Finland report part 1: Nordic comics schools and Scott McCloud

Cartoonist Lissu Lehtimaja chuckles at Scott McCloud—see her notes below. Others in picture from left Mikko Jylhä, Antti Hintsa (teacher in Helsinki Comics Center), Dan Berry, Johan Höjer, Ville Hänninen and Scott McCloud.

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest at a comics teaching conference in Finland. As far as I know, it was the very first of its kind; attendees and presenters all taught not reading comics, but making comics. I’ve never had the chance before to compare teaching methods and philosophies with such a diverse (and large) group of peers. It was eye-opening (and I wish there had been some such conference before I finished DWWP!). It was so full of valuable information, in fact, that I’m going to divide this report into several parts, and run the next parts over the next week.

  1. Day one: Nordic comics schools and Scott McCloud
  2. Day two: Comics degree program reports
  3. Day three: What we know about Finland (comics, cartoonists, Moomin) and studying in Europe (ways to approach studying comics abroad).

The conference took place over two days, and was hosted by Sarjakuvakeskus, the Comics Center of Helsinki, Finland. Hosts Kalle Hakkola (the director of the Center) and Johanna Rojola (the main point-person) whipped this thing up in a matter of a couple months, and put together an all-star series of speakers, starting with Scott McCloud on the first day, followed by some Nordic comics teachers, including Mikko Jylhä of Liminka comic art schoolJohan Höjer of the University of Gävle, Sweden, with some snarky asides from Estonians Peeter Krosmann and Joonas Sildre (did you know you can see the capital, Talinn, from Helsinki? From a tall building, anyway. So weird how close things are in Europe…). For my part, I swore to stop cutting-and-pasting “Sarjakuvakeskus” and learn to spell it once and for all. Day two saw detailed presentations on four very distinct approaches to teaching comics, presented by Dan Berry of Glyndwr University in Wales, me (talking about DWWP as well as my teaching at the School of Visual Arts), Thierry Van Hasselt of St. Luc University in Brussels, Belgium, and Marcus Huber of Muthesius Kunsthochschule in Kiel, Germany. Day three was a free day, and saw me shopping for Moomin gifts for my kids, eating reindeer, hanging out in Aki Kaurismaki’s bar, and talking comics and education nonstop with Dan, Markus, Johanna, and Thierry.

Coincidentally, Matt was speaking at NECAC, one of the other kind of comics-teaching conferences—about reading comics in a humanities context. Catch his mini-roundup here. I wish I could have been in two places!


Despite the efforts of stern Finnair flight attendants in black leather gloves and knee-high boots, travel delays caused me to miss Scott’s slide presentation on Thursday (nerts!). Bummer because I’ve seen Scott speak before, and god knows I’ve spoken to him, but I’ve never seen his “Talk.” I’m still very curious. I did arrive for (most of) the overview of Finnish comics. When I came in (became conscious? I was very jetlagged…) Mikko Jylhä was answering questions about Liminka comic art school. Even after this and three days of talking about it, I still can’t quite grasp what comics education looks like in Finland. (One thing became very clear, as you’ll see: the educational systems/approaches in various countries are quite distinct, and it can be disorienting to try to figure out how they compare to your own.) Overall, there seem to be a lot of comics classes and a few longer programs, but no degree-granting programs. I hope readers will comment and fill this in. I’ll edit as needed. I’d love to add details on what exactly is offered in the programs! Matti Hagelberg was on the program to speak about teaching at Aalto University, but ended up not doing so. His story, from email:

I’ve been teaching comics in the university of art and design from 1998 (later Aalto university). First a class of 2 study weeks each fall for 14 weeks (that’s like 4 hour a week). Since 2007 me and my wife Katja Tukiainen have run a minor subject. Every second year we take 12 students who’ll then have a chance to study this subject for 25 to 30 study points, which more or less equals 15 study weeks.

