Poster mothballed, case closed? Rupture and what’s causing it
Warda Ahmed, JAKKE, Hannele Richert, Johanna Rojola
The poster of the current (20.–24.3.) comics festival Tampere Kuplii 2019 caused a discussion about the hidden racism of cartoon and caricature tradition. The poster got mothballed and the picture was changed – is the case closed already? On the contrary, the discussion is just beginning!
Tampere Kuplii is an important event in the Finnish comics calendar, and it has an admirable ability to embrace different audiences from enthusiastic underground diggers to the more youthful, manga-oriented comics scene. A broad repertoire of manga and anime oriented activities was always an important part of the festival programme, such as a cosplay competition, manga meetings, talks of their own and an artists’ alley. The most respected album prize of the field, the “Comics-Finlandia” is also granted during the festival.
The comics scene might appear homogeneous from the outside but it’s actually composed of people whose thinking may differ quite a lot. Some comics people are more ready for different changes and might even be in need of them. It so happens, that this year’s festival theme is ‘Rupture’. The poster picture and the decision to change it caused irritated claims of “censorship” and “social justice warriors” that reveal problems in the structures of the Finnish comics scene. These problems are in need of deconstruction: the drawing culture is at a rupture, and for a valid cause. The character of Mukku Al Zomal by Tarmo Koivisto continues the racist representation of blackness in a obviously stereotypical way, but still the poster went into production and distribution only one month before the festival. The picture was discarded with apologies only after comic creators and readers made remarks of it on social media. A stereotype needs to be pointed out, so it wouldn’t continue to live on as “normal” also in such affiliations, where the intention isn’t racist to begin with.
This is not about one single person being bad and racist, but about producing and reproducing racist culture. Each one of us may catch ourselves using language that is somehow discriminating; that’s when we need to check our actions. Structural racism surrounds us: we were raised in it, and also the comics tradition is saturated with obvious and hidden marks of it. The ‘racist card’ makes many of us quite emotional and being called a racist seems to be an insult worse than the n-word. For some, “color blindness” is considered a valid argument – that the same rules apply to everyone despite differing power positions. The definition of freedom of speech stretches depending on who’s speaking.
In a recent interview, Tarmo Koivisto marveled at the hypersensitivity of today’s youth. If the senior artists and other contributors haven’t woken up to the changes in the world and on the field of comics, it might be about time they did.
Tampere Kuplii offers a good chance to ponder upon the significance of representations and inclusion in comics events. In fact the whole comics field might be in need of considering these questions: are we genuinely welcoming everyone in the scene? Accessibility should be revaluated every time the places of events and offices change. Education and/or recruitment of new people is needed in both production and publicity. The decision makers may be a minority whose voice is just louder than the others’. When considering inequality and parity in the field of comics, everyone in the community should be interested. If the dear old classics happen to be, as they quite often are, questionable from the perspectives of equality and parity, we should be able to say this out loud.
We should give space to critique; nothing should be sacred. In this web discussion the ones who started criticizing the poster were also obliged to explain, why the question is not about censorship when a community realized the problem and makes remarks about it to the ones in charge. The young, who visit festivals as audience and authors right now, should be carefully listened to. Since the visitors of events are diverse, this should be present also in the organisation teams: in that case these kind of mistakes could be easier to avoid. For example, the Swedish publishing house Galago quietly implemented a 50 per cent contingent for women within their published comic artists. This choice had an impact also in their published content, which soon found a growing audience that hadn’t been offered comics content before. Sales and orders expanded in an otherwise shrinking market!
A good way to further accessibility is to not think “IF there are representatives of minorities in the audience…” but to think, that there ARE. Because most of the time this is the case, even though it wouldn’t seem apparent. By assuming a more unified audience than the reality actually is, there is a risk of losing the audience altogether.
