A New Festival In Linz, Austria
German language comics already have a number of major comics festivals and not only taking place within Germany. The Comic Salon in Erlangen, the biggest in the country, is held every other year, alternating with the newer, smaller but friendly and flourishing one in Munich. Berlin had a bash at one and I visited the 2003 edition but it didn’t continue and proposals for a new one sadly failed to secure funding. Hamburg has a fizzy indie press fest which ran last year December 13 & 14 and may happen again this year, while in Switzerland there’s the outstanding and inspiring Fumetto in Luzern, or Lucerne, every Spring.
In contrast, so far any such events in Austria, notably in Vienna and two festivals in Graz organised by the local Tonto crew in 2003 and 2004, have been only occasional or one-offs. So it was a buzz to be invited by festival director Gottfried Gusenbauer to the birth of Next Comic, a brand new Austrian festival in Linz held on March 6 to 8, 2009. This city lies about midway between Salzburg to the West and Vienna to the East on the River Danube and, unlike those other places, actually straddles the Danube which runs through the city.
The cover of Neuner by Linz cartoonist Rudi Klein
From my impressions and conversations, comics seem to still have a relatively low public profile here. For example, gifted Austrian artist Jörg Vogeltanz (or "George Bird-Dance") told me he went on the first Friday March 6th to see Watchmen, one of the hottest new Hollywood movies of the moment, on its opening day, but found the cinema was almost deserted. People here apparently are not extremely aware or excited about it, and he suggested a good many people wouldn’t know how Nixon was, for example. Historian Harald Havas had showed me some wonderful examples of Austria’s comics culture from between the wars, in particular some 1920s full-page strips from a satirical Viennese magazine entitled Der Götz von Berlichingen, some of which he featured in his essay for editor Eckhart Sackman‘s 2009 edition of Deutsche Comicforschung, his annual comics research volumes.
From the Viennese satirical magazine Der Götz von Berlichingen in 1925, the first episode from the pen of Charles T. Zelgers showing the triumphant return of Riebeisel to the magazine’s offices.
Starting a brand new festival from scratch takes some doing and often springs out of the enthusiasm and energy of a small group or one individual driving it forward. Gottfried’s team consisted principally of himself, with some practical help from his wife Sibylle and others and no doubt a band of valued volunteers, but it was down to him to negotiate with the city’s politicians to convince them to support this new project. The reason he was able to secure substantial funds, some 100,000 euros, is that this year Linz has been chosen as one of two European "Capitals of Culture", like Liverpool last year. Or Newcastle back in 1997 when Suzy Varty staged a rather wonderful one-off British comics festival spotlighting the Geordie Viz boys, whose toilet humour comics were shown in a gallery designed as a gents loo, as well as Hunt Emerson with some hilarious facsimiles of objects from his Fortean Times comics, and Carol Swain, whose moody exhibition had visitors walking on gravel in a luminous gallery. I helped out to by arranging to show some originals from The Cartoon Art Trust‘s collection in the city’s castle.
Linz 2009: European Capital Of Culture
In a similar way to how I tried to operate at the Trust during the 1990s by embracing the wider spectrum of "cartoon art", Gottfried made a point of broadening the festival’s appeal by including political cartoons, caricatures and of course the youth appeal of manga and anime/cosplay fandom - thus enabling him to bring comics into Linz’s ambitious ‘09’ year-long programme. Linz has a rich and somewhat complex history, with some strong associations with Hitler. The Führer grew up here, instigated its industrialisation and envisioned Linz as the principal cultural centre of the Third Reich. Still a centre of the steel industry, its works were once named after Hermann Göring. In recent years, under its go-getting burgermeister or mayor, it has been reinventing itself as a forward-looking city of culture and creative industry with a multitude of impressive new venues.
So why call it "Next Comic"? One big theme that certainly emerged here was the future of comics, both in terms of upcoming German-language talents and collectives, several of them Austrian, and of future technologies and digital forms the medium is adopting or could do. This January Linz was put on the world’s arts map thanks to the opening of a spectacular new home for Ars Electronica, right on the Danube, moving from its 1980s home within the city. Within this complex for computer arts and innovations, comics would seem to be an ideal fit.
