Why we're banging on about comics so much

The death and rebirth of British comics.

Any civilian wandering into this ongoing discussion about British comics is probably wondering what the fuss is about all of a sudden – and it does probably come across as an all-of-a-sudden thing. Comics are now being nominated for Costa Book Awardscomics are suddenly invading the New Statesman from all sides – basically, the noise around British comics at the moment is loud.

But this is nothing new. British comics go through peaks and troughs, and currently we’re in a peaky bit. In the mental graph I’m going to attempt to construct in your head, the x-axis begins around 1977 and the y-axis is the amount of interesting stuff happening. Up, down, up, down. Imagine at the moment that we are up.

(NB. One line that runs through the centre of this graph horizontally, unchanging, is that of the cartoonists whingeing about the state of the comics industry – plus also their favourite pens or ink being discontinued, their lives in general and so on and so forth. Regardless of success or failure, this will remain our constant but will never be mentioned again. This is just the nature of cartoonists.)

In September 1986, when Alan Moore’s Watchmen was only four issues in, Neil Gaiman (then a starving young journalist, now not so much a starving young journalist) wrote a piece in Time Out about the rise of the graphic novel, and its growing epicentre: London. More and more shops that sold nothing but comics were opening their doors, and it went like this: by the mid-'70s, American comics had stagnated – it was the same guy in spandex punching out the lights of some other guy in spandex – and readers were bored. When the English sci-fi anthology 2000 AD landed in 1977 – with its lunacy, mutants, Judge Dredd and social commentary – British comics were suddenly something slightly more exciting than what was happening over the pond with the underpants guys. This is an "up" bit on the graph.

By the mid-‘80s 2000 AD was only one of many cool new things happening on this grey little island: there was a comic called Warrior (an anthology notable for being the first place Moore’s Marvelman and V For Vendetta appeared), another thing called Escape (run by Paul Gravett, who these days fronts Comica and turns up in the quotes of any piece on comics in the Guardian), and a handful of other mavericks who either happened or intended to happen but didn’t. There was a flurry of activity and it produced piles of UK anthology comics full of British people – Moore, Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Eddie Campbell, et al – and all of these things, bar 2000 AD, were dead by 1990. The graph goes up, the graph goes down a bit.

The 1990s had their own anthologies in 2000 AD spin-offs CrisisRevolver, and Deadline, but the last of these died in 1995. After that it could be argued that creators were playing with the possibilities of internet, and that perhaps the internet looked like the way forward. But from the look of the shelves, the community had fractured: British creators were largely self-publishing their own comics and there seemed, at least from the reader’s point of view, to be less of a nucleus of activity. The graph goes down a bit further and flat-lines for a few years. We are at this point a bit worried for the graph.

Which brings us to 2007. While working in a comic shop across the road from the British Museum the most common question asked by tourists in oversized parkas after “Where is the British Museum?” was, “Where are the British comics?” They wanted to take something British home from Britain, something a bit less shit than a mug, a novelty T-shirt or an umbrella injury sustained while walking too slowly down the road.

We would shrug and pull faces and try to explain that aside from the shelf of 2000 AD books, a huge travel-unfriendly copy of From Hell and the handful of photocopied zines by local artists, mostly everything in the shop came from America. A lot of the American stuff featured work by British people – there was Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Starman by James Robinson, Hellblazer by Milligan and Delano, for instance – but it wasn’t what they were looking for. There was British work it just wasn’t the glimpse into the British comics scene they wanted to take home. The tourists would get confused and head off across the street to look at pieces of Ancient Greece we stole from the Greeks. We have called an ambulance for the graph, it is dead.

That was only four years ago. And around that point stuff was brewing that would make life easier for us, tourist-wise: British publishers were either launching or setting their pieces up on the chessboard. SelfMadeHero and Blank Slate have since put out so many books by new British and European talent that their titles near dominate the shelves, and both give relatively untried new talent a go, which means that up-and-coming British creators now have somewhere to pitch to which is within closer reach than Random House comics imprint, Jonathan Cape.

Then there’s Nobrow, an East London outfit launched in 2008 that plays with everything that paper and book design can do – their interest is in comics and illustration and – as the very excellent book designer Peter Mendelsund put it in an interview at Powell’s entirely unrelated to comics – "the thing-yness of books". In a world where Kindles and Nooks and downloadable comics are vying for our attention, Nobrow is exploring the tangible nature of books and producing some of the finest (and best-smelling) objects around. They are bought in their piles by Americans mentally listing the things in their luggage they can do without as they hand over their credit card. Socks and T-shirts and shoes get left in hotel rooms in favour of Hilda & The Midnight Giant by Luke Pearson, Dockwood by Jon McNaught, or their huge semi-annual anthologies.

Which is of course not to say that the scene is purely here to show off to travellers passing through. It’s just that four years ago we would struggle to find stuff for these people interested in British comics bar things that were already 20 years old, and now there’s new stuff every week. The graph is on a sort of Muswell Hill incline. That’s why we’re banging on about comics so much (it also helps that NS curator Alex Hern is a huge nerd): because this is a very good thing.

The Nobrow HQ, drawn by Luke Pearson.

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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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