Interview with J-P Ahonen (creator of the Belzebubs comic strip)
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: July 12, 2019
"Belzebubs established their cult status in the Black Metal scene with their self-published debut album Quis Novit Daemonis Astus (2006). The band, originally formed in 2002 as a three-piece by Hubbath, Sløth and Izkariot, found a faster and melodic sound with Obesyx joining the crew. Their second self-published album, Moth of Satanas, followed in 2009, leading the group to sign with Døden Records."
That was taken straight from the biography of Belzebubs, a comic strip created by J-P Ahonen in 2016, originally for his own "therapy" after experiencing a burnout. Belzebubs has become huge all around the world with hundreds of thousands of followers and the numbers are increasing every single day.
The Metal Crypt sat down with J-P Ahonen at Tuska festival this year to find out more of what's been going on with the Belzebubs family and what the future looks like for them.
The main question, however, is if Hollowood is prepared to spread the red carpet for this unusual family and carving their names in the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They'd better be because Belzebubs are on their way to stardom...
THE START: JUMPING INTO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF COMICS
Luxi: Let's start at the beginning. What drove you to draw comics in the first place?
J-P: I was about 13 years old when I started drawing cartoons for fun. I had a dream that I would do cartoons for a living. After a while, I began to think that drawing cartoons would never be a successful way to make a living in Finland. That's why I ended up studying graphic design at the University of Lapland and after my studies, I figured I'd go to work for some advertising agencies. In the end, I ended up working for Aamulehti (a newspaper in Finland—Luxi) as a summer worker, doing infographics, maps and other boring things. While there, I also did some illustrations for a few articles and by chance one of the journalists who was responsible for the comics in Aamulehti asked me if I had any ideas about what kind of comic I might have for the newspaper's weekly supplement, something completely new perhaps. I told him, half-heartedly and without thinking too much, that I might have something to bring in. A guy named Juha Sihto, who also works for Aamulehti, got excited about my idea and asked what kind of proposal I had for a comic strip. I told him that I had a concept comic strip in my head, which I'd been thinking about for a long time, that I could implement as soon as someone wants me to get it done.
He was inspired by my thoughts and I promised to bring him some samples the next week. The truth was that I had no conceptual comic. I had only made small strip comics for fun and that's about it. I soon realized I had a problem with my so-called white lie. However, all this led to the birth of the Villimpi Pohjola strip for Aamulehti, which has been published weekly since 2003.
The Villi Pohjola strip drove me more into the world of comics. I grabbed this opportunity, believing that maybe this might work for me after all.
Luxi: I suppose it's been a good learning process to be able to work for a newspaper like Aamulehti and draw comics a different way?
J-P: Yes, indeed. Back in the day when I was just drawing for fun, I made more conceptual comics, not a strip at all. It's been an educational journey for me to learn to draw strip comics as well. Looking back, the first three years of comic strips for Aamulehti weren't that good at all. I am "almost" ashamed of them nowadays, haha!
Luxi: As you have now drawn cartoons for years, I would like to ask you which things define a good cartoon?
J-P: In my opinion, there must be an element in a cartoon that moves me one way or the other, either in my brain or in my heart, giving me some strong sense in myself. I may feel good when reading them or I laugh at them or am (deeply) moved about them or they make people think deeper. I myself try to get all these elements through comics, if possible. I also know by heart what kind of reactions comics might cause when I draw them. I also did a comic strip called Puskaradio in a Finnish magazine called Journalisti earlier (2009-2013) and tried to include many elements into it, as much as I could. This comic strip had its own punchline, but I also included a lot of extra elements into it. People with enough wits are able to grasp different things in this particular cartoon. At times it all felt that I did it in an unnecessarily anal way.
Luxi: What's the most difficult thing in creating these cartoons and cartoon characters? Do you feel like first you, as a creator, need to love them before you can show them to others?
J-P: Hmm... that's a good question. In the end, the story behind the cartoon itself is the most important thing, in my opinion, and that's also the most difficult part. One is able to tell the same story many different ways and by using different characters, but it's also as important to find the right drawing style to get the best out of the story.
I have created stories around some of my cartoons where the main character is pretty much acting like an asshole. There's always a thin line in my way of thinking if this is the correct way to behave or not as far as my cartoons' characters are concerned. I want to give my cartoon characters a chance to grow up as individuals. When you draw cartoons, you kind of take a risk if you want to add some not-so-nice features to them. Some people, of course, cannot stand them because they are too rude or even evil and some people see them in the opposite way, seeing the human side in these characters and that's why they give them the chance to make a change towards a more positive direction.
