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  • Comics and changing reality: Mukku from Mämmilä found unfitting for the poster of the Tampere Kuplii comics festival - which is just as well

Comics and changing reality: Mukku from Mämmilä found unfitting for the poster of the Tampere Kuplii comics festival - which is just as well

Writers: Ralf Kauranen and Olli Löytty

The Tampere Kuplii comics festival will get a new poster. Due to strong criticism expressed on the Facebook event page, the original poster containing characters from Tarmo Koivisto’s classic comic Mämmilä was abandoned by the organizers soon after its unveiling. The poster’s design followed the model from the early Mämmilä comics albums. Although the poster is now removed from the festival’s facebook page, the image used can be found in this tweet from the Helsinki Comics Center.

The critique presented on the festival’s Facebook page was directed at the way the character Mukku is represented (in the upper right hand corner). Mukku or Muhammed Al-Zomal arrived as a refugee in the (fictional) Finnish small town of Mämmilä in the early 1990s. As his name indicates, he came from Somalia.

According to the criticism the character Mukku is a racist stereotype. Contrary to some of the discussants’ allegations, there should be nothing ambiguous about the claim. The face of Mukku is portrayed in a caricaturistic fashion that emphasizes some of the so-called racial features -- a fashion that has been, and continues to be, prevalent in the western tradition of visual portrayal. Mukku’s lips and teeth are drawn exaggeratedly large, as has usually been the manner in images depicting “black” people or “Africans”.

In accordance with the traditions of caricature, some of Mukku’s features are exaggerated while others are reduced. The other figures in the image are also represented in a more or less caricatured fashion. Ronkainen’s chin is especially large, while Viljami almost seems to lack a chin. Eeva’s face is very thin and the artist Tarmo Koivisto has a relatively big head. But there are differences between the caricatures.

Contrary to the case of Mukku, the accentuated features of the other characters do not make them representatives of a “race”. If the white citizens of Mämmilä represent groups or categories at all, they certainly are more difficult to detect and define. Perhaps, Ronkainen’s broad chin ties him to some kind of macho masculinity? And, correspondingly, perhaps Viljami’s chinlessness separates him from a stereotypical masculinity of dertermination and being on view?

Certainly the skin colour of all characters tie them to the traditions of representing “races” in comics and elsewhere: the “white” characters are pink or beige and “black” Mukku is brown. These differences are not, however, accentuated in the image. Actually, Mukku, Eeva and Santanen, who are standing in the back row are all rather dark and similar in colouring due to the fact that they are standing on the side, outside the light from the lamp.

Mukku, then, is the only racialized character in the image. The visual means through which this is accomplished have been formed during centuries in western culture and art. These means are also firmly connected to this culture’s racist thought tradition. Racializing stereotypes can not be separated from this heritage or related power structures. Racial stereotypes are not innocent joking matter, but associated with hierarchical power relations and outright oppression and the vindication of colonial power and exploitation.

The use of racial stereotypes in images such as the poster is thus tied to the history of racism. Racism is an inherent part of them. On the Facebook page of the Tampere Kuplii festival, some participants in the discussion defended the usage of the character Mukku with reference to its previous context, the Mämmilä comics, not being racist. Participants in the discussion were encouraged to read the comics before condemning the character as racist. Another argument made in defense of the usage was that the artist behind the character is not a racist.

There are many good reasons for reading Mämmilä, but, obviously, a poster marketing a comics festival can be criticized without a deeper knowledge of the source. The character Mukku is interesting in many ways. Visually it is stereotypical, but also Mukku’s conduct can be scrutinized from this perspective. Why does Mukku of the comics seem to be happy and laughing all the time? Although this is a sympathetic trait, the presentation also reflects the European idea of carefree, primitive and childlike Africans.

Mukku’s character is, however, much more multidimensional than this. In fact, his character is often used in the comics to joke about and ridicule the prejudices against people of colour and Africans held by the citizens of Mämmilä. Consequently, the comic both reproduces a historical stereotype and questions and criticizes it. Mämmilä deconstructs and criticizes racism when parodying the generalizing prejudices at work in society. Nothing of this, of course, is to be seen in the festival poster and a viewer can not be expected to have access to this background information.

Mukku of Mämmilä is based on a racial stereotype but the character’s meanings are not limited to this. The figure is historical in the context of Finnish comics. In Finnish arts and literature, Mukku is an early example of the depiction of people seeking refuge in the country. He is possibly also the first Somali character. But Mukku is historical in another sense as well: the interpretations made of the character are tied to time and place.

Mukku and the discussions about the character illustrate well the theme of the Tampere Kuplii comics festival’s theme in 2019: rupture. The fact that the Mukku character was not cause for debate, at least not publically, about racism and representation in the early 1990s and that the critique in 2019 is considerable is not only a sign of changing times in general, but also of the fact that the Finland of today is inhabited by significantly more people personally concerned by the representation of “race”. And this seems to be a fact that is hard to comprehend for many representatives of majority culture.

Ralf Kauranen, Olli Löytty, Tampere Kuplii, Mämmilä, Tarmo Koivisto, Poster illustration, Caricature, Stereotypes, Racism

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℅ Ralf Kauranen, Kotimainen kirjallisus, 20014 Turun yliopisto
℅ Ralf Kauranen Department of Finnish Literature, FI-20014 University of Turku, Finland
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