Ten years ago German comic book artist Barbara Yelin found a box of letters her grandmother had sent during the second world war. They revealed an unknown life; a young woman who had been fiercely ignorant of her country’s politics as she worked for independence in England who somehow returned home to marry a member of the Nazi party.
Talking to us about her creative process and the incredible story she discovered within her own family history, Yelin explains that Irmina is far from a graphic biography. Instead, her grandmother’s experience is a jumping off point to explore how a person’s values can be altered so much by social pressure.
Read our interview with Barbara Yelin below and be sure to check out our review of Irmina.
BC: Whenever we’ve met you, you’ve been drawing. How many images do you think you create each day? Do you take breaks?
BY: Yes! I don’t draw all the time. To create a comic, the plot has to come first. For me, this is the hardest part. To think about dramaturgy, dialogue, and what the story really is about – it is such an essential process, and there’s a lot to discover.
To draw means, at first, to sketch a lot: storyboards, character studies, details, to find out about the story itself. And then, in the end, you do the final pages. I mostly do one per day. This is where everything gets concluded and combined: research, narration, dialogue and atmosphere. If it goes well, you’re in the flow. I love it! Drawing can be very focussed and dreamy at the same time – like a meditation. But if not, which happens a lot, it’s a big challenge to concentrate…
So I actually have no problem at all to leave the pencil on the table and go out for a two-week hiking trip (or, couchsurfing).
You have said Irmina is based on the letters your grandmother sent during the war. Why was it important for you to tell this story?
The letters and diaries, which I found in a box 10 years ago, made me realise that there was a period in her life – when she was a young woman in the 1930s – that she hadn’t told us about, or at least very little of that time. I started to put her story together from these little pieces, like a puzzle. They told me about a 19-year-old woman who wanted to become independent, so went to England where she fell in love with a student from Barbados. But then she returned to Germany in 1936. Why? And what happened then?
There were many missing parts, so I started doing specific research in archives and, more often, a lot of historical research about that time, the 1930s in England and later in Berlin, to imagine a possible reconstruction. The book is not about my interest in my personal family history, and it isn’t a biography.
It was, in this process of research, a more general question that drove me: How and why was someone like her, who seemed to be such a modern, ambitious young woman in the beginning, changing so much, betraying her former dreams and beliefs? It became a novel, a character study, in which I also used artistic license. It’s a narration, based on the research, expressed by drawings.
As both writer and artist, can you tell us a bit about your process for creating the graphic novel? Do you usually prefer to work on your own or collaborate with another writer?
I like both. I have done several collaborations with writers. It’s great because two different “streams of thought” can cross and mingle, which is both mind-blowing and challenging. But because I always take part in the story-telling I’m maybe sometimes a strenuous collaboration partner.
Working alone, there are a lot of roles that you’re filling: researcher, writer, producer, director, illustrator and so on. It’s wonderful. I found out that my way of creative thinking is always connected to the act of drawing itself. I have to sketch the protagonists, the scenes, the landscapes, the backgrounds and facial expressions to find out what they would possibly say. I have to make it visible to know where the story goes. Drawing lets me dive into the narration.
While the narrative never judges Irmina for her decisions, it does highlight some of the atrocities that “ordinary Germans” became familiar with in the second world war. With this in mind, how has Irmina been received in Germany?
The narrative doesn’t judge because there is no narrator’s voice. This was done on purpose because I wanted to leave it to the reader to interpret. But I ask these questions, by contrasting the reclusive Irmina and showing what’s really happening outside at the same time. The book tries to focus what these “ordinary Germans” have been responsible for: looking away and not speaking about what they knew or could have known about the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust.
The book was profoundly received in Germany. In fact, these are questions that a lot of people of my generation have always asked themselves: how could these things happen? Would I have been courageous enough to offer resistance? And most importantly: what can we do to ensure that this never happens again? I think, to reflect on the past and to reflect the own personal responsibility of everyone (which is a timeless question) is one of the most important answers to these questions.
Possibly the most powerful pages in the book are the cityscapes and crowd scenes that explore the public reactions of large groups of people. What historical resources did you use to compile those hundreds of small details into such an atmospheric backdrop?
I collected hundreds of pictures from that time from different archives. These pictures have been my reference. To make a drawing I mostly combined several photos.
The image with the burning synagogue was one of the most elaborate double pages. There aren’t many photographs of that building, which was burnt by SA and SS on 9th November 1938. I had to reconstruct it and added the street and the crowd of people who stood there, without speaking, watching the destruction. There are just a few reports of witnesses of these scenes. Clothes, uniforms, hairstyles, faces and so on of course had to be also based on picture references.
I also got very good advice from Alexander Korb, who wrote the important afterword. We spoke a lot about the reaction of the German people, which he has written a book about.
Can you talk us through your style and use of colour throughout Irmina? Was it affected by the theme of white supremacy that is attached to Howard’s experiences? How did working on this project develop your skills as a creator?
My style is always rather greyscaled. For Irmina, it was important to find a colour range that enabled me to show both lighter and darker scenes, so there are several accent colors besides the grey. In the beginning it’s a blue for the freedom of decision. Then, in the middle part, there is the red, the colour of the NS-flags, but also the colour of blood and guilt. In the last part, taking place in Barbados, there is an ocean green: for the sea and for a tiny bit of hope.
Of course, the skin colours also played a role. Howard is always very visible in the white English society, and he is often attacked by racist comments. When Irmina is back in Germany, all skin colours gradually become more and more grey.
I tried hard to find a style for this book. I work in layers. There is a lot of sketching and finding the lines, then adding black lines with a colour pencil, then adding many levels of watercolor pencils, using brushes, drawing the lines again, and maybe adding a bit of white gouache in the end. Everything always has to be changeable, by erasure or water. It’s always a process of trying, finding and reconstructing.
Your work was exhibited as part of the Comix Creatrix exhibition at London’s House of Illustration. Why do you think it’s important to showcase women’s work separately? What does the comic book industry look like for female creators at the moment?
The wonderful exhibition at the House of Illustration is an important statement to show that there are so many talented women working in international comics. The impression that comics are a man’s domain is just not true any more. But many in the industry, in France for example, are still not realising that fact. So it needs signs!
Actually, in Germany I have had many good experiences in the comics scene, which has been very balanced, gender-wise, for the last 10-15 years. A lot has changed, but we still have to work on a better visibility and a strong self-concept to make our stand.
We are in love with your work. What is your next project?
Thank you! I just finished a shorter comics biography about the fascinating Israeli actress and peace activist, Channa Maron, who died two years ago at 91 years old. She was an incredibly strong and positive person and had a dramatic life. This was a commission for Goethe-Institute Tel Aviv, and will also published as a book.
I’m also doing a biweekly web-comic and a monthly newspaper comic. Now, slowly, I am starting to think about the next bigger story. I can’t reveal more but it will definitely take place in the present day.
For a closer look at the themes of Barbara Yelin’s work, read our review of Irmina.