Daniela Schreiter from Berlin was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, in 2009. To help process the diagnosis, she drew a comic about it. "Words alone weren't enough," the 33-year-old told DW, while signing her recent graphic book at the Leizpig Book Fair this past week. "I needed the images to show what it's like to live, to see and to feel as an autistic person."
Schreiter's debut work, "Schattenspringer" (Shadow jumper), described her own childhood, dealing unknowingly with the condition that hinders interpersonal communication and social interactions. It was so successful that she quickly published a second book about her adolescence.
"I never thought the comic would be so successful," she said. "Especially since the topic is so particular." Schreiter's books are now used to help train therapists specialized in Asperger's.
The comic illustrator presented her work at the annual fair, which regularly features a side event for comic, manga and graphic novel fans. Surrounded by the buzz of the colorful crowd full of fantastically dressed manga figures, Schreiter, whose condition causes her to perceive stimuli more intensely than other people, remained calm.
"When I sign books, I sink into my work and forget to some extent where I am," she said. "I shut out everything else."
The long line at the table where she's giving autographs is an indication that her story interests a broad audience. The popularity of more serious comics, which broach social and political issues, has never been bigger in Germany.
Comics: 'Germany is a developing country'
Illustrated stories haven't always been well received, though, and interest in comics, mangas and graphic novels has only grown gradually over the years. Now, however, you'll be hard-pressed to find a bookstore that doesn't stock the genre - thanks, in part, to internationally known German illustrators like Ralf König, Reinhard Kleist, Felix Görmann (Flix) and Isabel Kreitz.
Nevertheless, Germany's scene remains quite small, compared to comic strongholds like the US, France and Belgium. "Germany is a developing country when it comes to comics," said Steffen Volkmer, editor and PR manager with the Panini publishing house. "We're about 10 years behind the rest of the world."
Volkmer explained that there are legitimate historical reasons for Germany's lag. "Comics had their heyday during and after World War II. The Americans and the French used them to build up their troops' morale, but Germany didn't have this kind of comic culture."
Post-war comics seen as too childish
It wasn't until after the war that the Allies brought illustrated stories to Germany - where it wasn't particularly warmly received. "The old generation, which had experienced the war and saw that the occupiers were there, rejected this culture," said Volkmer. The fear was that comics would dumb down the media and were more suited to children and those with a weaker intellect.
For decades, only comics for children and youths were imported - from the American "Batman" to "Asterix and Obelix" from France. Even the few successful illustrators in Germany catered to a younger audience with works like "Fix und Foxi".
In the late 1960s, the first comics for adults were translated from French and Italian - without much success. It wasn't until the 1990s that the independent comic scene in Germany, led by artists like Brösel and Walter Moers, started reaching a broader audience.
German comic market growing swiftly
Still, it took a while for publishing houses to actively incorporate comics and graphic novels in their portfolios. "With that came the understanding that comics are a medium that's to be taken seriously," said Volkmer. It was more the stylistically original graphic novel - sold as a bound book rather than a pamphlet - that won over the traditional readership instead of the comic.
Currently, the market for comics and graphic novels in Germany is "healthier than it's ever been," according to Volkmer. "In 2000, we had 20 new editions per month. Now we have between 40 and 50." Even though other publishing houses are recording similar numbers, Volker says he sometimes worries whether things will continue to go so well.
His concerns aren't totally unfounded. After all, only very few illustrators in Germany manage to make a living from their work.
Daniela Schreiter is one of the few who's managed to do just that. She's planning to release a new story in the coming year. This time, it won't be autobiographical, but will still focus on Asperger's.
She's positive about her perspectives in Germany: "The German comic scene is growing and developing," said Schreiter. "Slowly, step by step - but it's getting better!"Annabelle Steffes / kbm