Comics Studies in Germany: Where It’s At and Where It Might Be Heading by Daniel Stein

07 Nov

Whether Comics Studies exists in Germany depends on our definition of the term. If we define it as “Comic-Wissenschaft” in analogy to Literaturwissenschaft (Literary Studies) or Kulturwissenschaft (Cultural Studies), then the answer might be a hesitant “no.” As Ole Frahm wrote in 2002: ‘Comics Studies doesn’t exist.’ [1] Taking into account the quantitative and qualitative increase of German comics scholarship over the last decade, however, we might come to a more positive conclusion. In fact, I would side with Martin Schüwer’s assessment that we are currently witnessing ‘islands of activity […] at the borders of different academic disciplines.’ [2] Thus, once we define “Comics Studies” as a conglomeration of increasingly networked research activities, the answer to the question of whether “Comics Studies” exists in Germany must be a tentative “yes.”

To think of Comics Studies in an exclusively national context no longer makes sense (if it ever has). Comics Studies in Germany is in many ways part of the larger international boom in comics criticism. Nonetheless, since we are dealing with linguistic boundaries (both in primary sources and scholarship) as well as with a specific academic landscape, it does make sense to consider where Comics Studies in Germany is at right now and where it might be heading. I thus want to take a look at the most significant monographs and essay collections published over the last decade and at various institutional structures and scholarly networks before I think about possible future developments. But before I do so, I want to make clear that I cannot speak for the many German scholars now working on various aspects of comics. Rather, I will present a more personal and selective view of my own experience with, and understanding of, Comics Studies in Germany. That this view is shaped by my own research interests and institutional affiliations should come as no surprise, but I hope that I will have to say something of value about some of the larger issues involved.

While German scholarship on comics goes back to at least the 1970s, we have seen the publication of a quite a number of significant monographs in the last few years. These monographs range from Stephan Packard’s Anatomie des Comics: Psychosemiotische Medienanalyse (The Anatomy of Comics: Psychosemiotic Media Analysis, 2006), Marianne Krichel’s Erzählerische Vermittlung im Comic am Beispiel des amerikanischen ZeitungscomicsCalvin and Hobbes” (Narrative Transmission in Comics Exemplified by the American Newspaper Comic Strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” 2006), Jakob Dittmar’s Comic-Analyse (Comics Analysis, 2008), Martin Schüwer’s Wie Comics erzählen: Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie der grafischen Literatur (How Comics Narrate: Blueprint of an Intermedial Narrative Theory of Graphic Literature, 2008), and Ole Frahm’s Die Sprache des Comics (The Language of Comics, 2010), all which are largely (though not exclusively) concerned with formal questions, to Frahm’s pioneering Genealogie des Holocaust: Art Spiegelmans MAUS – A Survivor’s Tale (Genealogy of the Holocaust: Art Spiegelman’s MAUS – A Survivor’s Tale, 2006), Karin Kukkonen’s insightful Neue Perspektiven auf die Superhelden: Polyphonie in Alan Moores Watchmen” (New Perspectives on Superheroes: Polyphony in Alan Moore’s Watchmen,” 2008), and Oliver Näpel’s sweeping Das Fremde als Argument: Identität und Alterität durch Fremdbilder und Geschichtsstereotype von der Antike bis zum Holocaust und 9/11 im Comic (The Foreign as Argument: Identity and Alterity through Images of Foreignness und Historical Stereotypes from Antiquity to the Holocaust and 9/11 in Comics 2011). [3] This list is certainly not conclusive, but it does suggest that substantial work of is being done on different types of comics from various disciplinary perspectives and, at the same time, that we are still nowhere near a state in which we could speak of German “Comics Studies” as anything but a growing field of more or less disparate theories, approaches, and subject matters.

The centrifugal heterogeneity of the field, which may be taken as an indicator that Comics Studies in Germany is still at an early, explorative stage, has spawned attempts towards greater coherency, for instance in the form of Barbara Eder, Elisabeth Klar, and Ramón Reichert’s Theorien des Comics: Ein Reader (Theories of Comics: A Reader, 2011). [4] The very fact that the field has produced a comics reader shows an interest in the disciplinary formation of Comics Studies, and this reader is particularly important because it includes a section on queer comics and thus makes a critical move beyond the mainstream perception of comics. Moreover, it collects essays by scholars from different countries and thus foregrounds an understanding of Comics Studies as an international endeavor. Yet despite the collection’s embracing of diversity, the introductory chapter offers a somewhat selective survey of the field of (German) comics scholarship. Several important publications of recent years are glossed over, and one is left to wonder whether this is the result of a conscious selectivity or simply a matter of slipshod research. As such, this publication illustrates both the strong points and the weaknesses of current Comics Studies in Germany.

