Can a comic book store be profitable
International Comic Salon : We need more shit
American comic book critic Kim Thompson published a notable essay in late 1999. Under the title “A Modest Proposal: More Crap Is What We Need” he calls for a “bulwark of solid, unpretentious, easily accessible genre entertainment” for US comics: a middle ground between sophisticated “art comics” and what he “unimaginable” terrible superhero shit ”.
“I am convinced,” says Thompson, “that an art medium only works as long as it is supported by a populist crap medium. [...] Until the day when there is enough of this kind of simple, unglamorous genre material that the average consumer can go to a bookstore and buy a comic book to read on the beach because he just feels like turning his brain off , comics will likely continue to be marginalized and ignored. "
What Thompson described in the United States 17 years ago has since changed. Today publishers such as Image, Dark Horse, IDW and others produce those comics that are “somehow stupid, but also a bit clever”, as Thompson says, “not particularly grown-up, but also not completely childish”: Comics that are competent genres such as horror, crime thriller or science fiction, and which are successful enough to enable their authors and publishers to make a living.
What is missing: the popular
Germany is miles away from this situation. There isn't even a local counterpart to the superheroes who still feed a huge, profitable industry in the US, let alone American "art comic" writers like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, the Hernandez brothers and many more. We have failed to create a market for German comics in booklet or book form.
It is all the more remarkable that the Max and Moritz Prize, of all things, which will be awarded for the 17th time at the International Comic Salon Erlangen on Friday and which in previous years was not exactly known as a bastion of diversity or entertainment comics, provided an impetus for this Direction there.
That the seven-person jury of the award now not only counts three women among its members, but also voluntarily includes titles such as David Füleki's crude slapstick “78 days on the street of hate”, Sarah Burrini's light-footed funny strip “Life is not a pony farm” or The zombie anthology “Die Toten”, edited by Stefan Dinter and Christopher Tauber, was voted on the list of nominees, hardly anyone would have thought possible four years ago. In general, the responsible publishers Tokyopop, Zwerchfell and Panini have not yet been spoiled by the Max and Moritz juries.
Constant cross-fertilization between pop and avant-garde
Titles like this embody something that, with a few exceptions, German comics lacks: the popular. Commercially - you just have to mention that in Germany - the popular is necessary to professionalise authors. From an artistic point of view, an industry committed to mass taste is the prerequisite for the development of avant-garde countercurrents. And only through the constant cross-fertilization between pop and avant-garde can a living art form exist.
The Beatles wouldn't have been the Beatles if they hadn't understood like no other band how to find a brilliant mix of pop and avant-garde.
It is no coincidence that the German-language comics scene resembles a dry pond with isolated puddles, some of which are less stale than others, and between which there is almost no exchange. The fish are starving. A few are lucky enough to be brought into foreign waters, others snap at small livestock, still others blow big bubbles until someone crumbles a bag of old bread into the water out of pity, and then think they are the most beautiful fish in the whole pond.
If German "graphic novels" appear in comic bestseller lists, it is only because there is a separate list for the "graphic novel" segment. In comparison with imported goods such as “Asterix” (“Albums” segment), “Walt Disney's Lustiges Taschenbuch” (“Kiosk” segment), “Naruto” (“Manga” segment) or “The Walking Dead” (“Superheroes” segment [sic ]) because their sales figures are a bad joke.
Which doesn't necessarily mean that “The Walking Dead” is a particularly good comic — but it is a particularly successful comic that made a great many others possible in the USA, many of which are better. The current boom of the Image publishing house, for example, would be hard to imagine without this series.
The German “graphic novel” did not take place culturally
Which original German-language graphic novel of the last ten years can you ask random passers-by on the street without getting uncomprehending looks? Which one can you ask random bookstore visitors about? There is none. The German “graphic novel” did not take place culturally, despite all the efforts. This is also because it is not good enough. Too often clumsy didactic self-assurance books are confused with literature. Too often it is forgotten that one recognizes good literature primarily by the fact that it expects its readers to do something and challenges them - intellectually and emotionally, aesthetically and politically.
Instead of seriously wanting to change something in this situation, the German “graphic novel” clique is losing its claim. The audience is not interested in the products that are praised like sour beer, but instead of rethinking, they play the insulted liver sausage, start embarrassing crowdfunding campaigns or put on amateurish "manifestos" that do not confidently formulate an artistic claim, oh no, just ask for access to state subsidies so that you can continue to stew in your own juice, undisturbed by the public's taste. Berlin's Reprodukt-Verlag, the first address for sophisticated comics translated from French and English for more than 20 years, is now hoisting the white flag and shrinking to a subscription club for high earners - with vouchers from 300 euros.
