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Comic emancipation

Rodion Ebbighausen /kjb
August 5, 2012

In Germany, comics are often viewed as trivial and vulgar, violent and even pornographic. But they're now being freed from clichés, as a new exhibition in Berlin shows.

A page from Lust's comic Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Leben
Image: avant-verlag

Bang! Whoooosh! Bang! The buff superhero saves the world and rescues the busty blond. With his last bit of energy, he overcomes the bad guy - who, of course, vows revenge and is waiting in part two with another sneaky plan to take over the world.

It's a storyline that's been used time and time again. Though comics are printed in color these days, they often follow black-and-white thinking, where good and evil and clearly distinguishable. Readers are not encouraged to read between the lines and doing so would be fruitless.

It's no wonder that comics have a bad reputation in Germany.

The good vs. evil pattern still sellsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In the 1950s, the German-American psychiatrist Frederic Wertham set out to prove that comics are harmful to children's development and published a study called "Seduction of the Innocent." Mudslinging in the media ensued.

"People were afraid of the images," said Dietrich Grünewald, art expert and chairman of the Society for Comic Studies. "They thought that anyone who read comics would become illiterate and criminal."

The art of comics

Counteracting these prejudices, which still exist, is the aim of the "Comic Life" exhibition currently on show at Berlin's Museum of European Cultures.

"One major reason for the exhibition was to give comics a platform outside of the comic scene," said Judith Schühle, who helped put together the ideas behind the exhibition. "If you look at the German comic scene, it's really small in comparison to the French."

In France, added Schühle, comics have long been considered an art form of their own.

In addition to traditional comic books, graphic novels are slowly establishing themselves in Germany. These leave behind the black-and-white sketches and the superpowers and focus on human stories. Graphic novels tend not to simplify reality, but depict it precisely.

It will take time, however, until the more serious comic genre is no longer overshadowed by its trivial predecessors. "Most people still think of shallow entertainment when they think of comics," said Grünewald. "But that is slowly changing."

Illustrations of societyIllustrated stories have a long tradition - and not just in comic books. Tapestries were embroidered with pictures that told stories as early as the 11th century. The nearly 70-meter Bayeux Tapestry from that era, for example, depicts the Norman conquest of England in 58 scenes - a 900-year-old comic, some might say.

An excerpt of Paula Bulling's comic "Im Land der Frühaufsteher"
Paula Bulling's comic documents the plight of asylum seekersImage: avant-verlag

Minstrels from the Middle Ages to the 19th century used to illustrate their songs with drawings. While they sang, an assistant would point to the corresponding picture drawn on a board.

Illustrated stories are different from other forms of art, said Grünewald. "Comics have their own aesthetic, which requires that it be received a certain way. The viewer has to actively participate, because he has to connect the pictures and fill the static images with life."

Complex figures and authentic stories

"Maus" by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman is a particularly renowned comic. To complete the work, which was published in 1986, Spiegelman interviewed his father, a Holocaust survivor. In the comic, the author portrayed his father not only as a victim but also as a racist perpetrator, who discriminated against homosexuals and blacks. The characters in the comic are not presented as people but as animals.

In Germany, more and more comics on serious topics are being published. "Political comics have been on the rise for a number of years because a growing number of cartoonists are viewing themselves as comic reporters," explained Grünewald.

Cover of the comic "Maus" by Art Spiegelman
Anything but trivialImage: Fischer Taschenbuch/Gunter Glücklich

Berliner Paula Bulling is one of them. She authored "Im Land der Frühaufsteher" (In the Country of Early Risers), which documents the plight of asylum seekers.

Comic author Ulli Lust is another example. For five years, he has been working on "Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens" (Today in the last day of the rest of your life), which tells the story of a 17-year-old punk who travel to Italy with a friend. The two girls want to live out their freedom, but are confronted with violence and sexual assault.

Lust shows that the comic genre is capable of far more than superhero clichés.