You see what I mean about different systems being hard to understand—2 study weeks don’t equal two actual weeks?—but fortunately everyone’s happy to struggle together for mutual understanding. More:

  • Someone told me a comics class is “required” in all secondary schools. Possible? I must have mis-heard.
  • There was a large number of teachers there who teach short courses and workshops allover Finland. How many? Where? Not sure. But the Comics Center keeps a listing of teachers and opportunities and tries to hook people up. What a great idea! We may have to do that ourselves.
  • When Scott McCloud talked about greater numbers of girls in comics, and how that had to do with “taking down the sign on the door that says no girls allowed”, Matti said something like his latest class was comprised of 30 girls and two boys (and joked that he was slightly afraid that a new sign would be posted that read “no boys allowed”). Can I have that right? Certainly, there were plenty of women in the room, perhaps more than men. Nice to see.
  • Matti teaches, I think, a two-year certificate program in a private school, that doesn’t grant a degree. There are several similar to this around Finland, and the debate over whether to push some university to offer a program at the BA level seems to be live. Not sure what the factors are.


Joonas Sildre and Peeter Krosmann piped up during Mikko’s presentation, but it was hard to hear. Later, over dinner, I talked to them and learned that they offer, as far as they know, the only comics classes in Estonia, both at the same institution, Tartu Art School/Art College.

  • Joonas teaches at the BA level, a one-semester class.
  • Peeter teaches at the senior high school (secondary school) level, a year-long class.
  • Peeter repeatedly asserted that the time is ripe for comics fame in Estonia “Anyone who does comics now will automatically be one of the first five Estonian cartoonists!” (Yes, he was joking, but it’s also true.)
  • Both started out gloomy about comics in Estonia, but cheered up when they realized that lack of set patterns in comics or comics ed means that they can help build comics from the ground up on strong principles.

from Joonas:


I have also taught short (1.5 month) intensive course in Tallinn, at the Estonian Academy of Arts. And Peeter (with me helping a few times) has run an international student project with Tartu Art school students and students from other European countries (Finland, Italy, Island etc) – mixing each participating country’s fairytale into one big fairytale in comic format. It’s been quite interesting. I can add, that our gloominess about Estonian comics scene is not fully justified. We have a lot better situation than 10 years ago. Just over the last 5 years we have had 3 art-comics anthologies, quite a few exhibitions with new young amateur and semi-pro authors (unofficial upload of one exhibition’s materials), media interest in comics, teaching comics in art schools and now even small biennial. Not to mention that with the recent cooperative projects with Helsinki Comics Center and Finnish Institute in Estonia, things are now really looking brighter (although there’s occasional crappy weather, which makes us overall gloomy :).


Johan Höjer had a great presentation on the University of Gävle‘s two-year program in comics, with lots of slides, including some of his never-before-seen masters thesis exam to become a teacher, done in 1975. Awesome! That takes guts. He then went on to be a pro cartoonist between 1975 and 2000, before starting to teach.

page two of Johan's teaching certificate thesis

  • Like the Finnish programs, this is non-degree granting. It lasts 4 semesters.
  • The students end the program with a project proposal: some complete pages, some script and/or thumbnails, and some character design.

from Johan:

  • The program is a two years full-time education, thus a total of 120 credits. The examination is a Högskoleexamen (which does not mean “high school examination”, in Swedish “Högskola” means “University”).  The subject field is “Serie- och Bildberättande”/Sequential Art & Graphic Storytelling, and the University of Gävle is the only school in Sweden to offer it.
  • The education is done in four semesters, 20 weeks each. The three first semesters contain four 7,5 credits courses, all done at 25% speed, all compulsory. The last semester offers a choice of two alternative 30 credits courses: Sequential Art or Graphic storytelling. Emphasize in all courses is on production [i.e. making a comic or a pitch for publishers].
  • The education does not give a bachelor’s degree. However, the universities in both Stockholm and Gothenburg have accepted students from our education to their master’s classes.
  • First semester courses: Dramaturgy Very basic, derived from film dramaturgy. We concentrate on how to translate written description and dialog into physical action. Formlära I Basic art school stuff with a lot of inking technique. Serier ISequential art, i.e. comics. Grundläggande Bildbehandling basic computer skills; Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, scanning, digital formats.
  • Second semester courses: Grafisk Form Graphic Design.  Serier II more sequential art, i.e. comics. Formlära II more basic art school stuff. Webdesign.
  • Third semester courses. Bildberättande I “Graphic Storytelling I” The students produce a dummy for a children’s picture book. Bildberättande II “Graphic Storytelling II”, Lexigrafi narrative graphic design; like a magazine spread on the situation in Libya, etc. Cartoon Caricature and Storyboard (too much in a single 7,5 course). Web animation Flash.
  • Fourth semester courses. Serier 30 credits Sequential Art orBildberättande 30 credits Graphic Storytelling. Portfolio examination.

