Prof. Bernd Dolle-Weinkauf in interview about the subversive potential of comic strips, the loss of a culture of writing, and the origin of today’s highly popular graphic novels.

Dr. Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff is Professor at the Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Often referred to as the “Comic academic,” he is co-founder of the Society for Comics Studies (Gesellschaft für Comicforschung/ComFor). In the interview he explains why comics in West Germany were once considered to be the demise of the Western world, what made reading comics subversive back then, and which areas of comic culture have been little researched so far.

Prof. Dolle-Weinkauff, first of all: What is a comic? There’s still no uniform definition today. Some people emphasise the combination of image and text, others the formation of picture sequences.

To my mind, comics – and incidentally this coincides with what Alexander Braun writes in the exhibition catalogue “Pioneers of the Comic Strip” emerged in the American press at the end of the 19th century, and are characterized by the very close link they make between the written and pictorial narration. Naturally, there is also the much wider area of illustrated graphic literature within which comics only represent a section: comics narrate according to very specific rules, are structured in terms of panels, the figures are very specifically presented, and rely on certain media.

One of your current seminars discusses the so-called “graphic novel”. What exactly is that? Simply marketing, and expansion of the comic concept, or a special area of graphic narration?

The problem with the graphic novel is that it has always had such a vague definition that first of all its intention has to be understood rather than seeing it– as you can with a comic strip – from the structure of the object. It is simply not possible in formal terms to grasp what a graphic novel is! The literature that bears this name today was created to distinguish it from ordinary comics as ambitious, graphic literature. When it is more specific, more tangible I prefer to describe it as a comic novel. If I use the term in announcing lectures, it is basically to stir people’s emotions and arouse interest. I would prefer to use more precise terms, but first of all we need to jointly find a more accurate term. (laughs).

Even though graphic novels are not necessarily identical with comics, their massive numbers in the last five or 10 years does seem to have improved the general standing of comics.

I would put it somewhat differently: Comics are a genre like any other, by definition neither good nor bad, with a specific world of forms and specific topics. Early on only a few aspired to the sophisticated artistic or literary genre. That is also evident in what is currently on show in SCHIRN: these ambitious drawings on display here had little influence on what would later evolve under the heading of “comics”. Neither McCay nor Herriman, nor others gave rise to a school of thinking or had successors – they are totally singular positions. The majority of comics tried their hand at popular literature, as the successors of joke books. The gag cartoons were followed by adventure comics, and in the 1960s the style emerged from them that would in France and, above all, in Italy be seen as the beginning of the graphic novel. Except that at the time the rest of the world was hardly aware of what was happening.

What was it like in West Germany? Comic strips like those common in the United States did not become popular here until very much later.

Through until the 1950s Germany was strongly influenced by the tradition of the strip cartoon. Consequently, the narrative forms Wilhelm Busch and others developed in the 19th century persisted almost unchanged. It virtually gave readers a heart attack to see even one speech bubble in an image! So the German development had few ties to the international comic scene. Naturally, in Germany the development of an independent comic tradition was also influenced by the Nazi rule: the strongly Modernist narration method was frowned upon, and Americans were anyhow Germany’s enemies. So it was all the more suddenly, tsunami-like that comics became hugely popular with children in the 1950s, to the absolute horror of adults. Given the historical background it is understandable why the anti-comic campaign was pursued so vehemently in West Germany: There were similar campaigns in the United States, but the reasons were totally different. In Germany people argued it was the demise of the Western world, would mean the loss of a culture of writing.

Even though many comics are also written for adults.

That was also basically frowned upon, especially in Germany: Comics were a cartoon supplement in a newspaper, a cheap joke, something to fill up space. I recall an article by John Steinbeck in which the author spoke positively about a comic series. The German press promptly called him a degenerated outsider, after all, who would want to waste time on something like that!

