A HAGIOGRAPHY FOR A SMALL COMICS PUBLISHING COMPANY
A couple of weeks ago I went to my local library (which is small and cosy and supernice) and noticed that as part of some theme week a librarian had displayed fifteen of his favourite books, all adorned with enthousiastic post-it notes. It was flattering to see that from those fifteen he had chosen four were published by myself and Tommi. This happened months after Tommi and I filed the paperwork for officially shutting down the company. But seeing those books displayed, I figured, at least we seemed to have made some impact on the right people with Huuda Huuda. From the get-go we knew that we were not going to ever publish any books that would reach a mass audience and over time we were content with our status as a publishing house dug by other comic artists, wether foreign or domestic. Our main task was to put out important books; books that would probably be overlooked by the big audience, but treasured by readers who had happened to stumble upon our publications in the library or in some weird store.
I have some vague memories of when in early 2006 we started out the whole scheme of translating precious, noteworthy and pivotical comic. I was running a mailorder in alternative comics from the closet in the hallway of our commune in Helsinki and Tommi was part of a artist collective renting out a space in Neljäs Linja in Kallio, Helsinki. I had helped out Tommi a bit with printing the anthology of Glömp #8 so combining our forces to push out some comic books together seemed like a good idea at the time. The wishlist with all the books we wanted to translate was piled together really quickly and grew longer by the year but actually I always felt our roster was put together rather organically and depicted what we both liked reading.
Anyway, we ended up choosing Jeffrey Brown's "Clumsy" as our first book. Jeffrey had visited the Helsinki comics festival the year before and the comic, dealing with the awkward relationship woes and sex life of a twentysomething in sketchy, black-and-white terms, carried themes not yet touched upon by Finnish artists in such a delicate manner. I am happy to see that nowadays Jeffrey Brown has achieved a modicum of success as graphic novelist and humourous comic book writer.
Not soon after publishing our first book, we started digging our financial grave (willingly, of course) by putting out comic floppies or pamphlets as we called them. It's not a secret that both Tommi and I yearned for the times when you could walk in your local alternative comic shop and be astounded by all the new magazines that came out then (we are talking about the nineties now): the new Eightball or Palookaville, or picking up the amazing Acme Novelty library issues or a new comic by Chester Brown. It was a nice thing that graphic novels started booming at the turn of the millennium (thank you Persepolis and Jimmy Corrigan!) but in that process the regular floppies had been deemed obsolete. It was a sting in my punkrock/hardcore zine loving heart! So we decided to try and turn the tide. Unfortunately books shops as well as libraries hate comic floppies (too small, difficult to store, no spines, no sales and all those boring complaints).
But, the way I see it, floppies are an integral and necessary part of the comic publishing universe: not only are they prime esthetic objects that are personal; but more importantly, making a great short story that clocks off at 24 or 32 pages, requires a tour de force of any artist. But when it succeeds, I cannot come up with a purer gratification of the arts. Case in point: Bar Miki by Michelangelo Setola or Caricature by Daniel Clowes. If on the other hand the artist fails a bit in the attempt, well, the audience is allowing the artist some leeway with floppies anyway and since not much money has been spilled on the comic, the artist can get away with it and learn from mistakes. Comic pamphlets should therefore be an integral part in any comic publishing house.
After some time doing Huuda Huuda Tommi and I thought we had come up with a brilliant scheme to make this comic publishing thing financially worth while. Wouldn't it be a good idea to ask popular artists to release a comic with us? Of course we couldn't ask them to write a complete novel, but a short story in pamphlet form should be doable, right? Ville Ranta agreed then to publish his new religious pamphlet with us. In the midst of putting this pamphlet together out of the blue and almost as a real miracle, the chuch congregation of Oulu showed interest in the comic and wanted to use this comic as a gift to all the youngsters who celebrate their "Confirmation" in the lutheran church. There was talk of the church ordering 15,000 copies of the comic. We almost creamed our pants! This would bring in revenue of almost 50,000 euros. On top of that, since there had been established a new distributor (owned by indepedent publishers), the distributor would receive 10% of the whole sale price for every sold copy as well, so that would mean 15,000 euros in their pockets! Grand visions of a flourishing alternative comic scene in Finland, marketing schemes and lavish future book productions ensued. Alas, somebody in the Oulu church board chickened out and the order didn't come through. I guess they had actually read the comic which not only contained a critical attitude towards church and religion, the main character decided to convert to the Orthodox church (maybe not lutherans churches worst enemy but a "competitor" in the spiritual field nonetheless)! Oh well. we still sold 1500 copies of that comic, making it our best selling title by far.
