An aura of mystery pervades Kuns by Return, a black and white comic with almost no written language, and a title that leaves readers guessing on both its content and author/s. The first few pages show a masked and cloaked figure digging holes in a barren landscape, unearthing bones and ancient statues that echo the pictographic languages of the Maya and other Pre-Columbian civilizations. Eventually, faces of flesh and sinew emerge from the deep, gazing intently at the viewer. Are these faces from the past or from the present? The comic gives no easy answer but instead sends readers, and its masked protagonist, on a road trip from a desert to a bustling metropolis.
Kunsby Return has an organic, dream-like quality, with stark lines that resemble color pencil and charcoal that give texture to the comic’s images. The story features multiple characters whose actions and intentions are not always clear. Yet, beneath the enigma something more profound shines through, like a landscape glimpsed beneath opaque waters. It is a story about transformation, about alienation and the possibility of togetherness, told with a raw energy that carries readers through the book’s twists and tangles.
Kuns by Return was drawn by three artists, Waysatta, DiegoTeo and Jazael from the Mexican collective Cráter Invertido. Self-published in the framework of the art exhibition documenta fifteen, it is an intriguing read, and another reason to dive deeper into Mexican comics.
This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting members of Cráter Invertido in person in the framework of the lumbung of Publishers during the art exhibition documenta fifteen in Kassel. Stay tuned for an interview with the artists!
Recently, I stumbled across a quote by the philosopher Hannah Arendt: “People can be free only in relation to one another.” This sentence encapsulates my view of the past two years, the time of the pandemic and all its restrictions but also of the aggravated effects of the climate crisis in Europe. In my opinion, our present moment demands a radical rethinking of personal freedom. So what better topic for the latest issue of the bilingual* feminist comics anthology Spring, which come out late last year.
Through varied artistic approaches, the artists of the anthology delve into different facets of the subject ‘freedom’. Some entries are as abstract as the comic The Wall by Doris Freigofas, of which the surprising conclusion left me astounded. Other comics are more concrete like Nothing Happened Anyway by Stephanie Wunderlich which takes us back to a summer of the author’s adolescence which greatly impacted her life. Spring is void of any comic-typical panel layouts and instead utilizes page-filling images which blur the boundary between comic and illustration. The anthology, which was founded 2004 in Hamburg, features both fresh artistic experiments and an appealing visual coherence. Clear recommendation!
*Spring is published in German with English subtitles.
Spring Nr. 18 – „Freiheit“ Comicanthologie (GER) 2021 Marisch Verlag (new issue annualy)
The year 2021 is slowly coming to a close and with it a time of fascinating comics. Among my favorite (re-)discoveries is without a doubt the work of Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan. This award-winning artist has been on my radar for a while now, but it took the emphatic recommendation by several friends for me to start reading. I began with Tunnels, Modan’s latest graphic novel which skillfully combines elements of an adventure story à la Tintin with a satire of Israeli settler politics. The colorful cast of characters that revolves around the protagonist and archaeologist Nili is vibrant and the plot is full of surprising twists.
As much as Tunnels appealed to me, I must admit I was more touched by Modan’s English-language debut Exit Wounds which was originally published in 2007. Exit Wounds is perhaps a bit ‘quieter’ than Tunnels – but no less moving. The plot centers on Kobi Franko, a taxi driver in Tel-Aviv who one day is contacted by a young Israeli soldier who is convinced that Kobi’s father died during a recent suicide bombing at a suburban bus terminal. Indeed, Kobi has not heard from his father in a while – the two have lost contact after an intense argument. But how probable is it that the yet unidentified body from the site of the bombing is that of his father? And what was his relation to the young female soldier? Rutu Modan uses these questions as starting points for a moving family drama which brushes different social strata of country in which violence and terror form the background noise of daily life.
Like in Tunnels, Rutu Modan showcases her skills as a prolific cartoonist with a firm grasp for tempo and dynamic of the narrative. The drawings, which are reduced in a way that is reminiscent of the ligne claire style of famous Belgian artist Hergé, convey gestures and facial expressions in a way that give them a high degree of personality. Additionally, the comic makes an atmospheric use of colors and a multiplicity of subtly poetic image compositions. Exit Wounds is a moving tragicomedy about the loss of loved ones, about coping with physical and emotional wounds. All readers who wonder whether the book will offer a sliver of hope that the wounded can be healed will be left breathless until the very end – but not without some glimmers of light.
Leo (L): When I first read Kuns by Return, I was captivated by its images which evoke a sense of mystery and foreboding. The enigma of the comic starts with the title which almost seems like an incomplete spelling of “Kunst”, the German noun for “art”. How did you come up with the title and how was the idea for the comic born?
