Hidden comic talent: all good things come from below

Carlsen Verlag has paved the way for strips in the north. But if you’re looking for adventure, you’ll have to look around on the web in the meantime

Hello Bremen: This strip takes aim at the city without meaning it. Photo: Maximilian Hillerzeder/alsichmal.hillerkiller.com

There is a clear and conclusive answer to how Bremen came to be in the comic: "Originally," explains Maximilian Hillerzeder, "it was really a purely phonetic decision." From that point of view, Bremen was "without alternative." The city already appears as a possible destination in the 2013/2014 comic strip "Als ich neulich auf See verschollen war," and "I like to imagine that this would have contributed significantly to the city’s success today," says the author.

Now, in his absurdist tale "Als ich mal plotzlich in der Wuste gewesen bin," Bremen is a central setting. The comic artist, who comes from Bavaria and lives in Leipzig, has lovingly sketched this city as it should be, as a mix of Western atmo and Adriatic buccaneer’s nest: "I can justifiably claim never to have been in the immediate vicinity of Bremen, which is something I would like to preserve in any case," Hillerzeder tells the taz.

That’s good for the atmosphere of the narrative, he says, but probably also "a bit of a fear of not finding a lot of things the way I imagined them, like in a bad book adaptation." Hillerzeder, one of the great talents of German comics, publishes online, the desert story is continued every Wednesday – and whether the traveling party, which currently has to deal with annoying pirate frog ghosts, will ever get back to northern Germany is uncertain.

How the comic came to northern Germany is not a secret story: 50 years ago, Carlsen-Verlag, then still based in Schleswig-Holstein, created a niche in the product range for picture storytellers; with and for Herge’s "Tintin," the album was established as a form of publication in Germany.

Such publishing deeds always also mean, at least abstractly, an exclusion: they mark out a field in which future cultivation and production, research and promotion will take place. Beyond this field grows: the unexpected. Take Conny from Bremen, for example. She is neither related nor related by marriage to the much more popular Conni from the Carlsen publishing house, and "I didn’t even know she existed when I started drawing her," says Max Vahling from Bremen.

She also wears her blonde hair in a ponytail and is a girl who doesn’t let the various problems of everyday life get her down, but while Conni from Hamburg doesn’t have a last name and at worst has to deal with lice, Max Vahling’s Conny von Ehlsing learns for life while riding through hell, kills vampires and duels with sea snakes. Vahling refers to himself as "der Jahling" (the young one), definitely because of the rhyme. "And because it suits me," he says. "To my way of drawing and telling stories."

In fact, "jahling" means as much as "suddenly, unexpectedly. And even if Vahling appears in real life more like the classic social pedagogue, his strips sometimes seem as if a retarding moment could better clear the way for laughter: What’s the point of starting something off gradually if you can just slam the punch line in the reader’s face? Why do three panels if you can do it in two? Drawing is, after all, a laborious business, even hard, grueling self-critical work, especially if you were not born with divine hands.

Vahling is self-taught. He draws because he has always drawn and "because then it just bubbles up inside you." And he has long relied on webcomics, but then also brings out self-published small albums at irregular intervals. The fifth volume of "Conny, the Ghost Hunter" came out last year: It works well even if you don’t know its predecessors. But it is fun to follow the artistic development from volume to volume.

Since then, however – far too long already! – the series, which was once born out of enthusiasm for the TV series "Buffy – The Vampire Slayer," has been on pause. Its main character first appeared in Jahling’s strips around 2004. Then, starting in 2007, he published them in English, once a week, on the site webcomicsnation.com, one of the portals built by Kentucky online comics pioneer Joey Manley. The site shut down shortly after Manley died of pneumonia in 2013 at just 48 years old. And even archive.org hadn’t backed up the site’s trove. So much for the web forgetting nothing.

In fact, it gives comics back some of their original anarchy, the wild growth of punk underground fanzines. If you want to read well-kept comics, you have to rely on Carlsen. If you want to get involved with the medium like an adventure, you have to search. Online.

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