I was blown away by a "Deep Space" demonstration in a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) of gigantic super-definition 3D, wearing special glasses, which took you on a pirate island. Projected on a huge wall and a floor space, the animation used both depth and flatness to create a breathtaking sense of being in a virtual realm known as Papyrate’s Island, a South Sea island made entirely from a busy painter’s drawings comic to life. If the projection could also be spread further across the ceiling and the two side walls, left and right, it would become such a completely immersive experience and you would probably lose your bearings entirely.
3D Pirates at the Ars Electronica
As part of this CAVE demo, one remarkable advance was a special computer pen, with which you can draw a character on a regular sheet of paper and when you finish, you draw one quick line in a diagonal north-easterly direction. This gesture sends a signal to the computer which then takes yours drawing and drops it into the 3D world. It appears, flipped in reverse, on a floating piece of white paper on an easel which then floats and flutters in the breeze.
"I’m drawing in the air" - Ulli Lust at Ars Electronica
bGottfried showed me some other exciting graphic tehnologies, including members of the public trying out software that can take their drawings, turn them into three dimensional sketches and then "print" them out as plastic moulded objects. One screen showed an animated impression of artists drawing and moving through space, like dancers or acrobats, and having their drawings appear virtually, like holograms, in mid-air, around them. In real visible terms, this effect is still to come but Ulli Lust tried her hand at drawing, with goggles on, moving her pen in the air in three dimensions. She told me her first results on the screen were a little shaky as every slight tremble in your motion is picked up. But clearly the potential here for artists, especially comic artists, is enormous. So Next seems like a good title, suggesting The Shapes of Comics To Come.
Elsewhere in Ars Electronica, I got to see a print out exhibition from last November’s Lingua Comica 3 project organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation at the International Manga Museum in Kyoto. Tutor and guru Titus Ackermann of the Berlin-based group Moga Mobo was among the Next guests and he spoke about the experience. He also showed me a pdf of the complete book of Lingua Comica 2, held within the Comica Festival in 2007, and the finished collaborative strips and the solo pieces in the second half make up a truly unique transnational compendium. I’ll be covering this in lots of detail when it is published later this year.
Titus Ackermann, Hendrik Dorgathen and Ulli Lust
in the Cubus Bar
Back in Linz, an upstairs room at Ars Electronica next to the über-cool Cubus bar/restaurant was the main venue for talks and presentations. Ars Electronica is a deliberately eye-catching piece of architecture, which lights up at night in constantly changing and flashing lights. Not everyone is ecstatic about this lightshow, such as local residents, but it adds some techno-drama to the traditional Austrian architecture around it and it is echoed right opposite across the Danube by the new, mainly glass-skinned Lentos Art Gallery, another chic, imposing culture-tank. Three striking new science-oriented towers and Moviemento, a moving image/cinema/contemporary art gallery complex add still more to Linz’s determination reinvent and reinvigorate itself. Linz is one of the only places I’ve been to with hardly any pedestrian crossings. At almost every main junction you are expected to disappear down into subways, not always sure where you are going to emerge. At least this must cut down on pedestrian accidents.
About the only current Austrian comic artist with much international renown is Nicolas Mahler, published in English by Top Shelf. There’s a brittle, needle-like efficiency to his minimalist cartooning. In person, he’s the tall, silent type, perfect for observing others unobserved, slightly from above. At Next he was launching SPAM, a book collecting crazy comments he’d chosen from fifteen thousand junk emails clogging his Inbox. His Flaschko, which has also been animated, won the Max & Moritz Prize last year. Some of his very funniest satire skewers the pretensions of the contemporary art world in his Madame Grüber books, both translated into French from L’Association. Mahler also runs Kabinett, a quirky publishing house putting out little 16-page comics which are sold almost exclusively from vending machines in one tourist-spot passage in Vienna. The public and tourists can pass by and also gawp up at a wild ceiling fresco painted by Stéphane Blanquet. As well as his own work, Mahler has included Aleksandar Zograf, a guest at Next, Helmut Kaplan from Tonto, and others in the ongoing Kabinett series. Also in Vienna is the excellent store Pictopia (named after the brilliant short story by Alan Moore and Don Simpson). I met the enthusiastic owner Sebastian, who carries as very good range of German-language titles and English-language imports.
