Nobody has brought the depth and breadth of Finnish folklore to readers in such an entertaining and engaging way like Emilia Ojala, also known as Pipilia. In her webtoon comic series Fox Fires, the Finnish creator pulls from the rich mythology of her native country to weave a story of talking animals, high adventure, and traversing the land of the dead. Beautifully rendered and seemingly-effortlessly told, the stories of Fox Fires are a joy, bringing light, life, and lessons about how to live in the world, whether you’re an anthropomorphic forest dweller or a human trying to do the right thing. And you can now catch Fox Fires here on Graphite!
In honor of Fox Fires making a home with Graphite, we spoke with Pipilia recently about the idea behind Fox Fires, its roots in Finnish folklore, the evolution of the story and structure of Fox Fires, and what we can expect to see in the webcomic moving forward.
FreakSugar: For readers who may not be familiar with the series, what can you tell us about the conceit behind Fox Fires?
Emilia Ojala: Fox Fires is a fantasy-adventure comic that’s heavily inspired by Finnish folklore. “Fox Fires” refers to Northern Lights; it’s basically just a literal translation from the Finnish word “revontulet.” (Revontulet = Repo’s fires. Repo is a nickname for a fox in Finnish language.)
Fox Fires are a gate between this world and the land of the dead. It allows souls to visit their own loved ones. But suddenly Fox Fires disappear. The main character, a young raccoon dog named Raate, goes to north to find what’s happened to Repo, a fire fox whose burning fur is said to make the Fox Fires appear to the sky. On her journey, Raate meets all kinds of weird creatures, but also new friends.
The story is told from animal’s perspective, because I wanted to take this story deep into the nature. The comic handles things like the relationship between humans and nature, friendships, family, self-growth, and, of course, teaching the readers about Finnish folklore. So, if you’re into folklore, cute animals and heartwarming adventures, I think you might like this story!
FS: As you said, Fox Fires is inspired by Finnish folklore. What was the genesis behind the series and digging into the folklore?
EO: I’ve always been very interested in folklore. It’s fun to see how people have seen the world around them. I remember that one night when I was reading about Finnish folklore for fun and then just started wondering why there aren’t more stories about this subject. Then something clicked inside my head: I could make a story based on this myself!
First I planned it to be about Otava, a young bear cub, who had lost his mother and needed to go find her. On his journey through the land, he would meet all these mythical creatures of the Finnish forests. But as time moved on, I changed the main character to be a raccoon dog named Raate, who was raised by bears and an owl. I also did major changes to the story too. Otava is still in the comic, now playing the role of Raate’s bear brother.
In the beginning this story was supposed to be an animated series, but since the story got much longer than expected, I made the decision to make it into comic instead. I’m glad I did this change, because animating a series all by myself would’ve taken years to finish and I’m sure I would’ve stopped doing it at some point because I’d get tired of it. So gladly that wasn’t the case and I can now share this story to people!
FS: You’ve created such a robust cast for Fox Fires. What can you tell us about the characters we find in the series?
EO: Raate is the main character of the comic. She is a young raccoon dog whose parents were hunted by humans. Raate wants to meet her parents, but since the Fox Fires have disappeared, she wants to solve the mystery. The fact that the story is based on the time when raccoon dogs were a rare species in Finland, motivates Raate even more. She has never met others of her kind. This also leads to other animals mistaking her often for a fox or a wolverine. Raate is very determined to find Repo the fire fox. She is still very young and naïve and that might cause some problems in the future.
Raate was raised by a bear named Kaarna and an owl named Paju. Kaarna and Paju have known each other for a long time and taking care of this raccoon dog cub is like a new adventure for them. Kaarna is a gentle mom bear, who soon gave birth to her own son, Otava. Otava and Raate have that typical sibling relationship, I’m sure many readers with siblings can relate to them.
