Friday, September 29, 2017

Munching with the Moomins: Interview with Roleff Krakstrom, Managing Director of Moomin Characters Limited

The Moomins are coming! One of Finland’s strongest export (way before Angry Birds) and loved over the years by children and adults of all ages, these classic characters will be featured in two Singapore Writers Fest programmes:

A life size Moomin troll will be making its appearance too at the Moomin storytelling by Paula Parviainen, Ambassador of the Embassy of Finland in Singapore.

Sophia Jansson, the niece of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, and the current Chairman of the Board and Creative Director at Moomin Characters Ltd, and Roleff Kråkström, the managing director of Moomin Characters Ltd, will be in town for Finland 100, a celebration of Finland’s 100 years of independence.

I had a short chat with Roleff over the phone about Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001) and her beloved Moomins. Like other Finns I have met in Helsinki and in Singapore, Roleff’s response can be rather reserved. But you can still hear his passion for the Moomins in his voice when I called him in Helsinki on a Friday evening.

What is your first memory of the Moomins?

My first memory of the Moomins was my parents reading the books to me when I was a small child. I was 3 or 4 then. I was very young at that time so I don’t have a very clear memory. But it has become a very safe and comfortable memory for me since then – this image of being read aloud by my parents.

Later, I work with the publisher of the Moomins. I have a very long common history with the Moomins.

How did this long association with the Moomins come about?

I started working for WSOY, the Finnish publisher of the Moomin books in Helsinki. That was back in 1992 or 1993.

I did meet Tove once at the publishing company dinner. She didn’t know me then. I was just a junior staff member. But my impression of her was that she was very kind and a very small woman in size. She was a petite person.

Is this your dream job?

I have worked very long in the publishing company and I am an extremely lucky person so far to only have worked with things I am passionate about.

So yes, you can say that it is a dream job.

In your opinion, what is the appeal of the Moomins? What accounts for its longevity?

What sets the Moomins apart from other licences in the industry is that we are not a manufactured entertainment company like those for anime series. The Moomins have always been about the art and the universal values it embodies. So the stories are about love, courage, tolerance, respect for nature and family. Thus they have been able to travel over time and culture as compared to other properties in the manufactured entertainment industry. For the entertainment industry, it is a default setting to always replace the old characters with new ones. There is always a target audience for them, which is the antithesis of the universal.

For me, the aesthetics of the Moomins is a combination of being brave and respecting your fellow person and surroundings. Often, freedom and bravery lead to arrogance. But in Tove’s stories, the main character solve the dilemma by being brave and also respecting everyone at the same time. It’s not me, myself and I, but by doing and solving things together.

This is very different for the US where you have individualistic superheroes. You can even take it a notch down and look at the children literature. The protagonist’s family gets killed. There is a war and horrible things happen. But basically the protagonist makes it on his or her own.

The Moomins solve things as a family. The character gets into a dilemma. He takes off and have an adventure. He finds something. But the family always come together. He is never alone. The family will always come looking for you just like in the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945).

What explains the success of the Moomins in Asian countries like Japan and China? In China, there has been a 300% increase for the retail value of the Moomin brand.

For our Asian success, the reasons are different for Japan and China. In Japan, it is the Moomin aesthetics which is very clear and the artwork is appealing to the Japanese. Tove was influenced by the Japanese masters like Hokusai in terms of the composition and dynamics, so the connection is there.

But at a deeper level, Finnish and Japanese societies are similar in the sense that the infrastructure of both countries were almost completely destroyed after the war. The old way of life was gone and urban society took over. The Moomins resembled the values of the village way of life in Japan and Finland that was dominant only two generations away in the early 20th century. So the stories bridge today’s society and values with the beginning of the 20th century. There lies the appeal and popularity of the Moomins in Japan.
In China, it is different. After years of rapid economic growth and urbanization, the people are in a state of immense wealth. The Moomin stories focused on values and they could possibly serve as a roadmap for happiness.

Moomin Characters and Bulls Press, who does the licencing for the Moomin brand, have formed a new literary rights and brand licencing agency, Rights & Brands, to expand Nordic properties worldwide. How is that doing?

Thanks for asking about that. Rights & Brand has been in business for slightly over a year and we are the biggest brand agency in the Nordic region. We work with over 50 properties and our turnover has doubled in the first year.

We only represent literary properties that represent our values. There must be a value proposition in terms of art, design and they are handcrafted. It is not entertainment.

There is demand for such values anchored properties. We do not want to offer the same things that everyone already has.

It sounds like your properties have a very strong hipster appeal. Has there been any backlash?

It might be but then again our characters, our brands and our legacy are what they are. We do not allow ourselves to tweak it to a mass market product. They have to be true to what they are. We do not alter them.

Sophia Jansson has said that the Moomins have always been like a family business. What is it like for you to join the family and join the family business?

Sophia and I are friends when I joined the company. Now we are married. It was a natural progression. Today I feel very much part of the family where before I was a hired executive.

The Moomin stories are a body of art created by Tove. We manage it and we are committed to it. I am happy that all five of our children work in the group or with companies that we are associates with.

Have there been many offers wanting to buy the Moomin brand?

During my time here, I have only received one direct offer to buy the Moomins, so it is impoosilbe for me to assess how serious it was. It is a very valuable brand and now it is more clearly defined. Rights wise, it is a much tighter package than before.

Are you looking forward to your visit to Singapore?

Yes, this will be our first time to Singapore. We have visited Thailand many times but we have not been to Singapore or Indonesia before.

I didn’t get the chance to talk to Sophia Jansson, but I asked the Moomin trolls for a quote from her. Here’s what she shared:

“My earliest memories of Tove are from our mutual summers together in the Finnish archipelago. They are memories of the family being together, going on picnics, swimming, or other similar activities you do in the summer. Tove was always a warm and welcoming person and never made me feel inferior or like a child that was in the way.”

Thanks to Paula Parviainen, Marina Kelahaara, Laura Karttunen and others in the Finland 100 team for their assistance.

All images: © Moomin Characters™

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chinese Editorial Cartoons in 2016 / 2017: 看点漫画

Back in the late 1990s, when Cherian George was the art and photo editor of The Straits Times, SPH used to put out The Year in Cartoons books, compilations of the ‘best’ cartoons from the paper. They are similar to the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year book series. Good for teaching of current affairs and social studies, but they get dated real fast. Quality varies and they serve better as visual guides to review the events of the year. Reminder of what happen to who and when.

Sales were probably not very good and The Year in Cartoons books stopped after a few years. The internet has removed the need for such books when news and images are easily found using search engines. So it is surprizing that SPH took another stab at this – a compilation of the cartoons from Lianhe Zaobao. Maybe they are testing the market. This book was launched at the Singapore Book Fair at Suntec City during the June school holidays and only about 500 copies were printed.

A total of four artists’ cartoons are featured and only cartoons dealing with local topics are compiled here. That explains why Heng Kim Song’s cartoons are not included as he draws mainly about foreign politics and not local events. Some of the topics covered: new PSLE scoring system, the maid situation in Singapore, our obsession with our mobile phones, Michelin Star hawker food, HDB flats being too small, aedes mosquitoes, and so on. You get the idea. Even if you read the papers every day, you can still learn something new from perusing this book as there might be some local news that you may have missed out.

If nothing else, this book reaffirms the fact that the best editorial cartoonist is the angriest one. And so Li Tai Li wins over the rest hands down. You can feel the seething anger rising from the lines in some of his cartoons. He does not jump from one trendy topic (eg. Pokemon) to another – he sets his targets and keeps firing. So he is at his most satirical and critical when he takes on issues about education, this whole notion of meritocracy in Singapore and how stressful a society we are. He touches on the unemployment problem we face, structural or otherwise and he saves his best bullets on the useless young adults who are still living off their parents. He is relentless. Li Tai Li deserves a book of his own.

Some suggestions to improve the book: to organize the cartoons thematically, so that it is easy for the reader to find all the cartoons about a particular topic. To include dates of original publication and to provide some context / background to the events depicted in the cartoons. Memory is short these days. Some of these events should be remembered.

Sold at $15 if you can find it. ;)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ye Zhen's Singapore Pok Kai Zai!!!

Sold at STGCC 2017 but will be having its proper launch at SWF in November (10.11.17, 8.30 pm – 9.30 pm at the Arts House), Book 10 of Ye Zhen’s Singapore Horror Hip Hop, Singapore Pok Kai Zai, is still the most far out comic series in Singapore. Skateboard P and his posse (Snoop Eastwood, Spacegirl and Kate Li, etc.) are still defending Earth from alien enemies. The new super villain is Nonpander Yingjie (where does Ye Zhen get the names from? His enemies in real life? People who stole his girlfriends in the past?) who is instigated by Skateboard P’s archenemies, the time-traveling Warbabies, the main troublemakers of the series.

Since 2008 when Ye Zhen released the first four volumes of his horror hip hop epic, comic readers have been trying to figure him out. Where did he come from? Where did he study comics? Why is he doing comics? And why these type of comics? Singapore Horror Hip hop is totally different from the stuff put out by Sonny Liew, Troy Chin, Koh Hong Teng (circa late 2000s) which are more autobiographical and ‘serious’ in nature. Ye Zhen is simply doing his own thing and you can say he does not quite fit in with the other comic creators or what readers expect of comics from Singapore.

Which, to me, is a great thing. We need variety and diversity in our comics. Even if they absurd and non-PC comics – sexy babes with tattoos fighting renegade aliens together with their Afro boyfriends who look like they are on dope and constantly getting it on with the babes to the sounds of Marvin Gaye. And these are the heroes of the series.

Artwork wise and in terms of pacing and storytelling, Ye Zhen has improved. This is evident since the last book. If you have been following the series, it is getting more fun to read. Even if you are a new reader, you will be impressed by the verve and energy of his lines and strokes.

There is a confidence at play here when Ye Zhen starts the story with our hero Skateboard P having bizarre bad dreams about an Attack on Titan experience in primary school and then witnessing the death of his mother in hospital. Except that he knows it is not his real mother, but “the one in my nonsensical dreams.” But it does not make the vision any less terrifying. There is a certain bleakness when Ye Zhen writes the lines, “I guess everybody has to sleep in a hospital bed at some point. Either sooner or later. As a baby from the start or as a victim of human regression.”

It’s almost social commentary at some point – just before the big fight, Skateboard P and Nonpander Yingjie had a heart to heart talk walking down the streets. They are like a mouthpiece for Ye Zhen and his beliefs: “This country has paid the price for its prosperity. Despite the advancements, we still have a ‘colonial state’ mindset. We have nothing important culturally to call our own but our great wealth. And no amount of wealth can change the fact that we are servants to our colonial cultural masters.”

But it is not clear what this colonial state culture is. Ye Zhen is influenced by Western music, movies and Japanese manga culture (he cited Hunter X Hunter) – are these colonial or contemporary cultures? How have they shaped us and our decisions? Ye Zhen has not quite sorted out what his heroes and villains represent – the status quo or chaos/anarchy? He may need to think harder about his characters and their motivations.

Still, it is still one hell of a read especially if you like Jo Jo Bizarre Adventures and Hong Kong kung fu comics. Singapore Pok Kai Zai is emotionally charged with kinetic energy and almost non-stop fighting.

“Even the best of us have to scream madly at some point. Together or alone, yes sir.”

The book is sold for $15 at:

Kinokuniya at Takashimaya Lvl 3

Comics World at Parklane #B1-22

Ghim Moh Book Corner 929 Ghim Moh Rd Blk 19, #1-239

Books Actually at No. 9 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

FSc exhibition

Once upon a time, Foo Swee Chin (FSc) was one of our most elusive comic artists in Singapore. Despite contributing cartoons to Liahe Zaobao since the 1990s and drawing her own comic titles for Nekopress and Slave Labor Graphics (predating Sonny Liew as the first comic artist from Singapore to be published in America), she remained relatively unknown in her home country. She is more famous overseas, especially in Japan where she has been documenting her attempts to break into the competitive manga market there. She has boothed several times at Comiket but it's still tough.

So why has FSc been languishing in obscurity? Part of the reason is her own quiet character and quirky personality. She doesn't like crowds, which I can understand - Singapore is getting too crowded! She is slightly introverted and not one to self-promote herself. A few of us comic / manga scholars have been trying to get her introduced to a wider audience. We featured her in the Women's Manga Beyond Japan conferences in Singapore (2011) and Vietnam (2012) and she has been invited to present about her work at various manga conferences in Japan, Australia and elsewhere.

Things are better in recent years as she has come out of her shell more - she made appearances at local events like Panelgraph in 2015 and was featured at last year's Singapore Writers Fest which presented her with lots of love from her old fans from the 1990s. They have been trying to track her down. She is that elusive.

She was also an invited guest of the Comic Art Festival Kuala Lumpur in 2016. She is also featured at STGCC this coming weekend and will also be speaking on panels at the upcoming Comics and Translation symposium at The Arts House, 23-24 Sept.

Now thanks to Eddie Cee and Artblovk, she will be holding her first solo exhibition in Singapore.


ANSUZ: FSc launch night
15 Sept 2017
at Artblovk
195 Pearls hill terrace #03-05
Singapore 168976

The exhibition will run from 15 Sept to 15 Oct - free admission!

In the meantime, you can try to look for her Clairvoyance e-comic online and hunt down the sketchbook, EP (Extended Psychoneurosis) published by Funics in 2015. She has a new book out in Japanese by Kadokawa, Nihon Lah, which was originally serialized online on Kadokawa's Comicwalker. The book has also been translated into Chinese and sold in Taiwan.

See you at the opening on 15 Sept.

Some links: