Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 17 Best (and Only) Movies I Went to See in 2015

Plus One Real Good Movie of 2015 That I Didn't Go to See

I saw each of these movies once, between January 2 and December 21, 2015, didn’t take notes, and am writing about them from memory.

18: JURASSIC WORLD (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

Trevorrow’s interpretation of dinosaurs as misogyny made flesh is so consistent here, you have to wonder if it was a conscious decision. Basically, the people who made this movie defend Hollywood’s traditional gender stereotypes with teeth and claws.

The women either stick to being mothers or fail; one female character—an executive assistant—actually gets to get ripped apart by three different dinosaurs in a sequence that’s staged with the panache of a rollercoaster ride in an Indiana Jones movie, for the cardinal offense of god knows what, as she barely had any dialogue or characterization at all up to that point; and Chris Pratt gets to be the capable alpha male, calming and reassuring all the film’s prehistoric females, plus the dinosaur ones.

I like going to big, dumb action movies and usually find something to like about them even if they’re crap—Independence Day: Resurgence is probably my most-looked-forward-to flick of 2016, for fuck’s sake—but there’s not a single thing I liked about Jurassic World. The CGI looks sterile, the characters are nonexistent, the direction is incompetent, and the big moment they chose to reintroduce the awesome John Williams theme from the original is a shot of a fucking helicopter.

The most toxic, shit-brained and loathsome piece-of-shit movie I’ve seen in a while.

17: COHERENCE (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

An independent movie about a bunch of friends getting together in a house and ending up in a cosmic anomaly that seals them in a type of dimensional loop with other versions of themselves from multiple parallel timelines. Or something. There’s nothing offensive here, the movie just feels boring and derivative, and there’s not a single credible or interesting character in it. I’ve never seen Lost, but Coherence seems like someone tried to recreate what I know about Lost without a budget, or a script.

16: THE MARTIAN (Ridley Scott, 2015)

The film is based on a mind-numbingly rigid though still madly entertaining N.A.S.A.-procedural-porn thriller that dies on its ass whenever the author, Andy Weir, tries his hand at anything that relies on recognizable human characters rather than nuts, bolts, or air locks. There is no authentic character moment in the book, and most of the attempts at portraying human interaction make you cringe.

You’d think that was a good argument for Scott to go wild in his adaptation and exercise his cinematic ambition and imagination, but The Martian ends up being a terribly dull and timid affair. The many, many shortcomings of the book are toned down here, but Scott doesn’t add much to the experience, either. It’s a good-looking film, but rather than to savor the visuals and effectively connect them to the protagonist’s mindscape, it just rushes through the plot.

If faux-bravado, trite banter and phony reaction shots are your thing, go ahead and see The Martian. It’s not as awful and silly as Prometheus, but I’m not sure boredom is a step up.

15: MACBETH (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

I wanted to see Fassbinder, Cotillard, and Considine act the shit out of Shakespeare, but Kurzel’s Macbeth is an oddly hypothermic, visually forgettable emo take that fails to inspire the actors and fatally dilutes the characters’ motivations with ill-conceived junk.

14: SPECTRE (Sam Mendes, 2015)

Speaking of emo takes.

It’s sheer dumb luck that, time and again, saves Bond’s life in Spectre. At one point, the plot literally relies on a mouse to be able to move on. The message is clear: Bond is spiralling out of control, he’s an alcoholic, his fortune is running out, and it’s time for him to quit. Beware of rooting for this guy, it says: He’s reckless and dangerous.

In theory, there’s good material here for a Bond movie, particularly if—as there’s good reason to suspect—it’s one that concludes Craig’s tenure. In practice, though, Spectre doesn’t give us more than the bare bones of a Bond movie. It’s undercooked on every level, and Christoph Waltz plays one of the all-time most boring and unconvincing Bond villains.

If the villain has to be a spoiled emo brat, I’ll take Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren over Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser any day of the week.

13: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

In my mind, Spectre and Rogue Nation somehow blur together. One notable difference is that Spectre questions the notion of secret super-agents unhampered by democratic oversight, whereas Rogue Nation reinforces its awesomeness. That makes the latter a more despicable movie in theory, I guess; in practice, though, it’s the more entertaining one of the two.

12: LOVE & MERCY (Bill Pohlad, 2014)

This biopic of the Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson is two movies in one, only one of which is good, and neither of which is fully developed.

The first one is a 1960s period film in which Wilson, played by Paul Dano, tries to navigate between his creative urges and bouts of depression caused by the emotional abuse of his bullying, towering father; it’s well-staged and brilliantly acted. In the second, an adult, psychologically damaged Wilson, played by John Cusack, falls in love with his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, who tries to free him from the clutches of his abusive legal guardian.

The relationship between Wilson and Ledbetter never gets enough traction to make you understand what, precisely, makes them fall for one another, and the two main timelines of the film never come together. There’s two thirds of a good movie in here, but something seems to have gone wrong along the way.

11: HER (Spike Jonze, 2013)

An exceptionally good-looking and well-designed film set in a heteronormative future where everyone’s a white, emotionally stunted narcissist, of which the director/screenwriter seems oblivious. Great voice-acting by Scarlett Johansson.

10: BIRDMAN (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014)

I didn’t really like Birdman at first. It seemed like Oscar bait, the characters weren’t terribly interesting, and Iñárritu’s tendency to mistake misery for depth was on full display.

Then I read this here good piece of crit, which posits that the entire movie—including scenes during which Keaton’s character isn’t present—is being viewed through his lens, and his lens is one of a deep, terminal bout of depression.

I like Birdman a little bit better now.

9: SLOW WEST (John Maclean, 2015)

Maclean isn’t above losing his professional restraint when a cheap visual gag is to be had at the film’s climax, and that’s the sort of thing I can appreciate in a movie. I should have been annoyed by this film, but Slow West is surprisingly entertaining for an emo western.

It’s also the best film Michael Fassbender appeared in this year.

8: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I don’t mind the fact that the movie turned out to be a remake, and I think there’s a variety of good conversations to be had about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. Mostly, what makes me uncomfortable is the seemingly unhealthy number of people out there who confuse Disney and Warner’s attempts to brand, and profit from, social changes with real progress.

I did enjoy the new characters, and the actors who play them are good and fun to watch. Also, Abrams gets a lot of good mileage by upturning the generational conflict that’s always been the engine of the franchise. Oddly, though, the moment that should have been the film’s emotional anchor is spoiled in a throwaway line of dialogue by characters nowhere close to the action, and the scene itself coasts on a kind of implied importance that the characters never get a chance to earn. It’s a forgettable movie, but entertaining while it lasts.

7: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller, 2015)

The fourth installment of this 1970s/1980s franchise is a much better, though not necessarily more entertaining movie than Star Wars. It’s “feminist,” I guess, if your definition of feminism is a terribly narrow and consumerist one; I don’t find that definition very appealing, or desirable. It seems like a shallow, calculated and deceptive type of feminism that’s popularized in the works of dudes like Whedon, Vaughan, Abrams or Miller, and not a very humanist one. Also, I’m more than a little bit amused by the notion that comics author Brendan McCarthy, mostly known in recent years for posting racist comments on Facebook, is supposed to be an emerging feminist figure in Hollywood.

Yeah, Fury Road is a solid movie, and making Tom Hardy the femme fatale, a neat trick. I don’t have the particular urge to see it again, though. It doesn’t seem like the kind of film that’s designed to withstand the scrutiny of someone watching it for a second time.

6: BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater, 2014)

I don’t remember much of this one except the fact that I enjoyed it and thought it was good. Given that the story itself is well-trodden territory, what I liked must have been in the filmmaking and acting. Always a plus.

5: DIE WIDERSTÄNDIGEN: “ALSO MACHEN WIR DAS WEITER…” (The Resistors: “Their Spirit Prevails…”; Katrin Seybold and Ula Stöckl, 2015)

This second part of an oral history of the Hamburg resistance keeps it simple cinematically. The survivors get to sit down and tell their stories, and that’s it. The trick here for the directors is to not get in the way.

If you grew up in Germany, chances are you’re not going to hear anything new here, purely in terms of what’s being said. But by personalizing these stories and adding faces to them, the film lets you realize that they’re not ancient history—that there is a continuity between the lives of these people and ours. These were ordinary women and men who fully knew the risks they were taking, and they still kept going.

