My trip to Helsinki Zine Fest lasted only a single day, and yet it might have been one of my most important steps towards a career as a comics creator.
In late July of last year, I had just found out I couldn’t afford my trip to New York to attend Flame Con. I was understandably upset at the prospect of almost being able to be within walking distance of so many queer folks I admired. I’d been in a mopey mood riddled with guilt, and though I’d managed to extend my invitation to next year, I couldn’t help feel this wrench in my chest tighten valves in my body, and crush my guts into scrap. Around that time, I got my second international con invitation, from none other than H-P Lehkonen, a Webtoons featured artist. I ran through the numbers again, and I was just barely able to get them to the brink of feasibility because of H-P being kind enough to house me. Well, me and my boyfriend, who came along as moral support for my first big con.
Finland has a strange dichotomy with comics, having both a vibrant comics community and yet a low economic growth from said community. Outside of Donald Duck, large-print comics don’t have much of a market in financial terms. I was reminded of my own country of Iceland, where comics’ economic sustainability is highly superseded by our non-enthusiasm for making it economically sustainable. The key difference was that local Finnish comic circles had a lot more of that enthusiasm. Their comics reflected that. I saw only a handful of them at this Zine Fest, and bought only a sliver of that handful. But what I saw was truly odd, gross and fascinating. H-P mused to me, while we were eating dinner one evening, that while in the US, his comics are often seen as wildly off-kilter or experimental. But in Finland, he’s often told his work’s incredibly mainstream, because everyone else is apparently about five LSD trips ahead of him.
I came into the con not quite knowing what to expect. The convention itself (regarded as a festival in Finland due to cultural difference) was split into the buildings across a huge, empty lot of bricks, save for the occasional active spray-painter. We went by one dome building, ash-black and with graffiti encircling it, and a crown of rusted skeleton framing. I was told one of the other sections of the Festival was being held there, but personally, it looked like John Constantine needed to exorcise it before we used it. We came to the last of the three houses, shaped like a barrack with stairs going down, and were lead inside into the most run-down, punk-looking, queer-owned con space I’ve ever seen. It was amazing.
They were still setting up, and almost without question, me and my boyfriend helped move packs of chairs towards the panel stage, and rearrange things to suit the needs of the general panelists. That morning I had not slept, something I’d make a habit of the entire week I was visiting Finland, but here it was from the excitement. I was meeting dozens of creators, I had printed out Pokemon-inspired business cards, I was interviewing creators I admired, and I was asked to moderate a panel with other creators I knew and respected.
As the day began, people poured in. Our section of the festival was split into tables, a center stage that was tucked neatly near the back, and a lounge office for creative workshops and creators who needed a water break. The zine section as a whole was rife with queer talent and visitors, from the creators at the tables to the non-binary organizers. It was grungy and filthy, and yet, I felt completely at home. I could hand out my business cards without fear of being rejected once they discovered I was trans. I could talk to others about what kind of stories I write without seeing the half-hidden cringes wrestle their way back to normal. I could rest in the workshops section and watch a person with a beard and bright pop lipstick talk about their boyfriend, all the while drawing a comic I wish I could own a copy of.
As the day rolled on, I was exhausted. I had found out that I’d gotten my schedule mixed up, and my panel was on Saturday rather than Sunday. This meant that, barring my spare Xanax medication I brought with me, I was almost completely unprepared, and would need to stay from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., doing all of my tasks in one messy swoop.
So, I did. Emptying out all forty of my cards, I talked to so many creators, so many fun people. Some had just started out, others were amongst the most popular webcomic authors on the internet, and most fell in between. All of them had unique elements to display, chief of them being a Finnish comics tradition of having closed-caption translations for their comics in case any English readers want to purchase their works. Others had more modest ideas, such as anthology works, or ideas as clever as putting a zine about periods into an empty package of painkillers. A favorite personal moment amongst many was when, after having run out of con-merch funds for the day, a creator donated a print of his to me as a gesture of thanks to me complimenting his works. Before long, it’ll be framed in my room, because gosh is it pretty looking.
As a finale, I held my first moderated panel. I was nervous, nervous enough to bring my anxiety medication. Thankfully, the small scale of the crowd helped. With people like H-P and Anni (creator of Transfusions) we started to talk about why Finnish webcomic creators tend to make English international works instead of sticking to the Finnish scene. Our conclusion became that despite the enthusiasm, the worldwide market simply held too many values, both financial and otherwise.
But that’s what this comic scene was: enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for creating, enthusiasm for fitting a growing medium to their world, and even enthusiasm for getting into a dingy little dungeon and still having a great time connecting over what they made. Maybe it was the dust getting to me, maybe it was the acceptance of who I am by the people surrounding me, but this first con experience wasn’t just a great one: it was one that gave me hope—something I think any creator needs, now and then.