The lovely mafia of British comics

Hannah Berry is happy to be a British comics creator, even if she's not Respectable just yet…

I’ve never trusted articles that are written with any authority about entire communities. People are far too unpredictable to be generalising their behaviour into a thousand-odd words.

But that’s by-the-by. Now, let me tell you how the independent comics scene in the UK works.

I’ve had two graphic novels published by Jonathan Cape, which made my mother happy because in the literary world twice published is Respectable. In the UK comics arena, however, twice published – either by a publisher or by self-publishing or by publishing online – is not necessarily the mark of success. Being published is the provisional drivers licence of the comics world: it entitles you to get out there with the other road users, but until you’ve proven your worthiness, proven that you’re not about to turn your car into a twisted metal inferno on a roundabout, you are not Respectable.

A few years ago when I first went to Thought Bubble, the biggest indie comics festival in the UK, it was as a wide-eyed, newly-published author, whose travel costs were suddenly covered. I knew no one (at least not to talk to) and no one really knew me, although a few had read my newly-published book Britten & Brülightly. I was sat at a table with a signing pen, next to another guy with another signing pen. This guy spent the entire weekend stoically and pointedly ignoring me. In spite of my many attempts at conversation (and, for the record, I am pretty fucking charming) I simply did not exist to him.

Now, most people in comics are nowhere near as rude as this pendejo was – most people in comics are actually interested in what other people in comics do – but it was a valuable early lesson in how little being published really means and where I stood in the grand scheme of things. If I was a forgiving person I would look back now with the gift of hindsight and thank him for his twattitidue. If.

Being published is not the endgame in comics. It’s very nice, but there’s much more to being a respected member of the community: essentially, it’s down to what you do for the community.

This is important for two main reasons, the first one being that the community is still quite a small one, relatively speaking. It’s possible to know – or know of – most individuals involved in it one way or another. You meet a lot of people at festivals and other comic events, the same friendly faces a few times a year, or you get to know them through working on certain collective projects together. Often you get to know people via social media first – making 140-character chit-chat or sharing links to new projects. Everyone is connected to everyone else through a complex mesh of friendships and collaborations, and so we are one, big, tightly-knit, faintly incestuous group.

The second reason is that there is no real money in comics. Funding is woefully scarce and the majority of work is done gratis, which guarantees that everyone who works in the field does so because they love the medium. There is literally not one single person who is involved with indie comics just to pay the bills: that is certifiable behaviour.

On top of this, there are no businesses looking to exploit the industry for a fast buck, because the bucks are not fast, my friend, not fast at all. So everyone concerned wants to be here, and wants it enough that they’ll sacrifice pension plans and financial security to do it. The enthusiasm is deafening, you can barely hear yourself think over all that zeal. Everyone believes in the cause of comics, and almost everything that happens in the comics world is driven internally.

Because of this lack of money and external opportunities, creators and comics-related businesses have to be rigorously entrepreneurial. It's a "Who Dares Wins" scenario, and all avenues are explored and exploited. Every conceivable thing that can be done will be done to get the word and the work out there, and often this means relying on your colleagues in the industry.

And the wonderful, fabulous, horrifically Disney-esqe truth of it is that most people in the comics world are very willing to help each other out for the good of comics. We all know how tough things are, how many obstacles are in the way, and how much of an uphill struggle it is to gain recognition inside and outside of the immediate comics circle, but when one of us does exceptionally well we see it as an individual triumph and a group triumph. Any doors kicked down by one trailblazer will stay open for all of us. It’s the system of mutual advancement favoured by organised crime syndicates, but used in a nicer way. Like a lovely mafia.

Not that everything is gumdrops on kittens, of course. From time to time this protective attitude has been known to backfire into full on defensiveness in response to any criticism (which I suspect is why the recent question of sexism in the British Comic Awards exploded the way it did), and there are almost certainly some long-running feuds lurking under the surface, scowling away. It’s understandable, really. We’re passionate about what we do, and we need to stand up for these things that our lives revolve around: so help me I will push a man under a bus if he bad-mouths my beloved medium.

Perhaps that’s how it is with prose literature? I couldn’t say, but I think having something to prove tends to give you a certain fire, and we know collectively we still have some way to go before the independent UK comics scene is taken as seriously as it should be.

So in the UK comics world, kudos is given to comics creators and professionals who are ambassadors for the medium: the ones who have created things so amazing that they have raised the bar and brought the limelight to the scene, inspiring others; or those who rally us and support us by finding new and ingenious ways to bring us together or showcase our work, organising events or festivals or anthologies that allow people to meet, share ideas and create extraordinary things. Basically, the creators and curators and organisers and comic shops and publishers etc who go above and beyond. They have earned Respectability.

Ask not what comics can do for you – ask what you can do for comics. And then do it. A lot.

Panels from Berry's second book, Adamtine. Image: Jonathan Cape

Hannah Berry is a British comics creator, author of Britten & Brülightly and Adamtine, both published by Jonathan Cape. She tweets as @streakofpith, and owns a tortoise called Rooster.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis