Comics in …

Hamburg – The Unofficial Capital City of Comics

Hamburg is considered Germany’s unofficial capital city of comics. Even though this description sounds like civic marketing, a decidedly lively and diverse comics scene has in fact come together on the banks of the Elbe.

The Hamburg comic scene also arose because comic artists can work here free from hype or the latest twists and turns of fashion. They have never viewed themselves as rivals on the illustration market. One hardly earns any money at all with comics that do not aim to conform to the standardised mass market in any case, and rents in Hamburg are so high that, in view of this situation, they prefer to be supportive of one another– in various constellations and over successive generations. From Ulf Harten, Isabel Kreitz, Martin tom Dieck and Markus Huber, to Wittek, Jule K. and Calle Claus to Arne Bellstorf, Sascha Hommer, Line Hoven, Claire Lenkova – and younger artists.

This mutual supportiveness has become noticeable in collective exhibitions and magazines, which have also set - and continue to set - standards nationally. Instead of relying on major publishers – although Carlsen Comics, located in Hamburg, is one of Germany’s largest comic publishing houses – the comic artists organised themselves, thus creating their own space where they could continue to develop their artistic ideas and approaches with a critical eye.

Magazines

Currently, a total of three comic magazines is being produced in the Hanseatic City. The oldest, the Orang-Magazin, is published by Reprodukt in Berlin, but its editorial board is still located in Hamburg. Here, in the tradition of magazines such as the independent underground magazine RAW, the editors endeavour to reflect on the history of comics seriously and to expand it into new, experimental forms – and this both in graphic and narrative terms.

By contrast, the annual anthology Spring is far more focused on illustration. It represents something unique in the world of comics, as it is exclusively produced by women. Both magazines have in common that they establish themes which are then interpreted by the artists respectively – most recently Unendliche Geschichten (i.e. never-ending stories) by Orang vol. 8 and Happy Endings by Spring vol. 7. Two-Fast-Colour, a more recent magazine, just made it onto the limited market for interesting picture series with its third edition. This magazine, revolving around Martina Lenzin and Marlene Krause, captivates through their international connections with young, still largely unknown comic artists.

Training

All three magazines arose within the context of the Department of Design/(course of study in illustration) of the Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg (Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, HAW) in the Armgartstrasse, a leading school in this area of art. Anke Feuchtenberger has also been teaching here since 1997 - who surely has been one major reason for many to come to Hamburg for their training.

Together with the Italian comic artist Stefano Ricci, who now lives in Hamburg, Feuchtenberger runs Mamiverlag, in which the two artists not only publish their own works, but also projects by young artists such as Gosia Machon and Birgit Weyhe - who belong more in the category of art - as well as the comprehensive anthology Ich/I/Je/Jo, which among other things highlights the stylistic diversity with which this younger generation in Hamburg articulates itself.

Aesthetics

The one thing that comics produced in Hamburg have in common may well be their diversity. At the same time, many transcend the limits that our society and culture have set as if there were no reason at all to question them – such as limits to pictorial narrative.

For instance, in the works of the Hamburg woman artist Moki, one can no longer determine whether her quotation of Japanese comics seeks to be high culture or low, everyday culture. This is also no longer of any relevance in the space that they open up through their images of nature and experience. They convince by means of their materiality, their reflexivity – and their humour. They thus establish unique aesthetic criteria and question those very criteria which have been applied to graphic images in recent years. Moki – like other Hamburg artists – is less interested in positioning comics in the world of elite culture, and much more in developing her own aesthetic possibilities.

This implicit criticism of societal relationships and their representation can well be understood as a further aspect of the images drawn in Hamburg. Most comic artists must earn their living apart from their free-lance work. What the Hanseatic City does to sponsor and promote this lively scene is in reverse proportion to the eagerness with which it adorns itself with it verbally.

Exhibitions

This was not always the case. In the early 1990’s, Hamburg’s Department of Cultural Affairs supported a total of four exhibitions by the Initiative Comickunst (i.e. comic art initiative - INC) around Ulf Harten. Elaborate exhibitions for which the participating artists occupied vacant buildings and invited comic artists nationwide to exhibit their works – under their own management. Not only were colourful pictures hung on walls, but entire rooms were designed. This practice was also difficult to categorise: it was neither underground, because the event was far too big, visible and popular – nor art, and also without concessions to its aesthetic categories – author, work, original. What predominated was much rather a very direct, unfiltered pleasure in the drawn image itself. The spectrum ran from cartoons to graphics – for the first time, a diversity was revealed as a continuum that still exists and couldn’t care less about categorisation.

This tradition has been taken up again with the Hamburg Comic Festival, which has been presenting exhibitions in a few of the many autonomously organised galleries such as the Linda or Hinterconti since 2006. Here, too, the issue is not to enter into competition with the city’s biannual Comic Salon, but rather to open up a new space in which something arises that eludes capture – something between a never-ending story and a Happy End.

Ole Frahm
Ole Frahm authored the books Genealogie des Holocaust. Art Spiegelmanns MAUS – A Survivor's Tale (2006) and Die Sprache des Comics (i.e. the language of comics, 2010. He is a member of the artists' group LIGNA and currently guest professor of language and communication at the Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

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