Traditionally, ‘graphic novels’ are thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon, with American cartoonist Will Eisner’s 1978 book A contract with God and other building stories generally acclaimed as the first of its kind.
However, the hitherto unknown Journey and Adventures of a Good Little German in Kangaroolandan autobiographical graphic novel from 1916-19, recently donated to the University of Adelaide Library’s Special Collections, may well rewrite the history books.
For comic book aficionados, the term “graphic novel” is sometimes dismissed as a marketing term – a way of making seemingly simple comic books (which originated in the early 1900s, initially as comic strip collections newspaper comics) more palatable and acceptable to a wider readership.
Others would say that graphic novels have evolved into a distinct and sophisticated art form, a unique combination of text and sequential visual storytelling capable of rich and compelling expression – typified by works such as Art Spiegelman Maus (1980), by Alison Bechdel Fun Home: A Tragicomic Family (2006) and in Australia, the Stella Prize of Mandy Ord in selection When one person dies, the whole world is over (2019), Pat Grant’s Cave (2020) and NSW Premier’s Literary Award-winning Book of the Year, Still Alive: Notes from the Australian Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed (2021).
Now researchers at the University of Adelaide believe they have discovered (or rediscovered) the world’s first autobiographical graphic novel.
Journey and Adventures of a Good Little German in Kangarooland
Drawn by C. Friedrich, a previously unknown German cartoonist while detained between 1916 and 1919 in an Australian internment camp, the rare publication is housed in the University Library’s Special Collections.
Journey and Adventures of a Good Little German in Kangarooland was given by a former student of the university and has been studied extensively by Dr. Aaron Humphrey, Lecturer in Digital Media and Humanities, and Dr. Simon Walsh, Lecturer in German Studies, of the School of Humanities from the University of Adelaide.
‘Journey and Adventures of a Good Little German in Kangarooland, features an autobiographical character who begins a new life in Australia. Upon arrival he is suspected of being a spy during World War I and is sent to Holsworthy internment camp in Liverpool, New South Wales, the same camp where Friedrich was held,” Humphrey said. .
“While autobiographical graphic novels have become a very popular literary genre during the 21st century, their history is generally assumed to begin with underground comix – small press or self-published comics – in the 1970s. nearly half a century earlier, calls this history into question.
“We believe this collection of autobiographical comics may be the first of its kind: perhaps the earliest known example of what we would today call an autobiographical graphic novel,” he said.
Humphrey is presenting his and Walsh’s research at Comic-Con International 2022 in San Diego, which runs Thursday, July 21 through Sunday, July 24.
The comic paints a portrait of life and struggles in the camp. University experts say this topic is still relevant today.
Walsh said, “Friedrich’s stories emphasize the struggles of inmates and underscore the human and emotional cost of borders. Differences in language and national identity are not insurmountable. Instead, it is the draconian fences, bayonets and detention systems that are enacted without just cause that separate people from each other and their common humanity.
“It is a remarkable document of the German-Australian experience during the First World War, an important part of Australia’s cultural heritage, and is of international significance as an early example of one of the great literary innovations of the XXth century.”
A significant discovery
Whether Friedrich’s comics are graphic novels or not, a topic that is sure to be discussed at length in the weeks and months to come, their discovery is certainly an important addition to the history of the art form in Australia.
As Melbourne-based comic book artist, publisher and critic Bernard Caleo told ArtsHub: “It’s an important discovery that fits into the tradition of comics in Australia (think Melbourne Punch of 1855 and Sydney The bulletin, from 1880) but broadens it considerably due to the personal, rather than satirical or humorous, use to which the mixture of words and images from the books is devoted.
“Indeed, it was only in the underground of the 1970s (think of the American Justin Green Binky Brown meets the Blessed Virgin Mary1972) that the idea of using comic book language to bare one’s soul reached a wider audience, leading to the work of Art Speigelman Maus (1986).
‘And although I must admit that I am one of the editors of the book, the graphic novel by Safdar Ahmed Still alive (Twelve Panels Press, 2021), combining as he does autobiography with accounts of incarceration in Australia, in this case of asylum seekers, can now be seen as part of a tradition of Australian journalistic cartooning dating back over a hundred years old,’ Caleo said.
Lily: The many Australias of our graphic novels
C. Friedrich has since fallen into oblivion, and it is unclear whether it was his real name or a pseudonym.
Despite this, her work lives on in the University Library’s Special Collections, thanks to a recent gift from University of Adelaide alumnus Sally Goers Fox on behalf of the Goers family.
As Goers Fox explained, “The comics were brought from the internment camp by my great-uncle, Hermann Carl “Charlie” Goers, the editor of a local Barossa Valley newspaper, who was imprisoned alongside Friedrich due to his German background, although he was born in Australia.
“I have donated the comics to the University of Adelaide to ensure that the history of the camps and the experiences of the prisoners are remembered. It is appropriate that the comics be kept in the university library where they will be read, sought and enjoyed for years to come.
His gift, consisting of five small books, is the only complete collection of Friedrich’s five books known to exist.
The University Library’s Special Collections has digitized the five books, which are accessible via Adelaide Connect. Adelaide Connect is open access to historical resources, making these books accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Dr. Humphrey and Dr. Walsh published their findings in the International Review of Comic Book ArtVolume 22 number 2 (2021).