Friday, 22. June 2012
I love graphic novels. So, it’s lucky that I work at one of Britain’s best graphic novel publishing houses – SelfMadeHero. Amongst other things, I’m responsible for finding outstanding graphic novels published in languages other than English and publishing them in translation so that British and North American readers can enjoy them too. Earlier this month, I attended Germany’s best comics festival for the first time. That’s what this post is all about. Specifically, it’s about the things that I thought were interesting and distinctive about the German comics scene from my own perspective and more generally, a British perspective.
Germany plays host to several comics festival each year, but the one I visited was the Erlangen International Comic-Salon. The festival describes itself as ‘the most important festival for graphic literature in German-speaking countries’. The Salon is certainly internationally renowned and has taken over this south German town, near Nuremberg, every two years, for the past 25 years. For each edition of the salon, the high street, theatre and civic buildings of this usually sleepy university town are temporarily transformed into Germany’s ‘comics capital’ with 25,000 visitors gathering for four days of art exhibitions, debates, concerts, parties, “live art” performances, a prestigious comics prize and, last but not least, a grand comic convention.
As the Salon website states, the salon “brings together art and commerce, mainstream and avant-garde.” “It is the seismograph and motor of the German comics industry and reflects all facets of the genre.”
The main purpose of my visit was to meet German publishers and creators and find projects that would be interesting for our readers. I also went to find out, first-hand, about the German comics industry and scene and see what lessons could be taken from it. Last, but not least, I’d heard that the salon was a social affair and I hoped I would find time to spend time with our German authors and publishing partners in a less hectic environment than the annual trade comic and book fairs at Angouleme and Frankfurt.
What would a Comic-Salon be without the artists?
The organisers attracted over 400 artists from around the world for the 2012 edition. A quick glance through the exhibition guide revealed that I knew only a small percentage of them, mainly those from the independent graphic novel and scene.
Of those creators I knew, I was pleased to see Hamburg’s Arne Bellstorf (Baby’s In Black) and Berlin’s Reinhard Kleist (Castro, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness) on “home turf”. Both these creators are well known in Germany for their newspaper strips and their graphic novels alike. Similarly, both are published in translation by SelfMadeHero and by leading houses around the world in other countries. Each debuted works at the Salon: Bellstorf with Doris (The Treasure Fleet) and Kleist with Der Boxer (Carlsen). During the show I also spoke with or heard other outstanding German creators speak. They included Isabel Kreitz (Haarman), Nicolas Mahler (Angelman), Simon Schwartz (Packeis), Michael Meier (Das Inferno), Uli Oesterle (Hector Umbra), Sascha Hommer (Insekt), Jens Harder (Alpha Directions), Anke Feuchtenberger (Die Hure in Wirft den Handschuh) and Till Thomas (Zirp). This is by no means a representative group of German comic artists – but they were ones whose work I really enjoy. I am still working my way through the work of the female artists featured in a special edition of the Swiss Strapazin Magazine and the numerous Spring anthologies from Hamburg that I bought at the Salon.
Oustide in the Rathausplatz I also picked up a wonderful anthology of German creators called Neufundland with short stories based around ‘the meaning of life’. There wasn’t a bad story in the collection. It featured Barbara Benas, Sandra Brandstätter, Dominic Eise, Uwe Heidschötter, Sam Hiti, Mark Kjaergaard, Sebastian Koch, Enrique Lorenzo, Sylvain Marc, Maike Plenzke, Miguel Porto, Christian Puille, Alfonso Salazar, Jakob Schuh, Andreas Schuster, Steffi Schütze, Mikkel Sommer, Louis Tardivier, Phil Warner, Thomas Wellmann and Heinz Wolf.
The Salon is a German-speaking affair, but it has a truly international guest list. This year saw a focus on Arabic comics. Of those international guests that I already knew or discovered more about at Erlangen were Lebanon’s Zeina Abirached, Britain’s Howard Hardiman (sometimes you have to go a long way to find out about people!) and Italian master Lorenzo Mattotti, whose ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ exhibition was shown at a venue in the town centre.
Thanks to Reprodukt, I was lucky enough to spend some time with France’s Cyril Pedrosa who created the award-winning, semi-autobiographical work Portugal and America’s Charles Burns.
Comics and Art
There were more than twenty art exhibitions spread around Erlangen. The centrepiece exhibition presented artists from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. This complex exhibition was arranged in a souk-like arrangement of twisting, criss-crossing exhibition corridors at the Congress Centre and was navigated using iPads equipped to read QR codes mounted next to each artwork.