Self-affirmation and subsidy apparatus
The “comic book award” of the foundation of the Stuttgart industrialist Berthold Leibinger, which was launched in 2014 and is endowed with 15,000 euros, has so far been a disappointment. Instead of specifically looking for new talents who are not already sponsored by the usual suspects and fit into the current scheme, the price is sufficient for another self-affirmation and subsidy apparatus of the "graphic novel" lobby, whose representatives themselves no longer believe in it reach paying customers.
Both times the main prize has so far gone to authors who have already been published by renowned publishers. Among the finalists were Anke Feuchtenberger and her former student Simon Schwartz, two of the most established “graphic novel” authors in Germany. The water stands still. Missed the chance.
Don't expert juries also have a duty to discover exciting talents who are swinging into the guard rails of their learning curve and who have perhaps been spurned by the establishment for this reason?
There are certainly German comics that combine suitability for the masses and demands. Burrini's strip above is one of them. There is, for example, the formally ludicrous series “The Upgrade” by Ulf S. Graupner and Sascha Wüstefeld, which jumps all over the life of a former GDR superhero; or the great porn anthology “Bed stories” curated by Naomi Fearn and Reinhard Kleist; or the stylistically and thematically diversified oeuvre of Olivia Vieweg, who doesn't give a damn about the expectations of the industry or the public and thus - as a major exception - can sometimes even celebrate commercial success.
"Genre is the core that makes everything else possible"
The fundamental problem with which such materials have to struggle in Germany, however, is a lack of support, as the feuilletonistic-graphicnovelistic complex has stubbornly allowed its hams, which are largely disinterested by the actual audience, to do for years. German genre substances have so far been largely ignored by Max and Moritz juries and appear less often in the media. They have no lobby because they neither offer the pseudo-seriousness of the graphic novel nor can they immediately compete commercially with genre material imported from abroad. The effort to make German entertainment comics popular seemed to be too great for German publishers, feature pages and specialist juries.
Too often in Germany the few “popular” substances are inhibited by fear of pretension, and the “demanding” ones by fear of the vulgar.
In “What does the end here mean?”, His documentary about the late film critic Michael Althen, Dominik Graf says a sentence about films that can easily be applied to comics: “Genre is the core that makes everything else possible - the junction between Avant-garde and pop. "
Of course, the quality of the individual nominees for the Max-und-Moritz-Preis can again be passionately amazed, argued or annoyed in 2016. Few of the nominated German titles are qualitatively at an international level; and on the other hand, with “Irmina” a typical “German graphic novel” has been nominated, which misunderstands “claim” in such a typically German way that on Friday one will have to reckon with the worst again.
Throw the whole diversity of the scene into the balance
But that's the way it is with awards ceremonies, and the fact that you can and should rub yourself against the decisions of juries is the foundation of their raison d'etre. Regardless of all this, and perhaps also regardless of which of the nominated titles will ultimately receive the award “Best German-language comic”, it is already a great merit of this year's Max and Moritz jury that “Irmina” only this time became one of 25 very, very different comic books. Yelin next to burrini next to shark next to zombies. A list of Max and Moritz nominees was by no means more exciting.
If the German comic is ever to develop the core to which Thompson or Graf refer, then that will not happen through the Wagenburg mentality of the failed "graphic novel" lobby, but through a scene that is not ashamed of all its diversity to throw in the scales.
Then - and only then - there is the possibility that at some point there might be German comics that will be as well known and popular internationally as "Asterix", the "Funny Paperback", "Naruto" or "The Walking Dead". You can and must argue about them, but they will at least be part of a functioning, professional, lively industry. Anyone who thinks they can consistently create high-quality comic literature before a comic culture that is in harmony with mass tastes exists should build their house from the roof down.
Incidentally, Kim Thompson was not an anti-intellectual, nostalgically blinded trash lover, but until his death in 2013 as the defining head of Fantagraphics Verlag, one of the world's most influential publishers and translators of sophisticated and groundbreaking comics. So sophistication and entertainment are by no means mutually exclusive, and anyone who thinks they are smarter than Kim Thompson in the comic book business should perhaps consider that they could be on the wrong track.
We can only hope that future Max and Moritz juries will pay more attention to diversity and fresh impulses than was the case in previous years. Because there is still a long way to go, and in all modesty: We need more shit.
Disclosure: The author of the commentary works as a freelance translator for Panini and translates the aforementioned series "The Walking Dead". The responsible editor of the Daily mirror is a member of the juries of the Max and Moritz Prize and the Comics Book Prize of the Berthold Leibinger Foundation.
Marc-Oliver Frisch is a freelance comic critic and translator and is doing his doctorate on comics at Saarland University. You can follow him on Twitter.
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