I first encountered H-P Lehkonen’s comics when their activism group, Femicomix Finland, visited Chicago and teamed up with local comics activists The LadyDrawers to discuss their work. Lehkonen radiates positivity; whether its with stories that look to the future or biographical works that look to the past, they always seem to celebrate the brighter, more beautiful aspects of human interaction. I spoke with Lehkonen about their new webcomic, The Immortal Nerd, their personal take on comics activism, and differences between American and Finnish comics culture.
The world you’ve created is interesting because it’s optimistic. There are so many dystopian, everything-is-awful sci fi stories popular now, so I’m interested to hear what inspired you to create a future that’s so pleasant.
I love sci fi so much, and I especially love how the worlds have been created…. that’s my favorite thing. In [Total Recall] there was a huge elevator that could take people from one place to another, and I love stuff like that because it makes life easier for people. Compared to like fifty years ago life is, in my opinion, a lot easier. I want to think about the things that people would do to make life easier for other people, and I want think about happy things. I want to believe in a future where you can be non-binary and no one will think twice about it, and you can be a man and wear women’s clothing and it’s not even women’s clothing in that time; a time when it will be easy to be queer and woman and non-binary.
Tell me more about how gender works in Nokia’s world. Is gender accepted to be completely fluid?
There are two different kinds of [systems] in Nokia’s world, because Nokia is living on New Rauma, which is a space station, and the system is a bit different there than it is on Earth. On New Rauma, when a child is born they just mark on the paper “undecided” until the child themselves decides which gender – or if they want to be any gender at all. In Nokia’s case, Nokia has decided to be “other” gender; Nokia’s passport says “other.” That’s why I use the pronouns “they” for Nokia.
On Earth, people are a little bit more binary… You are first put into categories, man or woman. Afterward, you can change it really easily. There are two different kinds of systems that are both pretty good. The binary isn’t as strong [compared to current day] on Earth, either.
Nokia’s an exchange student, and there’s a cultural exchange aspect to the story, or almost an immigration narrative built in. Is that inspired by your own travel experiences?
I don’t really travel that much, myself. I do have a lot of friends from other cultures and I want to talk about cultural exchange as well. Especially now, in Finland, politicians say we have problems with refugee-seekers, and I think we have a problem with racists.
Nokia is not a refugee-seeker of course, but also because in the comic they live in a utopia where everything is great, so of course everything will go quite smoothly. There will be conflicts where Nokia doesn’t quite know what to do and others don’t understand why Nokia’s behaving a certain way, but in the end they all accept it. They don’t make it that big of a problem. It’s kind of like a comic where people can be weird and do weird things, but at the same time they are decent human beings who behave like normal, reasonable human beings toward each other.
Nokia is so lazy! Sci fi is [normally] so action-filled, but Nokia just wants to study cats and cat videos. Where does that idea come from?
The reason that’s the case [is that] I love sci fi, but I always love the beginning of the movies because that’s where they show, “this is the society, look at this.” I would love to see the movies continuing like that, just hours and hours of explaining [that] this is how our society works, and this comic is pretty much what I want with that. Some of the chapters have more character development but most of the chapters have some kind of theme, like this time we’ll talk about personal trainers and we’ll show how personal training works. The humor comes from the how different it is, and how weird and how funny it is. It’s just one big story about world building. In the future, there will be more intense plot.
I will keep the comic very light-hearted. There will be no, “this is the end of the world, we must all die for this cause now!” That’s not going to happen. It will be a humor comic all the way.
I’d love to hear more about the character designs. Even with minor characters, like Nokia’s friends back on the space station, the clothing is very interesting. What are your character design and costume design inspirations?
In sci fi movies people normally wear these really weird, futuristic clothes that I just can’t see anyone wearing in the future because people don’t want to look like soldiers who all wear the same clothes. They want to look individual and they want to look good. That’s why I have tried to take different kinds of fashion things and push them to the maximum level. Of course, some of the characters dress more modestly and some of them – like Vaasa, Nokia’s friend, wears a really, really revealing outfit. It’s a world without slut-shaming, so it’s OK.
In this future where they live, it’s very fashionable to be feminine no matter what your gender is. It’s also fashionable to look as different from each other as you can, because the fashion [in the modern world] is like, here’s this model, you should all look like this. In [Nokia’s] world, it’s seen as fashionable if you look very, very different from everyone else. Even if another person is wearing slim and another person is wearing thick, it doesn’t matter. They look very different from each other. That’s considered beautiful.
Will we get to see a clothing store soon?
There’s actually going to be a clothing store where Piela [Nokia’s roommate on Earth] sees that there is a sale in this really popular clothing store and there’s a new trend coming up, and everyone wants to buy these new clothes and they will go buy them.
You describe yourself as a comics activist. I’d love to hear what that means to you.
I have my blog that’s in Finnish, but it has a lot of translated comics as well because I sometimes translate the comics, just with the text under them. In that one, I have been doing activist comics about feminism and anti-racism and all kinds of subjects. I have been doing them enough to get the trolls excited. Also, I am part of Femicomix Finland, so we do [comics] activism together.
What does collective comics activism look like?
The LadyDrawers [a comics activist community in the US] have done a comics survey, about race, gender and money, about working in comics and how the money is divided between race and gender. It’s very very interesting. In Finland, it’s weird, before we started the survey we were like, oh the American stats are so horrible, oh my god, I’m glad we live in Finland, it must be so much better here. Then we see the stats in Finland and we’re like, that is not the case!
We are doing the survey right now. It’s progressing slowly, and our only problem so far is that we don’t have enough men taking the survey. Women have been really interested in taking the survey but the men are not that interested, so we need to somehow get the men to answer the survey. I have seen them saying stuff like, “well I started the survey but it was so stupid, like you could clearly see what they were trying to get me to say.” Then they don’t finish the survey.
Is it focused on mainstream comics community?
In Finland, we don’t really have the mainstream comics… If you do mainstream comics here as what you would understand in the USA, you are probably working outside of Finland, like me. My comic, in Finnish perspective, is mainstream, but for you it looks like an indie comic… In Finland, if you are able to live with your comic then you are already mainstream.
We do read lots of American mainstream comics, like superhero comics. The most popular comic in Finland is the Donald Duck comic. Almost every family that has kids has the Donald Duck magazine delivered home every Wednesday.
Spiderman has its own magazine, and X-Men. We also get hardcover books of the superhero comics and they are mostly the better ones. It’s different magazines for different titles. We also do get quite a lot manga published in Finnish. My comic career kind of began in reading manga; first we only had the Donald Duck and some really, really obscure indie comics, and then we had the superhero comics. I didn’t really find anything that I liked before I found the manga, and then a couple Finnish female creators who were really good.
I want to know more about your experiences as an international comic artist!
My internationality comes mostly from email. I use the internet a lot; I’m a nerd myself. I just have a lot of contacts all over the world. I have done comic anthologies in France, but I have never been to France. It’s all just through the internet. I normally don’t really like traveling that much. I have been to Rīga in Latvia, and it was the most boring thing I have ever done, because I was just a tourist.
After that trip I was like, I have already bought the tickets for the Chicago trip and I’m not sure if this is going to work at all. I’ll go because I bought the plane tickets. Then I was in Chicago and I had so much fun, it was so amazing! That was because I actually knew people there and I was able to go to comic events and talk to people who love comics as much as me. It made it 100 times better. I have now decided that I will no longer do any tourist stuff, I will just go abroad if I am working. Tourist stuff was just so boring.
I’d love to hear about other work that you’re doing. You’ve got a story in the Alphabet kickstarter that’s coming out?
I’m doing a story about [an] Asexual girl because I’m asexual myself. I have been meaning to do a comic about asexuality for a long long time, but it’s been so personal that I haven’t been able to do it, and now I finally did it for Alphabet. I kind of didn’t make it as personal I could have made it. It’s a huge step for me. I’m happy that I finally made the first asexuality comic, and I can maybe make another one later on.
I have made a sci fi-ish horror story [that] I just sent it to a person who is always translating my comics. Actually, The Immortal Nerd I have to do so fast, I just translate it myself. That’s why it’s not perfect, the language in it. [The horror comic] I just sent to the person who translates my comics into English, and I’m pretty sure it will be translated in January. After that, I have been thinking about sending it somewhere, I don’t know yet… I will try to send it to some kind of publisher. Not a Finnish publisher, because Finnish publishers are not interested in sci fi or horror or anything like that.
Why aren’t Finnish publishers interested in sci fi or horror?
I don’t know, the Finnish scene [is] mostly autobiography comics. They get published quite easily. There’s one publisher in Finland who does sci fi and fantasy comics, but I’m trying to send it to some foreign publishers because Finnish publishers are all very small.
I am interested in doing comics for anthologies even if they’re small publishers because I love anthology comics so much. I just love the books where there’s many different people in one book. I have made anthologies myself, as the Editor in Chief. There’s this [anthology called Lepakkoluola] about lesbians and women in history. Mainly it’s about European history but there’s actually two stories about the US history and one story about Asian history, and I think there was one story about African history, I think it was from Namibia. It’s a very queer, feminist book because the theme is women in history, because women’s stories are the ones that are often not heard in history. I was the Editor In Chief of that book and I also did a comic for the book. It’s completely by Finnish creators. The anthology is made by my own really really small publisher. We made comics together and then we decided to make the publisher so that we can make our anthology.
Read The Immortal Nerd at Line Webtoon, and check out H-P Lehkonen’s other comics and activism at their comics blog, their publishing company Team Pärvelö’s website, or through the Femicomix Finland website.
This article has been updated to reflect the creator’s current public status.