I don't think there are too many regrets I have for putting energy in Huuda Huuda; there is not a single book in our backcatalogue that I feel that we shouldn't have published. On the contrary, regret is only reserved for the amount of books we did not get to publish. In particularly I feel sad for not being able to publish Tokyo Zombie, although the wheels had been put in motion. Oh, you don't know Tokyo Zombie?
It was a 1998 mangabook that contained the perfect mix between a naively "badly" drawn manga and a Verhoevenstyle zombie story. Not even Tinder could top that perfect match. I had tracked down the publishing rights agent for the book but my emails were not being answered. The last one I sent came back with automated email saying that "no need to worry, even though our office is closely located the Fukishuma plant. we are all fine", I felt so embarrassed about this, I did not pursue the comic any further. We will therefore never have the chance to see this great line in translation:
"You think you are some hotshot just because you are bald? What the fuck!?"
I have always been impressed with the open mindedness of the general audience in Finland on those rare occasions they encounter alternative comics (aka christmas sales and the comic festivals). It makes our struggle feel less Don Quichotian or Sisyfosian even if it is only for one brief moment. Sparked by some naive enthousisasm we thus thought our own stand at The Helsinki Book Fair would be a good idea back in 2010. Now, I don't really get the concept of book fairs from a visitor's point of view. I mean, as far as publishers and authors are concerned it must be pretty flattering and/or good business but isn't it just preaching for the converted? For comics, the set up is completely different: hords and hords of potential customers who for the most of part don't have a clue what comics and graphic novels are about. We, the comic connaisseurs, know we have some great literature under our belts that would blow away anybody who would invist a morcel of interest and energy in this awesome art forum. Basically we got those middleclass culture loving ladies in our pocket. We own them. The problem is, they don't know it yet. So there we were with our stand of comics, different from any mainstream the audience would have met. We had enthousiasm and a mission to get these Gary Panter and contemporary Finnish art books into the tote bags of the bookfairvisitors. If you are thinking now, this ended up badly for us, you are wrong. Granted, the overall sales income of our books was just a little bit more then the participants fee, so it would have been cheaper and easier for us to just hand out 2000 euros worth of books for free to interested passers-by, but still: all sales were considered victories and a sense of optimistic belief hung in the air: The Comics Journal caught a whiff of the atmosphere as well and as a curiosity feel free to read Kasper Strömmans visit too (in Finnish).
The positive vibe however, didn't materialise or did not have a lasting effect. In short: sales dropped, the amount of bookstores that carried our titles lowered to less then a handfull and as an ultimate blow: even the libraries (the last remaining fort to upkeep independent publishing) decided it was better for them to decrease the comics intake on their purchase budget. It became clear that there was very little use in continuing in this environment; I assume doing small print risograph editions would be a more logical and rewarding effort, but I had already opted out at that time and Tommi decided to couragely continue for a few more years which he will explain in better wording the underlying arguments for dismantling Huuda Huuda.
For a brief moment in the cultural history of Finland, there seemed to be an intertwining and mutually productive period in which comics as well as music (10 years ago Pitchfork and Wired were praising the weird finnish underground scene with such bands as Kemialliset Ystävät, Paavoharju, Avarus etc) were at a peak. It seemed like all of a sudden some converging creative powers smacked down in Finland and produced beautiful and eccentric art. I am glad to have been part of it. If this sounds like bragging to you: well, this is a eulogy after all. I think it's allowed.
THOUGHTS ON THE END
While quite a lot of people already knew this, now it's official: Huuda Huuda stopped existing by the end of 2016.
Indeed we decided on quitting already two years ago. Most of you that followed what we did maybe noticed there hasn't been releases for a long time already. These last two years were used to find good homes for our stock of ca. 10 000 books. This as well took a lot of time and effort. But thanks to our kind artists, rights owners etc. we managed to handle free donations to a lot of places in Finland, mainly to our public libraries and in the end to The Comics Centre of Helsinki. Just to tell, CCH is *the* spot that actually keeps our local scene alive and kicking, this by organizing teaching, exhibitions and by having a decent store and all that. The Finnish Comics Society (that runs CCH) is as well behind of The Helsinki Comics Festival and our local comics journal Sarjainfo. Hopefully our donation will help a bit with the good job they are doing.