Jazael (J): The questions of how to translate the untranslatable, or how to show the misunderstandings generated by the post-colonial position are interesting to us, while new forms of enclosures emerge. We were inspired by a funny anecdote where Diego referred to “Kunst” as “Kuns” and decided to integrate this subtly provocative comment into the book. It is a bad translation, and remains like that as a title that honors a position to defend not the mistake but the appropriation of language by “the others”, the creolization, the codigofagocitation of the language with subversive means, which means to bring a certain hegemonic language little by little into bankruptcy. We come to the German context with this mistranslation as a possibility of dialogue.
L: The comic is drawn by three people: you, Waysatta and DiegoTeo. How can one picture this collaboration? What is Cráter Invertido, the name mentioned on the back cover?
J: The collaboration is done in a sequential way. Crater Invertido has been working collectively since 2012 as a cooperative. This means that members and participants have encouraged collaborations that take shape in events, collective drawings, situations, publications, radio programmes, study groups. Sometimes intertwined. DiegoTeo, Waysatta and I are starting members of this process working together before crater was founded, collaborations started in 2009. Drawing is the space we share to grow together our collective thought and practice. Cooperativa Crater invertido has been doing collective artworks since even before that name appeared. We have participated in events such as Venice Biennale (2015), Jakarta Biennale (2015), Gwangju Biennale (2016), Leopold Museum Wien (2017), amongst others. Last year we were invited to BAK by Sven Lutticken to do a collaboration for Prospection magazine, where we did for the first time a collective comic “Huesos y Sangre Coagulada”. It came together with a text by Mariana Botey. From there we decided that for documenta fifteen, as part of Arts Collaboratory AC School, we wanted to continue this method. We got together every week to discuss and draw, even virtually. We tried to think of a narrative that is flexible to the drawing and not necessarily coming from a script. We juggled ideas of stories, but then the drawings showed the path. In the case of the comic Kuns by Return collaborative process, the participation with Rogelio Vazquez, coordinator of the edition, was meaningful and insightful, it would not have happened without his interest in this collective mission.
L: Kuns by Return features no written language apart from the title and the Spanish chapter headings. However, there are still passages that had made me feel “lost in translation” as a European reader. One of them was in the opening chapter in which the protagonist unearths old bones and pottery, and we are shown ancient sculptures. Should readers know anything about Mexico’s past and present to better understand the book?
J: The intention behind having no written text except the titles of the chapters in fact has to do with enhancing the experience of mystery of the narrative. Also going back to prehispanic imaginary, codex and sacred books were pictographic. In that sense, the image was the text. We propose to insist on how to engage with images as the text and vice versa. It also avoids the problem of “translating” but not totally legible, because everyone, depending on their own story and context will read differently. It is not necessarily to relativize, also to open. Even us who draw it feel “lost in translation” amongst us, sometimes the drawing of the other is unexpected, and we work with that, improvising the drawing as well as the reading, Also, insisting that images are open even to illegibility.
L: The great French cartoonist Marc-Antoine Mathieu once said that the magic of comics as an art form lies in the concept of masquerade, and that masks, like the simplified features of beloved cartoon characters, can cast a spell on viewers. What role do masks play for “Kuns” and for your work as artists in general?
J: Faces are singularities, and what happens when the face is missing? The cartoons that are dear to their audience, mostly feature a very synthetic style. The openness of the line to represent a face gives a sense of belonging. In that sense we are interested in masks and faces as a place to bring the possibility of the reader to engage with the drawings.
Waysatta (W): The masks, the misspoken, the incomplete, what means one thing and at the same time many others, the open, the ghost, what is read between the lines, the opaque, the ruin, the unfinished, the otherness, the allegories, the baroque, mestizaje, the presentiment, the uncertainty, the oneiric, the whisper, the ambiguous, the archeological piece, the humming, the road trip, the perpetual “to be continued”….are some of the recurrent concepts, images and behaviors that motivate our collective artistic and organizational practices. We try to embrace this throughout the comic as a way to tell our stories and for others to resonate and signify the images from their own narratives and contexts.
L: One of the themes of the work is urbanity which becomes the stage for both anxiety, alienation and self-discovery. What role do urban environments play for your own artistic practice?
J: It depends on which of us is speaking. For some of us, the urban space is the place where we also materialize our imagination through graffiti and drawing-in-the-space. Workshops where walks and drifts through the city are part of our collective practices and imaginariums. Not only the urban space but its tensions with rurality is something that is very important to question, as to push forward with our art that defies the urban-carereal- complex domination over people, nature and of course imagination.
L: For readers who are not familiar with the Mexican comics scene, do you have any book recommendations? Who should we have on our radar?
