Devil in the Details – Singing No Evil with JP Ahonen

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As I was pulling together resources for Cover Versions, I came across Sing No Evil on the shelves of Orbital Comics. Seeing the band on the cover, I had to pick it up. Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.
Sing No Evil tells the tale of Aksel and his bandmates in Perkeros as they struggle against forces both everyday & extraordinary, whilst trying to make it in the local music scene, and demons both personal & literal!
I reached out to co-creator & illustrator of the book JP Ahonen to discover the origins of the book.

When did the idea for Sing No Evil first come about?

Way back in 2006, we started playing around with the idea of making a book, based on our joint history of music & making music – I’ve known KP since 1st grade, so we go a long way back. Since high school, we’d worked on several different projects together: ranging from comics, composing music, making short films: all that stuff. Heavy metal & recording music was especially important at this time, and something we wanted to revisit in some way.
At first we really didn’t know what the format of the project would be: It could have been strips, but since I’ve always wanted to do a graphic novel, we found a way for the story of Perkeros to work in that format.

Finland has a long history with heavy metal: where do you think that originates?

People usually refer to the long cold winters, but I think it’s a mix of that & our persona: We’re sort of timid & quiet, but there’s a lot of suppressed anger, and I think it’s a good way to vent things. I just feel its logical that sort of music is so popular here.

Britain also has a great metal history: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath…

If you think about Iron Maiden & stuff like that, it’s something that evokes story, especially hand in hand with comics. I remember as a kid passing record stores and almost being afraid of Eddie. I felt this sort of danger & appeal to that artistic style, and the art told a story before you even heard a note of the music.

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What is the Finnish comic industry like? Is there a general common acceptance?

It’s improved a lot. As I grew up, I read mostly Franco-Belgian titles – Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke & so on. Donald Duck is huge here, for some reason! I think in Finland, people usually think of comics in terms of newspaper strips. Graphics novels and longer stories is a tougher climate. You’re lucky if you can sell a thousand copies, so it’s nothing to build a profession on. Most of my friends, work on illustration gigs for magazines, ad agencies, that kind of stuff, to be able to focus on our own projects at some point.
Finland does have a huge alternative and small press scene, that is honestly really good. A big shout out to Tommi Musturi and the like for raising the bar each year.

There are many parallels between the production of comics & music: they can both be created anywhere, but for the most part, it takes studio time to get them “done”.

I haven’t really thought this through when working on the weekly strips, but with Sing No Evil there was a conscious method of trying to balance the story as if I’d be composing music. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term synaesthesia, but I see all art forms and inspiration in this way, basically. Everything is linked. The choice of color in a panel will, to me, set a tone and mood.  Panel layout and pacing itself: it’s just like creating a rhythm. I also tried my best to add recurring elements that would support a theme, if you will, as if it were a classical composition or a movie soundtrack. Also the weapons of choice concerning the art & line in itself have clear links to music and style; A trashy, rough linework will evoke a more punkish, aggressive feeling than crisp, polished inks, for example. In Sing No Evil I deliberately chose to stick to one set of “inking”, as I wanted to kind of reserve other styles and methods for possible later use.

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Did you listen to much music when working on the book?

As I was scripting the book, I really didn’t want to read books, or watch movies & television; I didn’t want to be influenced by them. The only thing I could really do was listen to music: there was no visuals or prose to distract. I always had a soundtrack going on in the background to pinpoint the specific mood I was after.

Do you find that its better to listen to lyrics with music, or instrumental?

It doesn’t really matter, but it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing dialogue, or focussing on the “writing”, lyrics can be distracting. But usually, anything goes.

The process between you and KP seems to have been very collaborative: tell me about that.

We bounced a text document back and forth & wrote different bits & pieces of scenes. Whenever one of us would get stuck, I would just write “This needs to happen in this scene, I don’t know how to fool around with it, but……” and then I’d send it over to KP & he’d write something.
The script it’s difficult to pinpoint who did what: It’s really fluid. After the script was set in stone, I thumb-nailed, and passed them to KP who, for the most part said they were ok, so I had pretty much artistic control of the book, but I sent him every stage: notes, pencils, inks, colours, everything.

How long did that overall process take?

The first couple of years, we were both working on other things, but kept making notes. In 2010 we sat down to writer a proper synopsis & script for the book. With the script we put together 12 example pages, and that ultimately got us the green light from a local publisher. It still took me 2 years to gain the financial buffer to produce the book.
From there, thumbnails to finish, took a year & seven months or so: January 2012 – July 2013.

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Given this is a book about a band and comics is a silent medium, what was the biggest challenge of conveying the musical nature of it?

When we first envisioned the book, all the concert scenes were pretty much absurd, and had no sort of structure, and had no balance between each other. As I was doing the thumbnails, I realised there need to be a hierarchy of how the concerts looked: depending on whether its a dream sequence, or rehearsal, or the show, mainly because the band evolves within the book.
I think the main challenge was to decide which way to go: since you can do pretty much whatever you like. In my initial sketches, the concert at Oktoberfest looked completely different. Before I inked the scene, I realised that it needs to tell the story forward, on many layers both with the lyrics, and the composition & storytelling with the panels & all the surreal, hallucinogenic stuff.