The indictment of all those who didn’t is never spoken, but omnipresent, as is the implication that the only thing that stands between a free society and a fascist regime is, ultimately, us.

4: CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, 2014)

The kernel and substance of this frantic documentary rests in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013—a candid look at what may be one of the pivotal moments of the 21st century. It’s the stuff of myths, and the story that’s unfolding here—and still unfolding in reality—is irresistible through the sheer gravity of its facts alone.

That’s not all, though, because Edward Snowden himself is the kind of figure that’s able to add layers and dimensions to a story that’s already rich on them. The fact that Snowden planned all this and, give or take a bit of good fortune, has been able to pretty much shape and control hos own narrative despite the United States’s best efforts to paint him as a traitor, is as fascinating as it is unnerving. Who is this guy? Is he real?

Citizenfour doesn’t provide an answer; maybe it can’t. It should be asking these questions, though. This seems a trivial concern, given what’s at stake, but if the narrative evolves around Snowden’s character and makes the case for accountability and democracy and freedom of the press, then it’s disappointing that its protagonist gets away unscrutinized.

Poitras herself and her film become part of Snowden’s narrative, unable or unwilling to step outside of it, and it doesn’t seem like she minds.

3: WAS HEISST HIER ENDE? DER FILMKRITIKER MICHAEL ALTHEN (Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen, Dominik Graf, 2015)

Dominik Graf is the only German director whose work, and whose sensibilities, speak to me more than intermittently. Was heißt hier Ende? is a documentary about late film critic Michael Althen, but it’s also so much more than that.

“Genre is the core that makes everything else possible,” Graf says in the film: “the central hub between pop and avantgarde.” He has very specific ideas about film, television, art, popular culture, and criticism, and each of his projects approaches those ideas from a new angle—and each of these angles is deeply human.

2: DER STAAT GEGEN FRITZ BAUER (The People Vs. Fritz Bauer; Lars Kraume, 2015)

Fritz Bauer was a postwar Hessian attorney general, and Lars Kraume’s biopic deals with his struggle to bring German war criminals to justice. The international title is more to the point here than the original one, actually—Bauer, presumed a closet homosexual, sees his efforts frustrated by officials and superiors time and again, but more so than the “State,” it’s indeed the “People” he’s up against. The myth that Germany was “liberated from the Nazis” is still popular, and the fact that the larger German populace was complicit in the crimes of the Hitler regime continues to be a hard pill to swallow; sometimes, to this day, you could get the impression that the Nazis were space aliens who occupied and mind-controlled Germany, rather than actual human beings who happened to be Germans.

The point here isn’t so much that The People Vs. Fritz Bauer is still a timely film in Germany, but that it will always be a timely film, anywhere. Kraume reminds us that the poisonous mindsets that enabled Hitler neither appeared nor disappeared overnight. They’re always going to be there, more or less, and it will always require vigilance and determination to keep it at bay. Nurturing this vigilance, and this determination, is our job as a society.

It’s a good film, because it glorifies neither Bauer nor the rewards of his work. Burghart Klaußner’s portrayal of Bauer is one of the most impressive performances of any German actor I’ve seen this year.

1: THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015)

Okay, I’m cheating, because I didn’t go out to see this one—it was on television, thanks to the magic of the glorious German film funding industry. But it’s easily the best film I’ve seen all year, so here it is.

I didn’t like Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Art of Killing; it seemed like Oppenheimer allowed himself to be instrumentalized by mass murderers, and the insights his film yielded in return were comparatively slim. These people were putting on a show, they enjoyed it, and it wasn’t much else but sickening to watch them do it.

The Look of Silence is different. This time, Oppenheimer steps aside and lets someone else conduct the interviews: an optometrist whose brother was murdered in the 1960s. The result is chilling and as insightful as anything you’re likely to see on film in your lifetime.

* * *

That’s it for 2015, and it’s also the final post on Comiks Debris. My interests have shifted rather dramatically since I started this in 2007, so it’s time for something new. Thanks to everyone who stopped by in the last eight years, and have a good 2016!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Comic-Übersetzung 101

Ab und an erreichen mich Fragen von Schülern oder Studenten, wie man Comic-Übersetzer wird und wie Comics überhaupt übersetzt werden.

Ende 2013 habe ich einer Studentin auf Englisch Rede und Antwort gestanden, vor ein paar Wochen haben Schweizer Schüler mich um Auskunft gebeten. Hier meine Antworten. (Die Fragen habe ich paraphrasiert.)

Gibt es eine typische Laufbahn für Comic-Übersetzer?

Nicht, dass ich wüsste. Die Branche ist wohl zu klein, um diesen Berufsweg wirklich planen zu können. Unter meinen Kollegen gibt es durchaus studierte Übersetzer, aber auch das ist kein Muss, wenn man literarische oder belletristische Texte übersetzen will.

Im Comicbereich kommt hinzu, dass, von wenigen Verlagen abgesehen, die Honorare in vielen Fällen zu gering sind, um davon leben zu können. Darum sind viele Comic-Übersetzer Fans, die eine Ausbeutung durch sich selbst oder durch den Verlag in Kauf nehmen, um diese Arbeit machen zu können oder ihren Namen gedruckt zu sehen.

Wie wird man zum Comic-Übersetzer?

Ich bin Literaturwissenschaftler und habe während des Studiums angefangen, mich mit Comics auseinanderzusetzen, unter anderem auch in Texten für Fachmagazine. Irgendwann gab es die Anfrage eines Verlages, ob ich bereit wäre, mich als Comic-Übersetzer zu versuchen. Die Arbeit hat mich gereizt und machte auf Anhieb Spaß. Vom Verlag und von den Lesern gab es ebenfalls Zuspruch, also blieb ich dabei.

Muss man als Übersetzer bilingual sein?

Das kommt vor, trifft aber wohl nicht auf die Mehrheit zu. Entscheidend ist vor allem die Kenntnis der Zielsprache, weshalb professionelle Übersetzer in der Regel nur in ihre Muttersprache übersetzen.

Wie bekommen Übersetzer Aufträge? Arbeiten sie fest bei Verlagen?

Übersetzer sind üblicherweise Freiberufler und arbeiten auf Honorarbasis. Dass ein Comic-Übersetzer bei einem Verlag festangestellt wäre, ist mir nicht bekannt. Vielleicht gibt es aber Praktikanten, Volontäre oder festangestellte Redakteure, die neben ihrer eigentlichen Tätigkeit noch übersetzen.

Aufträge akquiriert man, indem man Kontakte knüpft. Einerseits ist das in der Comicbranche vergleichsweise einfach, da man gute Aussichten hat, mit zwei, drei Messebesuchen (auf dem Comic-Salon Erlangen, dem Comicfestival München oder der Frankfurter Buchmesse etwa) die meisten Redakteure kennenzulernen; andererseits ist es auch schwieriger, weil die Anzahl der zu vergebenden Aufträge begrenzt ist und die Verlage sich natürlich zuerst an jene Übersetzer halten, mit denen sie schon zusammengearbeitet haben.

Arbeiten Comic-Übersetzer mit den Autoren des Originals zusammen?

Das ist die Ausnahme, kommt aber vor. Es gibt Fälle, in denen ich ganz froh bin, den Autor des Originals erreichen zu können—etwa, wenn nicht klar ist, ob der Quelltext einen Fehler enthält. Normalerweise vertrete ich aber die Auffassung, dass es sich bei jeder Übersetzung notwendigerweise um die individuelle Interpretation des Übersetzers handelt, der diese nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen zu erstellen und zu verantworten hat.

Es gibt durchaus Literaturübersetzer, die intensiv mit dem Autor des Originals zusammenarbeiten. Im Comicbereich ist mir mindestens ein Kollege bekannt, dessen Arbeit an den Verlag des Originals geschickt, rückübersetzt, kontrolliert und gegebenenfalls geändert wird. Das wäre aber nichts für mich; die Kompetenzen sollten klar verteilt sein.

So reizvoll ich grundsätzlich den Gedanken finde, einmal gemeinsam mit dem Autor jeden Originalsatz dreimal umzudrehen, ehe ich zur Übersetzung schreite, so wenig praktikabel wäre das leider. Und selbst wenn, gäbe es immer noch viele Autoren, die gar kein Interesse daran hätten, an der Übersetzung in irgendeiner Weise mitzuwirken.

Letzten Endes ist ein Übersetzer allein mit seiner Arbeit (Lektorat und Korrektorat ausgenommen, siehe unten), und das gefällt mir auch ganz gut so.

Übersetzt man aus dem Kopf? Oder gibt es Hilfsmittel?

Je größer der Wortschatz und die Kenntnis über die betreffenden Sprachen und Kulturen von Quell- und Zielsprache, desto geringer der Rechercheaufwand. Trotzdem gehört Recherche in Wörterbüchern, Lexika und Suchmaschinen zum Alltag eines Übersetzers. Man kennt nicht jeden Fachbegriff, und nicht jedes passende Wort fliegt einem auf Anhieb zu. Es kommt regelmäßig vor, dass ich mich in den sprachlichen Kontext, in dem die Figuren sich bewegen, erst einlesen muss, um eine treffende Übersetzung zu finden.

Erhält man nur das Manuskript? Oder auch die Bilder?

Vorlage ist immer der ganze Comic.

Das ist auch enorm wichtig, denn der visuelle Aspekt ist bei Comics—anders als bei reinen Textvorlagen—essenziell. Zum einen muss der Text im Zusammenspiel mit den Bildern funktionieren; es wäre, um ein ganz einfaches Beispiel zu nennen, fatal, wenn die Übersetzung nicht zu Mimik oder Gestik der Figuren passen würde. Und zum anderen muss man sich immer bewusst sein, dass im Comic auch der Text selbst zum Bild gehört.

Comic-Autor Chris Ware etwa sagt von sich, er “schreibe mit Bildern”. Als Übersetzer greift man unweigerlich in diese Bilder ein, auch wenn man nur den Text verändert. Insofern ist es wichtig, dass die Wörter und Sätze, die man findet, auch grafisch die richtigen sind.

Wer schreibt den übersetzten Text in die Sprechblasen? Ist immer genug Platz in den Blasen?

Es gibt Comic-Übersetzer, die Verlagen ein “Komplettpaket” anbieten und gleichzeitig auch das Lettering (so nennt man den Text im Comic) übernehmen. Das ist aber die Ausnahme. Meistens wird die Übersetzung in einem gewöhnlichen Word-Dokument an den Verlag übermittelt, der sie dann an eigens dafür beauftragte Letterer weiterleitet.

Die Größe der Sprechblasen oder allgemein der Platz, der für den Text zur Verfügung steht, gehört natürlich zu den großen Herausforderungen der Comic-Übersetzung. Man muss nicht nur eine treffende Lösung für den Inhalt des Textes finden, sondern eine, die zudem in den dafür vorgesehenen Platz passt—und dabei auch grafisch noch möglichst gut aussieht.

Wird die Übersetzung vor dem Druck noch einmal geprüft?

Wie viele Prüfungsinstanzen es gibt, das variiert von Verlag zu Verlag und von Comic zu Comic. Bei allen Comics, die ich übersetze, arbeite ich mit einem Lektorat und/oder einem Korrektorat zusammen. Das heißt, ich erhalte von mindestens einer weiteren Person Rückmeldungen zu meinen Texten in Form von Korrekturen, Verständnisfragen und Änderungsvorschlägen.

Das ist mir sehr wichtig, weil ich selbst meistens so nah am Text bin, dass ich den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht mehr sehe. Die Zusammenarbeit mit guten Lektoren und Korrektoren ist daher ein Segen und für eine gelungene Übersetzung unerlässlich.

(Leider gilt auch umgekehrt: Wenn eine sorgfältig recherchierte oder sprachlich aufwendige Textstelle ohne Rücksprache geändert wird, kann das kontraproduktiv und mitunter sehr ärgerlich sein. Glücklicherweise ist dieses Vorgehen aber die Ausnahme, zumindest bei professionellen Verlagen.)

Manchmal gibt es dann von der Redaktion noch Rückmeldungen, teilweise gehe ich auch selbst mit etwas Abstand noch einmal den kompletten Text durch. Und oft sieht man erst am geletterten Comic, ob eine Übersetzung funktioniert. Daher schaue ich mir auch den gerne noch einmal in digitaler Form durch, wenn die Möglichkeit dazu besteht, um den letzten Feinschliff vorzunehmen.

Es können also—einschließlich mir selbst—zwei bis vier Personen sein, die eine Übersetzung lesen, bei insgesamt zwei bis sechs Korrekturgängen, ehe der Comic in den Druck geht.

Wie lange dauert eine Comic-Übersetzung?

Das lässt sich schon bei reinen Textübersetzungen schwer sagen, denn es kommt immer auf den Schwierigkeitsgrad an. Wie anspruchsvoll ist die Sprache? Wie viele Vokabeln und Fachgebiete muss ich recherchieren? Kommen viele Wortspiele, Reime oder Anspielungen vor?

Bei Comics ist es noch schwerer, eine Aussage zu treffen, weil die Textmenge von Comic zu Comic und von Seite zu Seite sehr stark variieren kann. Zudem können andere Faktoren den Aufwand stark beeinflussen. Wie ist der Text grafisch in die Seite eingebunden? Auf wie viele Stellen ist er verteilt? Wie knapp ist der dafür zur Verfügung stehende Platz bemessen?

Manchmal übersetzt man in einer Stunde zehn Comicseiten, manchmal nur eine halbe. Das kommt ganz auf das Quellmaterial an.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Ein guter Popsong kann gewaltige Kräfte in uns entfesseln—uns erheben und antreiben, uns traurig machen, uns vernichtend treffen. Die Comicserie Phonogram handelt von Menschen, die diese Macht erkannt haben und versuchen, sie sich zu Nutze zu machen.

Am nächsten Mittwoch erscheint das erste US-Heft von Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, dem dritten Teil von Kieron Gillens und Jamie McKelvies Metacomic über Popmusik und Nostalgie. Ein guter Anlass, meine Kurz-Empfehlungen der ersten beiden Bände ins Netz zu stellen, ursprünglich erschienen in Comicgate-Magazin 2 (2007) und 5 (2010). 

Rue Britannia

Kohl, David: (1) Hauptfigur von Phonogram; (2) adrett gekleideter, in England lebender junger Mann; (3) arroganter Wichser, der sich für arschcool hält und guten Musikgeschmack für sich gepachtet hat; (4) ein Phonomancer.

Wie meinen? Nun, ein Phonomancer ist ein Magier, der mit Popmusik zaubert. David Kohl ist demzufolge so eine Art wildgewordener Mod mit Zauberkräften. Nicht, dass er die Musik selber macht: Nein, sein Element—seine Rohmasse—ist Popmusik: der treibende, erhebende Song, der zu deinem persönlichen Soundtrack wird und dich kurzzeitig unbesiegbar macht, während du mit Stöpseln in den Ohren die Straße runter schlenderst, den Fluss entlang joggst oder mit heruntergekurbeltem Fenster an der Ampel stehst.

Diese Art von Magie, die jeder von uns schon mal irgendwie, irgendwann, irgendwo gespürt hat, vermag Kohl zu lenken und zu seinem Vorteil zu nutzen, und er ist nicht der einzige seiner Art. Kohls neuster Auftrag: Irgendwas stimmt nicht mit der Göttin des Britpop, und er soll’s richten. Der von den Briten Kieron Gillen und Jamie McKelvie geschaffene Comic ist, leicht verkürzt gesagt, The Matrix mit den Mitteln von High Fidelity.

The Singles Club

„Über Musik schreiben ist wie über Architektur tanzen“, soll sich Elvis Costello einmal abwertend über seine Kritiker geäußert haben. Ob Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie und Matthew Wilson über Architektur tanzen, habe ich nicht recherchiert; jedenfalls machen die Engländer Comics über Popmusik—und das immer besser, wie ihr „schwieriges zweites Album“ beweist.

Aus der Sicht von sieben Figuren darf man in sieben Kapiteln siebenmal dieselbe Nacht in einem Indie-Club erleben, die Erstaunliches an Gefühlen, Ideen und Effekten provoziert. Wo Rue Britannia, der schwarzweiße Debüt-Band von 2007, noch ein verkopftes und etwas sperriges Konzeptalbum war, erweist sich The Singles Club als knallbunte Hit-Wundertüte.

Jede der sieben Nummern funktioniert als eigenständige Story und liefert gleichzeitig einen Mosaikstein zum großen Ganzen des nächtlichen Panoramas. Die Figuren definieren sich über Pop—Stücke von Blondies „Atomic“ bis TV on the Radios „Wolf Like Me“ werden als Stichwort- und Taktgeber aufgelegt—und erfinden sich darüber nicht selten neu. Gillens und McKelvies Meisterleistung besteht darin, die Musik und die damit verbundenen Empfindungen in eine Bildsprache zu übersetzen, die ganz sang- und klanglos zum Mitwippen motiviert. The Singles Club macht die Welt von Phonogram zugänglicher und zugleich komplexer, überzeugt als tanzbares Stück Poptheorie wie als Sammlung fesselnder Charakterstudien.

Vielleicht sollte Elvis Costello einfach mal einen Steppkurs besuchen, um seine Gedanken zur Architektur zu artikulieren.

Phonogram 1: Rue Britannia, von Kieron Gillen und Jamie McKelvie, Image Comics, 2007, 152 Seiten, schwarzweiß, $ 14.99.

Phonogram 2: The Singles Club, von Gillen, McKelvie und Matthew Wilson, Image Comics, 2010, 160 Seiten, farbig, $ 14.99.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 1, von Gillen, McKelvie und Wilson, Image Comics, 12. August 2015, 22 Seiten, farbig, $ 3.99.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Pathway to Freedom

Literacy and Words as a Weapon in Richard Wright’s Black Boy

“Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words,” Richard Wright, upon first-person narrator Richard’s discovery of the literary criticism of H. L. Mencken, writes in Black Boy. “He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club” (250). Although Richard immediately goes on to reject the notion of appropriating Mencken’s technique, the motif of literacy and words as “weapons,” in both offensive and defensive functions, is nonetheless a recurring one throughout Black Boy.

Fighting with Words

One of the earliest episodes recalled by Wright’s first-person narrator Richard in Black Boy involves his successful application of “words as a weapon” against his father. After taking his father’s annoyed outburst about killing a cat literally, well knowing that he was not meant to, Richard feels ecstatic. “I had had my first triumph over my father,” he reveals,

I had made him believe that I had taken his words literally. He could not punish me now without risking his authority. I was happy because I had at last found a way to throw my criticism of him into his face. I had made him feel that, if he whipped me for killing the kitten, I would never give serious weight to his words again. I had made him know that I felt he was cruel and I had done it without his punishing me. (Wright, Black Boy 10)

Although his father’s inability to respond to his actions marks Richard’s first recorded instance of “fighting with words” as a success, however, the feeling does not prevail for long; his mother, “being more imaginative,” bludgeons the boy’s conscience and brings alive in him the terror of fully understanding his deed (10-12). His immediate, spectacular rhetorical and intellectual victory over his father, Richard realizes, comes at a horrible price—a pattern which persists.

Richard’s second notable stab at “fighting with words” follows when he tells his devout Seventh-Day-Adventist grandmother to kiss him “back there” while she is rubbing him dry with a towel (39). Not long before this verbal assault, Ella, a school teacher living at his grandmother’s house, introduces Richard to the world of books and stories, but once his grandmother learns of this, she rudely interrupts them and forbids Ella to tell Richard any more stories, which may have motivated the attack (36-38).

Once again, the result is immediate and spectacular, as the sum total of grandmother’s religious hypocrisy—“Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting,“ Richard acknowledges later on, pointing out his constant struggle to “keep from being crushed” by his quarreling, violently religious family (135)—is instantly exposed and her intellectual helplessness at once brought down upon Richard’s head in the shape of a furious, violent rage. As before, Richard’s immediate success is followed by devastating consequences. Not only is he repeatedly beaten, but Ella, whose books still secretly provide Richard with precious glimpses at a more fulfilling life, is suspected of being responsible for Richard’s crude expression, and is forced to leave as a consequence of the incident (39-44).

A final verbal major confrontation in the narrative comes when Richard’s Uncle Tom, having recently moved in with Granny along with his family, sets out to beat Richard after taking offense at a casual remark made by the boy. Resolving not to be beaten by a man he barely knows over an inferred wrong, Richard stands his ground, shielding himself with two razors (157-160). While the razors keep Uncle Tom at bay, the conflict discharges itself in a ferocious, rapid-fire exchange of verbal blows evoking the image of a duel between mortal enemies:

‘You fool!’ [Uncle Tom] bellowed suddenly.
‘I’ll make you bloody if you hit me!’ I warned him.
His chest heaved and his body seemed to droop.
‘Somebody will yet break your spirit,’ he said.
‘It won’t be you!’
‘You’ll get yours someday!’
‘You won’t be the one to give it to me!’
‘And you’ve just been baptized,’ he said heavily.
‘To hell with that,’ I said. (160)

Uncle Tom stands defeated, unable to touch Richard physically without being cut, and incapable of matching his spirit or verbal prowess. But Richard’s victory, as his previous ones, proves to be pyrrhic. After condescending to Uncle Tom for “weav[ing] the bottoms of chairs for people to sit in,” Richard’s defiant attitude is betrayed first by the bleak necessity of having to “face the whims of the white folk” immediately after the incident (160-161), and soon by the realization that his status among his people has become ever more isolated and hopeless as a result of his enmity with Uncle Tom (174-175).

In comparing the three episodes cited here, it should be stressed that the motivation for Richard’s verbal attacks is shifting. Whereas his assaults on his father and his grandmother appear to be spurred by puerile feelings of resentment and revenge, showing Richard in the offensive, his confrontation with Uncle Tom is much less voluntary. Rather, it has the markings of a desperate act of self-defense against physical violence, as well as a mental and emotional “conquest,” as Richard himself says (160), of the mode of life expected from blacks—and also largely by blacks, for themselves—in the South.

Techniques of Appeal

While verbally using “words as a weapon” in the manner described in chapter one, Richard increasingly develops a keen awareness of the rhetorical devices utilized by others in his immediate surroundings. His annoyed reaction to his mother’s helpless teasing about “kungries,” when there is no food to be had (13), yet seems to be a fairly instinctive and natural response, but subsequent episodes reveal a more discerning consciousness of what is being said, such as Richard’s observation that Aunt Addie is “finding her weapon at last” (133), recognizing that she is searching for reasons to scold him after Granny has fallen victim to one of her own violent outbursts. At one point, Richard vividly recalls his time with Brother Mance, the black insurance agent from his neighborhood.

On Sundays Brother Mance would go to the nearest country church and give his sales talk, preaching it in the form of a sermon, clapping his hands as he did so, spitting on the floor to mark off his paragraphs, and stomping his feet in the spit to punctuate his sentences, all of which captivated the black share-croppers. After the performance the wall-eyed yokels would flock to Brother Mance, and I would fill out applications until my fingers ached. (136)

It is this experience, clearly, which Richard recalls as he attends a service at the black Protestant church (151-155). The preacher’s attempts to “seduce” the young boys into joining his church strongly echo Brother Mance’s own “sermons,” which, after all, were held in a church as well. “All the techniques of his appeal were familiar to me,” Richard says, “and I sat there feeling foolish, wanting to leap through the window and go home and forget about it. But I sat still, filled more with disgust than sin.” And feeling not unlike the “wall-eyed yokels” he had encountered before, perhaps. Although he sees through the “ruses,” Richard stays, grimly analyzing the preacher’s rhetorics.

The business of saving souls had no ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feelings; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters. […] If I refused, it meant that I did not love my mother, and no man in that tight little black community had ever been crazy enough to let himself be placed in such a position. (154-155)

Having taken part in both of these events, one worldly and one religious and yet both so very similar, Richard’s assessment of his clash with the principal over his school speech, finally, puts his observations in context: “He was tempting me, baiting me; this was the technique that snared black young minds into supporting the Southern way of life” (175-177). The techniques of Brother Mance, who wants to seduce his clients into signing up for an insurance, are the techniques of the preacher, who intends to seduce impressionable young blacks into joining his community, are the techniques of the principal. Each in their own way, Richard knows, Brother Mance and the preacher and the principal are supporting the system of racial oppression in the South, by ensnaring or bullying fellow blacks into conforming with what is expected of them.

Richard’s own role over the course of these events changes. Reluctantly accepting and participating in Brother Mance and the preacher’s schemes out of necessity and financial and social pressure, he vehemently and staunchly opposes the principal’s attempts to bully him. Along with his awareness of oppressive rhetorical techniques, so grows Richard’s resolve not to be swayed by them.

The Pathway to Freedom

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a key moment for Douglass is his discovery of the significance of the concept of literacy through his mistress, Sophia Auld, who teaches him how to read and spell.

It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (Douglass 39)

Obviously, Douglass considers the deprivation of literacy a cornerstone of the white society’s efforts to oppress blacks. Instead of at great length dealing with, and suppressing, an educated and self-aware class of slaves, Dougless’s owner recognizes, it is much simpler and much more efficient to ensure that the slaves will never reach this inconvenient state of enlightenment to begin with.

‘[I]f you teach that nigger […] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’ (39)

Hence, the “pathway from slavery to freedom” Douglass proposes is clear: It lies with literacy.

In Black Boy, Richard’s initial contact with the world of stories and books yields a similar response. Here said contact comes in the shape of Ella, the young black school teacher living at his grandmother’s house. Described as having such a “remote and dreamy and silent” manner upon her that Richard “was as much afraid of her” as he “was attracted to her” (Wright, Black Boy 36), Ella’s almost ethereal appearance seems very reminiscent of Sophia Auld’s in Douglass’s Narrative, who is said to have “a white face beaming with the most kindly of emotions”—an “angelic face,” even (Douglass 36/38).

As Sophia Auld introduces Frederick Douglass to literacy, thus opening his eyes to a potential means of escape from his plight, Ella begins to tell Richard a story which, though abruptly aborted by his grandmother, leaves him eager for more of the same.

I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders. […] They could not have known that Ella’s whispered story of deception and murder had been the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. No words or punishment could have possibly made me doubt. I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it, somehow, someway. (Wright, Black Boy 38)

Although it is clear that Douglass—at least as far as his Narrative is concerned—right away comes to view literacy as a much more literal means of escape than Richard, who at first only sees the stories rather than the abstract concept of literacy, regarding them as escapism rather than a means to “escape” from his situation in a literal sense, the parallels are nonetheless striking: Richard, just like Douglass before him, immediately and instinctively seizes upon the new world of letters and words, recognizing its potential.

Another crucial moment in Black Boy comes with the death of his grandfather, whose illiteracy prevents him not only from obtaining a pension, but, ultimately, from establishing his very identity. “Like ‘K’ of Kafka’s novel, The Castle,” Richard says of his grandfather, “he tried desperately to pursuade the authorities of his true identity right up to the day of his death, and failed” (139). Richard knows the meaning of this failure, having repeatedly experienced his own failure to say or spell his own name at school, resulting in the ridicule of his classmates and in intense feelings of helplessness and frustration (23/73-74).

Towards the end of Black Boy, Richard’s appreciation of being able to read enters its next stage, as he discovers the political writings of H. L. Mencken.

I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. […] I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it. […] I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. (250-251)

And once again, the episode echoes closely the feelings described in Douglass’ Narrative, upon the author’s discovery of the abolitionist Liberator.

The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before! (Douglass 100)

Having read Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces, Richard sees his “impulse to dream” revived (Wright, Black Boy 251). As he turns to other works of literary criticism and fiction, he begins to understand “what being a Negro meant” (252).

Richard now stops regarding his reading as mere escapism and, like Douglass before him, begins to treat it as the instrument of his escape: no longer a way of shutting himself off from the world around him and of triggering emotional responses, reading has become a tool he uses to improve his grasp on the English language and to prepare himself for fulfilling his dream to become a writer in the north (253). For Richard, as for Frederick Douglass, literacy and words now signify the instruments of his salvation, a “pathway from slavery to freedom.”

A Rigged System

Although a hundred years have passed between the initial publications of the Narrative and Black Boy, there are yet marked similarities between Douglass’ plight and Richard’s. In Wright’s book, the narrator’s experiences suggest that the station of blacks in the South with regard to literacy has improved, at least in theory. While blacks are allowed to go to school and obtain a degree of literacy in Black Boy, however, this seems to be a cosmetic change rather than a genuine one; in practice, not much has changed at all.

As Richard’s adolescence progresses and brings about an increasing necessity to interact with whites, he begins to focus his attention on black-white relations in the South. His earliest observation on the subject matter recounted in the narrative is that whites “were merely people like other people, yet somehow strangely different because [he] had never come in close touch with any of them” (Wright, Black Boy 21). The story of a black boy beaten by a white man (22) soon makes him realize that something is not quite right between blacks and whites, and his first encounter with a white woman, when applying for a job, provides him with a hint of the full extent of the situation. Asked point blank whether he steals by his would-be employer, Richard bursts into a laugh, replying that he would never tell anybody if he did steal (145). As he quickly learns, his reaction betrays a level of consciousness, intelligence and self-assertion on his part which whites do not appreciate in blacks.

The incident is not an isolated case, and Richard, unable and unwilling to adjust to the whites’ expectations after having drawn “a line over which they must not step” (145-146), keeps breaking the unwritten laws of the land—by remarking that “there’s nothing much to say or smile about” to a white employer openly wondering to him about the lack of the dominant Negro stereotypes (184); by “trying to […] get smart” and learn a trade (189); by daring to suggest that he is decent enough a person to admit a mistake, let alone that he understands the consequences or is able to grasp his white employer’s anger (197); and by generally giving away his self-consciousness and existence as an individual through “[his] attitude, [his] speech, the look in [his] eyes” (184).

Whereas his verbal transgressions against, and quarrels with, his own relatives display more than a small degree of aggression on his part, Richard’s dealings with whites do not require aggression to cause offense. The mere suggestion that he may be a thinking, self-aware human being appears sufficient to incite the ire of his white employers and co-workers. His most significant observation, consequently, is that “many of the most important things were never openly said; they were understated and left to seep through to one” (171). Richard may be literate, but admitting to and exercising that literacy may very well spell his doom, leaving him, in practice, as intellectually enslaved as Douglass is in his Narrative.

Subsequently, although his every fiber seems to struggle against it, Richard realizes that he “must, must, MUST” learn to adapt a mode of behavior which allows him to interact with whites until such a time when he has put aside enough money to leave the South behind (196). His skill at doing so increases once he is in Memphis, when the notion of leaving the South for good is within his reach. With “false heartiness” and what he calls “that nigger-being-a-good-natured-boy-in-the-presence-of-a-white-man pattern” (236), Richard succeeds at disguising his true feelings towards whites, closely observing and weighing their every move when they are in his presence, and learning to choose his words as carefully as steps on a minefield while “skirting the vast racial chasm” (236).

Hence, in reality, the perpetual state of intellectual oppression illustrated by Douglass persists in Richard’s life. Blacks in the South, Richard eventually comes to realize, have “never been allowed to catch the true spirit of Western civilization” (35), his aspirations to become a writer being “a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle” (170). While he knows that literacy can be his path to a better life, he learns that disguising his literacy while having to remain in the South is of the essence for his survival.

Writing as a Weapon

After elaborating on Richard’s early attempts at orally “fighting with words,” his observations on the rhetorical techniques used by others, his growing awareness of the blacks’ station in the South and his discovery of the significance of literacy and reading, it’s time to focus on the next logical step in young Richard’s—and, ultimately, Wright’s—relationship with words: his writing.

Right from Richard’s first related application of written words in Black Boy—his cheerful scrawling of four-letter words on the windows of his neighborhood with a piece of soap—, two recurring major themes of his writing are present. The first consists of the joy and eagerness he experiences at the thought of “display[ing] all [he] had learned.” The second is the great effect—in this case, the commotion and outright offense—that even a small written word can cause if applied accordingly, which leads Richard to resolve to never again “write words like that”—instead, he will keep them to himself (23-24).

Although Richard learns his lesson where four-letter words are concerned, however, the consequences of this initial foray into “writing”—or, perhaps more accurately, exercising his physical and intellectual ability to write—do not deter him from trying his hand again, albeit with rather different ambitions. Upon completing his first fictional story, Richard’s excitement at having written something that is his, “no matter how bad it was,” is reminiscent of his earlier experiment with four-letter words. The results of the exercise, this time, are just as resounding, in a way, as those of Richard’s earlier attempt with soap, but much more pleasant for him. Commotion and offense are now replaced with “astonishment and bewilderment” in his “audience,” a reaction which, in an environment that “contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing,” is enormously gratifying to him, making him proud of his accomplishment (118-120).

While Richard clearly enjoys the lack of comprehension at first, being satisfied by the distance it creates between himself and the miserable environment he lives in, the utter and incessant disbelief that a Negro boy such as he could want to express himself through writing, let alone desire to become a writer, eventually becomes a permanent source of distress for him.

‘Where did you get the idea?’ (119)
‘Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?’ (147)
‘Who told you to do that?’ (168)

“Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment,” Richard reflects, “I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing,” commenting on his family and his schoolmates’ reactions to his first published work, who grow suspicious of him, see the devil’s handywork in his writing or worry that he may be regarded as weak-minded because of it, which, after all, would obstruct his chances at getting a job. “In me was shaping a yearning for a kind of consciousness, a mode of being that the way of life about me had said could not be, must not be, and upon which the penalty of death had been placed,” he summarizes his situation at the age of fifteen (168-170).

Bearing this in mind, the significance of Richard’s school speech becomes apparent. More than a simple acknowledgement of his graduation from school or even a spontaneous act of rebellion, the speech for Richard stands at the end of a long struggle as an ultimate expression of his literacy and self-assurance in the face of adverse conditions. One last time, his relatives descend upon him, in a final attempt to have it their way.

‘You’re trying to go too fast,’ my mother said.
‘You’re nothing but a child,’ Uncle Tom pronounced.
‘He’s beside himself,’ Granny said. (179)

“I served notice that I was making my own decisions from then on,” Richard notes, nonchalantly (179). Giving his own speech (as opposed to the principal’s) and doing so in a suit (as opposed to his ragged short pants, as his family would have had it), symbolizes the first step in Richard’s emancipation from both the weight of the whites’ unspoken rules and expectations and from the oppression through his own family, which is firmly entrenched in those rules. “The principal’s speech was simpler and clearer than mine,” he acknowledges, “but it did not say anything; mine was cloudy, but it said what I wanted to say” (178).

Of course, the notion of saying what he wants to say also harkens back to his grandfather’s failure to establish his identity. Instead of failing like his grandfather did, and like Richard himself did, previously, when he repeatedly proved unable to speak or write on the blackboard at school, now, for the first time, he rises above the difficulties in his path, asserts himself and literally says what he wants to say. Which, after all, is infinitely more than his grandfather ever managed.

Black Boy as a Weapon

On a meta-level, finally, Black Boy itself can be read as a result of all of Richard’s experiences and observations, as described in the book. In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” an essay on his novel Native Son written five years prior to the publication of Black Boy, Wright points out that he “lived the first seventeen years of [his] life in the South without so much as hearing of or seeing one act of rebellion from any Negro, save the Bigger Thomases” (Wright, “Bigger” 439). On the motives of Native Son’s violent Bigger Thomas character, Wright explains:

But why did Bigger revolt? No explanation based upon a hard and fast rule of conduct can be given. But there were always two factors psychologically dominant in his personality. First, through some quirk of circumstance, he had become estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race. Second, he was trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the newspapers, magazines, radios, movies, and the mere imposing sight and sound of daily American life. In many respects his emergence as a distinct type was inevitable. (439)

The two factors Wright brings up are, of course, the same ones which define Richard in Black Boy. Like Bigger, Richard “becomes estranged from religion and from the folk culture of his race.” Like Bigger, Richard is “trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization”—the Western civilization, whose spirit, as Richard says, his race has never been allowed to catch in the South (Wright, Black Boy 35) and which he encounters only in books, magazines and papers.

“But Richard Wright did not become Bigger Thomas;” Dan McCall reminds us, “he created him” (McCall 106). If Bigger’s “emergence as a distinct type” was inevitable, then, what about Richard himself? The answer lies in the nature of each character’s “revolt.” In Bigger’s case, the revolt manifests itself in physical violence. Richard’s revolt, on the other hand, is expressed in words—verbal fights with his relatives, stories “to feed that thirst for violence” (Wright, Black Boy 38), the literature which convinces him that he “had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life” (251) and his own attempts at writing, which, finally, result in his realization that he “now knew what being a Negro meant” (252).

Ultimately, the major distinction between Bigger’s revolt and Richard’s revolt lies not in its motivation, but in its expression. By observing his environment—which, after all, includes the ‘Biggers,’ as he calls them—Wright finds tools for his revolt which can be just as violent and shocking as Bigger’s, but in an entirely different and much more efficient manner. In the light of the account of his life given in Black Boy, the very act of telling his story in an articulate, astute, and commercially successful book clearly constitutes an infinitely larger affront and offense to white Southerners than any act of physical black violence ever could. As Richard says,

I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The Southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior. (202)

The publication of Black Boy, consequently, has to represent the ultimate manifestation of the fear Richard speaks of; not only is it very obviously the work of an intelligent and educated black writer from the South who has largely managed to avoid crime, but it is written by a black man who is well aware of the state of race relations in the South, and more than able and willing to, tell his story—and, in the end, capable of selling it, too.

Richard’s reaction to the urban legend of the black woman who avenged her murdered husband, in retrospect, can almost be read as a mission statement for Black Boy:

I did not know if the story was factually true or not, but it was emotionally true because I had already grown to feel that there existed men against whom I was powerless, men who could violate my life at will. I resolved that I would emulate the black woman if I were ever faced with a white mob; I would conceal a weapon, pretend that I had been crushed by the wrong done to one of my loved ones; then, just when they thought I had accepted their cruelty as the law of my life, I would let go with my gun and kill as many of them as possible before they killed me. The story of the woman’s deception gave form and meaning to confused defensive feelings that had long been sleeping in me. (71-72)

In Black Boy, the story of his life as told by himself, due to a degree of awareness and capability which he “concealed” from the white society until the very day when he left the South for good, “pos[ing] as an innocent boy” (256), it seems Richard Wright has found that weapon. The wrong he pretended to have been crushed by had been done not just to one of his loved ones, but to himself, to his entire family, to every black individual in the South. Instead of shooting his oppressors with a gun, he chooses to fight them with words, exposing his life and and confronting them with it—thereby, as McCall puts it, triumphing over their world and using words as “his way of making the world recognize his existence” (McCall 133), but, unlike his creation Bigger Thomas, without being destroyed in the process.

“Could words be weapons?,” Richard wonders. “Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me” (Wright, Black Boy 250). Given the ample evidence to the contrary, perhaps Wright expects his audience to take this denial with a grain of salt—just like his assertion at the beginning that, no, he had not wanted to set his grandmother’s house aflame at all—he “just wanted to see how the curtains would look when they burned” (3). Regardless of the author’s—or the first-person narrator’s—underlying intentions, however, the results remain the same, and they speak for themselves: His grandmother’s house burned down, and Black Boy, the autobiography of a literate, self-conscious black writer from the South, quickly became a controversially discussed best-seller.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

McCall, Dan. The Example of Richard Wright. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy. A Record of Childhood and Youth. 1945. London: Vintage, n. d.

---. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” 1940. Native Son. 1940. Restored ed. 1991. By Wright. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 431-462.

Written in 2006.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Eine Hand hypt die andere

Die deutsche Comicbranche ist klein. Man kennt sich, und diejenigen, die über Comics berichten, sind selten frei von Interessenkonflikten. In den letzten Wochen treibt dieser Zustand bei der FAZ und beim Tagesspiegel allerdings besonders grelle Blüten.

Gestern erschien beim Münchner Knaus Verlag Der Araber von morgen, ein Comic des Franzosen Riad Sattouf. Autor der Übersetzung: Andreas Platthaus. Bereits eine Woche zuvor wurde der Band in der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung besprochen. Autor des FAZ-Textes: Andreas Platthaus.

Wenn es in deutschen Zeitungsredaktionen ein Aushängeschild für Comics gibt, dann ist es Andreas Platthaus, Feuilleton-Redakteur und kommissarischer Leiter der Literaturabteilung der FAZ. Dort betreibt Platthaus unter anderem ein Comic-Blog; auch die im Herbst 2014 eingestellten Comic-Strips der FAZ wurden von ihm kuratiert. Bei Suhrkamp gibt Platthaus eine Reihe von Comic-Romanen heraus. Wenn man sich näher mit der deutschen Comicbranche auseinandersetzt, kennt man Platthaus von zahlreichen Messen, Lesungen und Podiumsgesprächen, bei denen er als Comic-Experte und Moderator in Erscheinung tritt. Er sitzt in vielen Fachjurys. Dass er sich für Comic-Übersetzung interessiert, ist ebenfalls bekannt: Ende 2012 habe ich Platthaus persönlich kennengelernt im Rahmen eines von ihm geleiteten Seminars am Europäischen Übersetzer-Kollegium Straelen.

