Comic Scene

What are Graphic Novels? – An Overview of German and International Comic Productions

© Edition Moderne & Marjane SatrapiThe term graphic novel has recently evolved into an established concept in German feuilletons. Prominent book publishers, among them Suhrkamp, have been announcing their plans to expand into this literary field, but it has remained somewhat unclear just how to use the term. And so, before continuing, we’d like to propose the following statement, as unpopular as it may be: graphic novels are comics. However, not the silly stories from our childhood about Donald Duck, Asterix and Fix and Foxi. Printed as flimsy books or in album form and purchased at the corner drugstore, such comics were usually thought to be trivial – and indeed, we often kept them shamefully hidden from parents and teachers alike.

Yet comics can be much more than that. All theory aside, we can define them first of all as individual pictures ordered in sequence, generally accompanied by text in speech balloons. It is nearly impossible to fully understand the story just by either reading the text or looking at the pictures. Instead, readers register picture and text simultaneously, linking the two together to produce a fluid plot. So how can this newfound interest in comics be explained? And why do we need a new term for something so old or, at the least, something so familiar? It probably has to do with the poor reputation which comics have been unable to shake off to this very day.

“The other kind of comics”

© ReproduktComics are often equated with silly stories, clown noses, Disney figures and low-brow language. Rarely will you find an article about comics whose title forgoes a good “Pow!”, “Boom!” or “Bang!” The term “graphic novel,” taken literally, alludes to the literary quality of this art form, something that is not implicit in “comics”, and yet it defines the form only loosely since artists themselves refer to their work as graphic novels even if they are a collection of short stories. We could call graphic novels the other kind of comics. Their format resembles that of a book (including editions in hardback), and they always have more than the 22 or 48 pages common to the American or Franco-Belgian comics. Frequently, they are printed in black-and-white in order to lower costs, although that is not the only reason.

Eddie Cambell has another way of looking at the issue. Cambell, the artist of the graphic novel From Hell (published in Germany by Cross Cult) about the Jack the Ripper murders in 19th century London, characterizes the graphic novel rather as a kind of (comics) movement that certain artists and writers adhere to than as a discrete art form. The graphic novel clearly aspires to become something more than genre fiction, and those works which are of especially high merit do achieve a status equal in importance to film and literature. Many of the artists and authors are – or, at least, were – dissatisfied with the general level of the medium. They objected to the dominance of “normal” comics whose sole aim was financial success: the superhero tales in the U.S.A. and the fantasy and adventure sagas from France thus scarcely made any attempt to develop or intelligently exploit the art form’s possibilities.

Greatest possible authenticity

© ReproduktThe graphic novelist, however, wants to raise the comic to a new level. The majority of graphic novels are thus born out of the desire to tell stories, instead of to reap profits – and that is precisely what constitutes the allure of this type of comic. Whereas in film, for example, a great many people are involved in the creative process, and even in literary fiction where a comparatively large publishing organization sees through the development of a book, for the production of a graphic novel there is only the author, or an author-artist duo, that is responsible for the work’s entire development and design. Since, for the time being and with few exceptions, there is little or no money to be had with the publication of a graphic novel, the authors see no reason to compromise and instead strive for the greatest possible authenticity.

© Art SpiegelmanThe essential differences from market-dominating comics lie in both the type of stories graphic novels tell and in the way they explore the visual possibilities of the art form, as can be witnessed by their highly diverse artistic styles. In what is probably the most well-known graphic novel, Maus, awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Art Spiegelman transfers the Holocaust experiences of his father and the effects they had upon his life and the life of his son to the medium of the comic. Spiegelman addressed his subject by means of anthropomorphic animals: Jews are mice, the Germans cats, and the French wife a frog. Only in a comic is such a clever maneuver feasible.

A young generation of narrators

© Edition Moderne & Marjane SatrapiIn her graphic novel Persepolis (issued in Germany in two volumes by Edition Moderne), which has also been adapted as an animated film, Mariane Satrapi narrates her growing up in Iran following the Islamic Revolution. Guy Delisle seduces the reader with his unique travelogues Shenzen, Pyongyang, or Burma Chronicles (all issued in Germany by Reprodukt), all countries that one for the most part only hears about in the news.

In addition to these two titles there is a great number of wonderful graphic novels, not only by non-German authors. While German graphic novelists such as Anke Feuchtenberger, Martin tom Dieck and ATAK attained international notoriety in the 1990s for their new artistic approaches, a generation of younger authors have now also been making a name for themselves beyond Germany’s borders, similar to the growing international esteem enjoyed by German-language fiction writers. Examples of this younger generation include Held [Hero] and Sag was [Say something] and Da war mal was (There was something once) by Flix, Wir können ja Freunde bleiben [We can just stay friends] by Mawil, Acht, neun, zehn [Eight, nine, ten] by Arne Bellstorf, Insekt [Insect] by Sascha Hommer, Liebe schaut weg[Love looks the other way] by Line Hoven (all published in Germany by Reprodukt), Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens [Today is the last day of the rest of your life] by Ulli Lust and Die 6 Schüsse von Philadelphia (Six shots in Philadelphia) by Ulrich Scheel (both published in Germany by avant-verlag).

Newly awakened interest

© CarlsenThe majority of this work can be characterized as autobiographical: Flix, for example, in his first graphic novel Held, tells the story of his entire life – from the cradle to the grave; Mawil relates his fizzled love affairs with utmost charm; Arne Bellstorf shows what it’s like to grow up in a small, triste town in northern Germany; and Line Hoven, in her detailed and highly expressive scratchboard illustrations, explores the history of her German-American family. 450 pages long, the Austrian artist Ulli Lust’s graphic novel is the most extensive and impressive graphic novel to date, in which she narrates her journey to Sicily and terrible experiences as a young punk in the 1980’s. These artists largely created their work in art school as part of their final projects, and in the humanities as well a growing number of students are choosing to write on comics for their M.A. and doctoral theses.

Comics and graphic novels can doubtlessly provide compelling and authentic stories for a sophisticated audience. In fact, that may also partially account for this art form’s recent surge in popularity: namely, that readers had underestimated the range and power of graphic novels and have been delightfully surprised by what quality graphic novels are able to achieve.

© ReproduktTo learn more about graphic novels, we encourage you to visit www.graphic-novel.info, a website hosted by the publishers Reprodukt (www.reprodukt.com), Edition Moderne (www.editionmoderne.de), Avant Verlag (www.avant-verlag.de), Edition 52 (www.edition52.de) and Carlsen (www.carlsen.de), that provides the latest news and information surrounding graphic novels. Flix publishes daily an autobiographical comic strip at www.der-flix.de. To learn more about English-language comics, we highly recommend Tom Spurgeon’s blog www.comicsreporter.com. The Comic Journal website www.tcj.com is unfortunately optically a bit confusing. But online as well, this centrally important magazine on comics offers an unsurpassed selection of articles, reviews and analyses of comics and the comic scene and in-depth interviews with comic artists and authors.

Sebastian Oehler
has worked for several German comic book publishers.

Translated by Franklin Bolsillo Mares
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., litrix.de
August 2010

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