After techno and street art, Berlin tackles graphic novels

Better known for its electronic music and street art, Berlin is now also home to a budding graphic novel scene in a country that has treated illustrated stories as children's literature.

After techno and street art, Berlin tackles graphic novels
The cover of Jim Curious - Reise in die Tiefen des Ozeans from Reprodukt. Photo: DPA

Hardly seen in bookstores just a few years ago, German-produced graphic novels now have their dedicated shelves, as not only homegrown artists but also foreign ones find inspiration in Berlin.

“It was when I moved here that I felt a need to write,” said Spanish author Alberto Madrigal, who moved to the German capital in 2007 and has since produced three graphic novels including his most recent, “Berlin 2.0”.

The key reason drawing artists and musicians to Berlin apply too to graphic novelists – the cost of living is lower than in most other European capitals.

But Berlin's tormented history – from the excesses of the Weimar era to Nazism to the stark division between democracy and communism – also serves as a gripping backdrop for any novel.

It is no accident therefore that graphic novels produced here are less in it for a chuckle than aimed at making a political statement.

Hamed Eshrat describes in “Tipping Point” his family's flight to Germany after Ayatollah Khomeini took power in his homeland Iran in 1979.

An East Berlin-born author who goes by the name Mawil told the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall through the eyes of a schoolboy in “Kinderland”.

In “Madgermanes”, Birgit Weyhe depicts the fate of Mozambican workers sent to East Germany, while Reinhard Kleist describes the horrors of the Nazi-run death camp Auschwitz in “The Boxer”.

“The number of authors who are politically engaged has exploded. The new generation likes to deal with these intelligent subjects,” said Sylvain Mazas, who made Germans laugh with “This book helps me to resolve the Middle East conflict, get my degree and find a wife”.

East German avant-garde

Prior to the last decade, Germany's homegrown illustrated book scene was largely made up by just a handful of authors.

Among the best known is Ralf Koenig, who tickled generations at home and abroad with his gay-themed comics, or Walter Moers, who poked fun at Hitler.

But the fall of the Wall brought a group of East German artists, who were trained in techniques that had been abandoned by art colleges in the West, to teach at the Berlin-Weissensee art school.

The group became known as Germany's comic avant-garde and went on to have a powerful impact on younger generations of graphic novelists.

Mazas, who like Mawil and Eshrat were all trained at the school, said that “it has for a long time been a very political place”.

At around the same time, Swiss publisher Edition Moderne began producing German translations of foreign graphic novels, including from France and the United States where the market is far bigger and more mature.

Germans, many who were raised on a diet of Mickey Mouse and Tintin comics, began to turn their attention to these graphic novels as well.

Berlin publishers have steadily emerged, including Reprodukt in 1991, Avant-Verlag in 2001 and Jaja-Verlag in 2011. Initially, these also produced German translations, but later moved on to homegrown titles.

German graphic novelists slowly “found recognition at home and abroad, while until 2005, there were only one-way translations,” said Vincent Ovaert, cofounder of “Our Taste” — the first gallery dedicated to graphic novels in Berlin.

'It's growing'

Avant-Verlag's co-founder Johannes Ulrich noted that the proportion of German-produced works is now “growing, not spectacularly, but it's growing”.

“Now I have 10 people working on their books who are all from Germany,” he said.

Nevertheless, publishers acknowledged that the industry is in its early stages and far off the scale of French or US equivalents.

Experts estimate the German market to be only one-tenth the size of the French. A strong title can sell between 3,000 and 4,000 copies in Germany, Ulrich said.

He recognised however that “while we reach out to a more diversified readership of 25 to 80 years, we hardly sell anything to those who are younger.”

Mathieu Diez, who heads the Lyon graphic novel festival, said that even though the German market has “everything in place, there still isn't great interest from the public abroad.”

Next year, however, the festival will host a delegation of German authors who will showcase their works in two exhibitions.

But Diez also cautioned that the graphic novel market is tough going, as “quality publications run up against the flood of French publications” which appear in the thousands a year.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.