If you think comics are nothing but Schundliteratur, look at the increasing number of courses that feature serious graphic novels at the U-M. In fact, last semester there were five sections of the course 232 on comics: two in both French and Italian and one in German. In order to take advantage of this extraordinary happenstance, my fellow Lecturers Sabine Gabaron (French) and Janaya Lasker-Ferretti (Italian), doctoral candidate Vincenzo Salvatore (Italian and German), and I came up with a series of events to bring our students together and to see what we could learn from each other. Our first gathering coincided with France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, whose awards are arguably the most renowned in Europe. Thanks to the Language Resource Center (LRC), students were able to leaf through all the nominated books and debate with each other over pizza about this year’s winners. 

Der Boxer, in German, French, and Italian

We also created a book club, featuring one important comic from each country. Interested students could read the comic of the month in their target language, thanks to speedy acquisitions made by the U-M Library and LRC. We then met to discuss the texts and images in English. What differences or similarities can be detected between the comics of the various countries? What is lost in translation? How does your experience with comics thus far inform your reading now? From our three sessions, here are a few observations. Most attendees found reading Tim und Struppi (Tintin) easy in the respective target language. The pictures and formulaic plots serve as welcome aids in guessing the meaning of unknown words. Students agreed that the medium of the graphic novel is a powerful means to recount the heartbreaking true story of a Holocaust survivor in Der Boxer. The striking use of color in Fünfhundert Kilometer in der Sekunde dominated our discussion of Manuele Fior’s wistful tale about a love triangle that unfolds across Europe and Africa.

drawing by Jerzy Drzod, caption by students of German, French, and Italian

In addition, students who attended two sessions with local professional cartoonists Jerzy Drzod and Sophie Grillet got hands-on cartooning experience. They were even able to teach each other some favorite expressions in their languages through several drawing exercises. Thank you, Vincenzo Salvatore and the Transnational Comics Studies Workshop for sponsoring Grillet's workshop and for providing pizza.

I write this having just returned from the 2018 International Comic Salon in Erlangen, Germany’s largest comic arts festival. Among the many artists, authors, and publishers I spoke with there, I was thrilled to meet with the aforementioned Manuele Fior, an Italian artist who recently moved to Paris after a long career in Berlin. Upon relating to him how students of French, German and Italian at the University of Michigan engaged in a lively discussion of his gorgeous book, he humbly thanked me with this beautiful sketch and autograph above. Like our polyglottal comics collaboration, Fior embodies the magic that can happen when cultures connect creatively.