Dirk Schwieger is the concept artist among German comic artists. For him, a comic must be more than a good story. The idea behind the story is what counts. Schwieger’s works are complex: profound and hilariously funny, instructive and entertaining.

When he travelled to Japan at the age of 28 to live in Tokyo for several months, he asked his readers via a comics blog to send him tasks  by email. The concept was simple, the tasks less so. One time he had to  spend a night in a by-the-hour hotel, then he had to pursue a  martial-looking motorcycle gang. He depicted his experiences each week  on four comic pages with quick strokes of a felt-tipped pen and few  words: his fear when eating the highly-toxic puffer fish, or his  embarrasment when the lavatory flush flooded his room due to an  operating error. Later, the book “Moresukine” developed out of these subtle and self-deprecating observations. This conveniently-sized publication, now also available in English and Japanese translation, is surely one of world’s funniest and most authentic travel guides for Japan.  

Dirk Schwieger has no fear of feeling like a foreigner or of being an  outsider. When, after a few semesters of contemporary German literature,  philosophy and art history, he applied for a study place with the  artist Georg Baselitz at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK),  Baselitz only accepted him after he had ascertained that there was no other place for comic artists. In painting class, Schwieger encountered all those who fit in nowhere else – such as performance and graffiti artists. “That’s where I felt at home,” says Schwieger and adds: “It was  from Baselitz that I got the spirit of enjoying being an outsider.“  Daniel Richter, who took over the class later on, is familiar with the comics scene and set many concrete impulses. In 2005, Schwieger completed his course of study as a master student of Richter and began his travels. He spent several months each in the United States, Russia, Japan and Iceland. According to Schwieger, this was “an incredible enrichment and expansion of my art.”  

His stay in Iceland during his studies impressed Schwieger; he  lived on the polar island from 2002 – 2003 and the idea of beginning a comic project on “Elves” arose.  Schwieger researched the topic for a  year on the island, conducted interviews and collected newspaper articles and literature. “These mythical beings constitute a kind of  invisible nation, and what is better suited for documenting this world  than a comic?” he noted, and started scribbling.  

The first pages, which appeared with electrocomics as a free comic,  convey a foreshadowing of the complex project. With the scientific eyes  of an ethnologist, Schwieger characterises the people on the basis of  minuscule details. On a spread of the “elves project,” for instance, he  introduces twelve persons who answer the question of what elves are. The  overweight Heidrun describes them as “people like us who live in a  parallel world,” the intellectual Bödvar on the contrary sees them as  “Iceland’s Hollywood,” and Petur, dressed in a rustic checked shirt,  maintains that “in all my life I’ve never met anyone who believes in  this nonsense… (except maybe in the little village where I come from).”

“Every comic works with visible and invisible impulses,” explains  Schwieger adding that the viewer must connect the invisible open space  between the images in his head into a narration. Only through the  fantasy and imagination of the reader do the fragments become a coherent  story. In 2013, Schwieger returned to Iceland to get “a fresh  impression” of the country, whose population is scarred by the  consequences of the international banking crisis to this day.  Afterwards, an independent comic will emerge from the project, which is  now entitled “People Not Seen.”  

In mid-2010, Schweiger became a father for the second time. “To do  something meaningful” on the side, he translated the American artist  Larry Marder’s “Beanworld” comics into German. For Schwieger, the  philosophical stick-figure comics are a wonderful mixture of children’s  book and conceptual art with incredibly streetwise observations and very witty twists and turns. The magazine Comicgate distinguished the book with the bean figures (Ventil Verlag) as “2012 Comic of the Year”.

(Art and characters © Larry Marder)

Schwieger has also maintained his contact with Japan over the years: in  early 2011, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of German-Japanese  diplomatic relations, he created a kind of graphic letter correspondence  between manga and comic artists: the blog Nichimandoku  stands for  Nichi = Japan + Man = Manga + Doku = Deutschland (Germany) . The  Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster suddenly gave the drawings a completely new twist. The blog turned into an impressive document of contemporary history.  

For Schwieger, word and image belong inseparably together. Both systems of signs must create friction with each other and be interwoven with each other. “I’m not a wordsmith, I'm a picturesmith,” says  Schwieger. A narrative succeeds only when a panel both contains an important idea and can stand on its own merits. For this reason as well, the concept of “comic author” suits Dirk Schwieger better than practically anyone else.

(Text by Rieke C. Hansen, originally published on the website of the Goethe Institute)