Comic artist Berliac has earned the ire of the identity politics community three times over. We met with him to find out what all the fuss was about.
Ask anyone about Berliac on the Berlin comics scene and you’ll be met with either a throat-clearing, indulgent laugh or sudden, heavy silence. What follows is usually both ambivalent and suspiciously short, something like: he’s a talented kid, but why can’t he behave a little?
I can’t remember when I first came across Berliac’s name. I’d seen his weekly Asian Store Junkies strips in Vice and found them funny in a badass way, without realising their author was a Berliner from Argentina “with a reputation”. Maybe it was Ulli Lust, creator of Exberliner’s own strip and a household name in the German-speaking comics world, who first mentioned him. As we were researching this issue, it rang a bell right away.
By the age of 35, Berliac had managed to develop a pretty unique style of gegika – a more serious, adult version of Japanese manga comics. He’d amassed a small but dedicated fan base in countries like Spain, Italy, Poland and Germany, all countries where he’s temporarily lived and published, as well as the US – where he’s never set foot and swears he never will. Along the way, he’d also managed to attract the wrath of identity politics warriors on at least three accounts: cultural appropriation, transphobia and racism. I thought that was an impressive feat. I immediately wanted to know more.
Of course, those accusations had come from a small minority among his peers: mostly queer and feminist activists from North America gathered around niche publications such as Women Write About Comics, Bleeding Cool and Comics Beat. Until last June, they could have remained confined to the virtual world. But then Canadian publishing house Drawn & Quarterly (D+Q), which had been planning to publish Berliac’s graphic novel Sadbøi, issued an online statement titled “An Apology”. It read like a public act of contrition for having “neglected to research the author beyond the submitted book”. In particular, the statement referenced Berliac’s 2015 altercation with trans feminist critic Sarah Horrocks after he’d tried to fend off accusations of cultural appropriation with a parodic essay called “Manga is not a genre, it’s a gender”. In it, he compared his conversion to the Japanese drawing style to, yes, the experience of “coming out of the closet” and the existential journey of a trans woman. “I call myself a mangaka, like a male-born woman calling herself a she,” he claimed in a pamphlet styled like an anachronistic Japanese advertising flyer.
The parodic intention was supposed to be clear, but the rhetoric was clumsy and the humour definitely provocative. It immediately unleashed a bashing campaign in the form of damning reviews (comparing his frivolous game with gender and identity to Rachel Dolezal’s defense of her ‘chosen’ race) and a flurry of social media insults, mostly revolving around cultural appropriation and transmisogyny. Berliac had played with fire, and – two years later – it was backfiring. D+Q stated that due to the many “tweets and emails and posts” they’d received, they would no longer be publishing Sadbøi.
“This was a little shitty,” Lust told me about the decision. She’s actually not a fan of Sadbøi, whose subtext she found “a little dodgy” and whose author she characterises as “too angry, with the whole world”. But she was still shocked. “That campaign wasn’t fair. Berliac has a very black sense of humour and can be a little foolish in the way he’s expressing it. I actually argue with him all the time. But he’s a talented artist and definitely not the monster they tried to paint him as…” What shocked her even more was the publishing house’s methods. “You don’t cancel a book with an online statement without even talking to the artist – and the reasons they came up with were so muddy. It can’t be just about that transphobia saga.”
“Of course it was not that,” Berliac said over ginger tea near Turmstraße, where he lived until last summer. He’s currently travelling a lot, and met me on a 24-hour stopover between Poland and Argentina. “The real reason, which they gave to me in a private email, was Asian Store Junkies.”
His Vice strip, which ran in seven instalments from February to August 2017, followed the tribulations of two junkies hooked on ramen noodles in Berliac’s signature nihilo-noir manga style. It also featured an evil Asian grocery store owner with the appearance of Kim Jong-un. “Michael Deforge [a famous Toronto-based cartoonist], who is half Asian, was offended and said it was racist. [D+Q’s] point was they had to take into consideration their artists’ feelings.”