Friday night, several of us went for a supper nearby of beers, meaty noodle soups and bread, veal lung (yes, really!) and other delicacies. Among the group were Hendrik Dorgathen, whose Space Dog remains one of the greatest wordless, symbol-based graphic novels ever. I also met up again with Ulli Lust and her partner Kai Pfeiffer, also a cartoonist. Ulli is on the last stages, adding a second colour green, to her autobiographical album about her punk days travelling through Italy to Sicily with a girlfriend. Ulli is also the "mistress-mind" behind Electrocomics, a place for people to publish and sell their comics in digital/PDF form. Ulli and designer Kai chose several of these international stories to project simultaneously on the walls on one of the galleries in the Ursulinenhof building.
This civic arts location housed quite a few other exhibits, mainly of framed original art on walls. As a Year One, finding its feet and having to win over insititutional support, Next did not always get the most ideal exhibition spaces in this huge centre, because others, apparently local photographers and artists who regularly exhibit there, did not want to relinquish "their" wall space. Preumably, to find more space, the walls of stairways were used for extracts of the Electro Comics work and Strapazin‘s high-impact silkscreens, but it’s far from easy to appreciate art, let alone sequential art, if they are placed on the stairs. Viewing/reading becomes a balancing act and you’re conscious of blocking access. Still, elsewhere it was great to see a whole wall dedicated to Spanish comics from the Balearic Islands, ranging from the masterly Max through to Guillem March, now drawing Batman in Detective Comics. Sadly he was unwell and unable to come, but Spanish critic Pau (Catalan for ‘Paul" and also for peace) Waelder, curator of the exhibition, made it and gave a sound, well-presented introductory lecture to Watchmen.
Other talks were given about Stripburger, the excellent Slovenian magazine fast approaching its 50th issue and 18th birthday. After the success of their touring exhibit Honey Talks, they are preparing a new show for Slovenia, Comics In Waiting Rooms, a brilliant idea of putting comics into those often bleak, blank-walled spaces where the public are forced to while away time. Other Stripburger plans include another international survey under the theme Greetings from Cartoonia, and a project to animate some of their strips. I also met Tomás Hibi Matejícek from the Prague Comics Festival, where Bryan Talbot and Lewis Trondheim were guests last year. As a way of recording their festival, afterwards they publish a handsome colour magazine, whose main focus this time is various takes on the intriguing Czech legendary hero Parak, a Nazi-era parallel to the Victorian Spring-Heeled Jack. Unusually, quite a few of the Next talks were held in the evenings, as late as 10pm - not the typical comics festival schedule, in which the evenings are meant for drinking, partying and socialising. Gianluca Constantini talked about his highly original political cartoons and strips, integrating hand-lettering within the faces and bodies of the figures he draws, and about Ravenna’s highly engaged "reality comics" festival Komikazen which he co-organises with Elettra Stamboulis.
A wall of Elvis Studio framed weirdness (top),
with Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse too.
Elvis Studio, via Fumetto, also had works on show as did the lively group Tonto, including examples from their collaborative silkscreened project with Pakito Bolino of Le Dernier Cri. Edda Strobl, one of their talented members, assured me that they didn’t choose Tonto because he was the Lone Ranger’s Native-American cohort, but simply because the word sounded good and looked good typographically. Last minute fiddlings meant their next, twelfth issue hadn’t made it in time for Next but it’s due soon. She also told me she’s discovered another comics group called Tonto in Brazil, as well as a "Church of Tonto" in the U.S. and a small "guide-pony" for the blind named Tonto too.
Tonto Comics #11: The Invisible Dummy
cover by Helmut Kaplan
Tonto’s hometown of Graz has quite a comics scene going. There’s also Comic Edition Prequel alias creator Jörg Vogeltanz, who issues classy, full-colour original graphic novels such as his own ambitious, multi-part steampunk saga The Anger Diaries. He’s released four books in the series so far since 2002, though out of chronological order. For the latest 132-page episode, Wired Worlds, Diary No. 2, Vogeltanz has teamed again with Viennese writer Thomas Ballhausen to construct an alternative past in which World War I never ended and hitman John F. intervenes using his daughter Tunguska and her sister as super-weapons. It’s a lavish baroque construct, clearly inspired as much by Moebius and Bilal as Moore, Talbot, Morrison and Ellis. Like in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they switch languages to what would be spoken in different contexts, so shifting from German to English when the action moves to London. It’s let down somewhat by some faulty English phrasing here, but it has some striking sequences, notably an irritable, topless, breastfed Queen Victoria, head of the Empire of Albion, and some mock period graphics and adverts. Next year Vogeltanz plans to compile the first three books into one triology completely in English and with bonus material.