Student work by Sofia Malmberg

Scott McCloud, again

After this, Scott McCloud returned to do a lengthy Q and A with journalist Ville Hänninen, the editor of the MASSIVE (and in-English) (and bright pink) Finnish Comics Annual. In my extremely jet-lagged state, I impulsively started live-tweeting it, causing a teeny-tiny twitterstorm of following (Hi new people!) I did it from my iPhone, which I really can’t recommend. But on the upside, at least I now have notes on what he said! What follow are my tweets, edited for comprehensibility.

Photos nabbed from Dan Berry's tweetstream @things_by_dan

In Helsinki listening to @scottmccloud “I was actually kind of hostile to comics history. I just saw so many missed opportunities.” This was in response to a question about how he felt about the comics world before beginning Understanding Comics. Of course, it’s not how he feels now. Case in point, the next tweet.

Lamenting the unavailability of Kunzle’s History of the Early Comic Strip A multi-volume work that documents early comics back to, I think, 1600 or so. Out of print, sadly.

Generations of artists now all having dialogue. It’s healthy; don’t have to reinvent art form every few yrs. This was part of a discussion on how for his generation (and for mine, for that matter) there was very little documented about how to make comics, or how comics work. Now we have this body of information that gets built up and shared with each successive generation of cartoonist. And younger cartoonists also teach older ones.

Not sure when UC began–some ideas go back to college. Gonick’s history of univ influential on form. Larry Gonick was responsible for giving Scott the idea to draw himself as the narrator of Understanding Comics, and to draw the whole thing as a comic. Apparently, when Will Eisner saw UC, he said, why didn’t I think of drawing it? about his own how-to books.

When your file folders get that thick(3″ or so) the hooks start to sag and tear off, you know it’s time to write a book. Scott held up his fingers to show us how many notes and ideas he stored up before starting UC.

In orig UC had [a chapter where] comics sitting at table with other art forms talking about their strengths and weaknesses. Terrible/friends told him to kill. Replaced with chapter 6  Scott repeatedly gave credit to his cabal of readers who review everything he does (a group that includes Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek, among others), and rip it to shreds. One thing I love about Scott as a thinker: he’s tenacious with his ideas, but he’s totally willing to be argued out of a position. His skin is thick and his mind open.

by Joonas Sildre

Sad that it’s 2011–10 yrs after reinventing comics–people putting basically print comics on web without changes. Scott calls for webcartoonist sto embrace the platform fully and not simply repost print comics that are ill-suited in format for the web.

[Reading long comics online] like listening to music 10 secs at a time, have to keep hitting a button that keeps moving around to listen to next 10 secs. Biggest concern right now is that reading experience online is so bad. Re online reading. Want to use single mode navigation. Click or scroll only. Not both. Print books have this transparency. Scott’s main concern was that the interface in reading online comics is so clunky and discouraging. Print books work seamlessly, and have only one navigational mode: turning pages. Online, not so much.

Short online comic strips work well in format, economics. Long stories online not so much. He also stated that there’s a working model for being a professional webcartoonist if you do short strips, but no one’s managed to make it work for long books yet.

( I shouldn’t say “can” but “do”–he’s saying we must search for solutions.) Change in space between panels changes rhythm of reading? I’m not convinced. He mentioned his theory from UC on time in comics that larger gutters make the experience of time slow down.

Argument for “infinite canvas” on basis of allowing comics/sections/sequences to find their own length, size, space. This was in reference to a discussion of the “infinite canvas” which Scott feels is a misnomer: it’s not so much that it’s infinite as that it’s flexible. A page can have as many panels as it needs to, space can grow or shrink between panels, they can be laid out in any manner.

UC structure: made list of topics that had to be in. colored pencils to color code/link. Started in an airport. We got a bit of background on how he actually wrote UC.

