History/Politics

It was not simply by chance that an initial critical evaluation of comic books began in the sixties and seventies at a moment when mass media and the entertainment media started to be viewed both as symbols of social consciousness and as a means of manipulation used by the cultural industries. However, in direct contrast to the simultaneous rediscovery of 'proletarian literature', comic books were not really used as a means of protest in the German-speaking world. It was admittedly a time when writers, pop-theoreticians and agitators in the hippie and drug sub-cultures of America discovered the medium for themselves and used it as a form of joyful trash to celebrate the emerging pop modern and post modern scenes: in contrast to the strict canon of the Modern, these subcultures turned to the popular and the trivial, to Westerns, Science-Fiction, Porno and – at the height of this trash scene – to comics.

© Elke Steiner

Even in Germany, lyricists such as Rolf Dieter Brinkmann sang about Batman; and in 1970 in her first novel wir sind lockvögel baby Elfriede Jelinek, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, had her Batman set off on wildly erotic and violent adventures with his sidekick Robin. Around this time the States saw the emergence of so-called underground 'comix', such as Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat - a childlike schematic of a classic 'funny' that included incest, violence and drugs – or Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers, which containing hyped-up stories from the alternative scene in America. These comics were also very successful on the German scene but did not lead to many flourishing successors apart from the illustrator Gerhard Seyfried, who inclined more to a cartoon style, or the due Mali & Werner, who have since sunk into oblivion. Alfred von Meyseburg of the Adorno School tended towards a completely different aesthetic with his Super-Mädchen or Glamour Girl, which were published in Frankfurt during the student movement in 1968, and were comic books of the Pop-Art variety that criticised over-consumption.

Of course during its early years the comic book did have a close connection to political and historical events, which is why its beginnings were to be found in that most topical of mass medias, the daily newspaper. And of course the comic book is a close relative of caricature – traditionally used as a tool for social criticism not only in the way it tells a story but also in its drastic representation and journalistic format. However the fact that recently the discussion has turned to the political and historical importance to be found in comic books is largely due to the influence of the US alternative comic book and in particular the success of Maus, in which Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father, a Holocaust survivor. Not only did Maus find a few more or less worthy successors, it also opened the way for a whole number of comic books that, because of their historical and political themes, aroused interest outside the usual comic book readership. Amongst these can be included (Persepolis), the memories of Marjane Strapi, an Iranian living in exile; Elke Steiner’s Die anderen Mendelssohns; or Isabel Kreitz’ German-Japanese spy story Die Sache mit Sorge.

Political comic books have also developed a similar – although much smaller – market segment and aesthetic as the popular fact-based book and reportage. What’s more, comic books for younger readers that have an educational element are enjoying renewed popularity. For example, in 1996 Isabel Kreitz drew a pictorial history of the extreme right for the Hamburg State Office for Political Education; Eric Heuvel illustrated his Holocaust comic book Die Suche for schools, and the Internal Ministry of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia commissioned the self-consciously cool Andi as a means to sensitise school pupils about right-wing extremism and Islamism. What is much less in demand from both readers and illustrators appears to be the critical, self-reflexive querying of both perception and graphic form as was found in the work of Art Spiegelman. Also attempts to find a leftist comic book aesthetic in Germany, as seen in the nineties in the work of Markus Golschinski or Andreas Michalke, seem similarly to have faltered.

Jan Frederik Bandel has a PhD in Germanic Studies and lives in Hamburg as an editor, comic book author, university professor and freelance author.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
October 2008

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