Nicolas Mahler Draw Kafka for me

Nicolas Mahler: “Komplett Kafka” (Completely Kafka)
Nicolas Mahler: “Komplett Kafka” (Completely Kafka) | © Nicolas Mahler, Suhrkamp Verlag

Nicolas Mahler is a comic illustrator whose book “Komplett Kafka” (Completely Kafka) is published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Kafka’s centenary year 2024, and it will tour as an exhibition. Ulrich Fügener of the Goethe-Institut Lyon asked Nicolas Mahler five questions – an interview about comics, Kafka, humour and melancholy.

Nicolas Mahler, could you give us a brief outline of your career and attitude to work?

I was born in 1969 in Vienna and had no idea what to do after leaving school. Despite several attempts I didn’t manage to get a place at art school. My main interest back then was already tending towards comic illustration or cartoon drawing. At the start of the 1990s when I was applying to the art schools, that was the absolute worst thing with the least artistic value that you could do, in the opinion of the lecturers. They were instantly dismissive, with the comment that art school is not the place for someone specialising in “low art”.

But somehow that also encouraged me to keep going even more stubbornly. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t think of anything else I could have done. So then I just started to teach myself everything without any training, and submitted my work to newspapers. It was difficult, but I managed somehow… But then it took more than ten years until my first book was published. It was frustrating in those days, collecting all the rejections, for years on end. However in hindsight I must say that I needed those ten years to develop a style I could use to put my ideas into practice.
To what extent is your minimalist illustration style similar to that of Kafka?

Even in the early days the comparison with Kafka’s drawings kept cropping up when my books were being discussed. I never actually looked at the reason behind that, even though I was familiar with Kafka’s drawings from the book covers. I always thought his drawings were very good, very simple and pithy. Of course you can see similarities, because they are stick figures without facial expressions. It was only when I started work on the Kafka biography that I really became aware of how similar they were, and I found it hugely enjoyable to play around with this idea.

What attracted you to Kafka? What’s your perspective on him?

Some of my books are adaptations of classic literature. And after all, since I’m always aiming for comedy, the most suitable originals are ones that already incorporate an element of humour. I’m not trying to create a parody of a deadly serious work, I want to exploit certain comical aspects that are already contained within a text for my own purposes.

Kafka’s work features elements of comedy.

What I found particularly attractive about Kafka (apart from the drawing-related aspect) was that whilst he is considered to be a very melancholic author, there are of course elements of comedy in his work too. The Metamorphosis for example is actually a humorous sketch full of comic characters, even though some people find it very gloomy and not at all funny. Of course combining comedy and melancholy has a great attraction.

Which writer’s work will you tackle next? Or will it be another story with a scenario you’ve created yourself?

Nothing’s planned at the moment. Mostly these things happen quite randomly. For now I’m quite busy with Kafka. After spending more than a year reading Kafka’s texts (and texts about Kafka), as well as writing and drawing my own Kafka book, it’s a pleasant change to be able to show the exhibitions and participate in events. I see it as a chance to clear my head before I lock myself away again for a long time for the next book project.

What books and comics do you like reading?

With regard to books I have an odd liking for a genre that’s really loathed on the literature scene, as comics used to be: I’m keen on reading autobiographies, whether good or bad. Unfortunately most of them are indeed not good, but even the bad ones entertain me somehow, or annoy / disappoint me in an inspiring way. And there’s some notable anecdote or other to be found in almost every one. I’m a strong advocate of anecdote; something else that has totally negative connotations within the literature scene. At the moment I’m not reading comics much at all, recently I was impressed by Shigeru Mizuki, a Japanese manga artist who has been in print since the 1960s and whose work is now being published bit by bit in German (by Reprodukt).


From January 2024 an exhibition of the book “Komplett Kafka” (Completely Kafka) by Nicolas Mahler will tour Goethe-Institutes worldwide (arranged by Goethe-Institut Lyon). The book “Komplett Kafka” is a combination of Kafka’s biography and brief impressions of Franz Kafka’s key works.