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Comics
Associate Professor Dr. Christian Klein / German Studies
Photo: UniService Transfer

From the gap filler to the art form

Dr. Christian Klein is an associate professor in the field of comics.

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Batman, Superman, Popeye, Peanuts, Garfield, Lucky Luke, Ottifant etc. are different heroes of our childhood, but they have one thing in common: they all belong to comics, those artful picture stories that have become the subject of science in recent years.
Comics, as we love them today, first came into being at the end of the 19th century in the United States. "At first there were full-page comic stories in the Sunday supplements of the daily newspapers, whose popularity led to the desire to entertain readers with comics during the week as well. The fact that comic strips look the way we know them today has to do with the fact that they were inserted in the weekday editions where there was just enough space," says Christian Klein, who teaches Modern German Literary History and General Literary Studies as a associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies. "There were columns in which only narrow strips with a few pictures fit. The term 'comic strip' quickly came into use for these early editions.

A gap filler generates a new readership

But the history of image sequences is much older. Some date them to antiquity, others to the Middle Ages. They are found in Japanese ink drawings as well as in embroidered form. "The Bayeux Tapestry (...is an embroidery created in the second half of the 11th century, 68 metres long in total. Editor's note)  is often considered a kind of precursor to comics. It is from the Middle Ages about the conquest of England in single images," Klein replies when asked about the time of origin, "but the birth of the modern comic is actually placed in the 1890s in New York." Newspapers initially used the services of nascent comic artists as entertaining gap-fillers to fill in text-free spaces. But with the short picture sequences, they simultaneously conquered a new group of buyers, because "the early comics were often aimed at specific groups of people," the scientist explains. For example, the first successful comic strip by cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault, who created stories around the so-called 'Yellow Kid', targeted Irish emigrants. He had his newly created art figure speak in a slang in which the immigrants recognised themselves. "Accordingly, this comic strip was very successful among Irish emigrants. It opened up a readership that probably would not have bought the paper otherwise." A German comic artist, the emigrant Rudolph Dirks, was also able to launch a successful series from 1897 with his `Katzenjammer Kids', which was based on `Max and Moritz'. "The characters spoke a kind of German-English gibberish that sounded like speaking English with a heavy German accent. The German emigrants, who perhaps did not speak English very well yet, could understand these comics because there was not so much text to decipher, and you could get the plot through the pictures," says Klein.

It all started with Mickey Mouse magazines for weekend shopping

Like many of us, Christian Klein came to his drawn heroes through the range of comics at newsagents when his parents were shopping. "I read a lot of comics as a child. Comics were not frowned upon at home. I was always allowed to take a 'Mickey Mouse' magazine with me, when I went shopping at the weekend. I then read it, and my father had all the Asterix magazines," explains the Bremen native. I really liked 'Nick Knatterton' and read it again and again. That is a detective satire from the 50s. Technical gadgets play an important role there. Nick Knatterton always used really great, strange inventions and tools. There are cross-sections where you can look into these inventions and see how the devices work. I thought that was great!" But his real favourite is the character Gaston Lagaffe by Belgian comic artist André Franquin. "He is not a hero in the classical sense, but rather an anti-hero. Franquin wrote a comic series about this editorial messenger at a publishing house. The comics are also called 'Gaston'. He may be lazy, but he is likeable and always tries hard to please everyone. He always has insanely creative ideas. But everything always ends in chaos. I always enjoyed reading that one, when I was young."

Comic editing: Comic adaptation by Jana Fischer

Research object "comic"