J: Gatosaurio, Joc-Doc ediciones, Vacaciones de Trabajo 😉 y muchxs más…
L: One of the themes I observed in Kuns is the search for and celebration of togetherness. I am thinking of a beautiful sequence in which one of the main characters draws faces of his friends onto the walls of an underwater cave. Collectivity is also the theme of this year’s documenta. Was this a deliberate intersection?
J: Kuns by Return is a book about togetherness, coming together and finding allyship and friendship through a common journey, even though this journey has no end.
W: There are many references of diverse forms of collective organization that cross and nourish our own practices as a collective. We share, resonate and learn from/with processes of struggle and resistance that come from different artistic collectivities, social movements, autonomous communities, diverse assembly processes, urban and rural cooperatives, parties, and so on.
Insisting on dialoguing, from differences and affinity, with this diversity of experiences of collective organization has been a compass for our own imaginative practices and self-organization within Cráter Invertido.
Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful learning and unlearning experiences has been being part of the Arts Collaboratory network where we have been able to practice, together with different collectivities from the global south, processes of self-organization, solidarity, common economies and collective study from a transterritorial dimension, under ethical principles that try to transgress and question normalized, internalized and imposed hegemonic logics.
For several years Ruangrupa has constituted, built and actively nurtures, together with other collectivities, the Arts Collaboratory ecosystem.
From the ecosystems of which we are part of and with which we share, collectivity is a vital practice and togetherness is an act of resistance and survival that we honor from dignity.
In this sense it is a shared celebration. We recognize “Kuns by Return” as part of this collective celebration.
Trigger warning: this text contains mentions of suicide.
There are few topics that confront me with the limits of language as drastically as grief. How should I face a person who has lost a family member or a friend? In our society, grief is often veiled with platitudes, covered with sayings found on postcards that are above all signs of a certain speechlessness.
In their new comic Fürchtetal (German: ‘fear valley’), the siblings Markus and Christine Färber search for words and images to express their personal grief. The plot centers around the death of their father who in 2019 unexpectedly took his life. Through an artistic dialogue, brother and sister return to the landscapes of their childhood, to a forest near the rural village in which they grew up. Like a winding path, the words of Christine Färber guide readers through the book and form a sequence of singular moments, thoughts, and memories regarding her father’s death. Her words seamlessly intertwine with the drawings of Markus Färber who, with broad brushstrokes and grey watercolors, finds melancholy and sometimes fantastical images for the siblings’ experiences.
Because of its narration, Fürchtetal feels meandering and searching in the best sense. Many passages almost associatively delve into childhood memories of the artist duo, only to return again and again to certain experiences. One of these strains is the last meeting between the siblings and their father when he was in treatment at a clinic due to his mental health. In passages such as these, Markus Färber’s drawings resort to bold abstraction: his father is reduced to the simplified drawing of a head which sits on the bed. What may initially appear like a puzzling artistic choice later enables a certain poetic ambiguity. At its core, Fürchtetal is about the emotional state of the artists who each struggle with the loss of their father in their own way. These multifaceted images, which harness the power of comics in creative ways, make Fürchtetal an engaging read.
Fürchtetal Markus & Christine Färber (GER) 2021 Rotopol
Hello and welcome to my first blog post. I’ve
been thinking about recording my personal experiences for a while now, but
something always made me shy away from the idea. Perhaps it’s the obvious fact
that the act of writing often seems to take oneself away from the lived
experience. Or that it superimposes a layer of language onto something that is
most often beyond words. Then again, the world is so full of things worth
talking about, resonating with stories that hover under its surface. Also, I
have a pretty bad memory and tend to forget the cool things I’ve done. This is
partly an attempt to remember those things, partly an offer to share some of my
experiences to anyone who cares to stop by. Welcome, whoever you are.
In May 2019, I travelled to Berlin to work for the wonderful German publisher Rotopol at the annual Comicinvasionfestival. I had worked at some festivals before, but this was only the second one where I was responsible for the publisher table on my own. And so, on a clear Berlin morning, I found myself setting up a table at the fancy Museum für Kommunikation, arranging comics between imperial marbled columns underneath a bright dome.
After the first wave of visitors had passed, a tall young guy with a beard showed up, introduced himself as a fellow exhibitor at the festival and handed me the zine he was selling. It was a colorful comic, professionally printed with a distorted alien on the cover. We were talking for a bit when we noticed that we both lived in Bonn, a relatively small city in western Germany. It was a fun coincidence that repeated itself when we spotted each other on the bus on our way back home two days later. This guy with whom I would later become friends is Vasilis Dimopoulos, an amazing Greek cartoonist who has been diligently working on a Sci-Fi/Horror comic series called Barghalever since I’ve met him.
