One of the earliest memories I have about reading is of my dad reading the newspaper every day. This is something he still does, but I don’t recall ever seeing him read a book. My mom, though, read daily. She read books in German, English, and continued to read some things even in Polish or Russian since she had been raised around those languages. She spoke German at home and in her home community, but, because of the political environment of the time, her education in school, the German part at least, was greatly limited. She was taught in Polish. Living near borders during war time can certainly have an impact on the lives of people. But in spite of those conditions, my mom learned very well for herself, and she wanted the same for me and my brother.
The newspaper, once my dad was done with it, was up for grabs. Before I could really read, I grabbed it and went into the comics pages. This is pretty normal, I suppose, but I was doing two things- figuring out words, and learning that drawings and words work together. I practiced drawing the characters. I made my own panel boxes with a ruler. They always fell short of the published cartoonists, my early efforts, but I knew I liked the art form.
Mom had for us her own set of influences. From her we consumed German text and drawings. The books I remember most were a German alphabet book, wonderfully illustrated, and then the great collection of stories by Wilhelm Busch. It was Wilhelm Busch that led me to comic books and graphic novels. The patters and engrams were set in my brain by that famous German creative mind. The characters, known around the world, beloved in the German-speaking nations, Max und Moritz, became as familiar to me as Snoopy, Dagwood, and Garfield. Without realizing it, I was forming a circle of influences. I was bringing together drawings and art styles formed in the 1800s and reading them next to their modern day creative descendants.
The German stories written by Busch were morality tales; however, they were set up on the pages in much the same way that comic books would later adopt. There were panels, captions, and onomatopoeic phrases and words. He used poetic language and devices to make the text memorable. And it certainly was memorable. As I write this at the age of forty-nine, I can still remember the stories I first took in when I was probably four. Not to retell them all, because you really need to see it for yourself, I will just comment briefly on Max und Moritz.
The title characters are really quite horrible. They play terrible and hurtful pranks on various adults in their lives, all the while hiding in the short distance, laughing at the chaos they created. Honestly they would be guilty of serious crimes today. Busch seemed to imagine them as merely precocious, or high strung rather than malevolent. In the end, though, as morality stories go, the boys meet a grisly and fitting end. We don’t have to be inconvenienced with wondering about the boys’ parents, nor really much about them at all. They are just characters meant to teach a lesson. When they end up being ground into pellets and fed to the ducks, we just think to ourselves that they got what they deserved. I do remember thinking early on that I would not like it very much to be friends with such boys.
Wilhelm Busch has been recognized for his influence, importance, and contributions to multiple literary genres. Some of the recognition was given while he was still living. He didn’t think very much of his creations for children. He wanted to be known for his other literary and artistic efforts. But fame is not so easy to direct. In the same way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes, Busch wanted to leave his children’s stories alone, but it was not to be. The characters have since been celebrated around the world, translated into dozens of languages, made into toys, minted on coins, and shuttled through the post on stamps.
Countless children like me learned how to read and appreciate illustrated pages with his words and art. He influenced writers and illustrators, animators, publishers, painters, cartoonists, and untold others. The books, still printed, still enjoyed, are an important part of the history and heritage that led to many other story telling art forms. You can read more about Busch and his works on the featured link below, or in many other curated sites and centers. If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit Hanover, Germany, you can visit the Wilhelm Busch home and museum.
I will always appreciate those earliest influences on my reading. I still enjoy reading the newspaper, including the comics. And I am a firm believer in the value of comic books, graphic novels, and illustrated stories of any genre. They are literature. They belong in the hands of readers with as much enthusiasm and respect as any other type of literature. I argue this point with fellow teachers more than I care to relate. I hope one day I can mention comics, graphic novels, manga, and collections of comic strips among teachers and educators without having to defend the value of the genres. The perception of the art forms as throw-away or cheap was held by Wilhelm Busch as well. But if he could see now what his works have led to, I suspect he would be proud.