Destination Frankfurt 2024
Interview with Johann Ulrich, founder and director of avant-verlag
Maria Carolina Foi, Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Berlin
Johann Ulrich founded avant-verlag in Berlin in 2001 and has been running it ever since. avant-verlag publishes German and international graphic novels.
How would you introduce avant-verlag to Italian readers?
When I started in 2001, with two books, I was all on my own. Today, the publishing house employs staff and publishes 24 titles a year: graphic novels and comics from all over the world, even from ‘exotic’ countries. We publish a lot of Italian authors compared to other publishing houses. In recent years, the percentage of German authors, or rather the percentage of female authors, has risen steadily, because in Germany around 70% of newcomers to the world of comics are women. This phenomenon can also be explained by the courses that German universities devote to comics.
When you founded the publishing house, was there any particular interest in comics in Germany?
Not at all, quite the opposite. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always read and collected comics. I’d say that half of what I know about the world I learnt from comics (he laughs). But around 2000, there was a decline in publications. I had attended an edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair as a simple visitor and witnessed an event dedicated to new French authors, featuring more than twenty illustrators. But none of these great talents had been translated into German! So I decided to do it. And that’s how it started, on a whim, because I was disappointed by the programmes that existed at the time. That’s how the name of the publishing house came about, avant-verlag, which recalls the French word avant-garde and the Italian word avanti.
You won the Deutscher Verlag Preis 2020 and 2021, and the Berliner Verlagspreis 2022. What do these prizes mean?
They mean recognition for comics in general. They show that comics in Germany have achieved a certain degree of emancipation: we have won the esteem of the public, both in the field of cultural policy and in the media. Today, comics are considered to be on a par with the other arts, and even with other forms of literature, something that was unthinkable twenty years ago. At least in Berlin and Hamburg, the grants awarded by cities and regions to promote painters, musicians, writers, etc. now also include comic strip creators. A similar trend can be seen in Bavaria and Lower Saxony, where local institutions and foundations are also working in this direction.
Does the theme play a particular role in the choice of an author?
Yes, especially in the choice of a particular title rather than an author, because the theme has to fit in with our programme, which is very homogeneous overall. In the mid-2000s, we published a lot of biographies and autobiographies. Then we concentrated on artists’ biographies and opened up the programme to historical themes, as well as political books that deal with the present. We also publish literary adaptations. My personal hobbyhorse, which I have consolidated in recent years, is the classics series. Every six months, a great classic of the genre is published. For example, we published Eternauta in German for the first time.
When did you discover Italy as a country for comics?
Ah, it’s my passion. The first book I published was by an Italian author: anita, drawn by Stefano Ricci and written by Gabriella Giandelli. After a trip to Bologna and Milan, we discovered such a wide range of great artists that we were stunned. I admire Italian authors for their talent, but also because they tell really literary stories! In Germany, we haven’t got that far yet, and even most French comics, for example, can’t hold a candle to a story by Gipi or Manuele Fior. We are very proud to have them in our publishing house. Nor should I forget Paolo Bacilieri, Zerocalcare, Igort, Davide Reviati and, more recently, Sergio Ponchione. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. On the German market, it’s more the theme of the story being told that counts, whereas in Italy, it’s more the manner and the feelings, the emotions that are expressed: these are aspects that, personally, I’d almost place a notch above. Italians are fabulous artists. Watching Gipi or Fior draw is pure magic!
You’re telling us the story of Italian comics!
It’s a European story that began in Italy in the 1960s with the magazine Linus. It’s incredible that it’s still published every month today – there’s no similar phenomenon anywhere in the world. From the outset, Linus was aimed at an adult audience, which didn’t exist before! Most of the strips came from American publications, but it was there that the young Guido Crepax was able to find space for his first works. For the first time, there was a comics magazine aimed at an intellectual audience and, before any other country in the world, Italy also organised the first comics festival. In short, Italy was the spearhead of modern comics in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d like to stress once again: innovation came from Italy!
Are there any German comic strip authors of interest to Italian publishers today?
A lot has happened over the years, but let’s take a quick look at the history: in the Germany of the Third Reich, comics didn’t exist. In the post-war period, it was not possible to invest in these entertainment products. Until the 1970s, the cultivated middle class despised comics. In short, for forty years, Germans were unable to read comics, a situation that is not comparable to that in Italy. The emergence of many new talents can also be explained by the fact that it has been possible to study illustration at university for several decades. Anke Ferchtenberger and Henning Wagenbrett, among others, belong to a generation of illustrators who published in the 1990s and who are now also university lecturers. Every year, many students come to see me to submit their books, which sometimes manage to get published. The great successes of Birgit Weyhe and Katharina Grewe, who are not yet well known in Italy, have been published by avant-verlag. All this proves once again that German comics have developed a very stimulating female component. These comics are different from those I grew up with. They deal with different subjects and are also told in a different way.