In the midst of the poster commotion, the commentators were blaimed for not knowing the “Mämmilä” comics and the intentions of the author. This includes an assumption of a unified reading culture and a certain kind of comics canon: or example manga or webcomics are something to read before advancing into “the real comics”. Of course it might be good to know the classics and what is referred to, but it’s also important to realize who is defining what is important, and how canons are created. Culture and its interpretations change. Maybe because of the “fennoman” heritage of the 19th century, the Finnish culture is seemingly a monoculture. But the reality has always been more diverse.
The character of Mukku stems from the 1990ies and was created in the environment of that decade. However, stereotypical visuals are produced in the field of comics at this moment as well, for example in Arto Nyyssönen's Mamoud strips, published as a collection last year The discussion about deconstructing the othering in character design is not new, but it needs a sequel. Before, feminism has reacted to gender stereotypes in comic characters. It is equally important to intervene in how ethnicity is represented in drawings. In a comic that is stereotypically constructed, one character is in danger of representing only the group they belong to and defined only through what the assumed reader wants from that group: a female character is either sexy or unsexy, a black character either a cheerful entertainer or dull and lazy. Just like everyday language is re-evaluated if needed, also the insulting “normals” that are stuck in drawings should be shaken. Comics has a language of its own, with conventions formed over time. It is healthy to take a critical look at how these conventions affect the current “language” – is there a need for changes? We ought to listen to the younger generation that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors, for they see further.
Just as the technology needed for drawing is updated regularly, also the content information should be updated into newer versions. Nowadays it is a choice to remain stupid – and if someone points out our flaws, we should take it as a gift, a chance to get wiser!
An artist, who may have had the opportunity to study the field, graduated and even got published, is in a good position. Visibility is power. The artist is now able to define and renew our culture, our stories. With power comes responsibility. Also a responsibility to update one’s information. A responsibility to understand one’s power position. Responsibility to check the facts. The power to share, to indicate and suggest. At best, an artist can create new realities. A contradiction between the artist’s intentions and the message understood by the reader makes the artist feel uncomfortable. The frequent defence mechanism “I never thought of that!” seems like an intentional misunderstanding, if the artist continues as before without the re-evaluation of their ways of working. Caricature might be the hardest genre in this sense, for its tradition is so deeply involved with stereotypes and pure racism. Despite of, and because of that it should be critically re-evaluated.
The accomplished authors with power and visibility also have a responsibility of the youth. If Tarmo Koivisto wanted to change the conceptions of Africans in Finland with the Mukku character, could the intention be updated? Could it be possible to empathize with the black youths, who come to Tampere Kuplii and see themselves represented in this way? Seeing the poster can distance from the event so much, that the want to participate ceases to exist. This is why it was very important the festival Tampere Kuplii reacted accordingly. Equally important was, that the persons who started criticizing the poster were not left alone. Already in the web discussion, the queer authors and festival visitors took defence. This solidarity should expand beyond the queer circles. The social justice warriors of comment sections, trolling from outside the comics scene that they never went to these events and won’t be going now, are not helping the cause.
Artists with good intentions who feel misunderstood could, instead of raising their defences, stop and listen to the people involved. By studying the subject we can get to the root of something, that soon might be seen as a bigger rupture in the cultural field.
This could be a good time to start researching the festival audiences: for example the Helsinki Comics Festival researched their audience in the early 2000’s. It turned out, that the average visitor was an educated female under thirty. Despite of this, the festival didn’t yet sell merchandise in female sizes. Especially events with public funding should genuinely offer services to EVERYONE.
The diversity of the audience might have come as a surprise to the organisers of Tampere Kuplii. How much do we actually know about who reads and makes comics? Are event organisations collecting information about visitors in a broader sense than the voluntary feedback rounds? How are the resources directed? Who gets published, who gets the grants? It would be good to know more about all of this.
This illustration is the second page of a comic by young comics creator JAKKE, who is also our guest writer and who participated actively in the poster discussion on the internet. The comic is a part of an antiracist campaign called Hyväpuhe (Goodspeak).
- Created on .