Anyway, I feel bit melancholic with this farewell. We did spend a LOT of time and energy on HH to keep it going. It's still bit a shame we couldn't go on but at least we can say we tried every trick that we could think of. Still, during the eight years of publishing we released 65 titles from 40 artists around the globe. Nothing is going to make these books vanish. That's the reward we got from this and I hope it carries on in the work of future artists in Finland and abroad. 65 books may sound quite a low amount but to remind you, dear reader of this, there were mainly only two of us doing it all from web to press, from designing to lettering and from editing to actual selling. Of course we had the privilege to work with great translators, letterers and people helping us here and there – thank you all. Anyway, as Jelle and I never really paid ourselves anything for the work we did, this all put us work double shift – Jelle with his store and family, me with my own artistic work. From time-to-time it was way too much but it alone was not the reason why we decided to call it a day. It's easiest I list some of the main reasons that 'killed' our company:
• Pressure on public libraries to 'make result', which – in the end – means that our tax money is used on mainstream and entertainment instead of wisdom, knowledge and civilizing of our people. During past five years the margin of books that's left out from libraries has grown bigger while the mainstream & entertainment has taken more room. Our titles in the beginning sometimes reached 100 pcs sales to libraries. With the release of the last books some of our books were sold less than ten copies to libraries.
• Finnish Post killing the abroad sales of all small companies like us – shipping of one book to US costs more than the book itself. Indeed they did make our mailorder service also in Finland almost unprofitable. During our existence the prices went up almost half. Just to let you know: The Finnish Post used to be a national company that did not really make any profit. In the year 2007 our current government changed the company and it became a profite aiming enterprise. The Post has still a monopoly with some obligations they've promised to handle. Monopoly with aim to win is of course a bad deal for citizens. However, this is just one step in privatizing the postal market – when time has passed and people are fed up enough no one anymore remembers what it used to mean to have this kind of social service built with tax money. FYI: since 2007 our governments have all been from right-wing. When Huuda Huuda began, we sold quite often 1/4 or 1/3 of our print-runs abroad. In the end we sold just a handful of books outside Finland, mostly during festivals we travelled to.
• Finnish bookstore chains that dominate our market never had our books for sale (Academic Bookstore being the only exception). The major chains like Suomalainen Kirjakauppa hope for minimum sales that are something that our alternative releases would almost never meet. It is obvious these chains exist to make money, not culture. They never answered our phone calls.
• What's indeed for me may be the main reason behind it all is the general mentality of Finland as a nation. Yes, we DO have problems with our identity: we DO have huge post-war middle class that thinks they are poor but in the end own a house, few cars and a summer house; we DO have generations of 18–40 year-olds who never had but temporary jobs & turned old getting wasted, eating happy pills and playing PS; we are NOT a civilized country but just started to learn what that might be; we ARE a nation who still struggles with the fear of Russia and envies our neighbours with self-esteem in Sweden. The raise of The Finns Party (ex-True Finns that's a right-wing party that has been in our government since 2015 with close to 18% support) created suddenly an openly hostile society that divided our country in many ways. The proclamations of TFP's representatives are often openly racist, showed the example and turned our social media into fountain of hate speech. It might sound far-fetched to talk about the end of a contemporary publishing house in this context but it's not. What Huuda Huuda presented was 'something new' to our audience, even often to ourselves. We wanted to reach the borders and discover new things. This we expected from our readers as well. Late 90s and early 2000 one could say Finnish people had this mentality – being curious and somehow open-minded. Year by year (while sitting behind or booths at fairs and festivals) I saw this mentality disappear. Indeed towards the end this nosy look on people's faces changed into numbness and fear – they did not anymore come to browse our releases but looked at it all from distance.
