Comic Review – “Fürchtetal” by Markus and Christine Färber

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.

© Rotopol

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.

© Rotopol

Markus & Christine Färber (GER)

Categorized as Reviews

Auf dem Sprung / In Flight

© Viola Bender

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 Comicinvasion festival. 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 Barghal ever since I’ve met him.

© Vasilis Dimopoulos

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 stop.

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.

Categorized as Blog Posts

Comic Review – “War and Peas” by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich

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.

© Kunz und Pich

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
Andrews McMeel
Categorized as Reviews

Going North with Joe Sacco – A Research Log (Part 1)

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).

© Joe Sacco

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.

© Joe Sacco

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!

Categorized as Blog Posts

Comic Review – “Exit Wounds” by Rutu Modan

© Rutu Modan

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.

© Rutu Modan

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.

© Rutu Modan

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.

Exit Wounds
Rutu Modan (IL)
Drawn & Quarterly

Categorized as Reviews