Beatles fan draws the early history of the Fab Four
Mauri Kunnas, probably Finland's best-known living children's illustrator, dropped his young audience for a year and concentrated on his favourite band. The result was an 80-page graphic novel, to be published later this month.
By Arto Pajukallio
Mauri Kunnas, 62, is known as a children's illustrator and one-time cartoonist, the prolific and much-fêted author of countless children's books that are standard Christmas-stocking fare hereabouts and have been translated into umpteen languages, and some have further been adapted for stage, film, and opera.
He has even had his handiwork licked by thousands, as there have been a fair few Finnish commemorative stamps (especially with a Christmas motif) that feature Kunnas's characters.
Kunnas is also a very reasonable guitarist, having rediscovered the instrument in the past few years, and plays with a bunch of fellow amateur musicians - many of them front-line authors and illustrators themselves - in a garage band called The Nyrok Dolls.
For the purposes of this article, however, we shall be concentrating on a third aspect of Kunnas: dedicated, semi-obsessive Beatles fan of nearly fifty years' standing.
Mauri Kunnas got his first, apparently immediately addictive hit of the Fab Four as a schoolboy, at the turn of the year in 1963-64.
By that stage Beatlemania had already swept across the UK, and the rest of the world was catching up fast.
He saw the band in print before he ever heard them playing.
"I was lying on the sofa one evening and watching the TV. My mother was sitting in a rocking-chair and reading a weekly paper, which had a piece about this long-haired British band that was setting the nation on fire."
The mop-topped foursome were splashed across a double-page spread in Viikkosanomat that concentrated on pictures from "The World This Week".
In the image in question, they were seen running for a taxi, presumably escaping from screaming fans.
The 13-year-old Mauri was immediately interested.
He began to devour the band's music via the reel-to-reel tape deck of an older boy living next door, from foreign radio stations like Radio Luxembourg (on 208 metres AM, though the signal wasn't exactly strong this far north), and from the local bar, where the otherwise parsimonious teenager pumped his few spare coins into the jukebox.
He also set off from his home in Vammala as soon as circumstances permitted, to catch the Beatles' movies - A Hard Day's Night and Help - at cinemas in Helsinki.
In spite of the enthusiasm for the Mersey Sound, not all the Beatles' singles struck a chord with Kunnas on first hearing.
"Help, for instance, seemed to me to be so incredibly monotonous that at first I thought it was complete rubbish!"
Kunnas also admits that even now he prefers the music from the early era of innocent chart-oriented pop over the later psychedelic sound that emerged with the likes of Sgt. Pepper's.
But to return to Kunnas himself. After a spell as a political cartoonist, including a brief stint with Helsingin Sanomat, and after drawing a rock-related comic strip cartoon entitled Nyrok City for several papers, Kunnas has matured into a much-loved and hugely successful writer of children's books, most of them featuring anthropomorphic animals - dogs and cats for preference.
It all started in 1979 with a volume entitled The Book of Finnish Elves (Suomalainen Tonttukirja), that was rapidly followed by a huge bestseller about their boss, Santa Claus.
This character has been returned to on several occasions, and down the years Kunnas has also explored works of Finnish literature (including Aleksis Kivi's novel The Seven Brothers and a canine version of the national epic Kalevala that is also a tongue-in-cheek hommage to the National Romantic paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela).
He has written numerous theme-related picture books on such things as sports, transport, making a newspaper, pirates, and space exploration, and he has even taken on subjects outside of Finland, such as the Wild West, the Arthurian Legends, Robin Hood, the Vikings, and most recently an interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel Treasure Island.
What all these books have in common is colossal sales (especially in the weeks before Christmas) and a nice touch with repeated characters that the younger readers can spot from the drawings long before they understand the plot.
One particular favourite, who has also been given titles of his own, is a sleep-walking goat called Mr. Clutterbuck (Herra Hakkarainen) that children love to find from each page, almost like the Where's Wally? phenomenon.
Thus far Kunnas's books have been translated into 28 languages and published in 32 countries, with sales of nearly seven million.
But now he's taken a break from all this, and gone back to his roots.
"A couple of years ago I decided I was probably so long in the tooth that if I ever intended to do something about The Beatles, it would have to be now or never. I resolved to take a sabbatical year from making children's books."
The upshot of all this is an 80-page graphic novel, as he describes it, covering the individual and common early years of the four Beatles, up to the end of 1962 and the recording of Please Please Me, the band's first UK No.1 hit single.
The book is a visually impressive history, with most of the normal Kunnas attributes, but - at least by comparison with the standard fare - it is exceptionally heavy on text.
It is also remarkably accurate in the historical details.
"I had thought originally that I wouldn't draw everything exactly as it was, but that was before I visited John Lennon and Paul McCartney's childhood homes in Liverpool. I then decided I'd better do the details properly."
The project has required a fair amount of detective work.
"As an old-school illustrator, I started off working on the comic strips from things I got out of books, but the Net has been a huge help when I've had to check out how such and such a church really looked, or what Lime Street Station in Liverpool looks like. For the streets in Hamburg, I called on the services of Google Maps and StreetView", Kunnas recalls.
There were other challenges relating to the minor characters.
One such was the figure of George Smith, the husband of John Lennon's Aunt Mimi, who was the woman who effectively brought Lennon up in the absence of his mother.
"With him, I just drew a pretty vague image. In the Beatles literature, there are pictures of at least three different men who are presented as Uncle George. Even in the Beatles Anthology book from 2000 they have the wrong guy in the photo. You can check it out against Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird's book Imagine This: she knows perfectly well who the real Uncle George was."
The ideas phase and the actual drawing of the Beatles book did not cause Kunnas much difficulty, but the computer-aided colouring of the individual frames proved a real headache.
During the summer, Kunnas worked on tidying up some small details to the narrative and pictures.
In late August he spent time in Liverpool during "International Beatle Week", a fan gathering that includes live tribute band gigs, exhibitions, memorabilia sales, guest speakers, video shows, sightseeing tours, and a fans' convention. While he was there he showed some of the manuscript, already translated in part into English, to the doyen of Beatles historians, Mark Lewisohn (the author of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years, and The Complete Beatles Chronicle).
"Lewisohn made one or two important observations and corrections, and he was particularly delighted to see that I had drawn Bobby Dykins - the father to John Lennon's two half-sisters - with one eye half-shut, because he had a nervous tic. And Lewisohn is the sort of guy who knows these things!"
It is not that hard to envisage that sooner or later Kunnas himself might be invited along to Beatle Week as a guest speaker.
His Piitles novel is unique both in scope and realisation, and with the proper partners on the foreign rights side of things it could even become an international success.
The story of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (who makes a premature appearance in this book, albeit only in John Lennon's more troubled dreams) would also be a fascinating topic for a similar comic strip venture, says Kunnas.
"Then again, there's a little bit of fear that it wouldn't all end up in court. Some might say I've been a bit naughty in the way I've treated some of the characters", the illustrator admits.
Piitles, tarina erään rockbändin alkutaipaleesta ("From this day on you are BEATLES with an A") will be published by Otava on October 22nd.
Helsingin Sanomat / Adapted from an article first published in print 5.10.2012
Mauri Kunnas (Wikipedia)
Kunnas has not shied away from exploring subjects outside the immediate Finnish experience
The sleepwalking Mr. Clutterbuck (Herra Hakkarainen) is a regular feature of the children´s books, and even has his own titles.
Mauri Kunnas website
Mauri Kunnas Christmas stamps on a philatelist´s blog
The Finnish edition of Mauri Kunnas´s Canine Kalevala from 1992
ARTO PAJUKALLIO / Helsingin Sanomat