"Of course, you immediately think of superheroes. There are three ages in terms of superhero comics, when you talk about heroes in comics," Klein explains, "the Golden Age, the Silver Age and the Dark Age, and in the first phase they were all radiant and patriotic, like Superman." But with the end of the Second World War, the favourability of the readership tilted, because they increasingly found these consistently positive heroes boring. "Then there was an increased focus on fractured characters like Spiderman, who is actually a normal boy who gets his special powers through an accident, which he does not enjoy all the time. He is struggling with all his teenage problems, and at the same time he is a superhero."
Klein has always been interested in the art form of comics and, together with his colleague Julia Abel, came up with the idea of offering a comics seminar at the University of Wuppertal in order to shed light on the various facets of the drawn series of images. "One can say that the intensive academic study of comics began around the turn of the millennium in the German-speaking world. It started earlier in the USA and France," he says. That is why the secondary literature in German-speaking countries was rather limited for a long time. However, the development in the USA, was initially characterised by an attitude hostile to comics. "In the 1950s and 1960s, people wanted to prove from a sociological and psychological point of view that comics were bad for young people, and for this reason they dealt intensively with comics," explains the researcher. The fierce public criticism of horror comics or crime comics led publishers to form of self-censorship, the so-called 'Comics Code', which they imposed on themselves out of fear that their issues would no longer be sold. From then on, all potentially controversial themes and depictions were taboo. "The 'Comics Code' led to a flattening of the content of the comics and to an adaptation to the prevailing conservative value system," says Klein. "But in the 60s a kind of counter-movement developed, the so-called underground comics, which now showed everything: drug use, sex, violence, madness, everything that had no place in the soft-flannelled comics for the young."
Underground comics or 'comix' - the 'x' at the end stands self-ironically for 'x-rated', i.e. 'not for the young'. Thus they form the basis for the boom of the graphic novel in the 1980s. "Comic authors like Art Spiegelman, who started out in the underground milieu, ensured that graphic novels (longer comic narratives in book format, aimed more at an adult audience) caught on in the serious feature pages. Freedom and subversion were very important to the authors. That then spilled over to Germany with a little delay." Klein and Abel's book, `Comics und Graphic Novels', deals with all the central genres from comic strips, to superhero comics, and graphic novels, to mangas. They offer an overview of the historical-cultural, theoretical and analytical dimensions of the study of comics and graphic novels.

The comic is able to depict many things for which one lacks the words

"The comic usually has one additional narrative level, because comics usually consist of text and images," Klein explains, "and it can therefore tell a very complex story without making it complicated for the reader. The text-image relationship makes it possible, for example, to present different narrator voices or different narrative perspectives at the same time. In autobiographical comics, for example, there are often blocks of text positioned either in the picture itself, above or below it. In these blocks, a character narrates, for example, from hindsight, how he or she experienced a certain situation as a child, while the reader then sees the same person in the picture as a child in exactly the situation described. "So at a glance we have the narrative and the experiencing I present in one picture. This form of simultaneity is not possible with narrative texts. It could only be achieved approximately with a lot of effort, because narrative texts are committed to successiveness, since you have to read word for word. The comic can easily create this simultaneity through the text-picture combination. The content of the picture can also contradict the retrospective description from memory and thus incorporate special moments of tension, whereby it is always visually clear on which narrative level we are. Precisely the images make it possible to thematise and depict many things in comics for which one might lack words."
Comics have even arrived in the health sector. They report on crisis situations and problems or even tell stories about illnesses. "The Free University in Berlin even has its own research project called PathoGraphics. It only deals with comic narratives of illnesses. These often autobiographical comics about illness suggests that the authors are able to convey something through the images that they are otherwise not good at telling. This openness of the image-text combination is something very special. You quickly have an affective, emotional relationship to it."

Cross-generational, because there are no prerequisites

Comic fans can be found in every generation. "Ideally, I start reading as a child and do not stop when I am old," Klein laughs, explaining that comics have their own lack of prerequisites. "We do not have to be able to read perfectly to look at comics. After all, that is often the entry point to a reading biography. You can easily understand a lot through the pictures." Comics then often tell different stories for different audiences, the 47-year-old explains. "Nick Knatterton is a good example of this. I read him as a child as an exciting detective story. But there are many political allusions. For example, an Indian chief appears who I did not notice all the time, but he looks exactly like Konrad Adenauer (the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, ed.), who then says something about rearmament and is ironically broken in the comic. These are the messages for adults. But at the same time we have an exciting story for children." In the Asterix series, too, one encounters these different levels again and again. " 'The Papyrus of Caesar' is about a propaganda battle between the Gauls and the Romans, a character appears who looks like the whistleblower Julian Assange. Children probably cannot do much with that. They read the interesting, exciting story and the adults have a political subtext at the same time."
The variety of comic themes and styles is almost indescribable. Fantasy and mangas do not captivate the literary scholar as much. "But that is also a question of socialisation and taste," he openly admits and says about his students: "I am always fascinated when I do seminars on comics, because there are real manga cracks in every seminar. They know everything, the smallest details and also the technical terms."
But manga research is another branch of science.

Book tip:
Julia Abel / Christian Klein (Eds.): Comics und Graphic Novels. Eine Einführung.
J. B. Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart 2016, 328 pages, 24.99 EUR.

Uwe Blass (Interview on March 1, 2021)


Dr. Christian Klein teaches and researches in the Department of Modern German Literary History / General Literary Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies.