Friday 5 June 2020

Comics in the GDR

Following on from my previous post, about the British journalist who ended up becoming a hit crime author in East Germany, but also continuing the series of articles I began earlier this year about comics around the world. 

I am indebted to the German language website for much of this information and to online translation tools for helping me understand it.

Atze was the name of a children’s adventure comic in the GDR. The small-format comic magazine was published monthly from 1955 to 1991 by Junge Welt-Verlag, under the direction the national youth organisation the FDJ (in English: ‘Free German Youth’), and was aimed at the members of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneers (an East German version of the Boy Scouts or Woodcraft Folk). It’s first editor was Klaus Hilbig.

Popular themes included the October Revolution, the communist resistance against Nazism, or partisan stories, but also stories about voyages of discovery.

However, not all of the comic strips drew upon events from labour or partisan history for inspiration. Jürgen Kieser (1921-2019), who created the title character Atze, a boy from Berlin, also created the popular comic strip about two mice named ‘Fix and Fax’ in 1958. An animated version of this comic strip with puppets was produced by DEFA in 1969. Although ‘Fix and Fax’ was discontinued in 1991, the comic strips have continued to be published in various collected editions since 1994.

The series ‘Pats Reiseabenteuer’ (in English: ‘Pat's Travel Adventures’), which ran from 1967 until 1991, was about a wandering journeyman travelling around Germany in the 19th century, often meeting famous historical personalities, and the episodes always contained a competition where readers were asked to spot the modern item hidden within the panels. It was written by Atze’s editor Wolfgang Altenburger and drawn by Harry Schlegel. The artist Günter Hain also created ‘The Bells of Novgorod’ in the 1980s.

In many primary schools in the GDR, the Working Group "Junge Brandschutzhelfer" (Young Fire Safety Helpers) was founded in the 1960s, which were known as the "Atze fire brigade" until 1990. The Atze editorial staff promoted fire safety for children and young people through regular reports on the groups’ activities. The television network of the GDR also addressed the work of the Atze fire brigades, commonly in its holiday programming.

The magazine FRÖSI (short for "Fröhlich sein und singen" or “Be Cheerful and Sing”, which does sound a bit coercive within the context of a one-party state) was aimed at kids between 6 and 14 and also featured some comic strips, among other content about interesting crafts and scientific and cultural stuff. From the 1960s it also published comic strips from places like Italy and Hungary. Jürgen Günther (1938-2015) created a comic strip for the magazine about a fat orangutan named Otto, which later became ‘Otto and Alwin’ in 1976 with the addition of a penguin who escaped from a zoo and became Otto’s friend.

The ruling Socialist Equality Party of the GDR struggled with what to do about comics throughout the countries' 40 year existence, which I suppose explains why the East German comics scene was quite small. Most of those that were published, like Atze and FRÖSI, seemed to strike a balance between popular strips featuring characters like Fix and Fax and more propagandistic offerings that promoted the SEP's socialist worldview. Both its small size and the fact that East German comics have been almost entirely ignored in the west means that for many years I remained oblivious that the GDR had any comics, hence the reason for this article.

My other articles about comics around the world: