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Trends in German Comics
Drawing on Life

Excerpt from the graphic novel “Jein” by Büke Schwarz
Excerpt from the graphic novel “Jein” by Büke Schwarz | Illustration: © Büke Schwarz/Jaja Verlag

Now as ever, real life remains the most vital source of inspiration for the German comics scene, even in these troubling times of the coronavirus crisis. Many German cartoonists have been artistically processing the pandemic and its effects on everyday life – and publishing their comics online.

By Lars von Törne

One German cartoonist has processed her work as a moderator of website comments into comic strip episodes. Another describes her childhood in a three-generation house in a small town in Hesse. And yet another explores the identity issues and conflicts facing Germans of Turkish descent amid the political upheavals in their parents’ or grandparents’ native country.

Real life is the most important source of inspiration for the German comics scene. This year’s crop of new publications again features a remarkable number of autobiographically inspired works, including the three mentioned above. The mostly animal-headed figures sketched in Kathrin Klingner’s Über Spanien lacht die Sonne (The Sun Laughs Over Spain) (Reprodukt, March 2020) grapple with issues like hate, racism and Internet conspiracy theories. In Manno! (Oh Boy!) (Klett Kinderbuch, February 2020) Anke Kuhl tells humorous stories from her youth in colourful pictures reminiscent of children’s book illustrations. And Büke Schwarz employs a pared-down semi-realistic style in her Jein (Yes and No) (Jaja-Verlag, January 2020) about a German-Turkish woman artist caught up in the clashes and conflicts of politics, art and identity.

Unlike Japanese and American comics

These titles epitomize an enduring trend in German comics towards reality-based narratives, starkly contrasting with their counterparts in the US, France and Japan, where the bulk of comic production still tends to draw on fictional genre material. In Germany, most current comics and graphic novels are biographical narratives or semi-fictional stories based on real life. That includes the occasional adaptation of an autobiography, such as Meine Freie Deutsche Jugend (My Free German Youth) (Ch. Links Verlag, March 2020), a graphic novel in which Thomas Henseler and Susanne Buddenberg render Claudia Rusch’s autobiography in sharp, slightly caricatural black-and-white drawings.

In most cases, though, the stories are drawn from the life of the artist. One of many recent examples is Lars, der Agenturdepp (Lars, the Agency Dolt) (Cross Cult, December 2019), in which Andre Lux, in his signature scribbly style, processes his first-hand experience of working at an agency. Another is Andreas Michalke’s Der analoge Mann (The Analog Man) (Reprodukt, November 2019), a collection of stories drawn from the author’s everyday life in a clear-contoured cartoonesque style.

Non-fiction comics are still big 

This penchant for real-life material is also reflected in the unflagging popularity of non-fiction comics in the German market. They’re the second-largest category among new comic books, though some artists incorporate fictional elements into their realistic stories or at least condense reality in an idiosyncratic manner in their stories.

Birgit Weyhe is a case in point. Her comic strips, published monthly for two years under the title Lebenslinien (Lifelines) in the German daily newspaper Tagesspiegel and now brought together in a single book (Avant, March 2020), are inspired by all sorts of different biographies and narrated in expressive, partly realistic and partly symbolic, drawings. Beethoven (Carlsen, March 2020), a graphic novel written by Peer Meter and illustrated by Rem Broo in a somewhat caricatural style, also takes poetic licence in its rendition of the great composer’s biography.

Autobiography is writ large 

According to authors Julian Voloj and Marcin Podolec, Ein Leben für den Fussball (A Life Devoted to Football) (Carlsen, March 2020), on the other hand, despites its angular crayon aesthetic, hews closely to the real life story of footballer Oskar Rohr. Patrick Spät and Beatrice Davis’s Der König der Vagabunden (The King of the Vagabonds) (Avant, October 2019), a graphic novel in expressive black-and-white drawings, takes a historically informed approach to the life of political activist Gregor Gog.

While this penchant for autobiographical and real-life material has been going strong for years now in Germany, genre comics have also been flourishing lately. A number of recently published German titles, especially in the fantasy and fairy tale genres as well as crime thrillers, have attracted international notice and gone down well in France and the US, e.g. the American edition of A House Divided, a magical fairytale-like adventure story by Haiko Hörnig and Marius Pawlitza that came out this spring.

Women artists on the rise 

Some of these titles target young readers, e.g. Alan C. Wilder (Carlsen, March 2020), a graphic novel in clear-cut colourful images by Patrick Wirbeleit and Ulf K. German publishers have reported remarkable growth in the children’s comics segment over the past few years. But most genre comics are intended for readers of all ages. Cases in point include Katrin Gal’s science fiction series Radius, whose aesthetic calls to mind animated films and the second volume of which came out this year (Splitter, February 2020); the modern fairy tale Die Schöne und die Biester (Beauty and the Beasts) (Splitter, February 2020) by Frauke Berger and Boris Koch, whose visual world recalls French genre classics; and the fantasy album Haunter of Dreams, which is the third volume in Claudya Schmidt’s Yria series (Splitter, November 2019), with its opulent and impressively painterly illustrations.

Another major development in the German scene is the increasing prominence of women among the authors of autobiographical and genre comics in particular. Already apparent in recent years, this trend has become even more conspicuous lately – and even in such perennial male strongholds as science fiction and fantasy.

Comics in the Coronavirus era 

While most comics can be clearly ascribed to a specific genre, some defy such clear-cut categories. These include the art comics of Anna Haifisch and Max Baitinger. Haifisch’s Schappi (Rotopolpress, September 2019) and Baitinger’s Happy Place (Rotopolpress, March 2020) both consist of short episodes that can be read sequentially like comic strips, but work associatively with combinations of text and images and experiment very freely with graphic narrative forms. The results transcend the distinctions between comics, illustration and fine art, and set themselves apart from the bulk of German productions.

Meanwhile we are just beginning to see the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic on the German comics scene. On the one hand, the crisis threatens the very livelihood of many a comic book dealer and publisher in Germany. On the other, however, it has also triggered a creative surge among cartoonists, and mostly online. Ralf König, for example, one of Germany’s most illustrious and successful comic artists, has posted on Facebook and other channels a number of episodes about the effects of the coronavirus crisis on the everyday lives of his well-known characters Konrad and Paul. Sarah Burrini likewise addresses the consequences of the current situation for her life and the lives of her characters in a web series called Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof (Life is Not a Bed of Roses). And the International Comic Salon in Erlangen, whose summer of 2020 edition has been called off owing to the pandemic, is putting up dozens of short comics by various artists on its website under the heading Zeich(n)en aus dem Homeoffice (Drawing(s) from Home).