21st Nov2011

Event – Uli Oesterle & Mawil in Conversation

by Chris Thompson

While 99% of the comics community were in Leeds for Thought Bubble (and reminding us of that fact every five seconds), a small handful of us held the fort at the latest Comica Festival event at Gosh! Comics in London. This time around it was for a conversation with German artists Uli Oesterle and Mawil, who are both published by Blank Slate Books.

The discussion, which started just after 7pm, was preceded by a signing with the pair who really looked after everyone that made it down. Sadly I couldn’t get there beforehand, but the smaller numbers ensured some amazing sketches for those who did … I was quite jealous when I saw their handiwork later on.

The talk itself was interesting but, unlike the two previous discussions, lacked the deft hand of Paul Gravett when it came to moderation. As a result, it didn’t feel like there was as much to write about or to make sense of, but I’ve done my best to summarise what was said in the notes below:
 
 
ULI OESTERLE

  • Uli uses thumbnails to create rough layouts for his comic pages. Much of the work is done digitally using a Wacom tablet, then the finished page is composed and put together.
  • A lot of his work is done by inking the page digitally and ‘scratching the white out of it’. It’s very much about economy of time and maximising the amount of work that can be done in the time that he has.
  • Hector Umbra, his first book through Blank Slate, is a combination of fantasy, noir and surrealism. Book One was published in Germany back in 2003 and was part of a planned series of three. In 2007 Uli moved to Carlsen Comics who decided to release it all as one volume.
  • He worked on Hector Umbra for 8 years, but could only spend about 3 months a year on it. Uli lives in Munich and says it’s expensive, so he has to take on other illustration work to make ends meet.
  • Uli decided to adopt the ‘typical graphic novel format’ as used in Germany to tell his tales. The use of the term ‘graphic novel’ has taken off over the last 4-5 years and was first introduced to help publishers penetrate the lucrative bookstore market.
  • Uli didn’t read a lot of comics when he was growing up (outside of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), and between 10-20 he didn’t read them at all. Superman, Spider-Man and the other costumed heroes held no interest for him.
  • In his early 20s he started drawing comics because he wanted to tell some specific tales. He didn’t have any particular influences since he hadn’t been reading comics prior to this.
  • Much like Frederik Peeters, a lot of his storytelling influences comes from cinema, particularly the work of David Lynch. He loves ‘spooky stories’.
  • He appreciates the work of Mike Mignola, but wouldn’t credit him as a direct influence on his work in the way cinema is.
  • Uli feels it’s important to guide the reader along, so he often uses one ‘colour family’ in his work and will change it to reflect a change of scene.
  • For Uli, colours can communicate time of day, mood, atmosphere, etc. Colouring and drawing are simply functions in service to the story itself.
  • Lighting is also really important to create mood. It’s all about emotions and helping the reader to experience these emotions.
  • He takes a lot of photos to understand how things look – doors, windows, exteriors, etc. – but admits it’s much easier to just Google them when he’s feeling lazy.
  • When asked why he chooses to work in comics, Uli says ‘it’s inside him’. Since his early 20s it’s been important to him and he just has to get his stories out. Despite being the most time-consuming, he still feels it’s the best medium for him.
  • Storytelling is very important to Uli. He wants to hook the reader and not leave them feeling confused. With that in mind he can never separate the story from the art – they’re both equally important and need to work together. The same goes for colouring which plays a big part in his work.

 
MAWIL

  • Mawil (which sounds a little like ‘Marvel’ spoken with a German accent) was born in 1976 and grew up in East Berlin before the Wall came down. He was 13 when it finally did, so he has a clear view of what it was like before and after.
  • Growing up he read a lot of comics. These days his idols are mostly French, though he doesn’t know why. Like many people he cites Tintin as a major influence early on.
  • He often wonders if there would have been more comic artists from East Germany if it had been encouraged or they had been exposed to it early on.
  • He admits that the country would’ve been too small for him if things didn’t change, but they did and he still lives in Berlin today.
  • Mawil didn’t really know what he wanted to be, but he definitely wanted to do something with drawing (preferably comic books). Unlike Uli, he’s able to spend most of his time working on comics because he lives quite simply and doesn’t have a family to support.
  • Most of Mawil’s work in Home & Away (his most recent book for Blank Slate) comes from fanzines he worked on in Germany. He’s happy to work in colour or black & white based on necessity and the resources available to him.
  • He doesn’t consider himself a colour specialist, but has embraced it as certain fanzines have gone to colour.
  • In the graffiti story featured in Home & Away, Mawil originally used some cheap markers to colour the tale. He doesn’t always know why he makes the choices he does, but feels it’s good not to think too much about these things.
  • Mawil does a page a month for a German newspaper and always tries to keep it different so it’s not boring for him or the readers.
  • He often uses the character Sparky O’Hare (in addition to his own character) to comment on his stories and showcase different methods/styles of storytelling.
  • He’s comfortable working in Photoshop, but much prefers working by hand.
  • Earlier this year Mawil went to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) and was surprised at the universal appeal of his work. He wonders if the East German experience is more Westernised than he thought.
  • He often takes a sketchbook with him when he goes out, but usually just writes things. He calls himself a ‘lazy guy’ and prefers to draw things the easy way rather than making them more detailed or difficult.
  • Mawil feels that some books use too many words, which makes them less effective. Sometimes it just takes the right expression or mannerism to communicate something.
  • Both artists made mention of Bastien Vivès and expressed their admiration for his use of ‘silence’. Uli feels that ‘even in silent panels there is text … subtext’. Silent books can be amazing if done right, but it is a very niche market.
  • At this point, Blank Slate translator Iz Rip spoke up to answer some questions about Mawil’s work. They really loved his stuff and were surprised that no one had approached him earlier about an English translation. They now have him and Uli, but feel there is still a lot of untapped talent in Germany.
  • Blank Slate picked We Can Still Be Friends as the first Mawil release because they liked it the most and it was the most popular in Germany at that time.
  • Iz says that translating can be quite difficult when it comes to the use of slang, tense, etc. but both Mawil and Uli’s books are very faithful to the originals. She finds German quite easy to translate thanks to similarities with English.

 
Sadly I didn’t get any photos this time around, but it was great to have this fascinating and  insightful look behind the scenes with two great German artists. Despite being poles apart in both style and content, Uli Oesterle and Mawil made a wonderful double-act. Thanks once again to Comica Festival, Gosh! Comics and Blank Slate Books for a great night out … Take that, Thought Bubblers!

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