Hadn’t Berliac ever considered that his caricature might be seen as racist? “I usually trust the intelligence of my readers! In this case the comics were intended for Americans and I was playing with stereotypes happening in America: Mexicans, Asians, Italians… The choice for Kim Jong-un is rather a commentary on how identity politics work, putting people in categories – which I actually don’t. My characters are individuals, with their own human qualities and flaws. But they’re just looking for reasons to bust me. Someone even told me it was ‘racist’ to draw Asian people with slanted eyes – that Asian people don’t do that, which is completely untrue. Tons of manga artists do it!” In true Berliac style, he responded with fuck-you bravado. In his last frame of the serial, Berliac superimposed the actual face of the dictator over his drawing with the disclaimer, “Due to complaints, we’re not allowed to make [caricatures] of Kim Jong- Un anymore.”
So, Berliac says, “There was an actual campaign against me. It wasn’t just a Twitter backlash, but people actively working on convincing Drawn & Quarterly to cancel the publication deal I had with them.” What was their main peeve with Sadbøi? “Who knows! Their tactic is to create a lot of noise so you don’t know what the point is anymore, other than just to discredit you. They don’t try to make you understand what the accusation is about, so you can either defend yourself or acknowledge your mistakes and apologise. No, they wanted to panic my publisher and that’s what they did.” He points out that this happened in Canada, a country with especially progressive laws protecting trans rights. “So this was a special, very tense context. But it’s happening all over America.”
Berliac speaks with a strange mix of combativeness and zen. You can tell he’s learnt a few things from his conversion to Japanese culture, beyond manga (he actually practices Zen Buddhist meditation ). “All these identity politics warriors who copy and paste each other, they create so much noise in the online bubble that they would have you think there’s a consensus – where there isn’t! They just used my case to prove the comics industry is bigoted, anti-woman, racist, etc – but it’s ridiculous.” So will there be any chance to read Sadbøi in English?
“I don’t think any US publisher will want to touch my book for a while. Things will have to cool down first.” But Berliac isn’t worried. Sadbøi has already been published in five countries and four languages – Norwegian (where the book was initially conceived with publisher Jippi Comics), Spanish, Italian and Polish. French is soon to follow. What about Germany, considering that he drew the book while living in Berlin? “I approached a few publishers here. One told me it was not commercial enough; another one turned it down on political grounds: they disagreed with the message.”
“I think Germany might be a problem for Berliac because right now the Germans are very very sensitive to any issue connected with refugees,” chimes in Lust. She herself was expecting flak for her ‘honest’ portrayal of an African refugee – an ex-lover turned violent when their relationship went sour. But so far, so good. Her graphic novel (evocatively titled How I Tried to Be a Good Person) just got released and the feedback was – to her surprise – positive.
“Most publishers here are very left-leaning, and when you think that so few comics get printed, you might just want to go for something a little more constructive [than Sadbøi]. Or maybe I’m just getting older and growing tired of that type of fuckyou protest,” she laughs, before concluding, “I wouldn’t print it myself. I’m interested in the discussion though. How to portray refugees in comics is a tough one!”
Wait, refugees? Yes, Sadbøi’s actual subject matter is yet another facet of the Berliac controversy: it’s the story of a refugee boy in Norway who, after a model childhood spent in foster homes and child welfare institutions, opts for a life of crime to break free from the expectations imposed on him – before the contemporary art world finally gives him a chance to do it a more socially acceptable way, and he rejects it.
To people who see the portrayal of a refugee as a criminal, or even a misfit anti-hero, untimely or polemical, Berliac points out his creds as both witness and protagonist. “I wanted to show my experience of the immigrant experience,” he says, stressing that as an Argentinean, he’s often been profiled by Europeans as an Arab or a Turk. “A guy in a bar in Helsinki even tried to fight me because he thought I was an Arab!” he tells me.
