Dec 4, 2011

Comics, Manga & Co.: The New Culture of German Comics — Exhibit Opening

I spent a good hour on Friday night at Arts in the City in Bonifacio Global City for the grand opening of an exhibit entitled Comics, Manga & Co.: The New Culture of German Comics. The exhibit was organized by the Goethe Institut and sponsored by the Philippine International Comics, Cartoons, and Animation (PICCA) group, and featured two generations of German cartoonists as well as some works from young Filipino students who are being schooled by some of the exhibit's sponsors.

I showed up at 8:00 p.m. and couldn't help but notice the radically different atmosphere this exhibit had when compared with things like Komikon or even Free Comic Book Day. This time, the people were subdued and very serious. And I didn't see many familiar faces — it was as if I'd stepped into a different world. And that kind of made it exciting, because in a way, I was. I didn't know anything about German comics, and here, I would learn.

The evening was kicked off by Mr. Falk Schleicher, who is the head of the Language Program for the Goethe Instititut-Philippinen, pretty much introducing everyone to the whole concept behind the exhibit.

Me with Falk Schleicher. I'm the one who's not German.

He was followed by Mr. Boboy Yonzon, the president of PICCA, who spent his time on the microphone talking about the history of Filipino comics and how important it is for the children today to know that history. Curiously, he didn't really talk much about German comics, which I think is what prompted Schleicher afterward to get back on the microphone and clarify that indeed, the exhibit featured German artists as well as aspiring Filipino artists.

Prominent German cartoonist Henning Wagenbreth then came on via Skype, and he was able to elaborate on the history of German comics.

From what I can gather, the big explosion in German comics really took place because of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was when the technological advantages (i.e., mass printing and better production technologies) of West Germany combined with the aesthetics of East Germany (which were very inspired by woodcuts) to create what would become a very popular kind of art. They had comics before, but it was mostly relegated as kids' stuff prior to the fall of the Wall, at which point they took inspiration from things like MAD MAGAZINE (told ya), RAW MAGAZINE (told ya again), French comics, and Polish and Czech comics (which just blew my mind, because what? Poland and Czechoslovakia had comics that were influential enough to go outside their own countries? That's incredible. Why'd I never hear of this? The lesson to be learned here is that there is always more to learn).

The floor was opened up to questions and I asked if there were anything in German comics that was predominant and therefore truly gave German comics an "identity," in much the same way that overt technical stylings and attention to detail defined Filipino artists of the 50s through the 70s. Wagenbreth said that in the 90s, it was the woodcut aesthetic, but now, with many artists being influenced by many comics from many countries, the results are more varied, and the lines become blurrier and blurrier. I feel much the same way.

Someone else then asked if the German comics had a superhero genre, to which Wagenbreth said no, citing realism and a more grounded approach among their works. He then went on to say that the world is not the simple place it was back when superheroes were in their heyday, and that's why superheroes are no longer relevant, and that they aren't important anymore — problems now are too complicated to be solved by a strongman in tights. This is a common sentiment, I've found, among the underground movement in American comics as well, and it's a sentiment I simply have never been able to agree with. First, I'm not sure why those not doing superheroes have a seemingly constant need to bring down the superhero genre; and second, if escapist stories and power fantasies really have no resonance in the world today, the biggest new franchise of the last ten years wouldn't be about a boy who does magic.

That's me digressing though. Forgive me. After this, the exhibit opened up and I went around. Let me show some of the things that stood out to me. I obviously can't show you the entire exhibit, since that'd be ridiculous and unethical — and also, it's 12:44 in the morning — so I've narrowed it down to the three artists that really stood out.

Ulf K. stood out simply because his work is completely bereft of dialogue. As such, there is no language barrier to overcome. He tells the story completely in pictures, and he reminds me of Jason. If I could have bought any of the comics they were showcasing, I'd have bought Ulf's HIEROYMUS B., as it was the one that transcended cultural and language barriers, even if he wasn't the artist that jumped out most at me.

Reinhard Kleist wrote and drew the biographical comic, JOHNNY CASH: I SEE A DARKNESS, which is all in English, so maybe I would have gotten this one instead of Ulf's work. It's got a more realistic style to it, and between him and Ulf, you can really see the range of influences and styles that exist in German comics.

Finally, Jens Harder, who drew the comic LEVIATHAN, blew my mind. Seriously, look at the detail on these pieces for ALPHA, which is a comic about animals, their evolution, and the different ways in which they are treated across the world (e.g., elephants are deified in India but are circus animals in the United States).

Okay, you know what? Maybe I'd have gotten ALPHA instead. Who knows?

What I do know is that this exhibit opened up some new things for me, and hopefully, for you guys. More comics, elsewhere, for all of us to learn about, and ultimately to enjoy — it all leads to us quite simply knowing what we've always known: that the language of comics is universal, and that it can get through us and to us because the medium quite simply has that much power.

Comics, Manga & Co.: The New Culture of German Comics is open at Arts in the City, Bonifactio Global City, until December 17, 2011. What're you waiting for? Go! Learn! And ultimately, enjoy!

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