A clear cinematic narrative style – Thomas Ott

By telling his stories almost without words, Swiss comic artist Thomas Ott has developed an unmistakeable style. His characters move in black-and-white worlds where the boundaries between reality and nightmare are blurred.

Thomas Ott

A travelling sales representative enters a hotel. The porter’s lodge is unoccupied. After a long wait he climbs the stairs. He pushes open a room door – the room has been readied for him. He goes to the hotel restaurant and is served a delicious meal. Later that night he wakes up with stomach cramps. He stumbles through the hotel, dead guests are lying everywhere, all obviously poisoned.

No doubt about it, we are in Hellville, an infernal city filled with dead ends, shabby apartments, pathetic dreams and broken hopes. This is the world of Thomas Ott. It is black-and-white, but above all black. Killers and suicides jostle up against each another, a dosser mutates into a mad prophet proclaiming the end of the world – and turns out to be right. Bloated boxers and voodoo witch doctors, cold Ku Klux Klan loathsomeness, whores, gaunt mafiosi and decommissioned American soldiers muck about, elsewhere frustrated petty-bourgeois types and embittered wives dare to break out of their imprisonment.

The logic of nightmares

Hellville is a world of losers where no tone word is spoken. Ott’s protagonists go their ways mutely; they founder and perish mutely, and wait mutely for their next chance. But we know they don’t have any next chances. They are stuck in a nightmare and are drawn into the abyss with the pitiless logic of a nightmare – until the unhappy and for the most part surprising end. As in the hotel. When the poisoned sales rep stumbles out of the hotel, we finally recognise where we are: in the kitchen of a gigantic cockroach. The hotel? A small box with poison for humans on the floor of the cockroach’s kitchen.

An early multi-talent

Thomas Ott was born in 1966 and grew up in Zürich as the son of a graphics teacher and an art therapist who soon recognised and supported his talents. He caused a stir as early as his graphics study programme at the Zürich School of Arts and Design (Schule für Gestaltung) from 1983 to 1987: in 1984 he realised his first animated film La grande illusion (i.e. the great illusion) and published one of his first comics in the Zürich comic magazine Strapazin, where he soon became the magazine’s house graphic artist. In 1986 he was awarded the Swiss Fellowship for the Applied Arts and founded the rock’n’roll band The Playboys. Since completing his degree, Ott has been active as a free-lance comic artist, film-maker musician and illustrator.

In 1989, Thomas Ott moved to Paris and came in contact with the young French authors’ scene around the independent publishing firm L’Association. In 1993, his animated film Robert Creep (in cooperation with Claude Luyet) won the audience prize at the Solothurn Film Festival. In Erlangen in 1996, Ott was distinguished as “best German-language comic artist.” He returned to Switzerland in 1998 to study film at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Zürich. There, he completed his training in 2001 with his thesis film Sjeki Vatcsh! After his film studies, he once again devoted himself to comics.

Among Ott’s influences are the French underground scene of the Eighties around artists such as Caro and Doury, artists from Art Spiegelman’s avant garde magazine RAW (Charles Burns in particular) and above all the macabre horror, mystery and science fiction comics with which the American publisher EC caused one sensation after another in the late Forties and early Fifties. Ott plays skilfully with clichés of American trivial culture, with influences from pulp literature, comics, cinema and rock’n’roll, which he subverts and modernises with wicked irony.

Scratching instead of drawing

Two features distinguish Thomas Ott’s comics: scratchboard technique and wordless narrative style. Ott does not draw his backhanded ballads, but instead scratches them out with a sharp cutter from black scratchboard, which lends his images a penetrating and sombre sharpness.

His dispensing with words creates an extremely clear cinematic narrative style, a preference for brief forms and use of clearly defined characteristics and clichés – a differentiated psychology and narrative ellipses are not possible. Thomas Ott’s talent lies in turning limitations into strengths and creating a dense, graphically and contentually unmistakeable and autonomous world. With this he gained international renown early. His stories and books are published in prestigious magazines, anthologies and publishing houses in numerous countries, among them the in the USA with Fantagraphics Books and in France with L’Association.

An endless loop

In 2008 Ott presented his first comic novel, The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8: After a day’s work, an executioner finds a small strip of paper with a mysterious series of numbers in the condemned man’s Bible. He puts it in his pocket, and from then on parts of this number keep on turning up, in tattoos, telephone and building numbers, at roulette tables. The executioner entrusts his life to this number series and it brings him good luck, sex and piles of money, at least at the outset. One morning, the executioner wakes up with a hangover and alone. The money? Vanished. The beautiful woman too. And thus reality and nightmare engulf each other in an endless loop in this tale also, leading not only the protagonist astray, but the reader as well.

Christian Gasser lives and works in Lucerne (Switzerland) as a free-lance writer, journalist, lecturer at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Art and co-editor of the comic magazine „Strapazin“. He published the books „Comics Deluxe. Das Comic-Magazin Strapazin“, 2012, and „animation.ch – Vielfalt und Visionen im Schweizer Animationsfilm“ (i.e. Visions and Versatility in Swiss Animated Film), 2011.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
May 2013

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