When I first saw some illustrations and comics by Mari Ahokoivu, I remained speechless for a while, just silently turning one page after another. The next step was to search for her blog on the internet and once again I was silently clicking the ‘next’ button and being absorbed into a small world of her honest stories. You can find yourself very easily in her narration, you can even say ‘Hey, this is about me too!’. I followed her blog entries for several weeks and because I have found so much inspiration there, I decided to bring her stories and great talent closer to you as well.
*First of all, I would like to thank you that you have found some time for me and my questions. *
Mari: Of course, I’m honoured that you asked!
I would like to start with your comics beginnings. How was it in your case? When did you decide to be a comics author?
Mari: I’ve been reading comics all my life. The mainstream stuff such as Donald Duck, Asterix & Obelix and Elfquest of course, but also Finnish more “artistic” comics. Not that Elfquest or Asterix wouldn’t be artistic. So…I saw from early on how different comics can be and also, Ville Ranta, a Finnish comics artist, was in the same school as me, and I saw how he did his autobiographical comics…and I realized that wow, you can actually do that for living or that you can express yourself with comics. I don’t think I ever thought I could get money out from comics.
So, it was quite natural for you to go this direction…
Mari: Yes, it kind of happened very quietly and smoothly. Comics is the way I can express myself best, they are part of every single part of my life. I think you can’t really make comics without them meaning a lot to you, at least in Finland. You don’t really get much money out of them, so you can’t do it for money. And you don’t really get so much fame or respect either. So you really really have to love what you do.
I understand. How would you describe your comics stories in five words?
Mari: In five words? That’s a though one! Poetic, fictive, autobiographical, glimpses of moods. Is that more than five words? Don’t count off.
I think you really described it nicely.
Mari: Hehe, it’s always so difficult to describe your own comics.
So, most of your comics stories are auto-biographical or at least semi-biographical then?
Mari: Well, I think ALL comics (or stories) are autobiographical, some more than others… But yes, mine tend to be quite a lot. Except nowadays, I’ve drifted more to fiction. Lately, I’ve been reading some Finnish folklore stories; I think it is because I’m living in Denmark now. I usually get interested in my own country more when I’m living somewhere else. But, I also take a lot of inspiration from old movies. Maybe not for the stories, but for the atmosphere.
Since you mentioned old movies, on your blog, I have already had a chance to read about the most important influences for your comics drawing and writing. I especially liked the combination of Tove Jansson, Terhi Ekebohm and David Lynch. Can you tell me maybe a bit more? In what particular have they influenced you?
Mari: I love the way Tove Jansson writes, every word counts. All her sentences are very honest and sad without being overdramatic or cliché. I don’t know how she does it. It’s very difficult to write that way without sounding… fake. Terhi Ekebom has always been my favorite Finnish artist. Every time I see a random drawing in a magazine or book that I really like it’s done by her! She also has that gift of telling sad stories honestly. And she really knows how to use colors. David Lynch is one of my favorites, because I like it that you don’t have to understand his movies to enjoy them. When you forget the need to understand, you can enjoy them in such a different and wonderful way.
Mari: Have you read the Moominpappa at sea? That’s my favourite.
Erika: :Well, honestly no; before I came to Finland I didn’t know anything about Tove. Now, my boyfriend chooses for me some nice Finnish books. But, I have seen some cartoons and illustrations.
Mari: The first Moomin books are kids’ books, BUT the last ones are so sad and complex they are definitely more for adults. I recommend them! And her illustrations are amazing! She did the best hobbit illustrations I’ve ever seen. They’re insanely good!
Are her Moomin figures also a bit of inspiration for your big white figures?
Mari: I think there is a connection there, though it’s not done on purpose. I have copied A LOT of things from her drawings though, I have to admit. Like the way I draw hands, that’s straight from Tove.
Can you tell me how your comics stories are born? What is the process of your work?
Mari: I did a short comics about it once, I’ll see if I can find it for you. It’s kind of a mystery to me too, how do the stories pop into my head. It usually takes a lot of time for an idea to develop into a story in my head, but when it comes out, it usually comes out very ready… the longer stories come in parts, which I connect later, and find the whole story behind all the small stories. The comics I did about it, it’s in Finnish of course… but I basically say in it that if I have to come up a story, I usually start by drawing randomly on my sketchbook. I decide that I’m not going to stop until I’ve filled up the whole spread. And usually in some point I realize that I’ve turned page and I’m sketching thumbnails for a story.
So, it is like the whole story needs bit of time to crystallize and live with you for a while.
Mari: Yes, and it lives kind of in the back of my mind, I don’t think about it that much.
Doodling and sketching is very important for you, as an author, for the process of story-creating, right?
Mari: Yes, exactly. It’s very sad that I don’t attend any lectures anymore or do not have a landline phone. I don’t do so much doodling than I did before, because of those!
What about some restaurants and cafeterias? Some artists find it interesting for sketching.
Mari: That’s actually my next step in that comics too! After I’ve doodled, I sleep and in the next morning, I go to a café to draw more. BUT I haven’t been to cafés for a long time, I haven’t found a good one here (Denmark) yet… But I sit in the train for 40 minutes every morning, so that’s kind of replaced my cafeteria time. But yes, I like to draw in cafes; I should start doing that again!
