Last month, “the most comprehensive exhibition about the genre to be held in Germany” opened at the venerable Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, where it can be visited until September 10. Curated by Alexander Braun and Andreas Knigge, it is a remarkable exhibition, not only because of its size (300 exhibits) but also because it tries to encompass the whole history of comics without any geographic, chronological or other limits. To this end, it is organised in six sections.
The first section is about early American newspaper strips. The amount of original newspaper pages and original drawings on display here would be impressive if there hadn’t been another major exhibition on the same topic not even a year ago. Still, it’s always interesting to see e.g. a Terry and the Pirates ink drawing alongside the corresponding printed coloured Sunday page (July 24, 1942). Another highlight in this section is an old Prince Valiant printing plate, or more precisely, a letterpress zinc cliché which would be transferred on a flexible printing plate for the cylinder of a rotary press, as the label in the display case explains.
Section 2 stays in the US but moves on to comic books. In its first of two rooms we find mainly superhero comics, again often represented through original drawings e.g. from Watchmen or Elektra: Assassin. The second room of this section is about non-superhero comic books; outstanding exhibits here are the complete ink drawings to two short stories: a 7-page The Spirit story by Will Eisner from July 15, 1951, and a 6-page war story from Two-Fisted Tales by Harvey Kurtzman from 1952.
The next section of the exhibition is dedicated to Francobelgian comics. There’s an interesting display case with a side-by-side comparison of the same page of Tintin in various original and translated editions, and there are also original drawings by Hergé, but perhaps even more impressive is an original inked page from Spirou et Fantasio by Tome and Janry, who revitalised the series in the 80s. In the same section, half a room contains examples of old German comics, both from East and West Germany.
And then we get to section 4, the manga section. The biggest treat here are several Osamu Tezuka original drawings from Janguru Taitei, Tetsuwan Atomu and Buddha. There’s original Sailor Moon art by Naoko Takeuchi as well. Most of the other exhibits, however, are from manga that are far less famous, at least outside of Japan. In this section there’s also the only factual error I found in the exhibition: a label on Keiji Nakazawa’s Hadashi no Gen says, “Barefoot Gen is one of the earliest autobiographical comics ever.” While Hadashi no Gen was certainly inspired by Nakazawa’s own experiences, it is a fictional story, not an autobiography – that would be Nakazawa’s earlier, shorter manga, Ore wa Mita.
Section 5 is about underground and alternative comics from both the US and Europe. The highlight here is the famous Cheap Thrills record by Big Brother and the Holding Company, which can be listened to via headphones. Most comics enthusiasts are familiar with the record cover by Robert Crumb, but perhaps not with the music on the album.
The sixth and last section is titled “Graphic Novels”. It is already unfortunate enough to make the dreaded ‘g-word’ part of the exhibition title, but this section makes things worse by not actually problematising the term or even analysing the discourse around it. Instead, “graphic novel” is meant here to comprise a vast range of contemporary comic production, including Jirō Taniguchi’s manga, pamphlet comic books such as Eightball and Love & Rockets, and Raw magazine.
The exhibition as a whole offers a lot of interesting things to see, but maybe its aim to represent the whole comics medium was too ambitious in the first place. Nowadays, no one would dare to make an exhibition about the whole history of film, or photography, but apparently comics are still considered peripheral enough that the whole medium can be squeezed into one wing of a museum. The general public, at whom this exhibition is presumably targeted, will probably discover many new things about comics, but for people who are already comic experts, the knowledge to be gained from this exhibition will be much smaller.