Well all know about BELZEBUBS by now, but fans of the comic have only recently been able to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes of this webcomic. Artist/creator JP Ahonen, known for other comics, such as Villimpi Pohjola, came into the limelight while doing an Inktober challenge where he created the mockumentary series around the BELZEBUBS band. Now touring the release of the first collection of BELZEBUBS comics, he popped by Tuska Open Air 2019 to do a live interview and signing, and we caught him for a few minutes to chat between these events.
It’s great to finally meet you! We’ve been following you since long before BELZEBUBS was a thing, not to sound hipstery about it.
Is it pronounced “bell-ze-bubs” or “be-el-ze-bubs”?
I don’t know [laughs]. I always pronounce it differently.
Just to get started, have you always worked as a freelancer or did you follow the “career path” first and then take the plunge into art?
No, I started freelancing when I was still a student in the university. So I started freelancing as soon as possible when I got some gigs from the mailing list at the university. “We’re looking for a logo, you get 100€” or whatever, so I always applied for those and slowly built up whatever portfolio I could get. I did do a few summer internships at the newspaper in Tampere, in Aamulehti, so that’s the only longer “career” I’ve had in any place [laughs]. They did offer me a fixed position but I wanted to keep on freelancing and have my say in which projects I do. It might’ve been a dumb move in a way, financially [laughs], but then again this suits me far better. I’m able to be agile in a way and do what I want.
You’ve done some work with Niilo Sevänen from INSOMNIUM, or at least you guys seem to be mutual fans. How do you know one another?
I did one T-shirt for INSOMNIUM and that’s how we became friends. I promised to do the shirt, as it was an honor, but I was super busy with other stuff and at some point Niilo needed to prod me like, “Dude, how’s it coming along?” I explained something about my comic stuff, which I was scripting at the time; “I’m kind of busy with this and this,” and it turned out that he’s been writing novels as well, like the story to “Winter’s Gate,” which they hadn’t released yet at that point. He sent me that text and I thought it was flipping good. For a while we bounced this idea of doing a graphic novel together so that he’d write the story with me and I’d draw it, but now that BELZEBUBS has taken off I’ve ditched all other projects and just focused on that. I should still actually do another T-shirt for them… I just remembered that [laughs]. But I think Niilo will forgive me.
Now that other projects have been put aside, does that feel like a good thing or is it a bit of a bummer that some things have been put on hold?
Some things are things that I’d previously liked to do, but BELZEBUBS is a priority because it’s come to the stage that I’m able to do a lot of the things that I had hopes for in other projects, in a way. For example, Perkeros, I was hoping that I could do music and a music video through it, but it never happened. It just sort of dissipated. Now suddenly BELZEBUBS is charging from the left and taking off [laughs]. So there are many ideas that I’ve stashed away and now I’m able to pull those ideas from my drawer and start executing them.
Very cool! Regarding your artwork and the drawings themselves, everyone has their artistic weakness, like with hands or eyes, or people or plants, etc. What’s the hardest thing for you to get right?
Especially with drawing? Oh, so many. For one, I don’t like drawing instruments, [laughter] which is very unfortunate if you think that I have two projects that involve a lot of instruments and drums and guitars and stuff. I hate bicycles, I hate horses, I hate… the list goes on. I basically don’t like drawing [laughter] but I’m still trying to make a career out of it.
On that front, do you prefer drawing or storytelling, or do they go hand-in-hand?
I think when you have the story or idea locked down, then it becomes fun. I’ve noticed that, for example, when I was doing the graphic novel there were parts that were just a chore to draw at first, and then I realized that there was something wrong in the page and the conversation or storytelling, and then when I rewrote that and the scene changed, then it became easier to execute as well. I dunno, it was my subconscious saying that this is not right, this is not working, redo it.
I’m not sure where you stand on the Game of Thrones hype, but there were some interviews with George R.R. Martin where he spoke about writers as architects versus gardeners. Architects plan everything out beforehand and then fill it in, where as gardeners plant the seed of the story and tend to it as it grows. Would it be safe to wager that BELZEBUBS is more of a garden-type story?
Yes, it’s a fucking jungle [laughter]. There’s no hierarchy or anything.
Do you find it intimidating or freeing (or both) that there’s only a loose story that you need to follow, without any planned ending?
It is liberating, because it’s totally different compared to Perkeros or Sing No Evil, because there I was working as the “architect.” So everything was thought beforehand and each scene was… if it wasn’t necessary you’d need to cut it. Everything boiled down to the story. With BELZEBUBS, I can do whatever. If I have an idea, even if it doesn’t link to anything, you can still do it and share it and it doesn’t matter in which order it necessarily is, especially online, because I’ll re-edit it later for the actual book and make it work.
It’s nice to hear, because everyone tends to be a bit nervous when things get big on the internet, but it sounds like, and even looks like (from browsing myself) the majority of the comments are very positive and polite.
That’s one thing I was really scared of at first when it started going viral in just one weekend. My first thought was that, “Okay, now all the dickheads will come and the comments section will become just terrible.” But it’s been really good and I hope that it stays that way, because it’s part of the charm, part of the reward in a way, that there’s good hype and a nice atmosphere.
Now, my Finnish isn’t great so I can’t say for certain with Villimpi Pohjola, but the impression I’ve gotten from the married couple in that comic is very loving and supportive, and this is also pretty clearly seen in BELZEBUBS. Marriage is still often portrayed with stereotypes – the people aren’t actually very happy, there’s no sex or fun or whatever after marriage. Is that something you consciously combat by portraying married couples in a more positive light, or do you just prefer to write about happy couples?
Especially for BELZEBUBS – because I like the contrast – I wanted to show them as super positive and laid-back and open about all their kids’ quirks and all that. Even when Leviathan is having his phase and everything, they support him and aren’t grim and dark and bitter about his choices and everything like that. So it’s a conscious thing. With Villimpi Pohjola there’s maybe more nagging and quarrels, but with this I wanted them to be super passionate and still have the hots for each other and everything.
Fantastic! Now just a couple of art-related questions to finish up. In North America this wasn’t really such a big thing (because Donald Duck wasn’t really a stand-alone character), but as a Finnish artist, how big of a Don Rosa fan are you?
I’d say 8 or 9. I wouldn’t say 10, because that’s freaky [laughter].
My other question about your relationship with more famous artists was, how do you know about Bob Ross? Was he a thing in Finland at some point or has he become an international meme?
I think many people nowadays know him from memes, but growing up I lived in Dubai for 4 years and I think his show was on one of the channels there. I know him from way back when, so it wasn’t a new thing for me. I’ve watched his show maybe five or six times and I remembered the name and the atmosphere.
Fantastic! Well, I have a thousand more questions but not enough time, so we’ll have to leave it here. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, and enjoy the festival!
Interview by Bear Wiseman