THE BIRTH OF THE BELZEBUBS FAMILY
Luxi: There's also the negative side of being an artist, when an artist loses inspiration which must lead to all kinds of frustration no matter how hard one tries to squeeze all the creative juices out of her/him. At worst, an artist may even end up suffering from total burnout or become an alcoholic, etc. You have also experienced this burnout thing. How difficult was it for you to crawl from this dark hole back to the daylight again so to speak?
J-P: It was tough, of course, but the Belzebubs comic strip was the one that helped me to get out of those dark waters and back on my feet again. I experienced total burnout, which made me wonder if I was pushing too hard. I can only blame myself because my style is to draw in a very detailed way. As I mentioned already when I was drawing this Puskaradio cartoon, I had featured lots of different and detailed things, obviously too many.
When I tried to change and start drawing in a less detailed way, it was very hard for me to switch to a simpler way. I find it more difficult to go into an existing concept and start changing it than to do something new that is simpler. This is how this Belzebubs comic strip actually started; I needed a new concept, which I wanted to do for myself only at first. I wanted to be more straightforward in the expression of it.
Another thing that helped me to get back on my feet was that I published the Belzebubs comic strips in English on the Internet before it was in any printed magazine. All this felt more natural to me; publishing the Belzebubs on the Internet in English rather than in a magazine and in Finnish. The good thing about publishing the Belzebubs on the Internet was that people's feedback was immediate. I remember that when I published some samples of my other comic strip, Villi Pohjola, on the net, which was written in Finnish only, people who followed it kept asking me if it was available in English. That was a relatively frustrating dilemma to me. It was a tough decision to consider translating them from Finnish to English because the Finnish language used in those strips wouldn't have translated too well in English, I am afraid.
I went on with Belzebubs, thinking that would be my solution for all these requests, which it eventually turned out to be. Doing it with my loose timetable was also helpful. All the quick feedback also fed my creativity as I knew deep down that there are many people out there who liked my Belzebubs comic strips and wanted to follow them in the next episode so to speak. It's actually cool when people give their thumbs up for my strips in Belzebubs as they kind of feed me to go on and plan my next strip.
Luxi: This highly beloved comic strip, which tells the everyday life of this occult family, sort of broke the bank for you and at the moment has hundreds of thousands of followers all around the world. Did the success of it surprise you?
J-P: I have to say, yes, it did. I was primarily making this for myself at the beginning and was simply thinking that if people start to follow it, then that would be great! I remember when I published my first strip, it got a few hundred followers in just one weekend. Then suddenly, it had 6,000 followers, then 9,000, 12,000, 16,000 and so on. I cannot remember the numbers accurately, but it happened really fast. I remember checking my Facebook page via my mobile and was very much blown away, thinking skeptically if these numbers could be real? I was blown away by the thousands of followers and remember within a two-hour gap or so, the numbers of visitors had doubled. Crazy...
However, I must say that I don't follow slavishly which of my posts gets this or that number of likes because I feel like it only harms your creativity. The other thing is that you really cannot repeat yourself. Anyways, I am trying to keep this interesting and exciting for myself. As long as it's fun, I am doing it.
Besides that, the algorithms of Facebook are against you. You cannot be sure if someone really read my comic strip or not. "Hey, so only five people gave their likes to this... what on earth?! Uh, was it so crappy then? Hahah!!
WHAT'S YOUR TYPICAL FAN OF BELZEBUBS LIKE?
Luxi: Do you believe that the majority of followers are metalheads? I believe your ordinary mother may not understand all the jokes in Belzebubs...
J-P: Well, what's actually been quite surprising is that I originally assumed this group of people would be that main target, but I was wrong, very wrong as odd as it may sound. Many of them don't necessarily listen to Metal music at all but are intrigued by some other elements in these strips. They may find, let's say, even the daily family madness fascinating. They may appreciate how the characters cope in different situations and sticking together through pretty interesting and funny situations. Also, there's this horror element to it as well—some references to Lovecraft and such things, which is why many horror freaks and nerds find this comic strip so attractive. I have found it kind of surprising that not only metalheads come to chat with me about this but pretty much all kinds of people, even older ladies in their sixties or something. For example, I remember when I went to a local post office in Tampere where I live, there was this older, very ordinary-looking lady behind the desk. She told me, "I am a really big fan of your comics...". I first assumed she meant the Villimpi Pohjola Sunday strip, but she was actually a fan of the Belzebubs comic strip. I was almost speechless and politely yet awkwardly said something like, "Uh, thank you... That's very nice to hear indeed", or something along those lines haha!! I didn't expect an older lady like she was actually following Belzebubs. Not at all.
Luxi: That's great to hear! I read that the book has been published in 11 different languages around the world so far, or it will be this year. Do you feel with the great popularity of this whole Belzebubs concept that things are happening perhaps too fast for you right now; so fast that you have not yet fully realized what kind of tsunami it has actually set into motion?
J-P: Yes, there's lots of things going on around this whole Belzebubs concept right now. The book and everything and in fact, it's been kind of frustrating to me to realize that no matter how many ideas I have, time is always a limit. That's the scariest part for me currently, whether I have enough hands to pull all my plans off within a reasonable timetable. The past two months I have been doing tons of email and sorting things out instead of drawing, which is the main thing that I should do. Having too many irons in the fire at the moment isn't the optimal thing for me, I am afraid.
Then again, I cannot hire anyone to take care of some of these things that should be taken care of as I don't have any extra money to do so, unfortunately. So, there's a little dilemma here that I am having right now. If this was more of a mainstream thing, perhaps there would be more support financially. I don't know. This is, however, a pretty marginal thing that I do, not a goldmine. It's a pretty challenging situation.
Mentally, I feel like there's a good amount of interesting challenges coming up for me to help me to keep my focus on this thing, so I am not worried about that part. The only thing that I am a little worried about is that whether I have enough time to get everything done. It certainly won't be easy.
Luxi: There's even a Belzebubs' debut album out, titled Pantheon of the Nightside Gods, which went to number one in physical format on the official album chart in Finland a little while ago. People are speculating who these hidden guys behind the Belzebubs band and some wild guesses have included Niilo Sevänen from Insomnium.
However, my next question is if your plan is to keep this Belzebubs concept under some sort of mystery as that would add more fascination and interest to it?
J-P: That's the main idea but, on the other hand, we may reveal our cards at some point as to who did this and that for Belzebubs.
However, I personally would encourage people to think about this band through the characters because that's undoubtedly more fascinating plus, we could do much more in the band's name if people thought that way.
For me, when bands like Gorillaz and Ghost revealed their true identities, I felt like they were not so interesting anymore. They lost some of their fascination by coming into the light, I think.
I do understand that people are relatively curious animals and they want to explore things. If people want to guess who the guys are behind the Belzebubs band, then that's completely fine. Feel free to do so, I am not judging you, haha!! The truth may be much more surprising than some people may think at first.
THE FUTURE OF BELZEBUBS
Luxi: Haha... the truth is out there. Anyways, what kind of personal plans do you have to take this whole Belzebubs concept forward in the future? Obviously, these characters have a lot of potential in many ways?
J-P: Yes, I have many plans in my head that I would like to carry out someday with Belzebubs. Marrying cartoons with Metal music has been a dream-come-true for me. It just took many years to make it all real because I didn't have enough faith in this thing back in the day. I just kept dreaming about this and am glad now I accomplished what I wanted to since I was a teenager.
Now Belzebubs' success has reached the point where I can actually play with different ideas to see which of them might work. In this sense I feel very lucky because I have so many alternatives in my to-do box. The band concept was one of those things that I was seriously visualizing in my head before it became reality. It's been fun and surprising to see how many opportunities this whole Belzebubs concept has given me. I feel like there's still so many things to do and places where I could use these characters. And I will for sure...
It would even great to make some sort of an animated series for TV, like a documentary type of thing, which would be fantastic in my opinion. One of my friends, Ville Pirinen, was actually joking to me that I should try to make a written biography for each member in the Belzebubs family, haha!! For that, I would surely need a pair of helping hands to write an autobiography for each character as 24/7 wouldn't be enough for me to start that kind of project, that's for certain.
Luxi: When the world tour is well underway for the Belzebubs family, what kind of "rock stars," do you believe they will become after one or two years? Is Hollywood prepared to spread the red carpet for them?
J-P: Hahaha...!!! Well, hard to say. But one of my dreams is to see these Belzebubs characters on the stage, playing live for the crowds. I have had this idea in my head for the last two months or so and am hoping it would become reality one day. There are, of course, some questions to be pondered first, how to make it happen in reality, what the costs would be and such practical things. The money is obviously an issue; I would need money for the pre-production of it for sure. An animated gig—let's say, being it something like forty-five minutes in length, it would cost a lot. Spending like 10,000 euros per minute for that kind of thing, makes you honestly said a bit scared, to say the least, haha!!
Anyways, getting these characters to play live would be the next logical step, in my opinion.
Luxi: That would make sense. Thank you, J-P, for this nice conversation. I am hoping that Belzebubs' world conquering will continue for many years to come.
J-P: No problem—and thank you for sitting down with me to have this pleasant conversation. No worries, I am sure people around the world will get a chance to hear much more about the Belzebubs family... guaranteed!
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