Comics Studies in German Studies
Olivia Albiero (San Francisco State University)
Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam (University of British Columbia)
Over the last decade comics studies has succeeded in establishing itself in German studies (or maybe it is the other way around?), having generally become an accepted field of study in our discipline. This has resulted in a growing number of individual and collaborative interventions in both fields, ranging from scholarly publications to conference activities. For instance, the GSA Comics Studies Network, which launched in 2018, is garnering increasing visibility due to its steady presence at the annual GSA convention, where it offers a space for fruitful intellectual exchange between German comics scholars and anyone interested in researching, teaching and writing about comics. However, even though many German programs are eager to incorporate German comics into their curricula, tracking the important intersections between German studies and comics studies in our research and teaching is not as simple as it seems, with “Why comics in German studies?” still a question posed to German comics scholars and educators across the United States and Canada. Yet, by exploring the history of the form, its position in debates on the representation of the Holocaust, its interventions in narrating East German history, and its foregrounding of experiences of migration and displacement, the intersections between German studies and comic studies becomes abundantly clear. Moreover, comics and graphic novels serve as authentic and accessible material in the (German language) classroom. Finally, in light of the modality’s combined use of text and image, graphic literature opens up new possibilities for the representation of lived and historic experience, while fostering visual literacy by pointing the viewer’s attention to how representation itself works through the form’s acknowledgement of its own construction.
The following thus outlines these points of intersection, demonstrating the essential position of comics studies in German studies to introduce scholars in our discipline to some of the intellection and pedagogical intersections for adopting graphic literature into their teaching and research.
In 1992, an essential shift occurred in transatlantic comic culture, when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Maus (1980–1991). After being serialized in Françoise Mouly and Spiegelman’s RAW from 1980 onwards, the first six chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale were published in 1986 as a collective volume by Pantheon, while the latter five chapters were published in Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles in 1991. Spiegelman’s series was inspired by a short comic also entitled “Maus” that he published in 1972, but it was this later return to the graphic recounting his father’s experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor that drew the attention of academics to the affordances of the comics medium for the first time, positioning the graphic novel as an important feature of contemporary culture from that point forward. While Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories(1978) is generally credited with popularizing the graphic novel, it was not until Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize that this new genre of sequential art truly made its mark (Hatfield, 2005, xi). Forever changing the medium’s relationship with history, Maus opened the floodgates to the possibility of comics addressing serious subject matter (Nijdam, 2015, 142).
With Spiegelman’s retelling of his father’s survival of Auschwitz, Maus rendered comic books culturally legible and legitimate in ways that had been previously inconceivable (Hatfield xi). Moreover, by recounting his father’s experiences of the Holocaust using a combination of text, image, and auto/biography, Maus publicly redefined the medium’s potential through its engagement in the German tradition of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, while prompting important popular and scholarly debates on the ethics of representing the Holocaust (Nijdam & Schallié, 2020, 185). Maus has since emerged as an important entry point for debating the ethics and possibilities of Holocaust representation. For example, Marianne Hirsch’s 1992 article “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory” explores the role of photography in Maus, providing the scholarly foundation for her subsequent work on postmemory. Moreover, Andreas Huyssen’s “Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno” constitutes another important early example of how German studies discourses intersect with comics studies.
Maus’s multi-generational memoir laid the groundwork for German-language graphic novels to similarly tackle the difficult task of depicting Holocaust experience. For example, Reinhard Kleist’s Der Boxer: Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (2012), which follows the personal story of Holocaust survivor Hertzko, who emigrated to the United States and became a professional boxer with the name of Harry Haft, shares many parallels with its predecessor. Much like the serialized history of Spiegelman’s work, Der Boxer also originally appeared as comic strips in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, before being published as a collected volume. Moreover, the father-son narrative returns in Kleist’s graphic novel, which portrays Alan Scott Haft and his father Hertzko on a car ride as they look for the latter’s adolescent love, Leah, during a family vacation in Florida. Positioning Hertzko’s biography alongside the historical, collective events of National Socialism highlights how Kleist’s work portrays the long-term trauma of Holocaust survivors and translates it into visually forceful representations of violence and dehumanization (Albiero 14).
More recently, another graphic novel has emerged to make important interventions in Holocaust discourses, again showcasing the potentialities of narrating the past via text-image experimentation and the affordances of sequential art. German-American illustrator Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (2018) offers new perspectives on German guilt and culpability through the verbal-visual modalities of the graphic novel format. In a work that is both memoir and scrapbook, Krug unpacks and interrogates the silence that pervaded her family history for generations, addressing difficult questions about German individual and collective responsibility. Combining animal and landscape imagery, hand-drawings, and comics with altered and excerpted photographs and postcards, collected objects, and cultural references, Belonging illuminates the intellectual, emotional, and ethical work being carried out by younger generations in attempts to come to terms with a past they can only access indirectly. Moreover, through its visual-verbal modalities, Krug’s graphic work also addresses larger questions on what it means to be German and what belonging and Heimat—which is the title of the German translation—have come to signify in both individual and collective terms.
East German Studies
While German-language comics have only recently begun to examine the history of the Holocaust, graphic novels have emerged as an essential forum for the examination of East German experience over the past two decades. In 2009, in particular, which marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, three graphic novels were published exploring personal experiences of the history of East Germany: Simon Schwartz’s drüben! recounts his parents’ decision to leave East Germany in the 1980s; Claire Lenkova’s Grenzgebiete, a children’s storybook in comics form, helps young readers understand the divided nation that defined their parents’ generation; and, lastly, Flix’s (Felix Görmann) Da war mal was…is a collection of humorous anecdotes from both sides of the Wall. Directed at the generation of children and young adults who might have witnessed the collapse of the GDR but are too young to understand the complexity of their country’s division, these three publications visualized the experience of living in East Germany through the eyes of the children that grew up there. They presented the state’s oppressive politics and contradictions through anecdotes about daily life in the GDR, while also relating historically accurate facts through footnotes. Drüben!, Grenzgebiete, and Da war mal was…launched a movement that has since evolved into a new genre of the German graphic novel. Then, as more comics thematizing East Germany began to appear, what started as a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009, quickly turned into a trend in the representation of East German experience. Today, there are over twenty graphic novels that retell the history of the GDR, with more coming out each year. While not all of the authors of this emergent genre of graphic literature are themselves East German, many of these comics artists have important ties to the GDR. Yet others are capitalizing on the interest in graphic literature that thematizes East German experience, which sometimes leads to the production of narratives that are better positioned to receive mainstream attention than offer a nuanced engagement with GDR history.
In addition to recounting personal memories as well as historical processes, this body of graphic literature features elements that integrate other categories of historical documentation and narrativization. These comics thereby draw upon other genres of historical writing to lend an air of authenticity to their stories, while simultaneously commenting on the process of historical writing itself. Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler’s Berlin: Geteilte Stadt (2012), for example, recounts five stories that took place during the GDR, capturing several East German citizens’ attempts to resist and escape the repressive communist regime. Yet, what makes this text remarkable is the way it sets a subjective historical narrative in dialog with historical artifacts and archival documents. By embedding maps, photographs, and paintings contemporary to the GDR on its pages, Buddenberg and Henseler offer the documentation necessary to situate their comic renditions of historical narratives in the real, while also allowing the physical evidence of history to interact with the subjective and artistic stylizations of these same events and themes (Nijdam 2020b, 180–181). This is particularly true with regards to the concluding “On location” (“Vor Ort”) section of every chapter, which enables the reader to trace the depicted events in the physical space of modern Berlin. By adding a contemporary photograph of the same site as well as public transportation information, Berlin: Geteilte Stadt invites the reader to embark on a journey of discovery, re-imagining these stories through the monuments and landmarks that remain and attest to Berlin’s Cold War division.
In light of the form’s ability to capture complex stories with limited intrusiveness, comics and graphic novels have become increasingly entrusted with the representation of human rights issues. Over the last half decade, in particular, comics and graphic novels thematizing forced displacement have emerged as an important space for the representation of refugee and migrant experience. Written from the subjective perspective of refugees, artists, and volunteers working in the community, these so-called “refugee comics” promote awareness of the Syrian emergency and the forced migration of many others people living in conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with a number of these projects emerging in collaboration with human rights organizations (Nijdam 2021a).
Including works such as Reinhard Kleist’s Der Traum von Olympia (2015) and “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” (2016), Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen: Begegnungen Mit Syrern Auf Der Flucht (2017), Gaby von Borstel and Peter Eickmeyer’s Liebe deinen Nächsten: Auf Rettungsfahrt im Mittelmeer an Bord der Aquarius (2017), and Ali Fitzgerald’s Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe (2018), these comics offer new perspectives on the experience of millions of forcibly displaced people currently on the move. For example, they shift the typical focus of media campaigns on migrant experience to tell stories about the complex issues facing migrants from a single person’s perspective, rendering the typical objects of media representation the narrating subjects of their own narrative. Then, through breakdown (the artist’s process of turning a story into an image sequence) and closure (the reader’s participation in the meaning-making of the narrative by way of the gutter) comics weave the past, the present, and the socio-political context together into a cohesive narrative (Nijdam 2021b). They thereby render migration experiences legible through the medium’s ability to present complex narratives and nuance via the form’s verbal-visual modes of representation and juxtaposition. As a result, comics on forced migration foster empathy and compassion for the lives of potentially millions of refugees via the story of one individual or group of migrants (Ogier). In Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar, for example, Reinhard Kleist focuses on the biography of the Somali Olympic athlete Samia Yusuf Omar and her fatal crossing of the Mediterranean in 2012. By centering the narrative around Samia’s personal story, this work renounces a nameless narrative and humanizes a story of escape that often remains untold when the individual experiences are concealed behind numbers (Albiero 15). Moreover, in terms of social-justice aesthetics, the visual cues of ethnicity, gender, class, religion and ability are not easily flattened into single-issue subjects, making comics fundamentally intersectional, while the history of the form itself asks readers to question assumptions, stereotypes, and the impact of specific narrative strategies and visual representations strategies on social justice issues (Nijdam 2021b).
In fact, cartooning itself offers an appealing compromise in its ability to represent individuals anonymously, “making it easier for subjects to give testimony fully and candidly,” while affording these same individuals the specificity required to demonstrate their humanity (Ogier 2018). Moreover, refugee and migrant comics interrupt static media images and the threats these forms of documentation may pose to vulnerable subjects (Rifkind 2017, 649; Chute 2016, 17). There can be consequences for refugees who give testimony on their living circumstances and the oppression and violence they encounter. Evidence of unlawful residence or undocumented habitation in migrant encampments on their journey to seek asylum—such as that offered by photography—could in fact jeopardize that very process, while putting the friends and family that remained behind in peril. It is therefore crucial that the forms giving voice to the hardships of refugee life also do not lead to more persecution (Ogier 2018). Illustration provides an alternative for individuals who wish to document their experience but cannot risk being identified, while the comics form itself provides these displaced people with an audience for their stories (Ogier 2018). Comics on global forced migration thus render the experience of forced migration legible without dangerous consequences, while also making this material accessible to younger readers and individuals who do not typically follow the news media.
Moreover, unlike the photojournalism of these same conflict zones, comics and cartoonists often approach the subjects of their stories with an audio recorder and a sketchbook, limiting the use of cameras to only capture images that later provide the source material for their drawing. Rather than serving as documents themselves, photography therefore functions as a point of reference for the artists, who then translate its images into comics, remediating what they witnessed onto the blank page or into digital space. Further, especially in works of comics journalism, artists visually and verbally address their presence in the scene, along with their positionality and the ethical implications of their representations. So, while photography seeks to mask the mediated nature of its documentation, comics acknowledge the subjective nature of observation, positioning the artist as an agent in cultivating the narrative through the constructed nature of their art.
However, while the affordances of the comic medium allow for a social-justice-oriented representation of forced migration, the power relations of comics on refugee experience are fraught. Even though some of these stories are co-authored by refugees and artists (e.g. Alphabet des Ankommens, Mertikat et al.’s Temple of Refuge), many of them are drawn by Western cartoonists or based on their work with migrants or their testimonies (Rifkind 2017, 648). They are therefore typically—and also not unproblematically—not by refugees themselves but about refugees. Representing these stories thus demands an explicitly ethical engagement with migrant subjects and their experiences in order to avoid a colonial, fetishized or traumatizing rendering of the narrative. By marking their presence as observers and reporters, comics artists like Reinhard Kleist in “Kawergosk – 5 Sterne” and Olivier Kluger’s in Dem Krieg Entronnen endeavor to identify and articulate their responsibility towards the people, places, and politics they choose to report on and their rendering of these complex stories. With images possessing the potential to make visible as much as re-stigmatize, as Kate Polak (2017) writes in Ethics in the Gutter, “[o]ur representations of history have consequences, and those representations have the possibility of deploying empathy and identification in a variety of ways that make us see a situation through different points of view” (15). These ethical considerations become particularly important when the drawn subjects belong to groups that have been traditionally underrepresented, intentionally misrepresented, or ignored in the media.
Considered within the context of German studies, comics and graphic novels allow scholars and educators to engage with key questions of the ethics of representation that are at the core of our discipline. They facilitate entry points into cultural and historical debates and, through their visual and narrative elements, render them accessible to a wider audience, which includes undergraduate readers. In their relationships to and against photography, film, and literature, comics also offer vantage points for transmedial evaluations on the affordances and limitations of different media in engaging culturally, politically, and historically with the representation of people, places, and events. Moreover, when incorporated into our language and culture courses, comics hone students’ ability to read closely, think critically, and write analytically by asking them to combine and articulate their understanding of visual and verbal elements. Finally, through the work of closure, comics require students to be accountable in the meaning-making of these texts, bridging the gaps between panels and pages with their own interpretations and analyses. Comics are therefore an important tool in developing students’ visual literacy skills. In light of the pictorial turn in information (and misinformation) dissemination, the researching, writing, and teaching about comics should become increasingly important in humanities and social sciences education.
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