But precisely thanks to its dubious reputation the medium offers special artistic liberties, a subversive potential: presumably it is not for nothing that underground comics were first published precisely as comics.

True, although I see the subversive potential elsewhere – in the children’s comics of the 1950s and 60s that were sold in their millions to children and youngsters it is not so much the content that is subversive. What was hugely important was the act of separation: children could make a decision on what they wanted to read, whether it was "Fix+Foxi", "Tarzan" or "Tibor" – it was literature that was not characterised by the raised, pedagogic finger of adults. The underground comic refers to something different, an adult debate: In their campaign against trash the Americans did not justify their actions with a Federal Review Board, but with a set of rules encased in the “Comic Code Authority”. Comics should be free of bloodshed and everything should be morally sound. Admittedly, rebellious adults – it was after all the Flower Power generation – got a kick out of gong against conventions, having non-stop orgies, beating everything up, committing crimes. But that is a different kind of subversion than that of mass comics for children, which precisely owing to their alleged trashy quality were in danger of becoming a cultural institution. Something like the Dark Net today, an absolute no-go. And when you hear old fans talking about them a large part of their attraction was having your own culture other people had no access to.

… And which meantime have become firmly established in the academic business: in English-speaking countries there are even special Comics Studies courses.

Personally, I am opposed to teaching “Comics Studies” as a subject. To properly understand this medium you need a certain basic knowledge, say of literature and history of art. Once you have that, then specialization naturally makes sense. Similarly, with the course we offer at Frankfurt University studying comics represents just one component (with regular events), but it is not something that is studied from the first semester onwards to the exclusion of all else. That would be awful be disastrous for students’ education, and above all, for their qualification.

Comic book research at Goethe University is embedded in the area of study into children’s and youth literature. To what extent is this connected with the fact that for a long time comics were primarily thought of and received as an “infantile” medium – as an area serious adults should have nothing to do with?

Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research comes under the Faculty of Modern Languages and Literature, in other words, is embedded in a more general setting. The fact that we deal with comics here today and have an imposing collection has to do with the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s comics were seen as poor quality children’s literature. The founding fathers of the Institute were somewhat more liberal: Firstly, they allowed comics to be collected and secondly they commissioned scientific studies on the topic. Then in the 1980s we noticed a marked change: Comics also became increasingly accepted among adults and we had to decide how to deal with that. Simultaneously, we were still a long way from established literature or art wishing to deal with comics. So we said to ourselves: since we are already providing a kind of “refuge” for comics, because we are interested precisely in the points of contact between the generation literature let us carry on our work. And we not only collect children’s comics. You could say the Institute was simply a step ahead of the others, who at this time were still bent on criticizing them.

What altered the social status of comics?

You must not forget that not just how society sees them but the comics themselves have changed: today we have a range of quality literary works that previously never existed in such numbers. And we also have a younger generation of researchers, who are more open and never experienced the taboos surrounding comics. I can still recall seminars in which we discussed comics as trash literature. Right through until the 90s there were similar reactions “Oh yes, that’s how I saw it, too.” Today’s students are amazed at the decisions taken by the Federal Review Board for Literature Harmful to Minors, simply cannot imagine something like this once existed

And finally: What areas of comic research remain to be explored, what topics do you still find exciting?

I think given our globalised world today it’s very important to discover comic cultures in other parts of the world. We have had Mangas in Western countries for some time now; they are very enriching and have opened up many new perspectives. But what about the immense comic landscape in Mexico? In the 1970s, comics were traded there just as actively as they are in Japan today. I think we have to widen our perspective, and look out into the world: what do we have, what related and what unknown phenomena can we find? Such cultures alter rapidly as we can see by the Mangas. They were already a globalized product when they arrived in Germany. You had to dig fairly deep to see what is really Japanese about them. And in today’s Mangas it is hardly discernible at all. So it’s all the more important to set out to discover comic cultures that have been little researched and evaluated.

Thank you very much for your time!