Another rising star they have published, bubbly redhead Anna-Maria Jung, introduced her very appealing colour hardback fantasy album Xoth, influenced by Lovecraft, Escher, Grant Morrison, Preacher and Transmetropolitan, with some manga and anime thrown in too I suspect. She deservedly won this year’s short-story competition and clearly has a promising career ahead of her.
Almost everywhere you turn, it’s so often women who are making the most exciting new forms and subjects in comics and evidence of this can be found in Spring, whose latest edition, painted, designed and jointly published by cartoonists from Hamburg and Berlin, gathers 14 women across 176 pages in black and red, focussing on the theme of the ‘alter ego’. Black pencil drawing is prevalent here, linking to the Hamburg-based tutor Anke Feuchtenberger. There are "traditional" multi-panelled comics pages, as in a fresh departure by Barbara Yellin, whose mountaineering tale, Die Andere Seite (The Other Side), unfolds across double-page bleed spreads of landscapes in pencil, her two miniscule bearded protagonists popping up in small inset panels with pointers to their location in the larger scene.
L to R: Ulli Lust, Astrid & Nicolas Mahler, and Edda Strobl.
In her 12-page comic Someone Else, Someone Good, Ulli Lust recalls a failed six-month affair with Dutch lover, a ‘lipophile’ (someone who loves fat), an overly aspiring actor who can’t handle honest criticism, and a stickler for hygiene and neatness, who makes her feel ashamed of her cracked mugs and messy apartment. That’s until she visits his place in Amsterdam and finds it in a ghastly, smelly state. Puzzled how he keeps the stink out of his clothes, she is shown his wardrobe, where he keeps all his suits for travelling in plastic bags. In a telling piece of dialogue she asks him, "I don’t understand why you invited me." And he replies, "Oh, I thought you wouldn’t come anyway." Not surprisingly, the affair ends soon after.
Many other contributors choose to draw suites of whole page drawings, from Stephanie Wunderlich’s boldly designed, angular diagrams to my favourites by Paz B, pairs of beautiful linked images in subtle graphite crayon under the title ‘No one knows what an animal is’. A cloaked woman and a large-horned mountain goat look at each other, seen from each other’s perspective. A woman peers into a foxhole where a vixen is tending her cubs, and a fox peers into a cave where a mother cares for her baby. Strange echoes suggested between each pair, and between her whole series, build up in the viewer’s mind a hauntingly provocative mood.
Cartoonists at work in the Comics Küche or Kitchen for workshops (left);
Paul Paetzel at the PlusPlus table (right).
Kicking off in January 2007 as 18 Plus, a student promo-comic of 72 copies, PlusPlus has quickly grown into another proactive collective of young German comics creators whose third edition won the student Max & Mortiz Prize at last year’s Erlangen Festival. A number of them were present at Next, where their sales stall was on the main hall’s stage, their publications on display on music stands. I had breakfast with Andreas Bertschi and Ludmilla Bartscht who were putting together a special photocopied edition or PetitPlusPlus for the festival. Because non-Germans have such trouble spelling her surname, Ludmilla is starting to sign her work under a pseudonym, adopting his grandmother’s surname to become Ludmilla Lyons. I suggest with her "double-L" name, in fact double-double-L name, she could become Clark Kent’s new girlfriend, after Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. Later in the day I chat with Paul Paetzel, a guest contributor to the latest PlusPlus anthology, Es War Einmal, which cleverly uses a found holiday snap from Almeria in 1974 as the constraint and springboard for ten stories, but with widely differing outcomes. Paul also showed me his colour silkscreened book about Bela Lugosi’s life and death. On my return to Ars Electronica I bump into Ludmilla and Andreas with thirty of their special, hot off the photocopying machine and they kindly give me the first copy.
