interviews, Yleinen

Kakashi Made Him Into a Queer Cartoonist! – Interview with Paju Ruotsalainen

Paju Ruotsalainen (Photo by H-P Lehkonen)

I meet my boyfriend Paju Ruotsalainen in a café in Tikkurila, but this time we’re not on a date. Getting the word out about queer comics isn’t always easy. Many magazines have a slot for one comics interview and one gay interview a year, and those two clearly can’t overlap!! So why wait for someone else to interview a queer cartoonist? Here we have a blog! So this time I’m meeting Paju to ask him more about his work on comics.

Paju Ruotsalainen’s journey in comics started back when he was in the elementary school. Paju and his best friend gave each other small self made comics as gifts. They would fold printer papers in half and sew them together to form a small book, just like Paju’s mother had taught them. They tried to copy girls horsie magazines, but for a 10 year old writing articles was a bit too much. So the ”magazines” mainly consisted of comics and illustrations.

Paju is a Finnish comics artist who’s lived all around Finland. From Hyvinkää to Liminka and all the way to Kuopio and Jyväskylä. Now he has settled down in the Helsinki area and he feels he belongs there. In Finland if you say ”comics education”, you’ll think of Liminka School of Arts. The school is especially notable internationally for it’s paid Cartoonist Residency Program organized together with the Oulu Comics Society. When Paju was 22 he studied in the Liminka school. He says it’s one of the most formative experiences in his life. In his diary comics collection ”The Fifteen Diaries” he talks about the things he did in Liminka, and about the emptiness inside him when he left the school. When asked he listed 8 cities and towns he’s lived in and told me and even if he had lived in Liminka only for a year, he feels it’s still a part of him.

Comic strip from the collection “The Fifteen Diaries” by Paju Ruotsalainen.

When Paju was 13 he saw something he had never seen before. It was an artwork in a youth magazine. The description said it was ”manga style”. Paju had never seen such beauty. He made sure to memorize the word ”manga” because clearly it was something very important. He wanted to know more, but because he lived so far in the countryside that there was no internet, it took him a long time before he finally found out more about this mysterious ”manga”.

Paju has always been an enthusiastic patron of the public library. He especially borrowed a lot of comics. At 14 years old he found Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. Only the books 1 to 6 were translated to Finnish and he read and reread them again and again. He was especially impressed by how Otomo drew blood and he copied that into his own style. To this day this is how he draws blood, now he just does it better than when he was 14.

As a teenager Paju loved both writing and drawing. Being a smart boy, he came up with a great idea. In comics he could combine these two skills! He immediately tried to draw an epic fantasy adventure and after 2 pages he noticed it was very difficult and tiresome. He hadn’t considered the fact that you have to draw the same faces again and again. That was when he decided comics are too hard and he should become an interior designer instead (he told me that sounded easier).

It wasn’t easier though. Changing the layout of his own room was hard enough, anything more than that is too much work. As all teenagers, he searched for his passion, but everything fell a bit short. His dream about becoming a travel guide died when he realized he’d have to be actively social and his oldest dream, from he was 4 years old, died when he found out being a superhero with a dinosaur sidekick might not be an actual thing. It wasn’t just that news covered up the existence of super heroes, they just didn’t exist. Not that he even watched the news when he was four, they we’re too boring for someone who was expecting to hear more about dinosaurs and less about politics.

Queer comics and how to find them?

Self Portrait of the Soft Boy by Paju Ruotsalainen.

At age 14 Paju hadn’t watched Naruto yet, but he knew about it thanks to reading about it on a gaming magazine. He had seen pictures of Kakashi, who was clearly the most awesome character he had ever seen. He had a huge crush on Kakashi and once in library computer he decided to search Kakash’s name on Google. What he found then shocked him! He found art of Kakashi and Iruka kissing and being intimate! How could Kakashi be gay? And did Kakashi already have a boyfriend? Paju was supposed to get Kakashi all to himself! Soon he found out this wasn’t the case, and that it’s a common theme in fandoms to ship two male characters together.

