Better known for its electronic music and street art, Berlin is now also home to an emerging graphic-novel scene in a country that has traditionally treated illustrated stories as children’s literature.
Rarely seen in bookstores just a few years ago, German-produced graphic novels now have dedicated shelves, as home-grown artists and foreigners find inspiration in the city.
“It was when I moved here that I felt a need to write,” says Spanish author Alberto Madrigal, who moved to the German capital in 2007 and has produced three graphic novels, including Berlin 2.0, his most recent.
The key reason that draws artists and musicians to Berlin also attracts graphic novelists: the cost of living is lower than in most European capitals.
Berlin’s tormented history – from the excesses of the Weimar era to Nazism and the stark division between democracy and communism – also serves as a gripping backdrop for any novel.
It is no coincidence, then, that graphic novels produced here are less in it for a lighthearted superhero fun than aimed at making a political statement.
In Tipping Point, for example, Hamed Eshrat describes his family’s flight to Germany after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took power in his native Iran in 1979.
In Kinderland, an East Berlin-born author called Mawil told the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall as seen through the eyes of a schoolboy.
Birgit Weyhe’s Madgermanes depicts the fate of Mozambican workers sent to East Germany, while Reinhard Kleist describes the horrors of Nazi-run death camp Auschwitz in The Boxer.
“The number of authors who are politically engaged has exploded. The new generation likes to deal with these intelligent subjects,” says Sylvain Mazas, who made Germans laugh with This Book Should Allow Me to Solve the Conflict in the Middle East, to Get My Degree and to Find a Wife.
Up until about a decade ago, Germany’s home-grown illustrated-book scene was largely made up of just a handful of authors.
But the fall of the Wall in 1989 had brought a group of East German artists, who were trained in techniques that had been abandoned by art colleges in the West, to teach at the Berlin-Weissensee art school.
The group became known as Germany’s comic avant-garde and went on to have a powerful impact on younger generations of graphic novelists.
Mazas, who like Mawil and Eshrat, trained at the school, said that “it has for a long time been a very political place”.
At about the same time, Swiss publisher Edition Moderne began producing German translations of foreign graphic novels, including some from France and the United States, where the market is far bigger and more mature.
Germans, many who were raised on a diet of Mickey Mouse and Tintin comics, began to turn their attention to these graphic novels as well.
Berlin publishers have steadily emerged, including Reprodukt in 1991, Avant-Verlag in 2001 and Jaja-Verlag in 2011. Initially, they produced German translations, but later expanded to home-grown titles.
German graphic novelists slowly “found recognition at home and abroad, while until 2005, there were only one-way translations,” says Vincent Ovaert, the co-founder of Our Taste, Berlin’s first gallery dedicated to graphic novels.
Avant-Verlag’s co-founder Johannes Ulrich notes that the proportion of German-produced works is now “growing – not spectacularly, but it’s growing”.
“Now I have 10 people working on their books who are all from Germany,” he says.
Nevertheless, publishers acknowledge that the industry is still in its infancy, and a long way from the scale of the French or American equivalents.
Experts estimate the German market to be only one-tenth the size of the French, for example. A strong title can sell between 3,000 and 4,000 copies in Germany, says Ulrich.
He recognised, however, that “while we reach out to a more diversified readership of 25 to 80 years, we hardly sell anything to those who are younger”.
Mathieu Diez, who heads the Lyon Graphic Novel Festival, said that even though the German market has “everything in place, there still isn’t great interest from the public abroad”.
Next year, however, the festival will host a delegation of German authors, who will showcase their works in two exhibitions.
But Diez also cautioned that the graphic-novel market is tough going, as “quality publications run up against the flood of French publications”, which appear in the thousands a year.
* Agence France-Presse