Apart from the monographs mentioned above, useful essay collections with various foci and disciplinary orientations have become a regular feature of German academic publishing: Michael Hein, Michael Hüners, and Torsten Michaelsen’s Ästhetik des Comic (The Aesthetics of Comics, 2002), Stefanie Diekmann and Matthias Schneider’s Szenarien des Comic: Helden und Historien im Medium der Schriftbildlichkeit (Scenarios of Comics: Heroes and Histories in the Medium of Imagetexts, 2005), Frank Leinen and Guido Rings’ Bilderwelten—Textwelten—Comicwelten: Romanistische Begegnungen mit der Neunten Kunst (Picture Worlds—Text Worlds—Comic Worlds: Romance Studies Encounters with the Ninth Art, 2007), Heinz Ludwig Arnold and Andreas C. Knigge’s Comics, Mangas, Graphic Novels (2009), Stephan Ditschke, Katerina Kroucheva, and my own Comics: Zur Geschichte und Theorie eines populärkulturellen Mediums (Comics: On the History and Theory of a Popular Medium, 2009), and Thomas Becker’s Comic: Intermedialität und Legitimität eines populärkulturellen Mediums (Comic: Intermediality and Legitimacy of a Popular Medium, 2011). [5] These publications have left a definite imprint on German academic engagements with comics across disciplines, but the fact that they were written in German has prevented their international reception. If scholars wish to participate in the international discourse about comics, they will have to publish at least some of their work in English. In fact, some of them have done so already, as the recent essay collections by Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling (Comics and the City, 2010) and Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, and Gideon Haberkorn (Comics as a Nexus of Cultures, 2010) indicate and as my own involvement with various forthcoming English-language publications on comics exemplifies. [6]

In terms of institutional structures and scholarly networks, the Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (ComFor), founded in Koblenz in 2005, comes to mind. This society for comics research seeks to coordinate and support the academic study of comics in the German-speaking countries and is open for interdisciplinary and international perspectives. It releases a regular newsletter, organizes an annual conference, and hosts a website (a very rudimentary English version can be accessed here). A first volume of conference papers, Struktur und Geschichte der Comics: Beiträge zur Comicforschung (Structure and History of Comics: Contributions to Comics Research, 2010), was published by a small independent publisher, Christian A. Bachmann, which is itself an important indication of a growing infrastructure available to German comics scholars. From Nov. 11-13, the ComFor conference in Passau will focus on comics reportage, documentary comics, and comics biography. All in all, while I would not yet rank the ComFor alongside more established academic societies and associations, I believe that it is an important meeting ground for a wide range of comics scholars and will continue to grow and expand its influence. Moreover, forthcoming conference proceedings will offer important additions to the two mainstays of German comics research, the Jahrbuch Deutsche Comicforschung (Almanac German Comics Research, ed. Eckart Sackmann, since 2004) and the Lexikon der Comics (Lexicon of Comics, ed. Marcus Czerwionka, since 1991).

A more localized center of comics scholarship is the Arbeitsstelle für graphische Literatur (Work Center for Graphic Literature, ArGL) at the University of Hamburg, whose members (Ole Frahm, Michael Hein, Jens Nielsen, and others) have been active since 1992 and whose current director is Astrid Böger. In bringing together students, doctoral candidates, and faculty, presenting research to the broader public, and building a substantial comics library, the ArGL offers the kind of institutional synergy across disciplines that might work as a model for comics scholars at other universities. In addition, there are various programs sponsored by the German Research Foundation that could be utilized by comics scholars. These programs range from major Collaborative Research Centers and smaller interdisciplinary Research Units to Scientific Networks and individual grants, and I would argue that the future of Comics Studies in Germany depends at least in part on scholars’ abilities to make successful bids for any one of these different programs.

One example of a successful bid for DFG funding is the interdisciplinary Research Unit “Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice” based at the University of Göttingen. Within this Research Unit, two projects deal with comics, and a third project is associated through the University of Bern and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. My own project (with Frank Kelleter) deals with authorization practices in superhero comics and examines the connection between authorship roles and the generic development of superhero comic book series, while Shane Denson and Ruth Mayer (University of Hannover) study the impact of media transpositions on topical figures such as Frankenstein, Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Batman, and Superman. The associated Swiss project by Gabriele Rippl, Stephanie Hoppeler, and Lukas Etter investigates serial phenomena in American graphic novels and alternative comics. These projects have yielded a variety of collaborations, such as conference and workshop invitations, shared research, informal discussions, and publishing ventures, and the productivity of these types of collaborations suggests one potential future course for Comics Studies in Germany.

But who knows where Comics Studies in Germany is really heading? While scholarship on comics is booming at the moment, the question is whether this will translate into the emergence of an institutionally backed discipline or whether we will merely see a further expansion (and perhaps later contraction) of the field. What is “in” today might be “out” tomorrow, but I do think that the evidence suggest that Comics Studies has already moved beyond merely being an academic fad. It is highly unlikely that the study of comics will ever return to its previous state of benign neglect and critical marginalization, but it is equally unlikely to morph into an academic discipline in analogy to, say, Filmwissenschaft (Film Studies). I can’t see a chair for Comics Studies being created at my own university (Göttingen), nor can I really imagine students getting B.A. or M.A. degrees in Comics Studies in the near future. After all, the study of comics is still considered a fringe endeavor in most disciplines, and even though disciplines like my own (American Studies) are increasingly aware of comics, I still think that those who do their major research projects on comics—the dissertation and the “Habilitation,” a second book project in which scholars demonstrate a broad knowledge of their discipline in order to be eligible for professorial positions—will have a much harder time to justify their choice of subject than those working on canonical literary authors or more established media like film and photography. But I also believe that it is the quality of the work we produce and the effectiveness of the networking we do that will ultimately make a difference. At least from my perspective, it makes sense to be active in various institutional and disciplinary contexts. Self-identifying as a comics scholar and engaging with the interdisciplinary research offered in the field of Comics Studies does not mean than one ceases to be (in my case) an Americanist. On the contrary: ideally, it will compel one to look beyond established disciplinary boundaries, canons, and critical approaches and rethink otherwise entrenched positions. In the same way, being an Americanist does not disqualify one from becoming a comics scholar but may actually enhance one’s understanding of comics.

My hope is that German scholars will continue to study comics from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, develop approaches that do more than simply force comics into established paradigms, place high-quality scholarship in peer-reviewed national and international publications, expand and tighten existing scholarly networks (both nationally and internationally), secure third-party funding from major research institutions, and continue the productive dialogue between their “home” disciplines and the burgeoning field of Comics Studies. If they do so successfully, we might really be getting somewhere.

Daniel Stein holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Göttingen, Germany, where he is a Research Associate in the DFG-Research Unit “Popular Seriality: Aesthetics and Practice“. His comics-related publications include the essay collection Comics: Zur Geschichte und Theorie eines populärkulturellen Mediums (transcript, 2009). He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming essay collection From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative (De Gruyter, 2013). His personal page can be visited here.

[1] – My translation. Ole Frahm, “Weird Signs: Zur parodistischen Ästhetik der Comics,” Ästhetik des Comic, ed. Michael Hein, Michael Hüners, Torsten Michaelsen (Berlin: Schmidt, 2002), 201.

[2] – My translation. Martin Schüwer, Wie Comics erzählen: Grundriss einer intermedialen Erzähl-theorie der grafischen Literatur (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008), 13.

[3] – Stephan Packard, Anatomie des Comics: Psychosemiotische Medienanalyse (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006); Marianne Krichel, Erzählerische Vermittlung im Comic am Beispiel des amerikanischen ZeitungscomicsCalvin and Hobbes” (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2006); Jakob F. Dittmar, Comic-Analyse (Konstanz: UVK, 2008); Karin Kukkonen, Neue Perspektiven auf die Superhelden: Polyphonie in Alan Moore’sWatchmen” (Marburg: Tectum, 2008); Ole Frahm, Genealogie des Holocaust: Art Spiegelmans MAUS – A Survivor’s Tale (München: Fink, 2006); Ole Frahm, Die Sprache des Comics (Hamburg: Philo Fine Arts, 2010); Oliver Näpel, Das Fremde als Argument: Identität und Alterität durch Fremdbilder und Geschichtsstereotype von der Antike bis zum Holocaust und 9/11 im Comic (Frankfurt: Lang, 2011).

[4] – Barbara Eder, Elisabeth Klar, Ramón Reichert, eds., Theorien des Comic: Ein Reader (Bielefeld: transcript, 2011).

[5] – Michael Hein, Michael Hüners, Torsten Michaelsen, eds., Ästhetik des Comic (Berlin: Schmidt, 2002); Stefanie Diekmann and Matthias Schneider, eds., Szenarien des Comic: Helden und Historien im Medium der Schriftbildlichkeit (Berlin: SuKuLTuR, 2005); Frank Leinen and Guido Rings, eds., Bilderwelten – Textwelten – Comicwelten: Romanistische Begegnungen mit der neunten Kunst (München: Meidenbauer, 2007); Stephan Ditschke, Katerina Kroucheva, Daniel Stein, eds., Comics: Zur Geschichte und Theorie eines populärkulturellen Mediums, (Bielefeld: transcript, 2009); Heinz L. Arnold and Andreas C. Knigge, eds., Comics, Mangas, Graphic Novels (München: edition text+kritik, 2009); Thomas Becker, ed., Comic: Intermedialität und Legitimität eines populärkulturellen Mediums (Bochum: Bachmann, 2011).

[6] – Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn, eds., Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Essays on the Interplay of Media, Disciplines and International Perspectives (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010); Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, eds., Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence (London: Continuum, 2010). For a more specific assessment of these two collections, see my reviews in Studies in Comics 1.2 (2010). See also Daniel Stein and Jan-Noël Thon, eds., From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming 2013).

[7] – Dietrich Grünewald, ed., Struktur und Geschichte der Comics: Beiträge zur Comicforschung (Bachmann: Bochum, 2010). See also the other essay collections and monographs on comics (the latter as part of the series “Yellow: Schriften zur Comicforschung”) published by Bachmann:


Posted by on 2011/11/07 in Guest Writers


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2 responses to “Comics Studies in Germany: Where It’s At and Where It Might Be Heading by Daniel Stein

  1. Martin de la Iglesia

    2011/11/09 at 17:45

    Unfortunately, the kind of research that you (rightfully) demand – “scholarship in peer-reviewed national and international publications” – is not covered in your survey. I’d love to see an analysis of German journal contributions, maybe using Web of Science and/or Scopus.



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