Moga Mobo – Comix for Everybody

“Comix for everybody” is the motto of comic illustrators Titus Ackermann, Jonas Greulich and Thomas Gronle. The Berlin trio has been producing the “Moga Mobo” comic since 1994, and distributes it free of charge in pubs, cinemas and comic shops throughout Germany. Titus Ackermann talks about their current projects in this interview, and reveals the secret of a good comic.

© Moga Mobo

The Moga Mobo group brought out the book “100 Meisterwerke der Weltliteratur” (100 Masterpieces of World Literature) in November 2009, with Ehapa Verlag as publisher. In it, literature classics are presented on one page each. How did this project come about?

Ackermann: We already had the idea a few years ago for our free magazine Moga Mobo. Back then a paperback was created, which sold out extremely quickly however. After that we kept having queries from people who wanted to know if the book was still available. That’s why we decided to revise the book and make it available again. Admittedly it’s not free, but it does now have the stories on good quality paper, with a substantial binding and at a fair price.

The “Moga Mobo” comic has a circulation of around 20 000 copies and is distributed free of charge. What does this magazine mean to you?

When we started in 1994, we simply wanted to do a comic and create a platform so that we could do our own drawing. Back then we were primarily dealing with publishing issues. After three or four years we were rather tired of that. Then we re-orientated ourselves and started doing projects and special editions.

For example there was a magazine on the subject of the summer break (Sommerloch or “summer hole” in German). In the middle of the magazine we had a hole punched out. The illustrators had to draw around the hole. Or we produced an advent calendar for which 24 illustrators designed a little 16-page booklet in A7 format. It contained the usual schmaltzy Christmas stories, but also stories that tackled the celebration critically.

The Moga Mobo magazines are our personal playground, to put our ideas into practice. We earn the money from advertising, illustrating children’s books or graphic art. We frequently have to accept compromises in design or form as well. The Moga Mobo magazines are free. None of the collaborators or illustrators receives money. But we don’t enter into any compromises either. If an advertising customer doesn’t like the theme, then he simply doesn’t run his advert.

What’s the most difficult aspect of the project?

It’s easy to find individual themes. There are countless notebooks with ideas that we probably can’t take any further due to lack of time. The most difficult aspect of the project is the distribution logistics. The idea is for lots of people to get their hands on the magazines. And we want to show what comics contain beyond Spiderman and Mickey Mouse. For that we need a high circulation, several thousand Euros for printing, and money to distribute the magazines.

Why do you distribute the magazines free of charge?

The majority of people simply don’t come into contact with comics – however fantastic they are. Comic shops are still a bit like tattoo parlours, for instance: everybody knows one, but hardly anyone has ever been in one. That’s why our magazines are not only available from comic shops, but also from pubs, cinemas and clothes shops.

Admittedly the situation has changed in the last four or five years. Graphic novels, as comic strips for adults are called, have contributed a great deal towards the fact that comics now have a better status and get more attention. The media have noticed that comics can also tackle difficult subjects, and aren’t just embarrassing or silly.

What’s changed since 1994?

The magazines have become more professional. Organisation has become easier because we know certain parameters. We know how to get a price for printing. Enlisting advertisers is no longer a sacred cow that you have to tiptoe around, you just get on with it. This professionalisation is probably also linked with the fact that we work as illustrators or graphic artists. The catchment area has broadened too: we know more and more comic illustrators from around the world, not just the people from our own district or the local comic club in Berlin-Mitte.

© Moga MoboYou’ve done a project with a Japanese comic artist group with the name Nou Nou Hau (a parody on “No-know-how”). How did that come about?

It started with the Manga boom in Germany. Back then we thought: there are hundreds of professional comic illustrators and comics with circulation in the millions in Japan, so there must also be illustrators who operate away from the mainstream and do independent comics. A Japanese friend helped us compose letters and e-mails, because in that sense the Japanese are a bit hoity-toity and often don’t react to a letter in English.

Then we were invited to Tokyo. Funnily enough it became clear fairly quickly that we had common denominators with our hosts even on the first evening in Japan in the restaurant. We grew up with similar things, we all know Heidi the cartoon character, we’ve all heard Falco and seen the same Hollywood films. Just globalised youth culture really. So there was plenty to joke about on the same level. But of course it was also fortunate that we encountered kindred spirits in the Nou Nou Hau group.