The exhibition was a revelation – from pieces on what it means to be a woman in Egypt today to first-person narratives from Palestinian activists. Much of the work had never been exhibited in their country of origin. Let’s hope that this exhibition continues to tour internationally.
I was genuinely impressed by the extensive exhibition / installation by Egyptian artist Golo, which took the form of long, vibrantly water-coloured street scenes and panorama. It was (almost) presented as part of the Arab Comics exhibition, but it was, in a way, quite separate.
Angouleme Festival Grand Prize-winning artist, Manuele Fior brought a compact, powerful exhibit of original water-coloured pages and jacket artwork from his graphic novels 5000km a second and Mademoiselle Else to the Salon. The exhibition would have been my absolute favourite, but it suffered from poor framing and a brightly lit gallery, which made it impossible to see the artwork without reflections from street and spot lighting.
Legendary French creator and publisher, David B., staged a major exhibition of page and cover artwork under title ‘Shadows and Visions’ that featured stunning pages from Best of Enemies, Black Paths, Epileptic and other dream-related works. Glass cases held fascinating ephemera from the early days of French publisher L’Association such as launch invitations, declarations of artist intention, founding certificates for L’Association and David B. illustrated Tarot cards featuring members of the commune.
Charles Burns’ powerful exhibition ‘Horror Around the Corner’ presented recent work from X’ed Out/The Hive, pages from his well-known graphic novel Black Hole work from the 80s, 90s and magazine illustrations for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone Magazine. Personally, I enjoyed watching the animated short film from the ‘Fear(s) of the dark’ series (2008), which was based on a Burns comic. Actually, I don’t know if it was based on a Burns’ comic directly. Someone will no doubt set me straight on that point.
Avant Verlag presented the final exhibition I visited. It consisted of original pencil and water-coloured artwork from Felix Pestemer's newly published Dance of the Skeletons. It brought together the author’s photographs of visits to Mexico along with Day of the Dead shrine artefacts such as Mexican sugar skulls and carved figurines. It was a real pleasure to see Pestermer’s intricately pencilled, highly detailed artwork up close. I hope it is brought out for another show so that more people can enjoy it.
Art school aesthetic
It is hard to explain how exciting the stands of the German art schools were at Erlangen without actually going to Erlangen and browsing the stalls yourself. I hope the photos help where my words fail. Students and graduates from art and illustration courses in Hamburg, Braunschweig, Essen, Kiel, Augsburg, Saar, Halle, Leipzig, Hannover, Offenbach am Main, Kassel, Munchen, Luzern, Dresden and Berlin had taken great care to show their professionalism, creativity, craftsmanship in producing prints, comics, art-prints, pamphlets, zines, mini-comix, comic-anthologies, monographs and concertina books. The UK art school scene doesn’t have such a strong focus on sequential illustration and so it was mind-blowing to see the sophistication of the comic and illustration work that came out of the German schools.
The Publishers and Exhibitors
At the centre of the Erlangen Salon is the International Comic Fair in the Heinrich-Lades-Halle Congress Centre, located right in the city centre. This is where around 150 exhibitors – German and international publishers, agencies, comic dealers, comic classes from universities – present their publishing programmes.
All German comics life was on display here. The salon claims to have played ‘a decisive role in changing the perception of comics in Germany: not only as a mass medium but also as an art form.’ And from what I saw on this visit, I believe them. Experimental art-school, small press and zine collectives had their places on the exhibition floor but so too did the highly commercial manga, traditional book publishers, graphic novel publishers and licensed comic publishers.
As with any international show, the large stands of these most commercial publishers dominated the room (in this case Panini, Egmont and Carlsen Comics). Nestled between these goliaths was a slim but interesting showcase of titles from traditional, German language, book publishers (including Knesebeck, Jacoby Stuart, Atrium and Eichborn) who have all dipped a toe into the graphic novel market to varying extents. It seemed as though most had adopted a strategy of acquiring foreign graphic novel rights in order to build respectable lists quickly. This is something that happens in the UK and US too.
The convention’s ground floor were where the longboxes of comics-traders, galleries of the original comic-art dealers, stalls of vintage comics album, tables of merchandise sellers could be found. These parts of the convention always look the same, varying only a little in their content.
The mezzanine floor of the convention was distinctly different to the main floor. To the left of the main café lay the “Junges Forum” comprised of the art schools. To the right of the café was the preserve of the most established, graphic novel and comix publishers who define the German-speaking graphic novel scene –Reprodukt (Berlin), Edition Moderne (Zurich), Zwerchfell (Stuttgart). Missing from this independent group, but not from the salon, were Avant Verlag, Schreiber & Leser, Edition 52 and Vraoum! who were all located downstairs. Bridging the gap between these two worlds were the stands of the hip collectives of art school graduates including Hamburg’s Spring, Berlin’s The Treasure Fleet and Kassel’s Rotopolpress.
The final halls of the convention contained a mix of small press (Jaja Verlag), self-publishers (Amelie Persson), experimental digital publishers and those concentrating on “funnies” or collected, historical reprints (Bocola).
Outside the Rathaus, which hosted the main convention, were several public squares – the Rathausplatz and the Schlossplatz – that hosted live art and interactive performances. These two squares were linked by the town’s main street Nuremburgstasse/Hauptstrasse that was dotted with a variety of public and private buildings hosting comic art exhibitions. The remaining Comics-Salon venues (The Siemens Building, NH Hotel, Pacelli Haus and the Theatre) were all within a moment or two’s walk off the main street.
Over four days, there were 30 lectures and panel discussions dealing with issues such as ‘Comics and politics’, ‘the role artists and graphic literature are playing in the processes of transformation in the Arab world’, ‘the societal function of comics in Russia and Indonesia’, ‘the depiction of war’, ‘violence and representations of death in graphic literature’, ‘ the DC Relaunch, which were aimed at a wide audience: not just comics junkies.
These talks were, as you would expect, conducted in German. I was able to attend a few of these sessions, including one with many of the French-speaking guest creators including Zeina Abirached (Lebanon), Yassine Ellil (Tunisia), Mazen Kerbaj (Lebanon), Lena Merhej (Lebanon), Brahim Raïs (Morocco) and Barrack Rima (Lebanon), which provoked lively debate about the political role of comics in Middle Eastern countries.
Newspaper publisher turned graphic novel publisher
One of the most interesting things that I found time to ponder at Erlangen was the role played by newspapers in the comics industry. Around 2005, the tabloid Bild started an edition of 12 omnibus editions of popular mainstream comics and manga like Asterix and Donald Duck for its readers to buy and collect. Around the same time the highly respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung started a line of small format, paperback graphic novels including works by Will Eisner, Hugo Pratt or Jean Giraud. In 2011 the similarly respectable Süddeutsche Zeitung started their first newspaper "Graphic Novel library" imprint.
This first tranche of hardback collectible volumes from Süddeutsche Zeitung featured well-known titles in translation like Will Eisner’s Contract with God, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Joe Sacco’s Palastine and German titles such Peer Meter & Barbara Yellin’s The Gift and Reinhard Kleist’ Cash – I See a Darkness under the series ‘Literature meets Illustration’. This March they published the second tranche, under the title ‘Heaven and Earth’. This series featured (arguably) a greater number of lesser-known works, like those from Manuele Fior, Posy Simmonds, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Shaun Tan and Keiji Nakazawa. I think I’m correct when I say that all of these titles were already published in German translation by existing publishers, so these SZ-Bibliotek titles were without exception, re-prints.
Each SZ-Bibliotek was volume bound in a dreary blue or red cloth-effect hardcover with an uninspiring greyscale illustration. This quibble aside, the very existence of the series speaks volumes about the acceptance of graphic literature In Germany. The variety of the graphic novels that had been chosen by the paper demonstrates the sophisticated reading habits of the German comics readers. Or perhaps they only exhibit the confidence of the paper in the mainstream appeal of comics to their core readership.
Talking to one German comics editor, I saw a flipside to the success of the SZ-Bibliotek. Although it had led to prominent stocking of graphic novels in bookshops, it also limited some bookshops who felt that they no longer needed to stock titles from outside the SZ-Bibliotek series.
Whatever the truth, I dream of the day when the Guardian, the Times or the Sun promote a graphic novel library in this way in Britain!
Three final things that I learned during my visit to Erlangen Comic-Salon:
1) You must not joke about Donald Duck with German “Donaldists”. If drawn in the traditional German-style, they believe that his trouser-less, anatine world embodies a German “Golden Age”. Moreover, matters concerning Donald should be discussed in the manner of politics or philosophy and defended with the vigour that an Englishman defends his proverbial castle.
2) “Portion control” does not apply to German Schnitzel dishes. ‘Three person meat-sharing platter (breaded, deep fried)’ could be introduced as an aid to tourists unfamiliar with the local servings suggestion.
3) I will start collecting Panini stickers again if British conventions follow the example of Erlangen and make stickers for each of the attending creators!
The Erlangen Comics-Salon will next take place 19-22 June 2014. I recommend anyone who is interested in comics or illustration to visit this sixteenth edition.
Thanks to Bodo Birk, Tobias Ott, Elisabeth Pyroth, Dirk Rehm & Sebastian Oehler for making it such an enjoyable trip.
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