"It's not just horror and black" Interview with Anke Feuchtenberger by Japanese comic expert Miyazaki Toshiki
You were in Japan in the winter of 2007. How did you like Japan? What did you like best?
I liked it very, very much. It was my second visit to Japan. I travel a lot, but not every trip is as inspiring as this one was. That is particularly thanks to Yuji Yamada. He has a small gallery in Kyoto called 'Trancepop', where I have exhibited on numerous occasions. I have also found many interesting books there, for example, underground manga comics.
There's currently an exhibition here in Hamburg with the artists that I met at Yuji's in Kyoto: Asahiko Yamasaki, Chisato Asano, Yukihiro Tada, Jun Nakagawa, Yoshihiro Kizuki, Yumeko Ichigono, Ai Suzuki, Hiroyuki Tsukui, Marie Nakamura, Shinya Hiratake, Mississipi, Taishi Tominaga, Toshihide Fujita, Yoshiyuki Oe, Yosuke Goda. Most of them do something between illustrating, painting, and dolls as well, but hardly ever just comics.
On this visit to Japan I drew a lot at the Manga Museum in Kyoto. We, that is Julia Gordon, Gosia Machon and I, were invited to the Manga Museum. We had an exhibition and, for a week, we each spent five hours a day drawing. The visitors were able to watch us do this.
You exhibit your comics in galleries and museums and you generally have close ties to art. Are comics art to you, and if so, in what sense?
I tend not to make much distinction between high culture and popular culture... Perhaps I'll put it this way: I find the term 'art' difficult. I generally respect the work of people who try to understand the world around them by artistic means, be that through drawing, painting or even theatre. But what art is, great art, that is decided by time. For me, comics are also works of art. Because these people are trying to create artistic worlds using a particular level of skill. I believe skill also has a role to play.
You didn't start your artistic career as a comic artist. How did you get involved in drawing comics?
I studied graphic design and then began making theatre posters in the 1990s. I had a fair amount of success with this. I was particularly interested in the connection between texts and images. But posters are always only one image, a still image, and I was always interested in what happens before and after that image. I became involved in comics because they enable me to create literary work whilst simultaneously creating drawings. I have also made a great deal of costumes and stage designs. It was at this point that I realised that comics give me all these opportunities at once: to include costumes, scenography, literature and drawings in a single work of art.
When did you first encounter comics?
I first encountered comics very late on, because I come from East Berlin. There there were no comics and when the Wall came down I was able to properly view comics for the first time.
What sort of people read your comics?
Mostly intellectuals. That has to be said. But there are also, I have heard, many young people, particularly women, who are familiar with my work. I know this because of my son. However, these people aren't necessarily typical comic readers. I've met a great deal of people that read my comics but don't come from my scene at all. I was very surprised by this.
There were 2,000 copies of the first edition of Die Hure H and now my books often only have 1,000 copies. For example, there was a run of 1,500 copies for the book wehwehweh supertrane.de (2008). Now there are editions in English, French and Italian, which means there are more.
Do you predominantly draw your comics for yourself or for your readers?
Both. I draw because it's an experiment with myself, because I can learn so much from it. But that also means that I nevertheless draw for others. I like to make contact. I like for other people to read my stories. By drawing stories, I try to clarify and write down certain things for myself, but it is not the case that I already know these things. I learn a lot whilst I'm drawing them. And I would like to communicate this learning process with others. It is important to me that someone reads them and speaks to me about them.
Is there a connection between the themes of woman and city in your comics and your having lived in Hamburg and Berlin as well as the fact that you have a son?
I don't make autobiographical comics. I also don't make regional comics in the sense that I draw a comic about Hamburg or Berlin or about my relationship as a mother to my son. I try to draw things that I know, but on a fairly abstract level. So, my drawings aren't naturalistic. But I try to transform things that I know using fantasy, through symbolisation of particular relationships to a city, to Berlin, to Hamburg or to my son, to my boyfriend, to friends.
In that respect, all these things have a role to play. But they are not to be seen as autobiographical. In my animated film Somnambule there is a small rabbit and there is the moon. The rabbit prays to the moon. He would like to make contact with the moon. It is a very magical, fantastical situation. But for me it is a very real relationship between a man and a woman, mother and son, and also between matter, biological matter, that we are. As we also have an animal form. I suppose I use a kind of mythology to explain very certain and biographical things.
