A headstrong access to history and politics – Simon Schwartz

Packeis. Simon SchwartzSimon Schwartz, the comic artist distinguished with this year’s Max and Moritz Award, succeeds in converting meticulously researched historical material into exciting graphic novels. His debut drüben! (i.e. over there) tells the story of his parents’ difficult exit from the GDR to West Berlin. In Packeis (i.e. pack ice), he depicts the adventure of the Afro-American polar explorer Matthew Henson.

Autobiographical comics do not have to be “balanced,” irrational emotional states and subjectivism have their illuminating and entertaining justification here. By contrast, accurate facts and critical distance from events are to be expected in academically reliable historical works. Art Spiegelman in Maus and Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis have demonstrated in exemplary fashion how artists can generate a breathtaking authenticity in a narrative that intelligently combines both forms.

The division of Germany repeated within the family

Although somewhat more modest in both scope and ambition, Simon Schwartz’s autobiographical history comic drüben! nevertheless succeeds in assembling texts and images to create an in-depth insight into a historical reality, in this case the division of Germany. In his graphic novel debut, the illustrator, born in Erfurt in 1982, tells about his parents’ difficult exit from the GDR to West Berlin (West Germany) and the wound that this decision struck – a wound that was never to heal. While his paternal grandparents had been life-long ardent supporters of the real-socialist state, doubts about the system began growing in Simons’ parents’ circles due to the state’s rigid treatment of moderate regime critics. Without informing anyone, the young parents applied for an exit permit – and indeed: after a range of harassments on the part of the state “security” apparatus, they were practically expelled from the country in a “heave-ho” action in 1984. On account of this “betrayal,” Simon’s paternal grandparents thereupon refused all contact with their son and his family.

Diashow Simon Schwartz

Looking back, Simon Schwartz says that a tremendous rage at his family’s inability to speak with each other was the motivation behind drüben! An emotional state that nonetheless is no longer visible in the completed work. On the contrary, he attempts to find answers to this form of radical division of Germany that was repeated within his family and was therefore so difficult to understand. For this reason, drüben! is no angry settling of accounts with the GDR state, but rather an approach to the differences in willingness on the part of the GDR’s citizens to come to terms with plainly visible abuses and injustices. While the GDR state meant shelter to Simon’s grandparents – his Jewish grandfather had to witness the forcible removal of many relatives to the Nazis’ extermination camps – the GDR increasingly evolved into an unendurable imposition for the next generation.

Reduced to the necessary minimum by means of a few lines, Schwartz sketches his protagonists’ inner worlds, which he places in clear, nostalgia-free settings. A slightly raised eyebrow expressing distrust or uneasiness, the corners of his grandmother’s mouth, turned down in unending bitterness, or Simon’s permanently upward, slightly-astonished gaze as a small child must suffice to characterise the personalities and emotional states of the persons depicted. Above all, the child appears as a powerless participant and not as an active player in the narrative. Surely this very successful portrayal of the child’s perspective is the reason why drüben! was nominated for the 2010 German Youth Literature Award in the category of non-fiction. Appearing in French in early 2012 as well, in Germany drüben! is already enjoying its fourth edition, now expanded with additional background information.

Mythical worlds

His second graphic novel, Packeis (2012) also demonstrates that meticulous historical research has become one of artist Simon Schwartz’s great passions. With images immersed in icy blue and alternating timelines, he reconstructs the story of the Afro-American polar voyager Matthew Henson (1866–1955), who in 1909, as the unscrupulous Robert Peary’s unsung right hand, was in all likelihood the first human being known by name to reach the North Pole. Even though Packeis is on one hand a classical adventure tale, the white explorers’ cynical racism towards the Inuit, chauvinistic in every respect, is truly odious.

With pictorial means, Schwartz also reveals the demystification and destruction of mythical worlds by the conquerors. Time and again, he scatters dreamlike tribal scenes in his otherwise controlled and straightforward-seeming pages. The masks of the supernatural figures here appear less menacing than the ugly grimaces of the success-crazed men. Indeed, for a few tiny moments, even a fundamentally different understanding of history from the one oriented on ruthless progress and conquest seems possible. In 2012, this successful form of historical appropriation was honoured with the Max and Moritz Award in the category of “Best German Comic”.
Katja Lüthge
is a journalist, and writes for the “Berliner Zeitung”, “taz” and the “Frankfurter Rundschau”, among other daily newspapers and other media. In 2005 she curated the Berlin exhibition “Mit Superman fing alles an. Jüdische Künstler prägen den Comic” (i.e. it all began with Superman, Jewish artists influence on comics).

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2012
Translation: Edith C. Watts

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