Finland’s own Tommi Musturi is a special guest at this year’s show. Get to know him better in this exclusive MICE interview!
Tommi Musturi is a thirty-year veteran of the Finnish comics scene. He’s contributed to the comics community as a cartoonist, indie publisher, festival curator, and translator. Four of his many titles have been published by Fantagraphics since 2016, and he was part of a 2017 comiXology anthology called World’s Greatest Cartoonists, placed alongside Noah Van Sciver, Ed Piskor, and Emil Ferris.
MICE: You started making comics in the 90s. How did you start and when did you know that you were going to dedicate your life to this art?
Tommi: I’ve been always interested in drawing. Once kid I was a silent one. We lived on the countryside and in the village there were not too many same age friends. So, it was natural I spent a lot of time alone doing my own things including drawing.
Since early age I’ve been involved with this sub-culture of ‘demoscene’ that started in Nordic countries during 80s. The aim was to create simple audiovisual presentations (demos) on the home computers of the time. So, I ended up learning pixeling on Commodore 64 and I still do it. We had a group of people – first from closeby and later from all over Finland – that did things together with this machine. Few did coding, few music and some graphics and in the end there was something that we released, copied on floppy discs and mailed around the world to alikes. This was before internet and my mailbox got around 30 shipments weekly containing all kinds of demos from around the world.
Later I went to fanzines (demoscene being there on the background all the time) and got involved a bit on the mailart scene through that. So the mailbox was still full dailu of stuff but it started to change from just demos to fanzines, art, poetry, mix tapes and all that strange material that one could not really buy anywhere in Finland.
So, as a teen I was already surrounded with these really varying piles of culture from different corners of our globe. It was fun and exciting as I could weekly find something really new to me. It was also a very social world where the shipping included often lengthy written letters.
When I was 17 I was still going to study Maths in the university but at some point just decided to focus on the art side just because even though I liked Maths a lot making of art still gave me the best vibes. I could back in the days of course also see my development as an artist. These days this development is more difficult to see but I suppose it’s there still or at least that’s my aim.
I studied graphic design for +10 years, meanwhile doing my comics and all that aside and also working as an art director. At some point I wanted to become a typographer, some time an illustrator. But when I started to work on my first graphic novel ‘The Book of Hope’ I really found out my way of doing comics, got more and more interested in the possibilites of comic narration and sort of just moved on project by project. At the time when I got few small deals from publishers abroad that wanted to do The Book of Hope I decided to really try out if I can make my living with it. So, I quit my job and focused more and more on comics. Meanwhile we formed Kutikuti collective, rented a space in Helsinki and started the Kuti newspaper as well. I got involved in a contemporary publishing house, association work and all that.
There was never a plan. I’ve been just trying out to follow my changing interests and focus on what I see is important. What has been really important indeed is that I’ve always been surrounded by great creative people – first (and still) inside the demoscene, later in the art school and the contemporary field of comics. I learnt a lot in the schools but I learnt as much from my colleagues.
These days my time is mostly devoted for my comic works but meanwhile I also do quite a lot of fine arts – paintings, graphics and installations mostly. I think it’s also important to give yourself sort of freedom to do what you like as in the end it all comes together. What I learn while painting will support my art in comics as well.
You were a student at the time you became interested in comics. Was your art school supportive of a comics focus?
My interest with comics ‘has been there’ since kid as I read ‘everything I could get’. When teen we started our first fanzines with friends, focusing on alternative music back then BUT comics were always somehow present. I did draw some back then already but was mostly just a reader. We had a very good comic store (Kukunor) closeby and everyone in the scene went there or mail-ordered from them. It was also a spot where my interests in comics went deeper and deeper ending up in the avantgarde / contemporary comics from Europe and all the alternative comics from North America. When I actually decided to focus on comics happened in art school in the northern part of Finland. I went to study graphic design and among the students there were quite a few people who were doing comics and published fanzines. As I had my fanzine-background I started to edit & publish an anthology called Glömp that gathered mostly people from the art school, later also artists from around the globe. As a lot of people in the school had interest in comics we also invited in people who hadn’t yet done anything within the medium, and pushed them to try out.
Anyway, what comes from our art school (or art studies in general in Finland) support for comics did not really exist. We had a 2-week basic course in comics where most of the students knew more than the teacher. So, in the end it was a very DIY-way to learn to make comics, by reading a lot and making as much as possible. We had a small zine in the school that ended up with 50 issues released. Sold that for a cheap price and used the money to build up a small press section of comics in the school library.
One note is that my age of comic artists (who really started in the mid-90s) became a relatively big movement – the first real movement in contemporary comics. The art schools were not prepared to this but have since adapted a bit. These days one can study 1–2 years and have relatively large side studies in University level as well.
