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Germany is Reading Comics: The World in a Speech Bubble

ReproduktCopyright: Reprodukt Verlag
200 pages jam-packed with pencil drawings – the graphic novel “Gift“ by Barbara Yelin and writer Peer Meter was published by Reprodukt

11 January 2012

They are simply bursting with illustrative force, fantasy and artistic sophistication: the “new” comics. Now, even Germany is acquiring a taste for them. Well, there has long been an aesthetic comic culture here; we just never noticed it. By Daniela Gollob

The arts pages are excited. Whether it’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri, Faust or Dante’s Divine Comedy, new publications on the comic book market are regularly reviving literary classics. The ambitious period comic Gift, for instance, conjures up “an atmosphere of universal horror” about serial killer Gesche Gottfried, gushes Welt. The genre is booming. Even major German publishing houses like Fischer, Rowohlt and Suhrkamp have opened their doors to it. And Jens Harder’s history of evolution Alpha Directions was celebrated as the “big bang of non-fiction comic books” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). Germany is reading comics – or graphic novels, as the sophisticated hardcover versions are usually called.

Drawing by Ulf K: To escape his Kafkaesque office routine, Hieronymus B. daydreams of surreal worlds
It was about time. It is not as if an independent comic culture arose only yesterday even here in Germany. In his essay Der deutsche Comic ist wieder da (German comics are back) the journalist and comic expert Andreas Platthaus sees the beginning of the comic renaissance as early as Germany’s reunification: “A new German comic avant-garde grew from an East Berlin group of artists, which aimed its sights at aesthetic aspects.” His essay appeared in the catalogue of the travelling exhibition Comic, Manga & Co. Germany’s New Comic Culture, which was conceived by the Goethe-Institut and curator Matthias Schneider.

The fact that the genre has only attracted the interest of the reading public in Germany over the past year or two is linked with the rise of a new generation. Since 1990, when the avant-garde was given “chairs in the faculty of the art academies, Germany’s universities have finally developed a comic-friendly climate, which generally favours storytelling in pictures,” explains Platthaus.

Newly founded, innovative comic book publishers such as Reprodukt and Edition 52 joined in. Comic books have become respectable and their public has grown up. “Many people who grew up with comics and recognized that this genre is full of potential are now sitting in the offices of the big publishing houses and newspaper editorial desks,” says Ulf Keyenburg AKA Ulf K, who has been illustrating comics for more than 15 years.

Large Goethe Dossier: German-language comics

Yet, initiates of the international comic landscape still describe Germany as a “comic developing country.” “Many illustrators, in particular those whose content is the most sophisticated, have a better time of it abroad and there mainly in France, than here at home,” Platthaus writes. Like Barbara Yelin and Jens Harder, Ulf K has also published far more in the neighbouring country than in Germany. “The scene there is entirely different, the audience is larger and the French publishers are willing to add German comics to their portfolios.” He was lucky. Others publish their own work after hours for they earn their living with commercial or textbook illustration.

The Goethe-Institut has also focussed on the topic of comics. In the online dossier German-Language Comics, for example, 55 artists – hot ones as well as those still operating in the shadows – allow us to take a look at their work. They tell of personal reflection, unrequited love and surreal worlds. Others tackle the great poets and thinkers, complex non-fiction subject matter and the worries of adolescence, sometimes with the traditional speech bubbles, or with longer passages and diverse styles of drawing. Comic experts have their say and tell of trends of the past decades, new directions, audience favourites and newcomers.

Illustrated history of the revolution

The website is now available in ten languages. The Goethe-Institute also takes the work of German comic artists on tour, offers workshops and promotes dialogue with comic book illustrators from other art scenes: including those in Egypt, Belgium, Italy, Southeast Asia and the Czech Republic. A look at the world of tomorrow is envisioned in Morgenstadt: 17 comic artists from Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China put their ideas about climate protection and sustainability to paper. And in Sweden illustrated stories are used to learn German grammar.

Barbara Yelin and the Goethe-Institut Cairo dared to undertake an extraordinary experiment. The Berlin comic illustrator spent five weeks on location in September and October 2011 to capture the mood in Cairo shortly before the elections. She compiled her “often minor observations,” as she herself calls them, in a Comic Travel Diary in Cairo. “It is certainly interesting to anyone who, like me, is only familiar with Cairo from the news. They rarely show the real lives and daily routines of the people there.”

What would Goethe have to say to all of this? He would probably encourage the artists just as he encouraged the Geneva schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer back in 1831, who then went on to publish his little picture stories and thereby establish a tradition that was later reflected by Wilhelm Busch and finally in the comics of the 20th century.
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