Was it difficult working together?

There are certain ground rules when it comes to telling a story in pictures. You can learn them, apply them or deliberately ignore them. In that sense, collaborating with the Japanese was easy. Of course there was a language barrier: if I want to explain that the page layout’s wrong, I need the language for it. Or I take a serviette and draw a different layout on it, and then the other person carries on drawing on it.

The trips to Japan were a personal gain. We come from a Christian European environment. In Japan there are different behaviour patterns, for instance when you introduce yourself to strangers. I’m sure we made plenty of faux pas, and later we laughed our heads off at the faux pas made by the Japanese in Germany.

Later on you implemented a project for the Goethe-Institut ...

Yes, we hit it off so well right from the start in Japan that for our second visit to Tokyo we decided to put some documentation together and present it to the Goethe-Institut. The Institute liked it so much that we were commissioned to do a project two years later for the “Germany in Japan” year.

Back then, some of the things that were happening included Porsche cars being shipped to Japan, designer Wolfgang Joop presenting his clothing collection and the Berlin Philharmonic playing a few concerts. In my view that came across more as “cultural aid”. Of course that’s essential too, but for us it somewhat lacked the idea of “exchange” and “cooperation”.

We on the other hand spent months working with the Japanese illustrators at Nou Nou Hau. An exhibition was created, and the Kugelblitz (ball lightning) catalogue, which gave insight into the life of freelance illustrators in Germany and Japan. The exhibition was a great success in Tokyo, there were television and newspaper interviews. It was opened by the son of Manga “godfather” Osamu Tezuka, Macoto Tezuka, and was shown in Germany later.

© Moga MoboWhat makes a good comic?

Good stories are the most important of all. There are plenty of talented illustrators who sadly have no stories to tell. But there are only a few illustrators who write brilliant stories and can carry them off with attractive, eye-catching graphics. I will put aside a well-drawn story that isn’t readable or doesn’t draw me in.

If it’s a good story you stick with it, in that case the illustration quality isn’t even that important. You can tell great stories even with sketches. It might not be the best, but it’s interesting anyway. But if the comic gets too arty and the entertainment value is lost as a result, I lose interest in it. As I understand it at least, comics are not just independent graphics.

If Mickey Mouse and Superman belong to the “mainstream”, then the comic illustrators who don’t bother too much about how readable a story is, or who are heavily into the idea of independent graphics or art, can be considered “high art”. With Moga Mobo we are between “high art” and “mainstream”.

What would you wish for in the future?

That comic literature finds a place in society that’s virtually the norm. Comics are incredibly powerful in their capacity to radiate. They influence all media. That can be seen from clothes design, graphics, advertising, computer games, cinema and television.

Despite this 95 per cent of comic illustrators in Germany are unable to make a living from their stories at the moment. It would be nice if a comic that you’ve worked on for a year would sell 10 000 copies. Then you could make a living from illustrating to an extent, and wouldn’t be as distracted by the things you have to do to earn your income. People who spend more time on their comics get better, which also makes them interesting for the comic market abroad. Money is the lever with which to professionalise the comic scene.

Your advice for up-and-coming comic illustrators?

Youngsters might have heard it all too often, but hard work is incredibly important. You only have to look at the biographies of well-known comic illustrators to see that. They have often worked hard for ten or fifteen years until a publisher or journalist brought them into the limelight. It doesn’t often happen that an artist just falls from heaven. But of course you don’t want to hear that when you’re young (laughs).

© Moga Mobo

Once we had someone here on work experience who thought we sat around holding brandy glasses, or drove around all day in soft-top sports cars. Being a comic artist or illustrator is a difficult job, it’s certainly comparable with that of a painter or independent artist. There are virtually no salaried employees, so you have to take full responsibility for your work yourself, even down to sourcing your own jobs.

Whereas comic artists and illustrators are under obligation to a job, independent artists can say of their picture: “Understand it or let it be”.

But we comic illustrators have a problem if people don’t understand the story. We’re all exhibitionists to a certain extent, who want to tell stories because other people derive pleasure from them too.

The interview was conducted by Rieke C. Harmsen

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
January 2010

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