Re: women in comics/more of them: “I’m gonna say this unambiguously, so no one can mistake me: girls are better.” “two things need to happen, we have to take down the sign on the door that says do not enter, …” “…and make sure there’s something interesting on the other side of the door. that will cause not a trickle but a flood.” This is pretty self-explanatory, but it was interesting that some women in the audience had never thought there was any gender imbalance until they were questioned about it after they were already cartoonists. Scott himself anecdotally stated that most comics programs he sees are almost half women.

“would be revolutionary to teach kids at age of 8 to draw facial expressions… Would open a whole channel of communication” Scott maintains that learning about facial expressions and how to draw them is a great thing to teach to kids, and it would empower young kids to suddenly see a kind of hidden world of communication, teach them to recognize lying, and so on.

Scott notes by Lissu Lehtimaja. Doodling in notebooks de rigeur among comics teachers!

After this it was time to head to the hotel for about a half hour of rest before returning for the end of the launch party for the aforementioned  Finnish Comics Annual. This is a fantastic volume and will be, as I understand it, available for sale at the MoCCA Art Fest in NYC next week (which I suppose means I didn’t need to carry this monster home with me!). I’m hoping the “annual” in the name is a promise. Although it’s not strictly chronological, more on the comics center and comics society itself, where the party was held, in the third part of this report.


Observed at dinner, that evening: Scott McCloud’s Obsession with Chess: 


9 Comments to Finland report part 1: Nordic comics schools and Scott McCloud

  • by MJ

    On April 5, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Great post! I’m curious about this bit, though: “Scott calls for webcartoonists to embrace the platform fully and not simply repost print comics that are ill-suited in format for the web.”

    Is he calling for people to embrace digital tools for the whole process, or for “adjusting” them (inking, coloring, corrections, etc)? I think in Making Comics he mentioned that he hasn’t touched a nib or brush in a long time, favoring digital for most of the process. What does “ill-suited in format for the web” mean? Is he talking about posting a reduced 11 x 17 vs. a small daily, or something else?

  • by Jessica

    On April 5, 2011 at 10:33 am

    He’s definitely not talking about the tools used to draw. Drawing on paper and scanning is just fine by him, I’m sure. Instead, he’s talking about trying to design pages and the interface used to view them as transparently as possible for web reading. In particular, he expressed a distaste for having to click AND ALSO scroll. That’s at the most basic level, but the kind of thing we discussed. Click OR scroll. That’s what SMcC says.

  • by Kalle Hakkola

    On April 5, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks Jessica, I will forward this around. Then waiting for report part 2&3..

  • by Jessica Abel

    On April 5, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    thanks, please do–and please comment on the post itself with any further info so it’s publicly available. I owe you an email, too, I know.

  • by Jarod

    On April 5, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I’ve read McCloud’s thoughts on comics on the web before (on his website, I think) and it seems like he would advocate something like what Jason Shiga does( Not just using the internet for distribution, but manipulating some of the inherent characteristics of digital reading.

  • by Kalle Hakkola

    On April 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    The woman in the first picture is Lissu Lehtimaja. Others in picture from left Mikko Jylhä, Antti Hintsa (teacher in Helsinki Comics Center), Dan Berry, Johan Höjer, Ville Hänninen and Scott McCloud.

  • by Noora

    On May 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    “Someone told me a comics class is “required” in all secondary schools. Possible? I must have mis-heard”
    In ‘National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2004’ it’s said that one part of the core in visual arts is to teach about “illustration, comic strips, advertising images, photography and video” and also “critical study and investigation of visual communication in television, computer games, films, comic strips and advertising”. So you could say it’s recommended by our government to teach comics..! But schools aren’t usually organizing separate comics classes, they’re just included in visual arts or other subjects like Finnish language.
    Luckily there are many elementary school teachers who are interested in comics and are using it in visual arts class (and other classes as well).

  • by stevemoses

    On December 30, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Are the Finnish Comic Annuals available somewhere, somehow? i keep clicking and am unable to find a link to purchase them. nothing on, nor in i’d sure like to be able to buy them.

  • by Jessica

    On December 31, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Hi Steve,

    I don’t actually know, but I would think so. You can write to the Finnish Comics Center that publishes them to find out:

    good luck!

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