With the surreal elements: it’s an interesting balance, (one of the band members is a bear) how did you go about handling that?

It was definitely a challenge, and we think we justified it all. We were discussing our options & what we were doing with our editor, and he said “You’re making a progressive book, then stick to that progressive structure. It doesn’t need to be Hollywood & linear.” We were really happy that he was bold enough to grant us our vision, and supported what we wanted to do with the book.
If you think about progressive metal, it’s all about pushing forward, and challenging the listener so we wanted to effectively make a prog metal album in comic form. The bear definitely was there to set the tone: that there may be something a bit odd, so that as the story progresses, the further fantastical elements seem right.

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In one scene, Kervonen & Aksel discuss the difference in vinyl & CD, and which is superior: Do you work digitally, analogue, or a combination?

Nowadays I work digitally, partly because I wanted Sing No Evil to have new sort of artistic style. I did numerous tests, and I felt that I would have need to blow up the original inks to a ridiculous size: I would have had to go to newspaper size to include all the details! Working digitally, I can ink and use a high-resolution, I don’t need to worry about stock.
As we were scripting the book, we both had this idea of making a gritty, and pretty snotty look, so that it would be black & white, something more fanzine like, than as detailed as this. As I was doing the thumbnails, I realised that one of the key elements is The perfectionist side of Aksel, and that the devil is in the details . So I reworked my ideas to support that.

Aksel walks a fine line between passion & obsession in his pursuit of greatness with the band. Despite the support of his band mates & girlfriend, it never quite seems enough.

That’s one of the topics we wanted to raise: what is enough? what will suffice? In any case, the theme, making music, performing, creating songs, it’s an allegory for anything that you’re passionate about creating. I really don’t think you need to be a metal head or music junkie to appreciate the book. I hope that whoever picks it up can find a link to something he or she is personally invested in. Naturally that sort of dilemma that Aksel is struggling with is something that is quite close to my own heart.

Rather than just leaving the music performance in the book to floating notes, you include lyrics, and have you own idea of how the band would sound. Given your joint background in making music, was there ever a temptation to record some Perkeros demos?

That would be the final blow for the whole book! Readers can listen to whatever they like, and sort of soundtrack it themselves. Even though we have a playlist, it’s not a soundtrack to the book: it’s a glimpse behind the scenes: what we listened to when making the book, what sort of bands and songs have influenced it.

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You currently work on a weekly strip, Northern Overexposure: How does the approach differ?

There used to be more of a buffer, but now I mange to get one strip out a week. Over time, its evolved from a sort of punchline based strip into a more linear, ongoing story. But it still works standalone.
Usually, I have a theme of storyline in mind, but I improvise quite a lot with how I get there. Then when I’m compiling the actual books, I edit a lot of the stuff I’ve been publishing through the newspaper, and make it more coherent, allowing the stories to align more neatly. With Sing No Evil, there’s less room for improvisation, so this provides a nice balance.

Are there any plans for an English translation?

Strip work appeals to a different market, and I haven’t really tried to push for it, as I was focussing on Sing No Evil But thematically: Student life, drinking & bars trying to find work: its universal.

That’s what really works well in Sing No Evil: Even though it’s set in Finland, it could be anywhere.

I was happy that Abrams didn’t want to change the location. For me, I don’t feel the need to change to an imaginary Northern town in the States, for example. Especially when the band starts “touring”; you need the actual locations to exist to have that contrast and to explore other places. Since Northern Overexposure is based in a generic university city, we wanted to have realness in Sing No Evil, to contrast the fantastic side.

By the end of the book, we have a complete arc for most of the characters, and the final panel is probably one of my personal favourites in a long time. Do you have plans for further Perkeros stories?

It was initially designed as a series of books. Since we had no idea whether it would be a success, we designed the story to stand alone. If only 15 people pick it up, we’ll go with that. Thankfully, more did! We were lucky enough to continue with the band and theme. We know the ending but we’re still working out the order in which to get the band there.

Is it proving to be a difficult second album?

We are definitely experiencing the difficult second album syndrome right now! As I was editing the story of the first book, I needed to use some of the elements that I had planned to use in the second volume, so there’s a little bit of reworking to be done.
The success also brings a little pressure: we thought, maybe we can get one foreign deal, but now it’s been picked up in several countries: in May we have a Swedish/Danish translation as well. If you think about the Finnish market, you’re lucky if you can sell more than a 1000 copies, so its sort of doubled our pressure!

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JP lives in Tampere, Finland, where he writes and draws comics. He enjoys cooking, making music and getting tattooed but dislikes writing biographies in third person. You can find out more about his work here, and follow the story of Perkeros here.

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