Isn’t it sometimes bit disturbing? With so many curious eyes…
Mari: It depends what stage on the comics I’m in. I’m super sensitive with sounds if I need to come up with a new idea or really concentrate… BUT if I sit in the café, there usually is this constant murmur of sounds that’s almost soothing. Of course, it depends on the café too. And I don’t mind people watching me draw, they hardly ever dare to come and talk with you so you can draw in peace. And if I color or ink, and do that kind of brainless drawing work, I NEED to listen to Podcasts or audio books or to watch movies. Otherwise, I keep going to Facebook every five minutes. I always try to cut down my computer time, but I’ve started to draw and color more and more with the computer too, so it’s very dangerous…
Yeah Facebook can be pretty addictive. One of the short comics on your blog is about it.
Mari: Yes, I tried to do diary comics about not being on Facebook. I ended up not being on internet at all, and not updating my blog!
That’s not good! What is then the importance of all the little and longer stories on your blog? Do you use them as a starting point or preparation for some long stories which can be published?
Mari: Some turn into longer stories. Some just stay as they are and might get published in anthologies. I’m going to publish some in a collection of small magazines called Talviunta. The first one comes out this spring.
Mari: Yes, it’s published by Asema Kustannus.
What interests me most about the comics and comics authors is how they use time and time dimension in their stories. Whether they use panels or not, and so on. How do you, as a comics author, perceive time and space in comics stories?
Mari: One of the things, I especially love about comics, is how you can draw time and how in one page, there can be one second or ten years. And that you can read it in your own pace. It’s very magical thing… and that’s how (I think) comics differ a lot from movies. That the reader can decide how quickly or slowly he or she will read the comics. I guess there are two time zones working together, the reader’s own pace and the timeline in the story. It’s one of the things which I can’t really explain. When it comes to panels or no panels, I usually try to see what fits, and works with what. It’s easier for me to get it “right” if I don’t think about it… Not a very good advice from a person who should also be a comics teacher.
Without panels it gives a bit more freedom to a reader. I think the stories seem to be more open and not so closed for any other ideas or episodes to come.
Mari: you’re right, but sometimes panels also feel like they are hiding something behind them, which gives you more freedom to imagine the “other stuff” not pictured.No panels feels more “this is all, nothing is hidden” feeling. But maybe that’s just how I feel about them.
Is it difficult for a comics artist to pay attention to time dimension in the story?
Mari: I think the thing I correct most from the sketches is the time, I mean, I add more pictures or space to make something last longer or remove some pictures or even pages to make things go faster. So, I would say it’s something you have to fine tune a lot and you can only see, where to correct it when you have the whole story in your hands and you’re test reading it yourself.
Have you ever had a period in your comics drawing when no ideas for comics came up? A kind of writer’s block.
Mari: Oh yes, many times. I just try to think that it will pass, like it always has. You know, I say “don’t panic” in my mind and just try to keep doodling and keep my pen moving. That reminds me, I should add Lynda Barry to my influences, because she’s been one of the biggest ones lately.
What exactly do you find influential in her comics?
Mari: It’s amazing how much inspiration you can get from her books! I think it’s because she’s given me a permission to do many things that I thought “real artists” are not supposed to do (like watching TV while I was drawing) and to really understand that there’s no right way to do things, there’s just the way that fits you right now.
What do you consider as your biggest success so far?
Mari: My first (and the only so far) longer fictive comic book, “Löydä minut tästä kaupungista” is one that I’m extra proud of. Also, I always wanted to do posters for the Love & Anarchy film festivals in Helsinki, and last year I had a chance to do it! That’s pretty cool too.
I wish that you will have even more comics books then, and even in English, although, it is a good way for me to learn Finnish.
Mari: I hope so too! I learned English from comics (and I learned to read from comics), so I think it is a good way to learn a language.
What would you recommend to a young aspiring comics artist?
Mari: I would recommend reading lots of different comics. And when you find something you like, try to figure out what is it exactly that you like in the book. I recommend drawing all the time, too. Doodling. And reading Lynda Barry’s graphic novel — What it is. And saying yes more than no, if somebody asks you to take part on a project, or you get a drawing job, it’s usually better to say yes than no. I usually first say yes and then I am horrified when I think I can never do it. And afterwards I do it. And sometimes it turns out bad, but most of the times I feel very happy that I have pushed myself to do something that I never thought I could do.
So it can be then also a kind of life advice.
Mari: I think life and art advice are the same.
And maybe I should ask a cliché question at the end. What are your comics plans for this year?
Mari: This year… Well, first, I’m planning to publish two of those magazines I was talking about (they’re going to have English subtitles, by the way), one in the spring and one in the fall. Then, in May, I’m going to Greenland (!) for a Nordicomics residence place for a month, after that I’ll be selling comics at the Copenhagen comics festival, then we’re off to Paris for another residence place (Cité) for two months in the summer. I’m planning to finish a kids’ comic book I’ve been doing with a friend of mine, and hopefully get it published. And I’ll be working with another kids’ comics book series of my own. And do some research for a new fictive story… So I guess my year is kind of booked already. I’ve tried to cut down things, but when you say yes more than no, you usually end up busy.
Mari, you are wonderful, thank you once more for this interview.
Mari: My pleasure!