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Aisha Franz: Shit life stories

Aisha Franz is one the most exciting names to emerge from Berlin’s comic scene. Ahead of her appearance at ILB, we met her for a chat about “serious” comics, “shit” breakups and how drawing helps her think.

Image for Aisha Franz: Shit life stories

Aisha Franz is among the 10 comic artists to grace the stage at this year’s International Literature Festival. Photo: Yozy Zhang

Aisha Franz is one the most exciting names to emerge from Berlin’s comic scene. Ahead of her appearance at ILB, we met her for a chat about “serious” comics, “shit” breakups and how drawing helps her think.

“I had just finished art school, and obviously I wanted to leave Kassel as quickly as possible. Berlin felt like the only option, at least in Germany.” It was the summer of 2010 and 26-year-old Aisha Franz, named after an orphaned elephant by her Chilean-Colombian parents, was moving to the Hauptstadt with her diploma and a book contract in hand. Her debut work, Alien – published in English under the ironic title Earthling – was an immediate success, and was translated into numerous languages. Ten years, one “shit” breakup, and two more graphic novels later, Franz is one of the most exciting names in the Berlin comic scene. She’ll be among the 10 comic artists to grace the stage at this year’s International Literature Festival (Sep 9, 12 and 13).

When people research your name, it’s always one thing that comes up: that you wanted to be a figure skater. How come?

I never did figure skating in my life! (laughs) What happened is that when I published my first book, Earthling, I had to come up with my own bio. It didn’t feel that serious at the time, so I just wrote this funny thing in reference to the fact that, as a kid, I was a big fan of figure skating competitions – I would watch them all on Eurosport and draw them. My mum kept the drawings and now, looking back at them, I realise those were actual comics: I intuitively made panels to try to reproduce the movement, the pirouettes. So I actually started making comics without knowing it – or even trying! Eventually I started being taken seriously as a comic artist, and people started to copy and paste my bio – taking it much more literally than I meant it. I had no idea it would become this thing that’s written in every article about me! (laughs)

So when did you start becoming “serious” about comics?

I didn’t take it really seriously until art school. When I was 12, I produced a comic zine with a friend. We’d write the story together, and I’d draw it. But it was short-lived – no one wanted to buy it! As a child, I didn’t read comics. I had no idea there could be such a thing as drawing books! Cartoons were my only touch point with the world of comics.

Did you ever consider animation?

I took an animation class at art school, but I became very frustrated – it was so much planning to create two minutes of film! I missed the spontaneity. Plus, I knew that, for me, it’d always been about telling stories, and I could never separate the narration from the text. So comics were a better option for me.

Where do you even begin with a graphic novel – a scene, an idea? Take Alien, your breakout debut novel from 2011. What was the starting point?

It’s funny because, as always, I started out aiming at a short, banal story: “Oh, it would be funny to have a girl befriending an alien.” The idea was never to make a whole book out of it, or for it to be serious. But then I started filling it up with personal stuff, and it became more dense as I blended in my own experiences and observations. A lot of it happens unconsciously. Making comics is my way to understand the world around me. It’s hard for me to self-reflect without my work. It’s my secret tool. (laughs)

But then your “girl-befriends-alien” story turned into a book about a lonely pre-teen, living side-by-side with a frustrated mum contemplating her own wasted life and an older sister experiencing her first sexual and emotional setbacks. How did that happen?

I guess that’s the essence of storytelling, right? You have that arbitrary situation, but then you have to think about the before and after – who is she, where does she come from, what are her fears and wishes… That’s when I realised that I was that girl. I was like: “Wait a minute, when I was her age, 11 or so, I too was obsessed with aliens.” It was the 1990s and the paranormal was a big thing: I even had an Alien club with my friends! Then the teenage sister came in, and the mum – it’s always hard to explain how things end up coming together. It’s an organic process. The drawing and writing happen pretty much simultaneously. I usually draw a lot, and in the end I edit the work down. I throw out a lot of material!

Was Selma, the protagonist of Shit is Real, also a version of you? The book is so well ob- served – it feels very personal, in a life-experience sort of way.

Yes, yes. The starting point was that image: a girl moving into her own place after a bad breakup, and that painting on the wall above her bed that says “Shit is Real” – which is a true story. It’s basically me, moving into a one-room flat after breaking up with my boyfriend, and this was a painting that he had made for me. So I’m alone in that new flat, and I try to motivate myself by thinking, “I’m a strong emancipated woman. I’ll figure it out.” But then I realise that a lot of things are not working out. I drill a hole and a bit of the wall comes apart. I try to wash my stuff at the laundromat, but I don’t have the member card. What is all that about? Why am I so incompetent at dealing with such simple, mundane things?

So these were real shit, problems you actually experienced…

Yes, it’s about that time after a breakup when you are trying to process and figure things out. I tried to explore this – not in a whiny way, with Selma crying over her fate – but by exploring that stupor, that loss of identity that follows a breakup. What’s left of you after living so long with another person? That’s when you realise how much of yourself is shaped by other people – the man you were living with, for example. And how difficult it is to redefine yourself as a single person after a long relationship.

