Raising Belzebubs: a Trve Kvlt Documentary by JP Ahonen
Whether the popularity of heavy metal in northern Europe is due to the long, dark winters or just a different cultural attitude, nobody can deny the huge impact that it has around the world. Heavy guitar riffs, slick double-bass drums, and growling vocals accompany images of corpse paint, black leather, and steel spikes – typically worn by a group posing menacingly in a dark forest, of course.
While I’ve just described the archetypal look of your quintessential metal band, Belzebubs is the first “band” that comes to my mind since discovering the comic. This “trve kvlt documentary in comic strip form” is the brainchild of JP Ahonen, an illustrator based out of Tampere, Finland. The series revolves around the band, the member’s families, ladies in their lives, and the shenanigans that ensue within a normal dark life with a twist of satanic humor that makes me giggle with dismal glee. Join Dear Darkling as we talk with JP about how the series came to be and the future for Belzebubs.
Dear Darkling: How did your webcomic come into being? What started the story of Belzebubs?
JP Ahonen: Belzebubs began as a personal therapy project of some sort. I’d had a rough couple of years with freelance projects and had just finished my graphic novel Sing No Evil (published by Abrams ComicArts), only to find myself depressed and burnt out. I was crippled by fatigue, immense self-criticism, and self-hatred, and felt like I’d lost interest in my work and drawing in general.
For some reason I thought I’d fight fire with fire and draw myself out the pits, you know? This was October 2015, and people were participating in the Inktober challenge. I’d already missed a few days (and shouldn’t have had time for it anyhow), but I saw it as an opportunity to force myself to push something out, something other than “work.” Instead of improving my inking, I wanted to loosen up and have fun, and for whatever reason, I improvised this little gag with two black metal dudes (the ”Dried Vomit” one, I think). They were fun to draw, so I made black metal a sort of loose theme for myself but ended up quitting the challenge after 20 or so days due to work and other stuff.
Anyhow, the characters and concept kept bugging me afterwards, so I figured I’d redraw some of the strips and start pushing them out on a weekly basis at some point. I wanted a proper set of characters this time, so I came up with this mockumentary concept and started improvising from there onwards, just to keep it fun and surprising for myself too.
After a hundred strips or so, I see that plan failed miserably, ha. Belzebubs took on a life of its own, as the characters started demanding proper storylines, subplots, histories, etc. Now I have another grand project on my hands, but I have to say things are different this time around. I’m really having a blast with these characters, finding out who they are and where they’ll end up next.
Are your characters based on any particular person in appearance or personality? (fellow metal head? favorite musician?)
No, not really. Sam and his friend Gavin are a little nod towards the frontmen of Porcupine Tree and Opeth, of course, but even if they bear resemblance to Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt, I think of the characters as completely different people.
Being a fellow lover of metal music, what are you listening to these days?
I’ve been plowing through a lot of stuff lately: Mastodon, Long Distance Calling, Lunatic Soul, Behemoth, Ihsahn, Insomnium, Tribulation, Mors Principium Est, Be’Lakor, just to name a few…
How did you get into sequential artwork? Did you always want to be a comic artist/illustrator, or was that something that developed later?
I started doing comics around the age of 13 or so, and although I dreamed of making it big (whatever that meant), I had my doubts about being able to make it a profession. During college, I started dating and playing the guitar more seriously, so priorities changed…
I ended up studying graphic design at the University of Lapland, though (yes, on the Arctic Circle), and found myself as a summer intern in a Finnish newspaper, Aamulehti. I was mostly working in infographics – making pie charts, maps, etc. – but also had the chance to make some illustrations for articles and a few comics. The paper was looking for a new weekly strip at the time, and luckily the editor in charge of the comics asked me if I had some ideas of what could fit. I casually joked that maybe I should offer something of my own, and to my surprise the editor was interested. The problem was that I had nothing… I basically slipped out a white lie, saying I’d been fooling around with a concept of some sort, and (long story short) that moment resulted in me getting my first strip series out there. Villimpi Pohjola (or Northern Overexposure, as I’d translate it), has been published for 15 years now. Crazy!
Another big step was when Kazu Kibuishi, who I’d bumped into online earlier, invited me onboard the Flight Anthologies. I’m forever grateful for that opportunity, as I made so many good friends and really grew as an artist and storyteller. I mean, Kazu, Bannister, Kean Soo, Raina Telgemeier, Becky Cloonan, Vera Brosgol, Jen Wang, Hope Larson, Tony Cliff, Scott C., just to name a few…I’m still blown away that I had the chance to be part of that crew. They’re the best.
What would you say is the most indispensable item in your studio that allows you to work? Any favorite tools of the trade?
Coffee? Currently, I do most of my work and projects digitally, so I’d have to say my faithful Mac Pro and Cintiq. However, everything still starts with pen and paper, so I think whatever pencil is around would suffice.
Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?
Belzebubs has become a dream project, as I’m getting to do all kinds of interesting stuff with it (you’ll know more within a few months). Finishing the Sing No Evil series would be amazing, of course, but I’m kind of cautious about putting myself through that meat grinder again. I have three kids now and my youngest is only three months old, so they’re my priority at the moment. I’ll (hopefully) have plenty of time to work on new personal projects once they don’t appreciate my company that much anymore.
What advice would you give to budding artists/illustrators who want to break into graphic novels or comics?
The scene and business is so diverse that there are a number of ways to make it. I think it’s equally important to write and draw about what makes you tick and you feel passionate about, but also force yourself out of your comfort zone. I learned a great deal when making political satire for five years, for example. It was an intimidating experience, but in the end, I think I excelled, and feel some of my best work are in those political/contemporary strips.
I personally keep struggling with time and patience, and especially in our modern world, it’s way too easy to start comparing your work, speed, and achievements to what others are doing or have accomplished. Things take time, and it’s sometimes difficult to just keep your head down and draw, you know? I’ve failed and redone things more times than I can remember, and I’m sure that applies to every other artist as well. Those things just don’t show in the end product. So I think I’d also say that it’s important for new artists have patience and maintain their focus. Just remember that things usually take way more time than expected (and that the first version is always shit).
I’ve also noticed that setting up goals, as unattainable as they’d feel, can help you on the way. Every now and then you’re presented with options, and if you know what you wish to aim for, your subconscious will guide you in the right direction. That said, my subconscious has fucked me over numerous times, but I think those terrible detours have also steered me back on track. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as you can learn from them.
As with any social media presence, haters are always going to hate. Any amusing stories you’d like to share about having to deal with trolls?
Yeah, I’ve had my share, though none of them have been exactly memorable. I have a relatively good bunch following my works, and I’m grateful for all the encouragement from my readers. I try to pay more attention to positive feedback and give that energy back, instead of wasting time on trolls or people who don’t get what I’m aiming at.
Belzebubs has received a great response in its short lifetime. What future plans, if any, do you have for the series? Have you been approached to expand the series past a comic strip in any capacity?
Yeah, I’ve been rather overwhelmed by how things have moved with Belzebubs. I try my best to focus on the work, though, and not obsess over the number of likes, comments, and followers. My job is to keep my head down and feet on the ground, you know, even if I’m aiming high. I’d love to expand on the series, of course, but only in ways that are fitting for the concept. I have something coming up in June, actually, but I can’t really talk about that yet.