A couple of years later when Paju was 16 he finally got into a school where students were allowed to use the computers (and the internet access) after school. By then he had gotten past his initial shock about Kakashi possibly being gay, and now he thought it was actually the greatest thing ever. So what do you do when you find something that’s the greatest thing ever? You might not agree with Paju, but the first thing he did was that he told his mother. I can’t stop laughing when Paju explains me the conversation starting with the sentence ”Mom, I have to tell you that gay sex is… good.” His mother didn’t comment much, she was just worried for Paju’s younger siblings hearing too much, especially his youngest brother who was only 9 back then. Well, nowadays he is also queer, so things turned out better than expected!

Paju stops to ponder his past for a while. ”My behaviour back then was pretty fetishizing towards gay men. I’m glad I have grown more respectful since then.”

”I only realized the reason for my enthusiasm a few years ago when I realized I’m a trans man.” Paju explains. ”I related to the comics a lot. Both me and the comic characters were fictional gay men.” Besides growing more respectful, Paju has also grown to be a non-fictional queer man.

What makes your heart sing?

After this particular question Paju goes silent for a long time. I assume he might be uncomfortable with the question and tell him it’s okay to skip a question if it doesn’t feel relevant, but he replies. ”Seeing people just being casually queer. Like, people walking on the street holding hands. It’s such a small thing but at the same time it’s huge, because they make themselves visible. It’s not that hard to do, but it’s still a thing you have to think through every time. Is it safe to hold hands here today on this street at this time of the day around these people? I know I’m on the same boat as them I feel happy for them and for myself.”

I thought this would be just an interview where I ask my boyfriend to tell me about his comics, but we have gotten deeper than that. Paju’s words make me reflect my own feelings. I’m the one of us who seems bolder. I’m louder than Paju, yet I’m the one who’s more afraid. I’m the one who doesn’t hold hands in public, because I’m afraid of transphobic or homophobic violence. Who would have thought I’d be so touched by the words of the person I talk to every day.

I stay silent for a while before I ask my last actual question.

What do you want to tell to the world with your comics?

”You’re not alone. There’s others like you, with same kind of thoughts and experiences about subjects that can be hard… like depression, ADHD, being trans and not being straight. It’s been important to me to hear the experiences of others and that has helped me understand myself better. I’m sure others feel the same. Somehow, narrating that inner experience feels natural to me.”

Page from the “Spoiler: He Was Trans” comic by Paju Ruotsalainen.

Paju is the author of two publications, ”Spoiler: He Was Trans” and ”The Fifteen Diaries”. Apart from those, he’s made several comic zines in both Finnish and English and his works have been published in Finnish anthologies. He’s also taken part in art exhibitions in Finland and France.

But what next?

Paju tells me he has two passion projects he plans to work on. Second part for the ”Spoiler: He Was Trans” comic, because ”I have so many new feelings about the issue nowadays.” and an unnamed Monster Erotica story idea. ”It’s about a fuckboy who meets a monster and realizes he’s gay.” Paju tells me. I am intriqued.

He also tells me he’s working on a commissioned script for a comic about ”pantsdrunk” which is a Finnish introverted way of getting drunk in the best possible company, alone and he’s thinking about making a satirical comic essay about poverty tourism, where he tells how he’s ”tested out” being poor since the day he was born.

If you’re now interested in Paju’s works, you can find his comics ”Spoiler: He Was Trans” and ”The Fifteen Diaries” from the shop. You can also follow him on Twitter or Instagram (@seittilelu on both).

Paju Ruotsalainen (Photo by H-P Lehkonen)

As we leave the café, I gather my courage and hold my hand out to Paju. We walk to the train hand in hand.

Written by H-P Lehkonen (@hplehkonen on Twitter and Instagram)

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