Image for Aisha Franz: Shit life stories

Aisha Franz was born in Fürth, Bavaria, to parents from Chile and Colombia. A graduate of the School of Art and Design in Kassel, she has published three graphic novels to wide critical acclaim, including Alien and Shit is Real, both translated into English. Based in Berlin since 2010, she’s currently working on her fourth book from her Alexanderplatz home studio. Photo: Yozy Zhang

Your books are told from a self-ironic female perspective, in a way that doesn’t reflect so kindly on men. Is this deliberate?

I know, it’s awful! I try not to do that, but men always turn out horrible! (laughs) I definitely write from a woman’s perspective, and men don’t really have big parts in the books. Female friendship is a strong element. But I wouldn’t consider my books to be feminist books. My characters are still very passive. I wouldn’t say that Selma is such a strong female role model.

What about the sci-fi backdrop in the book? There seems to be a futuristic motif throughout your work, from alien lizards and talking fish to hologram workers and digital gadgets..

Yes! The original intention was a full-on sci-fi story, real genre stuff, but it didn’t turn out that way. I toned all that down as it became more of a personal narrative. Still, I kept thinking about cool gadgets – back then, things like Google Watches and Google Glasses were in the air but not quite real yet. But by the time the book got published, it wasn’t sci-fi anymore. You can never be far enough ahead with those things, they catch up with you so quickly. (laughs)

Another striking aspect of your work is how effortlessly inner and outer worlds seem to mingle. In Shit is Real, reality blends with Selma’s aspirational dreams, and by the end, we’re not always sure what’s real and what’s her imagination.

I don’t like explanations, so surreal elements are a convenient and fun way to show what’s going on in her mind without using too many words. In my current book project, I was trying to avoid this, but I’m drawn back to it all the time. The project is about three characters go- ing to the same therapist, and by the end you’re not sure if the therapist exists for real – I can’t help it!

Your style is distinctive. It feels very personal – mostly black and white, all pencil or ink-pencil mix, and there’s the unruly, almost deliberately childish figure-work. Did you always draw this way?

When I started art school, I was drawing in a cleaner, more ‘cute-cartoon’ sort of way. It was much more mainstream. Then I got more interested in doing something rougher, something anti- pretty. I taught myself how to draw a little uglier. Alien was the result of that. With Shit is Real, I initially aimed for ink-only, but I ended up mixing with pencil-line drawings. These days, I’m transitioning towards a more cartoonish approach. With each project, I explore a different style.

How does it feel to be a recognised author whose books are published by prestigious comics presses and translated into multiple languages?

It just happened so fast. Alien was my diploma project in art school, and Reprodukt decided to publish it. Then there was a French translation with Éditions çà et là, then a Spanish edition, even a South Korean one. I was suddenly thrown into that world of “published authors” and it all became serious. Before that, I had never seen myself as a comic artist or a cartoonist.

What did you think you were, then? You never seem to use the term “graphic novelist”…

I didn’t have time to define it yet! Even after the success of Alien, I was still in the world of trashy zines. I was part of a distribution collective called The Treasure Fleet – we were going to fairs together, it was fun. Now I feel I’m in an in-between zone, which is tough, because it’s hard to decide what to do. Right now I’m working on a new book, which means I have to focus. I still feel this need to be free, to experiment and self-publish – but I also have to take myself seriously as an author, and tell myself, “I’m not doing comics for fun any more, it’s my job.” I’m lucky I have a lot of freedom with my publisher. For Reprodukt, I’m clearly not a huge money-maker, and we have this unspoken agreement that they leave me to do my thing.

For a long time, Berlin had a rather alternative comics scene, mostly self-published work, zines and collectives. That’s changing, now, with proper publishers on the market – and you’re among those authors translated and recognised internationally. How do you see the local comics scene these days?

I think it’s been happening in Germany as a whole for a few years now. Publishing houses like Reprodukt, Avant, and Edition Moderne are now publishing on a very different level than they used to, 10 or 15 years ago. It means they’re selling more, and also more mainstream stuff – they had more underground work before.

Image for Aisha Franz: Shit life stories

Photo: Yozy Zhang

Would you say the Berlin graphic scene is still missing a ‘middle class’ between mainstream and alternative – people like you, basically?

It’s a tough question. I feel there’s still not a solid ground for something in between. But yes, maybe my work or the works of people like Sascha Hommer or Anna Haifisch, or maybe a publishing house like Rotopol are filling that gap. But I think it’s great to move between those worlds. I love it actually.

Many Germans still see comics as stuff for kids. Would you say it’s more accepted as a serious genre these days?

In France, every bookstore has a huge comic selection, and you see people reading comics on the metro. Here, if I see someone with a comic book on the U-Bahn, I’m like “OMG, who are you?!” It’s changed a lot, but it’s still a small scene here. Then again, I was invited to the Hannover bookfair, and it was so great seeing those older ladies queueing up to buy my book – they were all like, “Oh, how interesting!”

By now, there’s a Booker prize for best graphic novel, and most serious literature festivals have a dedicated comics section…

Yes, even the big ones. In 2018 I was on a trip to the Singapore and Hong Kong literature festivals and it was amazing. It’s just so huge! And you find yourself there with famous authors – it was very fancy! – and people come up to you with serious interest, and you’re part of serious panel discussions on a wide range of topics with all kind of authors, so it’s not just about “comics”. This was a totally new experience for me, to be integrated to the wider world of literature, to fill that gap between serious novels and trashy zines – because there shouldn’t be a gap, really.