after the first book of Samuel.

To be continued later this week...


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