Other characters include Tuike, a magpie that knows a lot about how things in the forest work, since he works for the Forest Elves. Then there is this one mysterious character, a lynx named Usva. He never talks and just appears and disappears randomly. No-one truly knows his motives or whose side he is on. Raate also meets a black cat, Hiili, who has self-doubts, since he thinks that he brings bad luck to everyone he meets. He joins Raate’s journey in hopes to find a home. These are the most important characters of the series. Or the characters I can talk about without spoiling the story too much!
FS: The series is so beautifully rendered and written. What is your approach when you tackle the story, both in plotting and in the art?
EO: I designed an art style for this comic specifically. Since this was supposed to be an animated series at first, I had to come up with a simple art style. So I just made the characters out of basic shapes and added some hair on them to give it some more personality. So that’s how this art style came to be. I love colors and I love painting. That’s why the backgrounds are often so rendered: because I enjoy drawing them. Also, I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my art, so I must always make the backgrounds look nice or I’m not satisfied with the work.
I think this story has a bit of an episodic approach, again from the animated series -times. Fox Fires is like a collection of small stories that still progress the main story forward in some way. That’s the thing I keep in mind when writing these “episodes”: every small story of this will have to progress the story, sometimes plot-wise and sometimes it’s to build relationships between characters.
FS: As it is inspired by Finnish folklore, what is the research process like when bringing your stories to life?
EO: It’s surprisingly hard to find information about Finnish folklore. Most Finnish people don’t even know much about our own mythology. I mean, everyone knows Kalevala (a national epic poem), since we’re forced to look into it in middle school, but there is actually so much more than just that! We’re still going to see some Kalevala elements in the story, since Kalevala plays a very big part in Finnish folklore. But to find non-Kalevala related things I’ve had to really dig deep to find the information. So I think that this story is also teaching the other Finns about our own folklore too!
I’ve managed to get three books about Finnish folklore that I use for research. Some creatures I’ve changed a little, so they would fit to the story better, mostly design -wise, because many of these creatures are descripted as human-like creatures. However, since I want to keep this story deep in the nature and from the perspective of animals, I try to avoid showing humans or humanoid creatures as little as possible. Besides, no-one has seen these creatures for real, so who knows what they actually look like? Giving these creatures my own designs is more fun to me too. Some creatures don’t even have a description about their looks.
For example Aarni, the guardian of treasures that we also meet in the comic, doesn’t have other description than just being a green or blue flame. The Finnish word for a griffin is “aarnikotka” (= aarni eagle) and that’s where this creature’s design is based from. Also with Kekri, people are not sure if it was the god of harvest or was it just a name for the celebration of the end of the harvest season. I went with the god of harvest because it fitted the story better. Kekri was described to be a goat made out of straw and sometimes he was descripted as a scarecrow. So I kind of mixed these two things when designing him. It’s things like that that I’ve taken some artistic freedom with.
FS: The series seems like it would be a joy to work on. What is your favorite part in creating Fox Fires?
EO: I really like working on Fox Fires! Especially drawing expressions is so much fun. Another part that I really enjoy doing – and this might sound shocking to many fellow artists out there – is drawing backgrounds! The chapters that have much scenery are the ones I feel like I enjoy the most! Sometimes I post those scenery panels to my social media without the text bubbles so people can see them in their full glory. Drawing those backgrounds usually take me 30-45 minutes to finish.
FS: Now that Fox Fires is on Graphite, are you excited that the series has another outlet for readers to discover your work?
EO: Yes! I’m very excited to be sharing this story with even more people! This world just needs more animal adventures, so that’s what I’m here to share!
FS: Is there anything you can tease about what we can expect to see in Fox Fires going forward?
EO: As we get closer and closer to the north, things are going to get more intense and even darker. The animals and creatures that have been warning Raate about the dangers of the north did have a reason to do so. So, what kind of new creatures will Raate meet there? Are humans as bad as Raate has been thinking all her life? What has happened to Repo the fire fox? These are the things that you will find out in the future episodes of Fox Fires!
Want to check out Fox Fires? Then take a gander at it for free here at Graphite!