Alma Mater Comicensis – Comic Studies in Germany

In Germany, dissertations and academic works on comics, cartoons and graphic novels are somewhat of a rarity, since until now the genre has not been studied all that much. Scholarly research has established itself in the universities only recently, but the country is still a long way off from a central comics centre.

Poster for the exhibition “Comic-Kunst”The beginnings of comic studies in Germany are to be found in the initiative of a small group of specialist comic enthusiasts. In 2004, together with his students, Dietrich Grünewald, a professor of art education, organised the exhibition Comic-Kunst (i.e. comic art) in the Middle Rhine Museum in Koblenz. The show presented sheets by over 130 comic artists and illustrators – and had the curatorial courage to present a wide contextual scope and show, in addition to children’s comics, print graphics by Käthe Kollwitz, commercial graphics by Carl Meffert aka Clément Moreau, illustrations by Warja Lavater and posters by Hans Georg Hillmann.

Grünewald organised an initial conference, because he was on the look-out for like-minded colleagues for researching the history of comics before 1945. A year later, on 11 February 2005, the Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (ComFor) was founded as a facility of the Institut für Kunstwissenschaft (i.e. institute of fine arts) at the University of Koblenz-Landau. Members were, apart from Dietreich Grünewald, professors of German literature and culture Günter Dammann and Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff, as well as journalists Martin Frenzel, Ralf Palandt and Heiner Jahncke, graphic artist Burkhard Ihme and publisher “Eckart Sackmann. As set out in its statutes, the society sets itself the task of “promoting and linking the academic study of comics in the German-language cultural area.”

A “less-than-satisfactory research landscape”

Almanac Deutsche ComicforschungApart from the publication of scholarly texts, the society organises an annual symposium – for instance in Cologne in 2009 on the theme of Erzählen im Comic“ (i.e. narration in comics). The annual publication Deutsche Comicforschung (i.e. german comic studies), originally intended as the society’s journal, is now issued independently by Eckart Sackmann. In 2010, Sackmann exited from the society, because, among other thungs, he felt that research on comics from Germany were not being studied sufficiently. To this day, Sackmann feels that the German comic-research landscape is “less than satisfactory.” Academic work at the universities is of “limited value” for German comic history, since those who perform basic research on comic history must move beyond university libraries and Internet research. In his view, it is far more important to bustle about at comic exchanges and speak with publishers, editors and movers-and-shakers. Sackmann finds that, “A comic researcher does not wax eloquent about what everybody already knows, but instead is always a discoverer of the unknown.”

Dietrich Grünewald is also of the opinion that, “Institutionalised comic research unfortunately does not exist in Germany.” However, increasing numbers of academic scholars are devoting themselves to this area out of personal interest – among them art historians, media scientists, sociologists, psychologists and historians. Grünewald views as a deficit the fact that most research projects and conferences deal with highly-specialised themes: sometimes comic aesthetics, sometimes criticl reception, or content focuses such as the Holocaust or German history, then again formal similarities or comic adaptations. If Grünewald were to have his way, academic research would have to deal more with the overall study of the genre and its idiosyncrasies.

Things are stirring at the universities

Arbeitsstelle für Graphische LiteraturAccording to Prof. Astrid Böger, who directs the Arbeitsstelle für Graphische Literatur (i.e. centre for graphic literature /ArGL) of the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Hamburg, at least comics are now being perceived as a medium to be taken seriously. But according to Böger, German comic studies as such will not arise in the near future, as the comic market in Germany is still far too strongly dominated by US and Franco-Belgian comics. Only in the area of graphic novels does a “cultural diversification” exist that in Böger’s view deserves differentiated study. To stimulate research in the area of comics, the University of Hamburg has announced an award: the Roland Faelske Prize will be awarded every two years for the best master’s and Ph.D. thesis in the area of comics and animated film.

Gesellschaft für MedienwissenschaftIn October 2013 at the Ruhr University Bochum, the AG Comicforschung (i.e. comic research study group) was founded within the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft (i.e. society for media science) with the goal of advancing media science discourse on this research object. The study group’s director, Véronique Sina of the University of Bochum, explains: “Our goals are advancing, concentrating and linking comic-related research work.” Regular meetings and conferences will be organised together with her Bochum University colleague Hans-Joachim Backe, and Stephan Packard and Andreas Rauscher of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. How this might look became evident at a conference in November 2013 in Erlangen, where almost 40 experts reported on their research on the theme of “Comics und Naturwissenschaft” (i.e. comics and the natural sciences).


… And the way forward?

Dietrich Grünewald hopes that in the future, despite the interdisciplinary nature of comics as a hybrid art, “a specific scientific methodology will evolve.” As examples, he points to the analysis of aesthetics and narrative structure, design, the relationship between form and content and genre-specific demands on the reader. Astrid Böger also wishes for “an expansion of the methodological field.” She herself has begun to study comic tales in terms of narrative theory, with the aim of developing a “transmedial narratology.”

Just how high the comic scene’s hopes for recognition are became clear in September 2013 when almost a hundred comic artists, publishers, media professionals and researchers issued a “Comic Manifesto” at the Berlin Literary Festival, in which they called for the creation of a “German comic institute.” There is no longer any doubt that comics represent an independent art form that deserves an equal place beside literature, theatre, film and opera, as the statement put it. The authors of the manifesto decry the fact that a specific professorship for comics and an institution that can serve as contact point and communicative meeting place for all protagonists of this medium are still lacking in Germany. For this reason comics must enjoy the same recognition as the other arts – and be subsidised by the state.

In all likelihood, some time will still have to pass before researchers can take their places in the library reading rooms and archives of a German comic centre. Such a facility is in fact desirable, not only because to date there is no adequate central location for existing comic collections and legacies from the German-language cultural area. In such a centre, the literature could be assembled, conferences and exhibitions organised – and of course, academic research advanced.

Rieke C. Harmsen
is an art historian and editor of the Evangelischer Pressedienst (Protestant press service, epd) in Munich

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

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Comic videos

German comic artist Mawil at work | Photo: Goethe-Institut Lettland
10 Latvian and German comic artists allow us a look over their shoulder while they are drawing.

Comics in the Baltic States

© Thomas Wellmann
In the Baltic states and in Germany the comic scene is presenting a great variety of styles. Who are the most exciting artists, what the best publications?

The First World War in Comics

Tardi/Verney „Elender Krieg“ 1914-1919 | © Edition Moderne 2014
Comic artists approach the history of the First World War in their works. A dossier on history in pictures

omics in Kenya and Germany

The world of colourful pictures – the dossier “Comics” presents artists from Kenya and Germany and their work.


Comic-Autoren aus Europa und der arabischen Welt im Dialog

Graphic Novels at School invites you to learn German with comic-strip artists Mawil and Birgit Weyhe.

Dossier: Comic Countries Germany and Belgium

Goethe-Institut Belgien
The German and Belgian comic scene

Dossier: Comics in Germany – Comics in the Czech Republic

In the wake of the 1989 political turning point the comic scenes in both Germany and the Czech Republic are tanking up with new self-confidence.

Weblog: CityTales

Comic artists from South-East Asia and Germany tell their “CityTales” – a new story every month.