Tell us about your work. What stories do you tell? What themes do you tackle?
I suppose all my works are about ‘life in general’ – the small things around as, things that I wonder about, abstractions of life, the social and environmental problems around. My comics mostly born out of some daily observations and notes from things around. It all comes out first as written text even with the comics that might be totally mute. So basically my influences come from everything around me, from culture of course, people around, books and all.
One persistent theme in my comics has been the question of ‘freedom’ – what is it and how can we achieve it. For me it’s sort of an existential question that effects on everything. It also means freedom of speech and freedom of thinking. This might sound obvious in western civilizations but indeed it is not. We’re all tied to a lot of things around us, things not defined by us ourselves. Freedom is not about having a choice on something defined by others but rather having a choice of own alternative.
I work with really varying methods and ways of narration. Also my drawing changes from project to project. The image is born out of the aims of the work. In a way the idea of ‘freedom’ exists in the ways I’m making comics as well.
For many my works often seem as they would not have ‘a story’ at all. But for me ‘taking out the trash’ is a giant story already. I use a lot of metaphors and play with micro- and macro worlds. Play is important always and I try to leave room for it in all of my work. It’s also about keeping myself motivated and aware of what I’m doing indeed.
Besides all this I got an interest in experimenting with comics and its narration. There are a lot of things to find out still as comics is such a new art form. Sometimes I just want to confuse the reader. I tend to end my stories before the reader wants. I got an idea to ‘leave the last panel out’ just to make the reader think rather than explaining it all linearly.
For many Americans, Finland is tied to Tove Jansson’s Moomin series. Do you consider Jansson an artistic influence or something to push against?
Moomins are something that everyone reads – first as a kid, later as an adult or as a parent to your own kids. The Moomin comics are of course very good in every aspect. The art is great and the content is very humane and timeless. I suppose Moomins are a subliminal influence for most of the Finnish artists. The art of Moomin comics serves as well as a good study on b/w drawing, use of light and shadow instead of line drawing and so on. However, personally my influences have always been sort of a mash-up of a lot of things just because I’ve always been interested in too many things. I think my own influences come mostly from outside of comics, from literature and music. However, one can note (and what I’ve lectured about as well) that my generation of artists here all share sort of a common ground where comics for adult audiences were already nothing special. Moomins play a great role from this perspective. We also have the work of Tom of FInland that was made for special adult audiences. One artist to point out is Kalervo Palsa (1947–1987) who made +3000 pages of comics during 70s and 80s and what he did was VERY contemporary, explicit material for adults. I think his work has been a major influence for a lot of people here. He is more known as a painter (with thousands of works) while his comics are not that much translated into other languages.
What are you working on now?
I’ve spent the past months preparing the book edition of Future that will be out in several languages simultaneously during Spring 2024. Besides that I’m slowly moving myself towards the 3rd book of Samuel, with work title ‘Rainbow’s End’. That’ll be pretty similar to the earlier two books – 160 pages of mute works in total. I’ve indeed worked with it during Future already and there’s around 50 pages ready. Besides that I (finally) opened the doors of my small Bookstore STUFF in June and try to work on that besides my own artistic work. It’s a store carrying ‘all that stuff no one else sells’ with focus on contemporary comics, poetry, philosophy and music. I’m also active in Kutikuti board and work through several cultural associations.
With your background across so many different aspects of indie comics culture, what advice would you offer a young cartoonist just getting started?
Draw, draw, draw. Publish, publish publish. If no one publishes your work, publish it yourself. Learn by doing. Go to events, go to place, have exhibitions. Even though no one seems to care, there is someone who will dig it. Don’t give up. Just create without expectations and see what happens. One should find the joy from just making it, not from how many ‘likes’ you get. A work that one is satisfied with should be the reward. With next work, try to make it all better. Surprise yourself. Don’t just stick with something you like. If you like something too much, break it. Change your ways of doing. Your identity is not in the looks of your work but in what you want to say. What you say reflects your values. Show it all bare. Don’t give, don’t give.
Born in 1975, Tommi Musturi is a Finnish cartoonist, illustrator, graphic designer, and artist. In addition to his current ongoing series Walking with Samuel and The Books of Hope, Musturi contributes to the studio Kutikuti based out of Helsinki, which creates, publishes, and teaches comic art. Seeing that there was an unmet demand, Musturi co-founded Huuda Huuda in 2006 to translate international comics into Finnish, publish local comic artists, and get the word out about the vibrant Finnish scene by anthologizing the work in English. Musturi currently resides in Tampere, Finland.
Tommi Musturi will be a special guest at MICE 2023, taking place on September 30 to October 1, 2023 at Boston University’s Fuller Building located at 808 Commonwealth Avenue.
Appearance made possible by grants from: