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Most comprehensive exhibition about comics to be held in Germany on view at Bundeskunsthalle
Winsor McCay (1871–1934), Little Nemo in Slumberland. Sonntagsseite The New York Herald 8. September 1907, Detail. CC0 Public Domain.

BONN.- With more than 300 exhibits from the United States, Europe and Japan, Comics! Mangas! Graphic Novels! is the most comprehensive exhibition about the genre to be held in Germany. Although the history of European comics is often traced back to illustrated stories by artists such as Rodolphe Toepffer, Gustave Doré and Wilhelm Busch – none of whom used speech bubbles – it was in New York that comics emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Drawing on the richly diverse immigrant cultures of the metropolitan melting pot, they were the first visual mass medium. Separate sections of the exhibition are devoted to Europe and Japan, where modern comics belatedly took off after the end of the Second World War, developing an intriguing range of highly distinctive national traditions. While cartoonists in Europe tightened and concentrated the visual language of comics, manga artists expanded it, introducing cinematic, multiperspectival modes of representation and narrative that embedded themselves deeply in the current global youth culture.

By the early twentieth century, the major American daily newspapers brought comic strips to millions of readers – day in, day out, and in colour on Sundays. They were primarily targeted at the papers’ adult readership rather than children and teenagers. Series like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland or George Herriman’s Krazy Kat continue to captivate audiences with their exquisite draughtsmanship and signal the cultural significance of the medium. With the rise of the comic book and the superheroes in the second half of the 1930s, comics became an integral part of the first media-related youth culture – long before the advent of Bill Haley and rock ‘n’ roll.

As such, comics were soon singled out as the root cause for the rise in juvenile delinquency and illiteracy. A United States Senate Subcommittee hearing on the potential corruption of minors through comic books took place in 1954 and was televised nationwide. To forestall government regulation, publishers decided to form a self-regulatory body. Compliance with its rules, commonly called the Comics Code, was certified with a seal on the cover of the comic book. As a result, comics lost much of the bite and subversiveness that had previously distinguished them and actually turned into the ‘trivial pap for illiterates’ they had always been derided as.

In the 1960s, thanks to artists like Robert Crumb or Will Eisner and figures like Asterix or Barbarella, comics once again began to attract an older readership. In the wake of the cultural upheaval of 1968, comics came to be seen as the ‘ninth art’, and with the phenomenon of the graphic novel, we now witness the discovery of its hitherto ignored literary potential. At the same time, manga has established itself as a global phenomenon.

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