Death Fugue' on the Streets of Berlin

A plethora of different types of people populate the city streets. Almost everyone chats on their cellular telephone.

A plethora of different types of people populate the city streets. Almost everyone chats on their cellular telephone. A woman carrying shopping bags from the market; a teenager wearing a skullcap, engrossed in a book; a security guard scanning the area; and a boy hurrying somewhere. Above them is a tangle of electric wires; a bus passes nearby and the Shalom Tower rises in the background. All of these are accompanied by the racket created by car horns honking, engines revving, phones ringing, people talking and police sirens wailing.

This is how Tel Aviv is presented in Tim Dinter's comics article, the opening piece in the comic-journalism book, "Cargo." Last spring, Dinter and two other German artists - Jan Feindt and Jens Harder - came to Israel for three weeks. Three Israeli artists - Yirmi Pinkus, Rutu Modan and Guy Morad - spent time in Germany. The "Cargo" project was the brainchild of Harder and the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv, and the assignment given to each of the artists was to express their impressions in comic-journalism articles.

"When the Germans arrived in Israel, we tried to talk about the meaning of this genre," says Pinkus. "We knew we were going to produce a type of journalism, but the question was where each of us would take it. Just as there are all sorts of journalists - reporters, analysts, publicists, columnists, etc. - each of us was drawn by his comics in a different direction."

Indeed, each of the offerings in the book (which was published in two editions, English and German) exhibits a totally different style, from a focused, factual account, through a personal column style, and finally an investigative report.

The project was one of many initiated to mark 40 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany. An evening event will be held at the old Tel Aviv City Hall on Bialik Street, with a traveling exhibition to accompany the book, featuring illustrations, photographs and items related to the project.

We can do it, too

Comic journalism is a relatively young genre that is slowly gaining momentum. Its roots date back to the 1980s, when a few comic books proved to Americans that this medium could also relay complex, serious stories to adults. The most famous of these books is Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize winning "Maus," which portrays his father's life during the Holocaust, proving that comics can serve as a tool for documenting the history of wars, murder and personal trauma.

As time went by, documentary comics began to find their way into traditional journalism. In 2004, Spiegelman used comics to cover the Republican National Convention for the New Yorker; another newspaper published a comics profile of a legless truck driver, and magazines began publishing music reviews, cultural articles and personal columns in comic format.

The most famous active journo-cartoonist these days is Joe Sacco, who spent many months in confrontation zones - the Palestinian Authority and Bosnia - and published his impressions in newspapers and books (see box).

"It's a visual world and people respond to visuals," says Sacco in one interview. "With comics, you can put interesting and solid information in a format that's pretty palatable."

Still, one of the restrictions of this palatable format is its unsuitability for rapid news reporting.

"It took me four months to complete my work on the article for `Cargo,'" says Feindt. Readers accompany him on his tour of Israel, meet people he encounters, join him at a ritual circumcision ceremony and go down to the Sinai desert. The most interesting part of the article is the section in which Feindt chats with five Bedouin women in one of the unrecognized villages in the Negev. After describing their complicated legal situation, he lets them describe how the restrictions against them affect their everyday lives.

"I heard about these women's situation, and the issue aroused my curiosity," says Feindt, who is married to an Israeli woman and lived in Israel for a few years. "I did not understand how they could be living in Israel and not enjoy the same rights as the rest of the population. When a friend suggested I visit one of their villages, I jumped at the opportunity. I preferred to focus on citizens living in irregular circumstances than on cliches about Israel."

Where are the likenesses

Many journo-cartoonists choose to include their own visage in the drawings, thus stressing that the information is relayed from their perspective.

"Comics offer objective journalism no advantage over text and photographs," says Pinkus. "If one has to report a terror attack, for example, text and photos are preferable - firstly due to the immediacy, but also due to their ability to relay detailed information more efficiently. Comics have the advantage in other types of journalism, in more personal reporting, which increases the importance of the observing artist."

Pinkus' poetic work in "Cargo" challenges readers and demands that they follow the article, which unfolds on three levels simultaneously. Readers must follow the poem, "Death Fugue," by Paul Celan; the laconic text, which describes Pinkus' experiences in Germany; and the illustrations that depict tourist Pinkus and connect the two texts.

"I decided to conduct an experiment," explains Pinkus. "I took Celan's poem with me to Germany. I didn't know what I would do with it, but the whole time it was with me, in my pocket."

Pinkus relates that during his trip he searched universities for objects and places connected with images in the poem.

"I was like a hunter," he says, "searching the whole time. At a certain point, I understood that the story was simple, touristy, not very interesting - I came, I ate breakfast, I went to Berlin - like the experience of any tourist who comes to Germany for two weeks. But since I was in a contemplative mood, with that poem in my pocket, I ultimately built a story of an eclectic tourist journey that swayed back and forth with the rhythm of the poem."

Unlike Pinkus, Modan's visit to Germany was her first. As someone who grew up in a home that boycotted that country, Modan admits she found herself in an emotionally charged place, and found it difficult to formulate a theme for her article.

"I usually prefer to invent stories," she says. "I have never been required to deal with an assignment like this. Since I have small children, I went for only one week. I was busy the whole time, collecting material, and it took me four days to understand how the place made me feel."

In the end, Modan chose a path that she calls "the documentation of an expectation." Her article is composed of a series of illustrations, each of which portrays a host of figures at a site somewhere in Berlin.

"It depicts the experience of a tourist who comes to the place for a week. I simply looked around me," she says. "I understood that this is a big city with a lot going on, but only after a few days did I understand how much is happening under the surface, how much history occurred there."

Modan decided to insert an inconspicuous detail into each illustration that hints of the past: a newspaper with an article about one of Hitler's men; a poster of Liberation Day (the day the Allied forces invaded Berlin), etc. Unlike photography, which immortalizes a situation at a specific moment, Modan feels the illustrations immortalize a permanent situation, to which the personal angle of the artist is added.

Indeed, the six articles in "Cargo" present six different perspectives of reality, clearly demonstrating that there is more than one way to combine journalism and comics.