Are your comics specifically for women? Do your comics have a feminist background?
No. They are comics made by a woman, but I don't work specifically for women. At the start I published a lot of my work for women's projects (comics, posters, illustrations) and was pigeon-holed. But when I look at the reality of the situation, most of my contact to the public is organised by men, that is, my art dealers, who sell my original drawings, are men, the publishers and those that buy and collect my drawings are men.
I once showed a story from the first volume of 'Die Hure H' (1996) in a group discussion in Japan. One reaction was that the comic is obviously about lesbians. Do you agree?
No. It astonishes me. Why? Is it important to categorise it as that? Like you say shojo manga? To me it is not a story about lesbian women. To me it's a story about sexual experiences, of which there are a variety in that book.
How important is it to you that your comics are in German?
That's not very important to me. I read in English and Italian. Sometimes I can't remember which language I read a comic in. I feel comics are easy to read in other languages. The language is very simple. Unfortunately, I can't read comics in French. I also read Japanese comics, manga. I read Bug Boy by Hino Hideshi over Christmas. Full-on horror. Unfortunately, I can only read the Japanese comics in English.
In my comics, language is important to me, as a material. I spend a long time working on the language. I try as much as I can to find as precise a, yet as short a phrasing as possible. I edited the nine Hure H comics together with the author Katrin de Vries. It is, however, very important to me that my work is well translated. Bug Boy was translated from Japanese into English and then from English into German, and the translation is very bad. That annoys me.
How important is the contemporary German comic scene to you?
Very important. Because it's still very young. I have very close contact with illustrators, due to the fact that I teach at a university, and currently there's a lot going on. It's very interesting how young illustrators are changing the concept of conventional comics for themselves. I know a great many illustrators personally, in France and Italy and also in America. It's competition, but a very nice competition, which is inspiring.
What do you teach at university?
I teach illustration and drawing. And because I am a comic illustrator, I've tried to expand the illustration and drawing topic in that direction.
What is drawing for you? Why do you draw?
For me, it's the most natural way to make notes. It's like writing. I only need a pen, nothing else. I don't need any colours. I don't need any equipment. A piece of paper and a pencil are enough and I believe that this is a very natural and very direct way to understand, to record and to recognise things. The process of being part of the world, seeing and observing and taking that in, is done fastest, and most immediately, by drawing.
How important are eastern traditions to your work?
Very, very important. As a child I saw a lot of books with Japanese colour woodcuts. This deeply affected me. For me, there is always a connection to typography and I think that Japanese typography is incredibly interesting and informative.
In Germany, Japanese colour woodcuts had an influence on Jugendstil. Do you like Jugendstil?
Not particularly. It hasn't particularly influence me. Japanese art is a lot stronger to me, less sweet. The mixture between Japanese colour woodcut and expressionism, that was my starting-point. Today it's different. When I made posters, I worked very much from the culture of printing. And today I only make drawings. But I would still like to learn a lot about Japanese printing culture.
Are there any posters left from before reunification?
The posters are no longer available, they were only small runs. They are all in museums or privately owned. I still have one copy of each, but in a depot. I gave an entire edition to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Arts and Crafts Museum) in Hamburg, but the works are in archives, they are not being exhibited. However, you could look up the book Die Biographie der Frau Trockenthal which includes pictures of the posters from that time.
We have spoken about the present and about tradition, but what do you see for the future of comics as a medium? There's often talk of a print media crisis when compared with digital media such as computers and the internet. What part, if any, do you think this plays?
That is difficult. I can't answer that. I am very old-fashioned, conservative. That's one of the reasons why I founded a publishing house. I love books. I know that the process is different. There are comics on the internet, there are 'electronic comics'. There are comics that can only be viewed digitally. But, for me, there's something missing in that. And that's why I can't say what the comic's future holds. Perhaps I'm like a dinosaur. The book by Julia Gordon is the same. We printed an edition and when we got to the comic festival in Hamburg and people were able to hold the books in their hands, they said: "Oh, isn't that nice, you can touch it." That was very important for me. And that aspect doesn't exist on the internet.
How important are drawing and narrating to your work? Which is more important to you: the drawing or the narrative?
Critics often accuse me of not being able to tell a story. But the story is very important to me. And at the moment I'm working on a new story; I have spent several months just writing without drawing a thing. When drawing, at first I only use the text as a guide. Otherwise, I just make free drawings which don't tell a story in the strictest sense and don't need a text except maybe as an extension.
How important do you find these two tools in creating a fantastical, dreamlike atmosphere?
The text provides a kind of structure for the story and the drawing provides the atmosphere, and that's something that can't be told, I have to create it by hand and with a kind of light. They are two separate things. If I were just to write, then an important part of that atmosphere would be missing for me.
I like to work with so-called mistakes. To me it's like being partially-sighted or hard of hearing. If I misunderstand a word someone is saying (which happens to me a lot in Italian) or if I imagine I've seen something that wasn't really there, if I take that seriously and don't dismiss it as nonsense, then that takes on a new level of perception, which is very inspiring and phantasmagorical. That world often has its very own logic. Dreams are very inspiring to me. If I could achieve what dreams achieve, in their wonderfully convincing logic and their special humour, then I would be satisfied.
Masereel is considered one of the pioneers of comics in Europe. Why don't you like him?
Who said Masereel is the pioneer of comics in Europe? I think Rodolphe Töpffer is the pioneer of the European comic. I think Masereel is very hard, very stylistic. It's a strong style, but very black and white, also in the figurative sense; not flexible and, for me, it does not have a very strong narrative. I am very interested in narratives. That's why Rodolphe Töpffer is my role model. He is capable of combining narrative and drawing. He has an ambivalent world that isn't just black and white, isn't just good and bad, it has everything. I find Masereel very one-dimensional.
Your works are characterised, amongst other things, by idiosyncratic hand-written lettering. Why do you use an E with four lines?
That comes from my childhood. As a child, I understood that E is a letter with lines. But how many lines wasn't something that bothered me. I wasn't able to count yet. I'm not a child anymore, but that's something I've retained, because I try to see the world in that way. Not the conventions, but to take my impression seriously. And the impression of E is: lots of lines. When you see children drawing, they draw lots of fingers, because they think there are lots of fingers... but how many fingers, that doesn't matter. If you move something, there's always a lot of it.
Which of your works do you consider to be representative of you?
That is difficult. What represents my work is that I work very irregularly. That is to say, I try to change my style. I'm happy for my drawings to remain recognisably mine, but an endless repetition of the same style bores me. Perhaps Wenn mein Hund stirbt, mache ich mir eine Jacke is representative, because it includes lots of different symbols and approaches. My works range from free drawings and the scribblings in my journal to commissioned work.
What should readers look out for in your work? How would you like for your work to be read?
I'd like for them to take their time and not to have any preconceptions. Because I notice that people very often form an opinion on something before they have properly looked at it. I believe that people need time and an open mind to stop them from pigeon-holing certain things, to stop them from immediately saying: "ah, feminist and lesbian", but instead to first get a feel for how someone came up with such ideas.
In the book wehwehweh supertrane.de there are drawings that many people found dark and black, which immediately meant: negative, sad and bleak. But that's not the case for me. Coal is a very bleak subject, so I have to create light. And that's also a hint as to how I can look at a drawing: if I look at a drawing in the light, then it can't be bleak. Also in the figurative sense. It's not just horror and black. For me, there's also a lot of life in it.
One last question: What would you do for art or for comics if you had lots of time and money?
I don't have a lot of money, but I've founded a small publishing house, particularly for young people. If I had more money, I'd make more books from different artists and also have better distribution. But unfortunately I don't have that, so I try to make particularly nice books on small runs. It's very important to me how the books are made; what the bindings are like, the colours. And that the books aren't expensive. I think it's terrible when you can't buy books because they're too expensive. I love books that are good but are nevertheless cheap and don't serve the mainstream, but create an entirely different world, like the books by Julia Gordon and Birgit Weyhe.
The interview was conducted by Miyazaki Toshiki on 20 January 2009 in Hamburg, Germany.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Japan
Translation: Matrix Communications AG