After originally conceiving Sadbøi as a biography based on Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1952 tribute to the outcast writer Jean Genet, Berliac changed his mind after a Berlin pharmacist mistook him for an Afghan refugee from the shelter next door. “I’d burned myself and I showed her my wound, explaining I’d just moved to Germany and had no health insurance yet. So she called her boss, saying, ‘Look, there’s an Afghan here from the refugee shelter and he has this bad wound…’ I realised that in the eyes of people here, I wasn’t an immigrant, or even an Arab or a Turk, but ‘a refugee’. And as an immigrant myself, it would be hypocritical to do a book about otherness and not talk about what’s going on in Europe right now.”
Namely, refugees being assigned to categories with stereotypes and expectations to boot. “In every situation Sadbøi goes through, he has to fit with the political narrative of what it is to be a refugee,” Berliac explains. “He’s fighting hard to break free from that categorisation, and how he manages to do it is the plot of my story:”
In every situation Sadbøi goes through, he has to fit with the political narrative of what it is to be a refugee.
And so Berliac embarks on a rampage-like “freeing refugee mission” that sets its sights on the liberal welfare society and its immigration champions: hypocritical social workers; foster parents in matching Nordic knits enamoured with “doing the right thing”. Meanwhile, Sadbøi and his sort are caught between opposing factions: the do-gooding immigrant lovers and the nasty nationalists, whom Berliac seems to equally loathe. The rest of his humanity consists of thieves and thugs, libidinous contemporary artists and halfwit art-snobs. All in all, a pretty cynical vision of progressive Europe.
Isn’t he worried about telling this particular story in the context of growing anti-refugee sentiment in Europe? “That’s precisely why the book should be public and published. That’s very symptomatic of a certain fringe of progressive liberal. If you feel my book may be problematic, then let’s have the talk – but people shouldn’t refuse the discussion! Ultimately, as an immigrant, this can’t be my problem. My goal is to show the immigrant experience as best as I can, which I think I did.”
The book’s playful and surprising visual language helps cut through what could be a programme-heavy narrative. Berliac seems to be having fun bursting stereotypes while constantly defying expectations. Sadbøi, who comes to Norway as a child after a traumatising ocean crossing (beautifully portrayed through a pastiche of Hokusai’s Great Wave), looks as Japanese as the manga style he’s drawn in.
“It benefits the feeling of dislocation – and multiculturalism too. It’s a story taking place in Scandinavia about a boy that comes from the Middle East, in a style that belongs to Asia, drawn by a South American in Berlin. And of course it was inspired by a book by a French author about another French author.” Choosing to depict a Lampedusa boy as a manga hero obviously muddles the equation; it also opens up a different mental space. And this is where Berliac is at his finest: using his wide knowledge of the Japanese graphic language to open new borders. Cultural appropriation for a cause!
And how would the self-described “transnational” comic artist define his own identity today? “Identity is fluid,” he starts. “I know I’ve pissed off those identity politics crusaders when I say that, but it doesn’t mean that identity is something you can decide by yourself or for yourself – it’s something you have to negotiate with the society around you again and again. Take that guy who wanted to beat me up in the Helsinki bar: he decided I was an Arab, and there was no way I could convince him otherwise. You can’t force people to see you as you’d like them to, and that’s a problem we have to face. For the last 10 years, I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism, and I’ve worked hard on this. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think I’ve learnt to stay away from identity. We are nothing.”
Globe-trotting graphic novelist Berliac Yungqin was born in 1982 and grew up in Buenos Aires. His first book, Rachas, was published in 2009. He’s since contributed to many exhibitions, anthologies, zines and magazines, including Vice. In 2014 he moved from Norway to Berlin, developing his manga-influenced style along the way. His 10th and latest book, Sadbøi, is currently available in four languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Italian and Polish, French coming soon).