I also picked up the latest numbers of the Lucerne-based magazine Blutt. "As international as you", this is given away free and can also be downloaded free as pdfs. Predominantly Swiss but wide open to submissions, they set a theme (Blue in #5B and Cute in #6) for each issue, the next one all about "Delay" wrapped up last month for Blutt #7. Each issue is 44 pages of A4 in black and white - why not try sending in your work for their next one? Back in Austria, perhaps the most exciting arrival I found on the graphic novel scene is Viennese general publishing house Luftschacht (or ‘airshaft’). They have followed up last year’s showcase Perpetuum with a full-length work by one of its best participants, Leopold Maurer. Miller & Pynchon are meant to make you think of Arthur Miller and Thomas Pynchon but Maurer takes his Beckett-like double-act into metaphors and metaphysics, crocodiles and werewolves.
Several other Austrian creators were spotlighted, notably local Linz caricaturist Gerhard Haderer who not only draws cartoons for the magazines Spiegel and Stern, but also produces a monthly series of a comic-strip booklets, modelled on the old landscape "panini" format, entitled MOFF. Harderer’s 2002 satirical book The Life Of Jesus, showing the saviour surfing on the Sea of Galilee stirred up a storm of religious controversy in Austria and its Greek edition sentenced him to a six-month prison sentence. I also discovered the enthusiastic group behind Kriminal Journal, a crime-comics anthology and Tango, its satirical rock-comic spin-off, entitled C.S.Ei.Meidling. Three of their contributors presented examples of their wacky webcast comics magazine Ka-Puff! including an interview in Vienna with David Lloyd. I also enjoyed meeting young talent Dominik Jaworski who three times a week is unravelling a striking, minimalist, wordless Scrollcomic, fusing the internet’s unlimited canvas with the ancient narrative vehicle of the scroll.
Dominik Jaworski’s Scrollcomic
On the Sunday, I explored a bit further afield in the city and came across the Art School’s Student exhibition with special guest Julie K. published by Edition 52 and showing some of her colourful paintings. I also visited the Landesgalerie to see a superb Toulouse Lautrec exhibition, reason alone to make a trip to Linz. This state gallery also houses a major collection of works by Linz-born artist Alfred Kubin, a remarkable image-maker tapping into the unconscious, who is always featured there in a special regularly-changed space. To go alongside the Lautrec, they had selected some of Kubin’s images about women. Kubin would make an excellent reference for a comics exhibition, showing his inspiration on current artists and perhaps getting them to pay tribute to him. Gottfried also kindly took me up in mountains, still snow-covered, where we visited the Grottenbahn, a family attraction opened in 1906, which consists of a dwarves’ grotto with a railway train in the form of a dragon which rides underground deep under a big church, as well as a miniature version of the city including tableaux recreating well-loved Brothers Grimm fairytales. This too could be a great venue and inspiration for comics.
So to my mind, Linz makes perfect sense as a city in which to develop Austria’s very own comics festival. It can be difficult to get a festival noticed if it is held in a massive city, where there is just so much other cultural activity going on. This in part explains why Angoulême works but Paris, despite various valiant efforts, never really has. Similarly, it seems Erlangen works in Germany while Berlin doesn’t, and Haarlem works while nearby Amsterdam doesn’t, the same way with Lucca as opposed to Rome or Lucerne rather than Geneva. There’s no hard and fast rule here, but a Festival is bound to have more impact and local support and significance if the whole city can get involved and get behind it. In contrast to shutting comics away in some specialist, ghettoised convention centre, priced and aimed solely at fans, removed and remote from everyday life and the local population, these successful citywide festival in more compact, focussed cities can take over lots of different venues and become part of the fabric and street life of the place.
On the basis of this year’s energetic first outing, this pilot edition, the interest is most definitely there in Linz. An ongoing Next Comic Festival would fit perfectly with Linz’s goal to be more nationally and internationally known as a cutting-edge, cross-cultural hub. Many like me are now looking forward to the next Next… and hopefully many more Nexts to come, as Austrian comics find more of their diverse voices.Posted: March 15, 2009