Cartoon/Humour

The bizarre world of Nicolas Mahler

Copyright: Nicolas Mahler It is one bizarre world that Nicolas Mahler presents us with in his comic cartoons. As though viewed through a concave mirror, the Austrian distorts the outer appearance of his protagonists. Tall, slim figures are as thin and high as telegraph poles and plump short figures are as broad as they are high and practically roll around on the ground. Their extremities are given this grotesque treatment, too: their noses are longer than long and their stubby feet smaller than small. Mahler relishes working with humorous exaggeration, the classic stylistic device of caricature.
Nicolas Mahler
Slidesho

Comics by Nicolas Mahler

The author and artist is also a fan of the simple sketch and a master of reduction. Initially one almost suspects Mahler of laziness for his figures have neither eyes nor mouths and thus the whole depiction of facial expression is side-stepped. He also tends to reproduce his images almost unchanged, thus avoiding having to grapple with intricate sequences or changing backgrounds.

However one would be doing him an injustice, for it is more the case that Mahler adheres to the maxim: why should the viewer be distracted from the essential by artistic tricks? Flicking through the comic Flaschko – der Mann in der Heizdecke (‘Flaschko – The Man in the Electric Blanket’) there are only slight variations in the make-up of the pictures. Sitting to the left in an armchair is Flaschko wrapped in an electric blanket, his mother stands on the right and between them is a television set. However, not only the devil is in the detail, so too is the joke. And it is planted brilliantly by Mahler, softly, smuggled in by word and image. Whether he was inspired by Buster Keaton and his silent comedies who can tell, but he does lend his characters’ faces just such an immovable expression. And what the film and sketched characters also have in common is how they bow to their fate or come to terms with it. With this sleight of hand Mahler succeeds in conveying the love-hate relationship between the dependent son and his over-protective mother and the family drama full of enigmatic tensions it conceals. Mahler, with his quiet and laconic dry humour and stubborn outsider characters, might be regarded as an Aki Kaurismäki of the comic and cartoon world. The Austrian’s pictures, like the images of the Finnish director, hold their own even without colour or words. In Serie Z Mahler portrays as affectionate dolts figures from horror stories such as Dracula, Frankenstein and werewolves utilizing only black and white and no text.

His characters are easy victims for the vagaries of the everyday because of their physical particularities. With his Kafkaesque figure by the name of Kratochvil, Mahler has managed to create a unique comic strip that defies classification. From the first page the reader is in ‘Kratochivl’s World’, a tiny island quite empty apart from the trees that reach high into the sky and at the foot of which the short squat clerk Kratochvil suddenly finds himself. Neither he nor the reader knows how he got there. Has he died perhaps, or is it a dream? Kratochvil’s immediate concern, however, is ‘Where will I find a job?’ Confronted with this involuntary freedom and free-time Kratochvil’s thoughts wheel round questions of his existence, nature and everything under the sun. Questions he had never asked himself before and will never ask himself again when all of a sudden he finds himself back in front of his factory once more.

Even if the dialogues in Kunsttheorie versus Frau Goldgruber (2007) can scarcely be surpassed, this comic volume is based on a true event; Mahler’s long-winded discussion with Frau Goldgruber, a tax officer assigned to him. The conversation about whether he is an artist or not – since in Austria the tax rate of 10 or 20 percent depends on this – develops more and more into a discussion of basic issues about comics as an art form and art in general. In his autobiographical collection Die Zumutungen der Moderne (i.e. impertinences of modernity / 2007), Mahler narrates his grotesque experiences in everyday life. Whether he is teaching comic drawing at the Volkshochschule (Germany’s network of adult education centres, trans. note) or as a guest at various international comic and animation festivals, Mahler attracts not only odd people, he also knows how to relate the bizarre encounters with exquisitely dry humour.

The comic adaptation Alte Meister (i.e. old masters) also deals with art in general and in particular. Mahler captures Thomas Bernhard’s eloquent tirades against art with scant words and laconic drawings on a few panels – a truly black-humour comedy that does not shrink from poking self-ironic fun at the art of the cartoon as well.

In another project, characters from world literature serve as models: in the serial comic Alice in Sussex, which has been appearing in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Rundschau since 2012, Mahler mixes elements from Lewis Carroll’s Alice im Wunderland with the narrative Frankenstein in Sussex/Fleiß und Industrie (i.e. … diligence and industry) by the Austrian author H.C. Artmann into a wild pot-pourri.

In 2006 Mahler was honoured with the Comic Salon Erlangen’s Max and Moritz Award for his wonderfully humorous comics in the collection of his works Das Unbehagen (i.e. discontent), additional distinctions followed, among them the Max-and Moritz Award once again in 2010, however in the category best German comic artist.

Nicolas Mahler is a gifted humorist and a master of the quick sketch: his protagonists’ stories unravel ad absurdum against banal and Kafkaesque backdrops full of comedy reeking of oppression and effortless poetry.

Matthias Schneider is a cultural scientist, freelance cultural journalist and curator of film programs and exhibitions about comics.

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

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