Seen as a second-class art form for decades, comics have now attained cult status in the art world. The Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn has opened an exhibition on the history of the medium, Germany's largest ever comic show.
"COMICS! MANGAS! GRAPHIC NOVELS!" - that's the title of an exhibition now on show in Bonn's Bundeskunsthalle until September 10. Around 300 items from the US, Japan and Germany illustrate the history of comics and related genres like mangas and graphic novels.
The show includes valuable exhibits, like rare originals of Superman and other well-known comic figures, but also videos and virtual reality installations that catapult visitors directly into comic strips, illustrating the development of a highly complex art form.
As the first pictured mass medium, comic strips made their appearance in American dailies in the early 20th century. Thanks to their superheroes, they quickly became part of American youth culture, followed by the manga boom in Japan towards the end of the 20th century. Mangas now make up roughly one third of all print products in Japan.
By contrast, the genre was long seen as an artistic "outcast" in Germany, worth less than other traditional forms of art, said Alexander Braun, curator of the exhibition. In his view, that factor explains why it took so long - 120 years of comics' history - to realize a big exhibition on the topic in Germany. A sad phenomenon, in his opinion.
"There are comic authors who are definitely on a par with significant 20th century artists," said Braun, singling out comic dadaist George Herriman, best known for the comic strip "Krazy Kat."
"He was very courageous! He broke with narrative continuity by depicting something in the background that did not appear in the foreground. And that was back in 1916."
From 1910 onward, Herriman published his stories as daily comic strips in American daily newspapers. Due to his somewhat avant-garde motifs and picture compositions, he became one of the most influential comic artists of the time, sketching checkered skies, going outside the comic frame and even letting his protagonists draw their own surroundings.
Today, the comic genre is still rather underrepresented in Germany, due in part to low sales. "Sales of works by artists like Will Eisner [inventor of the graphic novel - Ed.] are below 1,000 copies. When a new volume of a popular series is released in France, it prints an initial 200,000 copies," said Braun.
But why are comics still such a niche market in Germany? A look into the genre's history reveals plenty of misunderstandings.
Wrong place, wrong time
Imports of US art products were not very popular in Germany in the early 20th century. Back then, Europeans considered the US, the birthplace of comics, as a backwater on the international art scene, explained Braun. And when European elites fled the Nazi regime in the 1930s, cultural exchange came to a standstill.
Under the Nazis, the US comics and their often rebellious content were kept from the German public. Even earlier, the first European comic production, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets," released in Belgium in 1929, was ignored in Germany - 30 years after the publication of the first comic strips in the US.
In the 1950s, comics finally made their first appearance in Germany. But the timing was rather unfortunate: back then, comics were seen as a public nuisance in the US, and even became the subject of a censorship debate. Comics were accused of making children and young people stupid, or even provoking them to violence.
That debate, in turn, led to a major misunderstanding in Germany, said Braun. "Censorship in the US did not concern all comic strips, but only those featuring horror, crime and sex. But in Germany, the medium as such came under suspicion whereas that had never been the case in the US!"
The following self-censorship of the comic industry in the US prevented the medium from dealing with adult topics. As a result, any comics that were exported to Germany were limited to entertainment for kids.
'Talent, willpower and a pencil'
In the 1970s, finally, the genre started spreading in Germany - and soon gained a following. "Cultural institutions are now taking a closer look at the art form, inspiring more young artists," said Braun.
And why? Maybe because comics have something to offer that lacks in most other media, namely independence. Whereas filmmakers and other artists often depend on big budgets and expensive equipment, comic productions can do with limited means.
"Comics are so autonomous and subversive because it's so easy to create them," says Braun. "You only need some talent and strong willpower, a pencil and off you go..."