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The Beauty of the Comic
When I was in grade school I was perpetually turning in the wrong stuff as homework. A teacher would ask for a poem about the potato famine and I would turn in an Antarctic diorama, insisting, “I couldn’t help it!” I had been thinking, and hard. I just had a funny way of showing it. I recognize the same heartfelt heedlessness in the work of German artist Anke Feuchtenberger. Like somebody said “comics” and she couldn’t help but build her worlds–which only occasionally comprise gutters, panels, speech bubbles, the customary graphic amenities. Sticklers might not call her books “comics” at all. What Feuchtenberger offers is darkness, dream-logic, polysemous mythology, and a stellar reminder of how to cold-shoulder the sticklers with grace. W the Whore–likely Feuchtenberger’s most obtainable book stateside, and a good point of entry into her oeuvre–is a collaboration with poet Katrin de Vries, and, although I want everybody to fall in love with Feuchtenberger’s drawings, it makes sense to say that her comics are comics for poets and their patrons.
I am so grateful for how far she’s stretched the spectrum–through her own work and through the curation of one of the strangest and most beautiful comic almanacs I know–Frozen Charly. It was an honor to get to ask just a few of the cherished questions (I translated the interview from the original German) her work has evoked in me.
Elizabeth Pusack: Many critics have spoken of decoding, deciphering or unlocking the narratives in your comics. How do you feel about this as a process for experiencing your work? How would you respond to someone who described your work as “cryptic?”
Anke Feuchtenberger: I have no great interest in my work being decoded. No, what I create is not math homework or psychoanalysis. I would characterize my work as cryptic in so far as cryptic really is associated with darkness, the hidden—like a dream. The poetic rarely develops willfully, even though hard work goes into its creation. The poetic is a deeper connection and an essential one, and when you cut it up into its component parts, it loses its richness.
EP: What role does chance play in your work?
AF: Fate and chance are not the same thing. Fate is when I can only do what I am compelled to do: to draw, to speak German as my mother tongue, to be a woman, my bones… I don’t really believe in chance. This often creates problems for me. The production of my books by a publisher always happens purposefully, not by chance. An artist’s creativity sometimes seems to benefit by chance, as for example, when information pertaining exactly to the theme you are secretly already working with is constantly calling out to you. But even that I wouldn’t call chance, because you have already certainly sensitized yourself to the topic.
EP: How have you experienced collaboration? How is collaboration different from working alone?
AF: I have only collaborated with Katrin de Vries. On the other hand that work was very solitary; she gave me her texts, which were finished, written as prose, and I tried to spin these texts into a picture world that almost behaved independently in the sense that they answered the text, but did not illustrate it. Katrin de Vries’ texts have been very inspiring to me, have formed me. Now I work alone again, because I notice that I’ve gathered enough storytelling material within myself, material I want to draw. The work is dream-like, in that I work every minute of the day, because the work is circling and thinking and dreaming. This is how new connections develop, connections that only become true in the drawings. In the drawing a new element emerges, it has to do with the materiality of drawing, and it changes the stories that live within. The gaze, which doesn’t focus concretely at one thing, but rather with dream-like openness perceives things in the farthest corners of the eye, is therefore the most important thing in this process.
EP: There is a central question I have about your work that has been very difficult for me to articulate. It relates to this question of “rites” and of “archetype.” Do you feel you are creating a new mythology in your work? That you have used your language, your impression, to tell stories that have always been? I find that though I cannot “follow” many of your stories linearly, I know them already, I recognize them in a visceral way. The genesis, the odyssey, the story of unrequited love, the coming-of-age?
AF: No, not a new mythology. That is, I was atheistically-educated/bred, with an idolatrous belief in Marx, Engels and Lenin…:)))) but I discovered the Bible as narrative material and as poetry by means of the paintings of the Renaissance and the Baroque. I really read into the pictures as a kid. Later on I actually became well read in Christian iconography and especially in the myths and fairytales of the world. One notices rather quickly that similar patterns are woven into this material in similar ways, whether in South America or Southeast Asia or Northern Europe. In this respect, I don’t create anything foundational, but rather attempt to connect personally with this material, to build on it.
EP: In an interview with Miyazaki Toshiki you mention having learned to “take [your] impression seriously,” in the context of your multi-lined E. Do you think this is hard for many people to do? How did you learn to honor your own impression?
AF: I experienced my own limitations and humbly recognized them, from this grew the realization that my eyes and my head and so on will only be on this earth once, and that there is a certain time allotted to me with which to do something with them. So why shouldn’t I trust my impression?
EP: I’m interested in the transfer of knowledge amongst artists. Who did you learn from, what did you learn from them? What do you have to teach others? How do you experience teaching art?
AF: My father raised me to mindfully observe the environment. He referred me to many things in nature and told me about connections. This was also a very important source for me. I collected my knowledge from experiences and from books. To which knowledge am I referring? I can’t identify any dates or any names. But when I work with students I notice that I KNOW a lot about creative processes and their relationship to biography! During my own studies I was mostly fighting against something, because I didn’t feel fulfilled by my approach to graphics. This was certainly a generational problem, but it was also a political one. I learned quite a lot from a sculpture professor at the university and two friends of mine at the time—Kerstin Grimm and Frank Seidel—both sculptors. Contact with friends, mainly those in literary fields, is NOW very enriching. Important to me as authors from whom I really learn things are: George Klein, Burkhard Müller. In drawing knowledge comes from concentrated observation and to let oneself fall into the drawing process.
EP: Much writing I’ve encountered on your work emphasizes the fall of the Berlin Wall and your relatively late encounter with comics. How did re-unification affect your visual vocabulary? Did seeing new images change the way you made images?
AF: Comics became a language for me for the first time. I’d never read comics before (with the exception of Rudolphe Töpffer); in the DDR the medium didn’t exist. The emergence of capitalism made it possible for me to publish my work. My pictures were printed and I suddenly found myself involved in open discourse again. The outlook was pretty grim before that; I didn’t know if I would endure it—staying in the DDR and withdrawing into my little room so as not to attract attention. So I helped myself to comics, whenever it became possible to get them. Henning Wagenbreth also played an important role as arbitrator. The fall of the wall technically benefited me, but in my development as an artist I see a continuum of knowledge, a will to learn, a thirst for discovery and new forms of expression.
EP: In his article “When My Dog Dies, I’ll Make Myself a Jacket: The Painfully Beautiful World of Anke Feuchtenberger,” Mark David Nevins quotes you as saying “In German I call what I do Bilderzählung and erzählende Bilder (Pictorial narrative and narrative pictures).” Do you feel there is a fundamental difference between what can be communicated through a picture and what is told through language? How and why did you arrive at a medium that employs both?
AF: Since I arrived at comics by way of the theater, storytelling and drama were my point of departure. In the theater posters I tried to reduce an entire play to a picture. There is a difference between what can be “said” through pictures, and what can be “said” through texts. I can sometimes only express myself in one or the other. I sense the great possibility through their overlap of creating a third kind of storytelling.
(Ed. note–An earlier version of this interview first appeared on Elizabeth’s Pusack’s blog, Nosebledbooks)
Elizabeth Pusack was born and raised in Iowa City, Iowa. She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, MA in 2009, having studied Comparative Literature and Book Arts. She then spent a year in Vienna, Austria researching long-lost diaries before moving to Portland in 2010. She works at the children’s book store Green Bean Books, letterpress prints, and is an editorial intern at Tin House magazine. She is a contributor to Plazm, and shares her writings and comics at nosebledbooks.blogspot.com.