Beim Comic gibt es zwischen Journalisten, Autoren und Übersetzern oft Überschneidungen, das ist prinzipiell nichts Neues. Allerdings sind nur wenige Comic-Übersetzer in der Lage, ihre Bücher auch gleich noch selbst ausführlich in der FAZ besprechen und vorstellen zu dürfen. In großen Zeitungen erscheinen Comic-Rezensionen nach wie vor nur sporadisch, die Zahl der Comic-Neuerscheinungen hingegen ist relativ hoch. Dass der Knaus Verlag Platthaus die Übersetzung anbietet, verwundert kaum. Dass der dieses Angebot nicht nur annimmt, sondern den Comic auch noch an prominenter Stelle in seiner Zeitung unterbringt und bespricht, schon eher. Die Entscheidung eines FAZ-Redakteurs, ausgerechnet einen Comic in die Zeitung zu nehmen, an dessen Veröffentlichung er selbst beteiligt ist, wirkt unglücklich, selbst wenn man allen Beteiligten nur die besten Absichten unterstellt.

Platthaus sieht das anders. “Die Frage erübrigt sich, denn es ist keine Rezension”, schreibt er auf Anfrage. “Wie es in der Zeitung steht: ‘Vorabdruck’.” Die Vorabveröffentlichung gehe auf die Initiative des Knaus Verlags zurück, so Platthaus. Er habe im Vorfeld die Zustimmung von Feuilletonchef und Herausgeber eingeholt. Auf die Frage, ob seine Übersetzung von Der Araber von morgen mit einem Absatzhonorar vergütet werde, schreibt Platthaus, es sei “ein Fixhonorar vereinbart”.

Es stimmt natürlich: Das FAZ-Stück ist als “Vorabveröffentlichung” gekennzeichnet. Allerdings steht da eben auch ein längerer Text von knapp 1.000 Wörtern, der im Stil einer Rezension über den Autor, die Machart und Qualität des Comics referiert.

Es handele sich um “ein großartiges Beispiel autobiographischer Literatur”, attestiert Platthaus dem Buch dort. “Selten” habe er “eine überzeugendere Kombination von Witz und Tiefgang gelesen”. Von einem “ingeniöse[n] Kunstgriff” ist die Rede. “Riad Sattouf beherrscht Grammatik und Symbolsprache des Comics vollendet”, so Platthaus über den Autor. Mit dem Comic, dessen zweiter Band bereits in Arbeit sei, entstehe “ein Zyklus, der auf die immer drängendere Frage nach dem Verhältnis von Islam und Europa zu antworten versteht: mit Scharfsicht und Humor. Und ohne falsche Rücksichten.” Falsche Rücksichten wollte man wohl auch den FAZ-Lesern nicht zumuten.

Immerhin klärt Platthaus—einmal in der Besprechung selbst, einmal im Kleingedruckten—den Leser über seine Verstrickung auf. Auch das ist leider keine Selbstverständlichkeit.

Auf der Online-Seite des Berliner Tagesspiegels erschien am 27. Januar eine positive Besprechung des Comics Saint Young Men, veröffentlicht bei Egmont Manga. Autor des Textes ist Michel Decomain—derselbe Michel Decomain, der auch Autor einer laufenden Comic-Reihe ist, die seit 2014 bei Egmont Manga erscheint. Ein erster Band erschien vor knapp einem Jahr, der zweite ist für Mitte 2015 angekündigt. Einen Hinweis darauf sucht man beim Tagesspiegel vergebens.

Auch sonst nimmt es der Tagesspiegel nicht so genau damit, seine Leser über etwaige Interessenkonflikte zu informieren. Die Zeitung berichtete in den vergangenen Jahren immer wieder wohlwollend über die Comicserie Das UPgrade. Diese erschien bis 2014 beim Zitty-Verlag, welcher bis zum 1. April 2014 wiederum zur Tagesspiegel-Gruppe gehörte. Seine Leser darauf hinzuweisen, hielt der verantwortliche Redakteur, Lars von Törne, auch hier nicht für notwendig.

Von Törne ist eigentlich Berlin-Redakteur des Tagesspiegels. Vor einigen Jahren initiierte er die Comic-Sparte im Kulturteil der Zeitung. Sie erscheint in erster Linie online, in größeren Abständen aber auch gedruckt, und wird—laut Von Törne—offenbar kostenneutral über die Anzeigen der Printseite finanziert. Ähnlich wie Platthaus trifft man Von Törne inzwischen bei vielen Comic-Veranstaltungen an. Er hält Vorträge, moderiert, sitzt auf Podien und in Fachjurys—was diese nicht davon abhält, Comic-Autoren zu nominieren und auszuzeichnen, deren Strips unter Von Törnes Ägide beim Tagesspiegel erscheinen. Einen Interessenkonflikt könne er dabei nicht erkennen, so Von Törne bereits letztes Jahr dazu.

Dass Autoren Werke von Verlagen besprechen, mit denen sie selbst in einem wirtschaftlichen Verhältnis stehen, sei beim Tagesspiegel nicht üblich, schreibt Von Törne nun auf Anfrage. “Es kann allerdings mal vorkommen. Dann muss ich abwägen, wieweit ich das als Redakteur für vertretbar halte und wieweit im konkreten Fall wirklich ein Interessenkonflikt vorliegt. Wenngleich ich versuche, das zu vermeiden, um eben gar nicht erst den Anschein von möglichen Interessenkonflikten entstehen zu lassen.”

Konkret auf den FAZ-Text über Der Araber von morgen angesprochen, lobt Von Törne die Transparenz, mit der Platthaus auf seine Übersetzertätigkeit hinweist, sagt aber auch, er selbst “hätte in dem Fall als Redakteur versucht, den Band durch einen anderen Rezensenten besprechen zu lassen.”

Im Fall der Egmont-Rezension durch den Egmont-Autor Decomain hält er hingegen weder das eine noch das andere für notwendig. “Ich sehe bezüglich der Rezension von Saint Young Men [...] keinen problematischen Interessenkonflikt,” schreibt Von Törne. Auch die Rezensionen und Berichte über die Zitty-/Tagesspiegel-Publikation Das UPgrade durch den Tagesspiegel taugen “aus meiner Sicht nicht als Beispiel zur Illustration der angesprochenen Interessenkonflikte”, so Von Törne—obwohl es gerade in seiner Comic-Sparte in Person von Tagesspiegel-Autor und Zitty-Redakteur Lutz Göllner eine direkte redaktionelle Schnittstelle gab.

Alles in Butter also? Angesichts solcher vom Leser kaum noch durchschaubaren Verflechtungen und des sorglosen Umgangs damit scheint mancher Vergleich gar nicht mehr so abwegig. Es herrscht offenbar ein grundsätzlicher Mangel an Sensibilität und journalistischen Standards.

Das Signal, das davon ausgeht, ist verheerend. Wie soll man mit semiprofessionellen Fachmagazinen und Bloggern, wie sie gerade im Comic-Bereich die Berichterstattung prägen, ernsthaft über die Wahrung kritischer Distanz oder die Trennung von redaktionellen Inhalten und Werbung reden, wenn selbst Medien wie die FAZ und der Tagesspiegel diesen Themen mit einer kaum zu überbietenden Unbedarftheit begegnen?

Link: Meine Fragen an Andreas Platthaus und Lars von Törne und die Stellungnahmen im Wortlaut

Offenlegung: Da ich nicht nur über Comics schreibe, sondern sie auch kommerziell übersetze, gehört das Nachdenken über mögliche Interessenkonflikte und Disclaimer für mich inzwischen zum Geschäft. Ich habe schon mehrfach über Comics geschrieben, an deren deutscher Version ich beteiligt war. Ich glaubte, dafür unverdächtige Gründe zu haben, aber vielleicht sollte ich es in Zukunft einfach lassen. Die Notwendigkeit dazu ist selten so überwältigend groß, dass die Rechtfertigung dafür, so überzeugend sie im besten Fall auch sein mag, im Zweifel nicht nach einer Ausrede klingen würde.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Tschüss, Zwanzigvierzehn, und danke für alles.