Comics create connections. They brought me to
the small town of Ludwigsburg where I had my first internship, all the way to
Luzern, Switzerland where I sold books for Rotopol at the Fumetto
Festival. I have spent considerable portions of my afternoon hauling boxes of
signed books through central Hamburg and spent two night in a converted bunker
in Switzerland, offered to exhibitors of a festival as a free sleeping place. From
what I can tell, working as a publisher can be stressful at times, and I doubt
I’ll ever have a lot of money. But also, I don’t want these experiences to
If the Corona pandemic doesn’t cause a total
lockdown in Europe, I will be heading to Berlin for another internship in a
couple of weeks. With a semester in Paris on the horizon, 2020 is promising to
become an exciting year and I hope to share some of my impressions (and book
discoveries) here on this blog. Until then: happy reading and stay healthy.
I will admit, there have not been all that many reasons for laughter in the past couple weeks. Unless you have been on the moon or in some parallel dimension, you will have been affected by the Corona-pandemic which has killed thousands and put public life on standby in Europe and beyond. If you need a break from the news-cycle and are looking for a book to take your mind off things, I have a recommendation: War and Peas by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich.
War and Peas is originally an English-language webcomic that was launched in 2011 and is being published in weekly episodes on the net and Instagram. The minds behind the strip, which has accumulated thousands of fans, are the German artists Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich. The short gag strips of the duo are seldom longer than four panels and always confidently steer towards the next punchline. The humor can best be described as a fusion of the absurd and morbid, mocking everything as implied by the title, a parody of the Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. In War and Peas, office workers contemplate suicide but are saved in the last moment by the promise of pizza. At the same time, the mischievous “Slutty Witch“ abandons her date in favor of her vibrating magic broom. Visually, the comic is quite minimalist, reminiscent of the art of Tom Gauld in its lack of facial expressions. But this style clearly suits the sharp, dialogue driven humor.
At first sight, War and Peas reminded me strongly of the German Comic Nichtlustig (English version here) by Joscha Sauer. But it sets itself apart with its own humoristic edge and a sprinkle of millennial zeitgeist. Particularly refreshing is how the comic comically handles issues of feminism and queerness. The book to which this review refers was published in March by the US publisher Andrews McMeel and is a great introduction to the webcomic. It a selection of strips on 150 pages which can be read individually but also chronologically and form a neatly ongoing narrative. All things considered, this is a charming humor strip and I recommend it to anyone seeking a diversion from current events.
War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers
Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich
A lot of things have happened since my last blog post. Back in March, I was still optimistic about my plans to go to Berlin for an internship at a German comics publisher. Little did I know how quickly the spread of the coronavirus would lead to a total lockdown in Europe. (The best image I can come up with is that of someone flicking off the switches of a fuse box, one by one, until there is complete darkness). It is difficult for me to put into words the emotional roller-coaster of the last weeks. All I will say is that I am doing okay considering the circumstances and I am back in my hometown of Bonn, proceeding with my studies.
One of the projects I am working on to keep myself sane during this time is my MA thesis. Maybe it is the experience of being involved in a global catastrophe, but something is pulling me back the work of Joe Sacco, the famous US-Maltese cartoonist and journalist. Sacco is widely considered a pioneer of comics journalism and has reported on multiple armed conflicts including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Palestine,1993-1995) and the Bosnian War (Safe Area Goražde, 2001).
This year, Sacco is releasing a new comic titled Paying the Land. Instead of travelling to a war zone, the book is about the Dene, an indigenous people in northern Canada who are impacted by the oil industry and the colonialist politics of the Canadian state.Paying the Land will be released in the US in July this year but the publisher, Metropolitan Books, has kindly supplied me with a review copy that I am reading parallel to the already published French edition.
Paying the Land is a massive book, featuring roughly 260 pages of intricate, cross-hatched drawings and a narrative that weaves together complex issues of climate change, environmentalism and colonialism. It is clearly the work of a master cartoonist in his prime. The comic offers a lot of interesting material for an in-depth analysis, yet the question where to begin is daunting. Anyone who has written papers in the social sciences will know how important it is to formulate a precise research question. It is like setting the foundation of a tall building: if the research question is not precise enough, the entire structure will wobble.
A book that has given me a good clue about which questions to ask is Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? Her thoughts on comics, trauma and catastrophe are a good starting point for an inquiry into Sacco’s oeuvre. Among the traumatic issues addressed in Paying the Land is Canada’s residential school system which forced indigenous children out of their homes and formed an attempt to disrupt and destroy indigenous cultures. To investigate how this complex issue is portrayed in Sacco’s new book seems like a promising starting point for my thesis.
Writing an academic paper of this scope can be a pretty solitary activity. So, I am sharing some of my experiences and thoughts on this blog. If you have anything to add or just want to comment, feel free to contact me. Stay safe and sane!