Smash Pages Q&A: J.P. Ahonen

The creator of ‘Sing No Evil’ discusses the first collection of his webcomic ‘Belzebubs.’

Belzebubs is a “trve kvlt mockumentary,” a family comedy, a heavy metal family tale that involves demons, Lovecraft, child-rearing, teenage love and the problems of keeping a band together. The parents are Sloth and Lucyfer, their kids are named Lilith and Leviathan – and Lilith’s best friend is Blasphe My (who in no way resembles the beloved Moomin character Little My). Even for those who are not heavy metal fans, the strip is simply funny, with beautifully rendered artwork. The strip has become an internet sensation, with print editions in multiple countries and in multiple languages. More than a comic, Belzebubs is now an actual band with an album, Pantheon of the Nightside Gods, coming out later this month.

J.P. Ahonen made a splash when Sing No Evil was released in the United States in 2014 after being published in his native Finland, where he’s been making comics for many years. I’ve been a reader and fan of his for many years and we had a chance to speak recently in between his busy schedule to talk about Belzebubs, the collection of which is out now from Top Shelf.

I always like to ask people, how did you first come to comics?

My first professional comic started out in 2002, when I was working as a summer intern in the info graphics department of a local newspaper. I was mainly doing pie charts, maps and all that, but luckily got to illustrate some articles, too. Because I had a cartoony style, some articles were even illustrated in comic form, which was pretty neat.

Long story short, one of the editors asked if I had a comic strip in mind that would fit their weekly supplement. I blurted out something in the lines of ”maybe I should pitch my own thing”, which, to my surprise, interested the editor. The problem was that I sort of might’ve bent the truth a little.

I’d been drawing comics for years, but they’d all been longer stories that had never been finished. I literally had nothing! [Laughs] I headed back home and panicked something together, which ended up being Villimpi Pohjola (or Northern Overexposure, as I’d translate it), my weekly slice-of-life Sunday strip about a group of university students trying to graduate, seek work and find love.

Ironically, that strip has been going on ever since and been collected into five books, published here in Finland. I guess I opened my mouth in the right place.

How did Belzebubs start?

Belzebubs started out as a self-therapy project, really. In 2014–2015 I was pretty badly burnt out and suffering from a depression, but did my best to keep working, though in reality I felt like throwing my drawing table out the window. My brain was jammed and I was fixated on irrelevant details that seriously didn’t matter. I knew that at the time, too, but the feeling is just very difficult to shake off, especially for a perfectionist, I guess.

For some reason I thought I’d fight fire with fire and draw myself out of the pits, you know, so I participated in the Inktober challenge. Instead of perfecting my inking skills, though, I used the challenge as an excuse to improvise something on paper and just push it out online immediately. The first thing I doodled was these two black metal dudes commenting a logo on a shirt (the ”dried vomit” gag), and since they were so fun to do, I decided to make black metal and occultism a loose theme for the whole challenge.

I’m sure the characters popped into mind in the wake of my graphic novel Sing No Evil.

I wasn’t able to finish Inktober, but the characters and concept started evolving in my head, and I really liked the idea of publishing something online. During the summer of 2016 I inked around 40 strip ideas and started publishing them one by one on a weekly basis. It was mainly just for me, really, and I was quite stunned to see more and more jump onboard the band wagon each week

How has the strip changed since you started?

I’ve tried to keep the strip fun and surprising for myself, so it’s still very improvised. I might have a vague idea of what’s ahead, but I give myself the freedom to wander off course whenever I feel like it. It’s something you can’t do in graphic novels, where each scene and speech bubble is meticulously thought.

I guess the main thing that’s changed is the amount of detail and a certain finish I put into the strips. Nowadays they need to work as stand-alone strips online but also serve their part in the longer storylines in book form, so I keep both formats in mind. The biggest change, however, has obviously been the inclusion of the actual band and music, turning Belzebubs into a crossmedia concept instead of a regular webcomic. That’s brought new challenges and possibilities to the story.

You seem to enjoy playing with the form. You have one off gags but you also have stories you’re building piece by piece, and you seem to like alternating those kinds of strips.

Yes, I like to toy around with all that! I really like that I’m not restricted to a specific size or panel count online. Sometimes I might do a single panel gag, sometimes a comic with four to six panels, whatever. There’s also been a few strips that have incorporated music or animation, one was done as a sort of Whatsapp screen recording. I try and make good use of the medium whenever I can and whenever it fits the idea or story.