• Sales. That's something every publisher needs to have to go on. One could run a small publishing house with sales of 500 pcs per book very well. It wouldn't pay for the work fully but anyway, some at least and the work would remain fun still as you wouldn't have to struggle with money every day, week and month. With Huuda Huuda we did that in the beginning. Before we started our house Jelle and I spoke that one of the main tasks for Huuda Huuda was to 'educate' and find a totally new audience for contemporary comics. Towards the end our books were selling 200 pcs or less. Often our books took a year to produce (in some cases much more) and involved a bunch of people (that we paid for of course) … which with such sales is just impossible. What nailed it really is that fact that we could not anymore reach any 'new audience' – our customers were people we knew or had familiar faces at least. Our 'sales' started to remind of what we both used to have when doing fanzines on our own during our teen years. In the end we had to work too hard to make even zero result, which of course caused frustration an stress – in general it was not really that much 'fun' anymore. So, readers, remember this: if you find a publisher that seems to put out just the things you enjoy, remember to buy what they do as well as that's how they can produce all the nice things for you and others alike.
• Crisis of the Finnish book market. There's been crisis all around the world when it comes to physical books. Some countries seem to have got over it at least somehow but in Finland it just seems to go on. That's probably a problem of a small country & language – our book store chain monopolies do not help the situation. Invented marketing terms such as 'graphic novel' really never carried on here and the bookstores never really knew how to sell our releases either. The depression of the market has created a pressure from the big publishers towards bookstores and distributors (which they mostly own) and effected the selections they have. Small publishers have been removed. All that remains are Donald Duck pocket books, Tintin and newspaper cartoon collections. The way when we started in 2006. Small press' way to exist is to go underground and handle all the sales on their own.
There are several minor reasons I could list but you might get the point from these already – the climate was just not anymore bearable for us and our vision. So, in a way Huuda Huuda just died off naturally. "I 'just wasn't made for these times" as Wilson sang it.
When Jelle and I started to plan Huuda Huuda somewhere 2005, we agreed that it would be a 'project' that could end whenever we wanted. That did not mean we didn't take our work with publishing seriously – merely the opposite. Our goal was to create and educate a new audience for comics and make Huuda Huuda a company that'd release 10–15 books a year. This new scene would have made it possible for bigger publishers to take over. In that case – in our lonesome dreamworld - we could have quit or gone even further by publishing something more avantgarde. Anyway, this is not the reason we quit though something DID happen in Finland. When we started 2006 there was almost no translations that we wanted to read getting published. Few years after almost all of the bigger publishers did have some kind of plan for putting out comics as well, some doing even translations we could've done (Clowes, David B and Burns for example). Maybe HH had something to do with that, maybe not. Anyway, this project of ours grew quite big indeed.
Though we released a lot of our favourite artists of the day and from the past, a lot of plans still never materialized: (complete!) Rarebit Fiend in Finnish, complete serie of Edward Gorey in Finnish, series of contemporary comic theory in Finnish & English, our 'pocket book serie', Mark Beyer rereleases, Bart Schoofs, Gunnar Lundkvist, Buzzati's The Poem Strip, Mattioli, Aristophane, collections of J. Styrman and J. Lehto and few other 80s–early 90s Finnish artists, 'Finnish Underground comics from 60s & 70s', Mathieu etc – something from our very long list of 'to-do' that we discussed every now and then.
When looking back to our catalogue I can not really pick any book I wouldn't be proud of. I'm particularly happy of Gary Panter's flip-book we did (features both Inferno & Purgatory) as that translation of Purgatory (by Teemu Manninen) is still the only one besides English that exists. It's also been enjoyable to see artists like Olivier Schrauwen and Ruppert & Mulot finding the audience they deserve and getting translations here and there. Cowboy Henk was as well something we managed to present to the whole Scandinavia ending with a result of few translations as well. And yes, the first translation of Gorey into Finnish is something. There are lots of highlihts indeed. As no other Finnish publisher was interested in the books we wanted to do it was like picking up flowers (in the middle of financial struggles of course).
Quitting Huuda Huuda does not really mean I'm myself quitting publishing. However, I'd like to catch my breath for a while and gather my thoughts on what can be done. You can still find a lot of Huuda Huuda's books available from Turun Sarjakuvakauppa for example. Kutikuti (thats members we published a lot) goes on and puts out Finnish stuff frequently.
Anyway, I'd like to just once more thank all the artists, readers, supporters, translators, letterers, proof-readers, little helpers and whoever took the time to read until here.
Just promise me one thing dear reader of this: never lose your curiosity. I'm repeating that to myself as well. Take care and see you someplace else.
We'll leave our old site online for a while, just in case you want to have a closer look on the books we did, on our artists or the reviews we had. However, these titles are not anymore available from us.