Scheel, Ulrich

Versatile and full of variety – Ulrich Scheel

He draws comics and illustrates magazines, develops packaging and works as a live artist: Ulrich Scheel’s work is versatile and full of variety. He gained fame as a comic author with his award-winning debut graphic novel, Die sechs Schüsse von Philadelphia (i.e. six shots in Philadelphia).

Diashow Ulrich Scheel

Comics by Ulrich Scheel
Ulrich Scheel lies doubled over on a couch with flowery upholstery. He doesn’t feel well; normal if one runs unawares into a cloud of rabid flu viruses in a cold, grey November. This comic author, who lives in Berlin, is dissolving away into his bedstead’s flower pattern. A four-day, feverishly psychedelic dream begins. Influenza is the pictorial translation of what is in and of itself a banal occurrence: sore throat, runny nose, hot forehead. Scheel turns it into a surreal spectacle that makes ironic fun of the sick person’s self-pity, which has been exaggerated to the point of absurdity: the ego in combat with its creatureliness – in a totally normal November, in a totally normal city.

Ulrich Scheel’s entry into the comics business began in 2004 with Influenza being published by the French comic publisher Les Éditions FLBLB. The artist would not have thought of contacting the publisher himself, as he claims he is actually not interested in comics. Markus Witzel, alias Mawil, a school friend and university classmate (born like Scheel in 1976 and a graduate of the Berlin-Weißensee Art Academy) took the story, which dispenses with text with the exception of one introductory sentence, to the Angoulême International Comics Festival. There, it fell into the hands of the editors of Les Éditions FLBLB.

Delayed success in Germany

Two further publications with the same publisher were to follow before the German scene, with some delay, also discovered Scheel: his graphic novel Die sechs Schüsse von Philadelphia was issued in 2008 in German by Avant Verlag, Berlin. This comic novel transports the reader into the endless expanses and limitless barrens of the Brandenburg countryside in 1980. In a sleepy village near Berlin, the four pubescent protagonists dose away their summer holidays, unaware that these are the last innocent days of their childhood – a childhood that still knows adventure because boredom is not unknown to it. Adventure comes to Sabine, Uwe, Alex and Grolf in the form of a revolver from the Second World War.

In Die sechs Schüsse von Philadelphia, Scheel reveals an irresistible gift as a caricaturist. Facial expressions and gestures are just right, the dialogues convincing. The naiveté that leads his protagonists into inevitable disaster with one shot after the other is palpable – and generates tension. “I’m an actor, in a way,” thus the artist. “I play the dialogues through, catch myself talking to myself again and again. As in photography, there are only a very few gestures and facial expressions that describe a feeling exactly. You need good training to capture them. You have to observe things, including yourself, and master the technique of putting your observations down on paper.”

A GDR childhood as background landscape

Scheel’s graphic novel is not autobiographically tinged, even though the underlying theme of the story is indebted to - as the artist emphasises – “a technical interest Die Sechs Schüssen von Philadelphiain weapons,” and the fact that he spent the first thirteen years of his life in the GDR, until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The point in time and setting of the story are to be understood instead as metaphors. The small town of Philadelphia was already “real” even in the era of “real socialism.” Legend has it that emigrants on their way to America in the 19th century ended up staying there and named the village they founded after their original destination. Scheel explains that the story actually has very little to do with the GDR. “But I liked the aspect of getting stuck, staying on. The story takes place in a remote setting. I wanted surroundings in which the figures revolve around themselves. That’s the reason for the barren landscape, and for the GDR, too.”

Some artists of Scheel’s generation have worked on coming to terms with their experiences relating to East and West Germany. In the wake of , some critics and the reading public hoped for a similar narrative from him. “A theme that basically does concern me, but I fear that this GDR issue is too complex for me to crack it in a hurry.”

Bright prospects

To Scheel, drawing is a tool. Application-related commissions such as brand and packaging design for a kitchen manufacturer and of course book illustrations like those for Föhn mich nicht zu (i.e. don’t blow-dry me) with insider views of every-day life in Berlin schools as recorded by trainee teacher Stephan Serin and published by Rowohlt, stand on an equal footing with his comic projects. When he condenses his observations of Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg into scathingly ironic strips, he takes the opportunity to work off his frustration through drawing.

If, as most recently, he distills his observations of Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg into bitingly ironic comic strips, it is an opportunity for him to relieve his inner frustration through drawing. For this reason he is not going to become an urban reporter, he says, even though he now lives in Warsaw and thus in yet another European metropolis. “Life in western European cities – and Warsaw is now just another miniature version of Berlin – is too similar. I draw that stuff once or twice, three times, and then I’ve had enough.” But he nonetheless has prospects for his future as a comic author: he is particularly attracted to the science fiction novels of the two Soviet brothers, Arkadi and Boris Strugazki. “The world of the Strugazki brothers is impressively surreal. They tell their stories with a realism that makes it seem as if the impossible has happened totally naturally. That’s the direction for my own future works, too.”

Recently, Scheel has also begun working as a live artist: with swift strokes he offered commentary on the action on stage for a production of the Berlin opera company Novoflot that are projected onto a screen with a Wacom tablet and beamer. Through his drawings for the chamber opera Keyner nit by the Swiss composer Mathias Steinauer, Scheel linked the action, which takes place in the present, with the medieval story on which the piece is based. This linkage of theatre and drawing, opera and illustration, is one of the exciting developments in the comic genre, the more so since the artist not only works in the background, but can also be experienced at work live.

Pauline Klünder
studied design and lives and works in Berlin as a
free-lance journalist

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion March 2013

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