Das Jahr 2014 war privat und beruflich ziemlich vollgepackt und ziemlich gut, mir fällt jedenfalls keinerlei Grund ein, ihm irgendetwas Schlechtes hinterherzurufen. Nebenbei habe ich irgendwie Zeit für ein paar Texte gefunden, sowohl auf Deutsch als auch auf Englisch, mit denen ich auch jetzt noch ganz einverstanden bin. Das ist erfahrungsgemäß nicht immer so.

Weil mich einige der Themen wohl auch weiterhin beschäftigen werden, gestatte ich mir einen kleinen Rückblick darauf, was ich 2014 so geschrieben habe.

DeForge, Forsman, Sacco

Da wären zunächst meine letzten drei Artikel für die Comic-Fachzeitschrift Alfonz, über die Independent-Comicmacher Michael DeForge (Alfonz 01/2014), Charles Forsman (02/2014) und Joe Sacco (03/2014).

Dass ich meine Kolumne abgegeben habe, hatte persönliche Gründe, aber ich bin nach wie vor dankbar, dass ich einem—so schätze ich—in dieser Hinsicht weitgehend unbeleckten Publikum die Comics von DeForge, Forsman oder im Jahr zuvor Michel Fiffe vielleicht ein bisschen näherbringen konnte, über die man sonst in deutscher Sprache leider kaum etwas liest.

“2gegen1: Berserk vs. Prison Pit”

Bei Comicgate gab’s im November endlich die zehnte Folge der Kolumne “2gegen1”, in der Björn Wederhake und ich uns gegenseitig unsere Kritiken zu jeweils zwei Comics um die Ohren hauen; diesmal ging’s um die Manga-Reihe Berserk von Kentaro Miura und den US-Comic Prison Pit von Johnny Ryan.

Der Reiz des “2gegen1”-Formats besteht für mich zum einen darin, dass es mir—manchmal sehr zu Wederhakes Leidwesen—einen Rahmen gewährt, ohne jede Einschränkung und ohne jeden kommerziellen Zwang das zu tun, was ich als große Freude und großen Luxus empfinde: mich mit einem Comic intensiv auseinanderzusetzen und meine Gedanken dazu aufzuschreiben. Zum anderen genieße ich den Schlagabtausch mit Wederhake, der fast genauso gut austeilen kann, wie er einsteckt.

Zwar habe ich mich bei unseren drei Lesern bereits persönlich bedankt, wiederhole dies aber hier sehr gerne noch einmal. Vielleicht können wir unser Publikum durch diesen dezenten Hinweis ja noch einmal verdoppeln oder gar verdreifachen.

(Von einer irgendwann vielleicht sogar einmal zweistelligen Leserschaft zu sprechen, hielte ich zum gegenwärtigen Zeitpunkt allerdings noch für Traumtänzerei. Dazu machen wir das wohl nicht regelmäßig genug—was vor allem meine Schuld ist, wie Wederhake sofort bestätigen wird.)

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Crit”

Auf der englischsprachigen Seite The Hooded Utilitarian des US-Kritikers Noah Berlatsky habe ich im Juni—in Anlehnung an Raymond Carvers berühmte Kurzgeschichte—einen Essay mit dem Titel “What We Talk About When We Talk About Crit” veröffentlicht. Ich reagiere darin auf ein paar aktuelle Debatten zum Thema Kritik und Comic-Kritik in der US-Comicszene, aber ich nahm den Text auch zum Anlass, ein paar grundlegende Gedanken zu äußern.

Was ist überhaupt “Kritik”? Wozu brauchen wir sie? Welche Auswirkungen hätte das Fehlen einer gesunden kritischen Streitkultur für den Comic, für Künste und Kultur, für die Gesellschaft als Ganzes? Über die kontroverse Diskussion in den Kommentaren habe ich mich gefreut; darüber, dass ich aus Theodor Adorno einen “Theodore” gemacht habe, weniger.

Kurz gesagt, ich lege in dem Text mein Kritikverständnis dar, das auch meinen Rezensionen und meinem vorangegangenen deutschsprachigen Essay zum Thema (siehe unten) zu Grunde liegt.

“Vom Mosern und Bessermachen”

Von den drei Texten, die ich 2014 hier im Blog veröffentlicht habe, bin ich mit dem letzten, “Vom Mosern und Bessermachen”, sicher am wenigsten zufrieden. Und das liegt nicht am Inhalt, sondern schlicht am Handwerk. Dass einem ein paar schnell hingeschriebene und nicht weiter recherchierte Nebensätze mit Effet—und völlig zu Recht—um die Ohren fliegen, sollte keine Überraschung sein, aber das macht es auch nicht weniger ärgerlich. Resultat: mehrere Korrekturen und eine Richtigstellung von Lars von Törne, bei dem ich mich hier noch einmal ausdrücklich für meine Schludrigkeit entschuldige.

Ich werde beim nächsten Mal mehr Sorgfalt walten lassen.

“The Fallen Wizard of Northampton”

An den beiden anderen Blog-Texten habe ich nichts Größeres auszusetzen. Der englische Essay “The Fallen Wizard of Northampton” befasst sich mit der Privatfehde des britischen Autors Alan Moore gegen unzählige Kollegen, Kritiker und Journalisten, die immer groteskere Züge annimmt.

“Über Comics lesen macht doof”

Der deutsche Essay “Über Comics lesen macht doof” kritisiert derweil die Art und Weise, wie Kritiker und Fachjuroren in Deutschland mit Comics umgehen.

Kuriose Randbemerkung: Obwohl der Moore-Text im Vergleich zum Kritik-Text kaum Wellen geschlagen hat, liegen sie nach einem knappen Jahr fast exakt gleichauf in den Nutzerstatistiken—der deutsche auf Platz fünf der am meisten angeklickten Beiträge hier im Blog, der englische auf Platz sechs, mit einem Abstand von nur sieben Klicks—und werden offenbar auch immer wieder einmal neu verlinkt in irgendeinem sozialen Netzwerk.

Letzteres freut mich insbesondere beim Kritik-Text, denn das ist ein Thema, welches mich schon seit längerem beschäftigt. Die beiden Essays, die ich 2014 dazu geschrieben habe, werden sicher nicht die letzten sein.

CSE 2014: “Die deutsche Comic-Kritik”

Auch über den Zuspruch des Erlangener Comic-Salons, der auch als Reaktion auf meine Texte kurzfristig ein Podiumsgespräch zur deutschen Comic-Kritik organisiert und mich dazu eingeladen hat, habe ich mich außerordentlich gefreut. An dieser Stelle noch einmal herzlichen Dank an Bodo Birk vom Comic-Salon für die Einladung, sowie an alle Mitdiskutanten und das Publikum im Saal für das überraschend große Interesse und die rege Teilnahme.

Bei Gelegenheit werde ich noch einmal genauer auf das Podium und auf die letztjährige Vergabe des Max-und-Moritz-Preises zurückkommen, deshalb hier nur so viel: Ich war da, um mich über den Comic und die Kritik zu streiten, und ich hoffe, das hat man gemerkt.

Es hat jedenfalls Spaß gemacht.

Comic-Symposium Saarbrücken 2014

Das gilt, zu guter Letzt, auch für das Saarbrücker Comic-Symposium 2014 (hier ein Beitrag des Saarländischen Rundfunks dazu).

Vielen Dank an unsere Gäste, die es mir als Moderator sehr einfach gemacht haben, meine anfängliche Überforderung hinter mir zu lassen, und sich allesamt als interessante Gesprächspartner erwiesen haben; und vielen Dank an Joni Marriott, Jonathan Kunz und Elizabeth Pich für die Organisation und die Einladung.

Ich weiß nicht, ob und wie es mit der Veranstaltung weitergeht oder ob ich daran beteiligt sein werde, hoffe aber sehr, dass diese junge Institution der Stadt erhalten bleibt.

“Best Comics 2014: Church, State, Food, Morals”

Und schließlich noch meine Bestenliste der Comics des Jahres 2014—auf Englisch, wie gewohnt. Lobesreden auf die enthaltenen Titel werden auf Anfrage auch gerne auf Deutsch nachgeliefert.

* * *

Damit wird’s höchste Zeit, 2014 abzuhaken. Mein Dank gilt allen Lesern, Verlinkern, Retweetern und Folgern, allen Kritikern, Fürsprechern und Kommentatoren. Ich wünsche euch ein gutes neues Jahr.