Dorgathen, Hendrik

Drawings that tell stories and also reflect – Hendrik Dorgathen

Hendrik Dorgathen is one of Europe’s most independent-minded and celebrated comic authors. He created his best-known comic tale Die Spore (i.e. the spore) as early as the late ‘Nineties for a Spanish magazine, but was published in German only in 2008 for the collection of short stories Slow.

Hendrik Dorgathen’s story, Die Spore, begins with a full-page image of a Mickey Mouse figure. Cute? No. Mickey Mouse’s smile is distorted into a nasty grin, his eyes are empty, and an apocalyptic quote from the Bible is emblazoned above his head: “Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast … and it shall burn, and not be quenched” (Jeremiah 7:20). The plot? A religious fanatic converts a toy figure into a bomb and smuggles it into an aircraft. In the plane: innocent passengers, but also – coincidentally – a corrupt businessman, who enriches himself with sordid deals in the Third World.

Die Sporehad already arisen in the late ‘Nineties, but was published in German only in 2008 for the collection of short stories Slow. The book’s title suggests, presumably without self-irony, that Dorgathen is not particularly fast and productive – his previously sole comic album, the internationally successful Spacedog, appeared in 1993. Nonetheless, Hendrik Dorgathen is one of Europe’s most independent-minded and celebrated comic authors, but also belongs to a generation that got its start when there was no market for comics in Germany outside of the mainstream.

Slide Show Hendrik Dorgathen
Slide Show

Hendrik Dorgathen was born in 1957 in Mülheim an der Ruhr. After his A-levels, he studied art education and protestant theology in Duisburg, and starting in 1983 communications design at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He started drawing comics early and appeared as early as 1985 in the Swiss comic magazine Strapazin. But he made his living as a highly sought-after illustrator for publications such as Geo, Rolling Stone, Die Zeit, Pardon, The New York Times, FAZ-Magazin, Bild der Wissenschaft and Frankfurter Rundschau. With his angular and boldly coloured cover art, for which Harry Rowolt coined the term „Präpostfluxoflex, he revolutionised the paperback design of German publishers such as Rotbuch and Rowolt. In 1999, Dorgathen initiated the exhibition Mutanten (i.e. mutants), numerous additional group exhibitions followed. In 2012 his complete oeuvre was presented in the Art Museum of Mühlheim/Ruhr, an honour until now granted only to a few contemporary comic artists and illustrators.

Pop culture quotations

It is no coincidence that Mickey Mouse plays the main role in Die Spore. Dorgathen loves pop culture, plays in a masterly fashion with the obvious and subtler meanings of their icons, and juggles with quotations and references to comics, films, pop music and the visual arts. His handling of influences is as reflective as his education is broad. Particularly fascinating is , for instance, the way Dorgathen integrates the entire eclectic spectrum of his comic role models, from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine, Hergés Tin Tin and Jack Kirby’s superheroes and finally to Art Spiegelman’s self-reflective experiments – in his maverick pictorial language, which largely dispenses with text. .

In Spacedog, too, popular culture and science fiction is the matrix, and Dorgathen’s ambition to narrate only with pictures provides the context. Spacedog is a small, red dog reminiscent of Struppi who flees the American hinterlands fort he city, and from there is recruited by NASA for a space mission. In outer space, the dog trades knowledge and information with extraterrestrial entities and returns to our planet as a biped and able to speak. He becomes a star – but his ecological and pacifistic views are not appreciated by the powers-that-be, and he retreats back to the countryside and denies his linguistic prowess to save his skin. Dorgathen tells this 64-pages long story without one word – by substituting text with symbols in the speech balloons. Spacedog, which stands in the tradition of the so-called pantomime comics, is a small jewel – a highly complex tale for adults told so clearly that children can enjoy it, too.

The world of bits and bytes

A further central theme running through Dorgathen’s work is his reflection on the world of computers and new media. He has been serving as professor of illustration and comics at the School of Fine Arts and Design Kassel since 2003. Dorgathen was one of the first to use computers to draw – but returned to paper early on, and today uses his computer only as an aid. But the world of bits and bytes still fascinates him, and time and again, he discovers imaginative, memorable and precise images fort his world. In his story Cyberia, a naked individual flees from an overpopulated world into his computer; he gets lost in a virtual labyrinth, meticulously sketched with nothing but horizontal and vertical lines. And when he turns up again, our civilisation has perished, and his body is lying dead in front of his monitor. The robot that looks through the window says drily, “0 I 0 I.”

Hendrik Dorgathen is a highly intelligent artist who not only tells stories with his drawings, but also always reflects. This is why his comics are more complex than their striking simplicity would have one believe - and their colourfulness cannot conceal the pessimistic undertone. This also holds for Die Spore as well: the more information we are given about the protagonists – conveyed by the godlike, omniscient Mickey Mouse – the more vexingly complicated and contradictory this story about religious delusion and terrorism, guilt and innocence, expiation and punishment, becomes. At the end the reader might well prefer to sigh in relief when Mickey or the bomb finally explodes.

Christian Gasser
lives and works in Lucerne (Switzerland) as a free-lance author, literary guest speaker, journalist and co-editor of the comic magazine Strapazin.

. Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2013
Translation: Edith C. Watts

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