Paradoxically, the existence of avant-garde German comic books is all down to a country that was originally ideologically opposed to them: the Democratic Republic of Germany. It was not the case that there were no comic books, rather they were labelled 'picture stories' and were tolerated only because they could counteract competition from the West and it was this mistrust that made comics interesting to young East Germans. Immediately after the fall of the Wall in 1989, four of them: Anke Feuchtenberger, Henning Wagenbreth, Holger Fickelscherer und Detlef Beck, founded a group that formed the nucleus of the Berlin comic avant-garde: they called themselves 'PGH Glühende Zukunft'. What was particularly striking was their recourse to an Expressionistic aesthetic which integrated into comics an artistic concept viewed from abroad as 'typically German'. And that generated international attention.
Comics were held in higher regard in the Federal Republic of Germany, but even there they were not viewed as a serious art form. An experimental illustrator such as Hendrik Dorgathen from Mülheim was on a hiding to nothing before this creative thrust came from East Germany and made the public aware that there was such a thing as the comic avant-garde. The "PGH Glühende Zukunft" dissolved soon after and no member of the group stayed loyal to comics apart from Anke Feuchtenberger who, together with the writer Kathrin de Vries, became famous for the Hure H stories. Moreover both Feuchtenberger and Wagenbreth went on to teach at German art colleges, and so exercised as much influence on young comic illustrators as their colleagues Dorgathen, Martin tom Dieck und Atak (Hans-Georg Barber). These art colleges allow young aspiring illustrators to try out and publish their first work and in recent years Hamburg and Berlin in particular have produced a wealth of talent (such as Arne Bellstorf,
The comic magazine Strapazin, founded in 1984, is an important forum for the German avant-garde. Swiss illustrators such as M. S. Bastian, Thomas Ott, CX Huth und Anna Sommer are also strongly represented in this magazine. They do not reference the German aesthetic tradition as much as they do the American avant-garde; i.e. illustrators such as Gary Panter or Art Spiegelman. But Anna Sommer’s collage stories and Ott’s scratchboard works do also use specific leitmotifs from European art history; their role models are John Heartfield and Max Ernst, Frans Masereel and James Ensor.
Other members of the German comic avant-garde include Jens Harder from Berlin, Markus Huber from Hamburg and Ulf K. (Ulf Keyenburg) from Düsseldorf. They developed their own unmistakable individual styles during the 1990s in direct opposition to the French comic book tradition and their graphic formats are partly connected to unusual themes: in his comics Harder tells the story of evolution; Death is the main character in Ulf K’s best known works. As a result both illustrators, along with Markus Huber, enjoy greater success abroad than in Germany. Moreover all the members of avant-garde listed above are actually better known in the field of illustration than in their own actual metier, the comic, because that is where they can earn the money that allows them to continue to experiment.
is an Editor for the cultural pages of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z).
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