Tender Is the Fright: German Comics Artist Finds Grace in the Grotesque

Artist Marijpol (Marie Pohl) returns to Jerusalem seven years after spending a semester in the capital, which inspired a typically quirky story involving a faux Michael Jackson and bearded women.

Judy Maltz
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From 'Surprise Party for a Hermit.'
From 'Surprise Party for a Hermit.'Credit: Marijpol
Judy Maltz

Marijpol (Marie Pohl) is the first to acknowledge that most people don’t get her work, at least not initially. After all, how can stories focused on death and grotesque-looking characters have anything uplifting to say?

But if they bother to go back for a second read, says the 32-year-old German comics artist – she prefers that occupational description over graphic novelist – they are likely to grasp the more subtle and positive message in her work. “Some people are grossed out at first. But when they take another look, they might realize that what seems gruesome at first is actually a lot about love and tenderness,” she says, in a telephone conversation from her Hamburg home.

Marijpol has published four of her own hard-copy books, two e-books, and had her work featured in more than a dozen German and other anthologies. Her work has also been showcased internationally in group and solo exhibitions. At the Jerusalem International Book Fair she will sit down with Belgian-born Israeli cartoonist and illustrator Michel Kichka – who published a graphic novel about his Holocaust survivor father titled, “Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father” (2013) – to discuss their craft.

Marijpol is no stranger to Israel. In 2008, she spent a semester at the Jerusalem-based Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design (where Kichka also teaches) on a study-abroad program while she was enrolled at Hamburg University, and has since been back on a shorter trip with her father.

Her latest book, “A Holiday in the Swamp” (2014), is typical of her work, in that it features unusual – even surreal – characters doing pretty mundane things. Published by avant-verlag in German, with translations in English and Finnish, this accordion-style book, which stretches out to 260 centimeters (eight and a half feet), tells the story of three characters – a hermit, an old man and a young boy – who discover they have run out of salad oil while vacationing near a swamp. The boy then sets out to borrow some from the neighbors.

“It sounds really simple, but actually the neighbors turn out to be these really weird-looking people,” explains Marijpol. “The mom looks like an insect, and she’s got these small, caterpillar-like kids. There’s also this creepy-looking guy whose head is turned upside down and he has hands for feet and feet for hands – and they proceed to have this conversation all about salad oil.”

“A Holiday in the Swamp” is a spin-off of her previous, much longer book, “Eremit” (“Hermit,” 2013), which takes place in a futuristic world where elderly people are able to “order” the details of their death as they would a trip abroad. The main protagonist, a tall, skinny man incapable of making decisions as simple as choosing a flavor of ice cream, is a professional screener, who makes sure people are satisfied with their death choices before embarking into the afterlife.

He ends up befriending an old man, who accidentally stays alive when his wife dies rather than join her, and a young, pampered boy who is the only child left in this world. “In the end, they form this strange trio who end up enriching one another’s lives,” says Marijpol.

This 216-page foldout book, also published by avant-verlag, features a huge worm, known as the “fleshmagnet,” whose job is to separate people’s bodies from their heads before they die. “The name is kind of misleading,” says Marijpol, “because actually what this fleshmagnet does is free the body from the mind, and then the people don’t have to go through the awful thing of
getting old and sick and feeling pain before they die.”

Where do the ideas for her characters and story lines come from? “What I do is lie down and try to sleep, and in that state when I’m very relaxed, I actually get most of my ideas,” says Marijpol. “Usually I don’t take the first idea that comes. Instead, I use that idea and kind of turn it around and make it the total opposite. I’m nearsighted, so sometimes what I do is take my glasses off, and then totally normal things that I’d recognize with my glasses on, I suddenly don’t recognize – and that also gives me ideas.”

Jerusalem, the exotic

Marijpol began drawing as a teenager, but never saw herself as a comic artist per se until she was well into her university studies. She grew up in Berlin, in a home, she says, where her tendency toward morbidity never raised concerns. “My dad is an art historian, and as a child I was exposed to all sorts of art,” she relates. “There definitely weren’t any objections to my imagery. In fact, it was encouraged.”

While it is difficult for her to critique herself, Marijpol says most reviewers have noted that her work does not seem to be influenced at all by other graphic novelists. “I guess that’s true, because I find a lot of the inspiration for my work in my own body and how I feel about my body,” she says.

Aside from selling her comic art, Marijpol manages to scrape together a living by teaching drawing classes and other odd jobs. “I live very modestly and don’t require a lot of money,” she says. “For me, the most important thing is having time to do my work.”

When she decided to spend time in Israel seven years ago, it was mainly on a whim. “We were given a list of places we could go on exchange programs, and I found Jerusalem to be the most exotic,” she recounts. “What drew me was a sense of adventure.”

She didn’t spend much time in the classroom during that visit, she admits, preferring to take advantage of the opportunity to roam around the country and take in Jerusalem’s Old City, where she particularly enjoyed observing religious rites. These eventually became a source of inspiration for her work.

“I’ve always had an interest in religion – that magical part of religion that only outsiders can see, the rituals which you can observe but you don’t understand,” she says. “Jerusalem gave me lots of inspiration in that way.”

When she returned to Germany, she wrote a graphic story – eventually published in Italy – about a character who serves as the alter ego of deceased pop star Michael Jackson. His quest to make the world a better place receives support from an unlikely group: a bunch of bearded characters (“the beards are meant to connote wisdom and credibility”) inspired by the ultra-Orthodox men she had observed in Jerusalem.

Lest her characters appear overly realistic, though, there’s an added twist to the story: Some of the bearded people singing along with her faux Michael Jackson happen to be women.

Marie Pohl, the artist known as Marijpol.Credit: Courtesy