You make two comic strips in Finland. Do you work in a similar way with those strips, in terms of combining one off gag strips and then building from them?

Yeah, now I’m only focusing on Belzebubs and Villimpi Pohjola, but I used to juggle several strips here, even a political satire. As said, I usually have a goal in mind, how I want the characters to evolve, what topics to address and so on, but how I get there is always a mystery. I use the weekly strips as a sort of playground to test ideas and have fun, and when it comes to collecting strips into a book, I edit the material and draw new pages where needed.

I have to ask, because I know that you are a guitarist, and I’m not suggesting you have monsters under all the beds in your house, but how autobiographical is the strip?

It’s probably not as autobiographical as one would think. [Laughs] I think I’ve vented more of my inner struggles and thoughts into my other projects. I’ve dealt about involuntary childlessness in Villimpi Pohjola, for example, and many of the themes in Sing No Evil hit pretty close to home.

In a bizarre way Belzebubs looks like me the most, though, as it’s basically just a melting pot of everything I’m interested in; the occult, Lovecraft, heavy metal, black & white comic strips, Looney Tunes, silent movies, graphic design, you name it. But who knows, maybe it’ll transform in that direction at a later stage, I’m not against that either.

Perhaps my favorite gag was “Belze-Bob Ross” and “The Joy of Pain-Things” which made me laugh out loud. Where did this idea come from? (Also as an American I have to ask, is Bob Ross really that big in Finland?

[Laughs] Glad to hear! I don’t think it’s a big thing here, but now that everything circulates online, the majority of comic book readers (us nerds) have come across him in one form or another, I’m sure. I lived several years abroad in my childhood, a couple of years in Portugal, few in the UAE, so I remember Bob Ross from way back then. His show was on one of the channels.

Now that Sam is part of the band, how does that change the strip and what’s going to happen going forward?

I loved playing around with the whole Sam-Lilith-Eve love triangle, but eventually things needed to be tied together so we could move on. I’m looking forward to documenting the clumsy dates and Sam’s distress with juggling school, dating and being in a rather active black metal band with his father-in-law. That’s got to be a mess!

Along those lines are we going to see more of Lilith’s friend and her obsession/courting of Eve?

For sure. I’d love to get back to Blasphe My and her obsession with Eve! She’s such a fun character because she’s so self-assured and totally unapologetic.

This is not simply a webcomic that is now being collected into a book, but there is an album coming out. Do you want to talk a little about the music?

Yeah, well, the initial idea of incorporating music with the strips was there from the beginning. I’m always interested in testing out new possibilities, so naturally I wanted to incorporate things in the strips which weren’t possible in print. Music, loose animation, crosslinking, etc. At first I thought of doing everything myself, just my cruddy vocals, guitars and Garageband or whatever, but at some point a real musician friend of mine asked if I’d thought about making some tunes for the project.

I told him what my plans were and he was excited about it, and we set out to fool around something together. A couple of weeks later the comic started attracting more and more people, though, so we started to wonder whether we were thinking too small. So instead of getting drunk and recording silly 20 second clips, we reached out to Century Media and asked if they’d even be interested in hearing us out if we’d actually put our minds to it. They immediately answered that sure, they like the strips already and would be interested in checking out some demos. So yeah, things snowballed from there pretty organically.

It’s been a crazy two years, really, as we’ve now put out two animated music videos and will release a full-length album on the 26th of April.

Because I loved the graphic novel Sing No Evil, I have to ask, are you still working on a sequel?

Right now, no. I poured in a lot of heart to that book and wrote several versions of the second volume, but a lot of things went down simultaneously. Sing No Evil is partly to blame for my burnout, too, so…it’s very unfortunate. I love the book and characters, but a part of me is quite intimidated to dwell back in there, you know, as it dragged me to pretty dark waters. It’s a shame if we don’t get the next two volumes as I love the build-up and arch that’s planned, but it’s just too much of a burden right now. I’d rather focus on something that my heart’s into at the moment. It’s not like I could even do Sing No Evil because of the time versus money issue, as it’d be a financial suicide.

So are you going to continue making Belzebubs? Can we look forward to more?

Yes! Looking forward to jumping back to a weekly schedule once I get everything sorted out with the album launch!

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