The development of the comic book scene in Germany is closely linked to the history of the country. Each epoch produced illustrators whose work survived over time – the “classics of the German comic book”.

Germany has a long tradition of caricature and illustration. Several satirical journals came into being once press freedom was guaranteed by law in 1854 - the illustrated journal Simplicissimus, for example. When the National Socialists took over power most satirical works were either censored or furnished with content that was loyal to the regime, and many illustrators were driven away. The political caricaturist Erich Ohser (1903-1944) was not accepted into the Reichsverband deutscher Pressezeichner ('Imperial Association of German Press Illustrators'), which at the time meant effectively he was forbidden to work. He published the Vater und Sohn stories under the pseudonym E. O. Plauen. In 1944, afraid that he was about to be arrested, Ohser took his own life.

In the post-war period, American comics did phenomenally well in Germany. Newspapers then started to commission their caricaturists and illustrators to develop their own stories. In 1947 Hartmann, the Düsseldorf-based picture book publisher, published the very first German comic book entitled Bumm macht das Rennen by Klaus Pielert with a print run of 10,000; in the Soviet-occupied territory (later the GDR) Der junge Pionier appeared, for which Richard Hambach developed the picture story Bienchen Kati. Roland Kohlsaat's adventure stories of Jimmy, das Gummipferd and Manfred Schmidt's detective Nick Knatterton eventually became classics.

Thus the culture of the picture book series was born and several periodicals achieved a high circulation. The publisher Rolf Kauka developed the comic series Fix und Foxi for the series Eulenspiegel, that still exists today; and Hansrud Wäscher created Sigurd, Ritter ohne Furcht und Tadel for the Walter-Lehning Verlag. Then there was Mecki, the series about a hedgehog for the TV magazine HörZu. At the beginning of the fifties, however, the huge circulation of comic book series led to psychologists and parent organisations starting a campaign against unsuitable “Schund und Schmutz” ('trashy and filthy') literature. There were demonstrations and even public burnings of books and magazines.

In June 1953 in the Federal Republic a law was passed about the circulation of periodicals that were a danger to young people; in 1955 the Democratic Republic passed a similar law with their “Verordinung zum Schutze der Jugend”. According to the East German functionaries, young people should be “educated entertainingly” by picture book stories. In line with this the illustrator Hannes Hegen (born in 1925) was given the task of developing a counterpoint to Mickey Mouse for the periodical Mosaik. His heroes Dig, Dag and Digedag are now considered classics of the Democratic Republic’s comic books.

It was not until the 1960s however, when a new generation of illustrators further developed the genre, that the German comic book could really be called respectable. Janosch, Walter Schmögner and Angela Hopf founded new forms of expression such as the ‘comic picture book’. In the 70s, satirical and socially-critical comics by F.K. Waechter, Hans Traxler and Franziska Becker came to the fore, along with children’s comics such as the East German illustrator Lona Rietschel’s Abrafaxe characters. In the 1980s Mathias Schultheiss developed his own visual language, whilst Walter Moers created the fantasist Käpt’n Blaubär for children.

German reunification led to a further professionalisation of illustrators as well as ever broader thematic groups. Nowadays the German comic scene is so spread out that it is difficult to differentiate between the individual genres and trends. However the Werner motorbike stories by Brösel as well as the adult comic books by Ralf König and the Manga stories by Judith Park can indeed be considered modern classics.

Rieke C Harmsen is an art historian and editor of the Evangelische Pressedienst (epd) in Munich.

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

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