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Reviewed by:
  • Kafka im Comic by Christopher Hohlbaum
  • Rosie MacLeod
Christopher Hohlbaum, Kafka im Comic. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2015. 450pp.

Christopher Hohlbaum’s doctoral thesis defends the comic-ized forms of Franz Kafk a’s Die Verwandlung, claiming these are not secondary but self-sealed primary texts and deserving of mature academic attention. The visual and textual in Kafka, Hohlbaum claims, cannot be separated, and moreover the resultant comic is a primary text to its author but only a secondary text in relation to the Kafka original. Hohlbaum identifies three specific types of Kafka comic translations: faithful visualisations of Die Verwandlung, those that incorporate his text indirectly, and carnivalesque sequences of Kafk aesque panels. The seminal example of the first category, Hohlbaum concludes, is the 1993 English-language Crumb-Mairowitz comic Kafka for Beginners, whose status as a point of reference to subsequent comic adaptations derived simply from its popularity.

Hohlbaum opens his thesis with the letter Kafka sent to his editor to protest Ottomar Starke’s original cover illustration, which depicted the Käfer: Kafka did not wish Gregor Samsa’s new form be disambiguated on any grounds. He was by no means opposed to the inclusion of illustrations and suggested pictures of the Samsa household outside Gregor’s door or at the threshold to an eerie-looking room. Naming Samsa’s newly acquired form at the outset of his dissertation immediately equips Hohlbaum’s reader with an icon for Die Verwandlung and strengthens their appreciation for his arguments defending the novella’s visualization. This is key to Hohlbaum’s argument, since the more conservative scholars who oppose visualizations of Kafk a invariably do so on the grounds of his wish not to show the beetle.

Even those who are distinctly disinterested in depictions of Kafk a, such as the critic Will Self, acknowledge his visual aspects. Self, on being contacted for this review, acknowledges that “Kafka was attuned to the melding of a new subjectivity out of mediatisation” and as such the Samsas’ house “is best conceived of as a camera.” There is no denying that Kafka’s work emulates the style of silent films, contemporaneous to the writing of the work and evoked in most comic adaptations by black-and-white illustrations. Already we see the blurring of intermedial borders, barriers Hohlbaum calls to be seriously reassessed.

Kafka im Comic is primarily an extensive examination of the borders between media or rather of pushing and ultimately eliminating them. His argument for the increasingly blurred intermedial borders is based on Flusser’s [End Page 134] meaning spectrum, in which a concept transfers from author thought to page to reader thought wherein it is finally visualized, thus blurring the line between the artist and reader’s interpretive function. A picture merges reader with artist and artist with writer: It is read in the same way as the Kafka text from which it cannot be divorced, and it externalizes the reader’s mental picture of the Kafka they absorb from the page. The comic book picture physicalizes the reader’s interpretation of the word on the page and simultaneously the final link in the labyrinthine chain of Kafka interpretations, itself a physical externalization and documentation of the meaning spectrum on which Hohlbaum’s argument relies.

Hohlbaum refers to Hans Fronius’ 1931 illustration of Die Verwandlung’s renowned opening clause. As Hohlbaum rightly points out, this came from a distinct sense of readiness to portray the beetle. Surprisingly, Hohlbaum negates the significant fact that this sketch also shows Samsa despairing on the bed, thus incorporating the lone figure in Starke’s 1915 illustration, “Verzweiflung!,” the novel’s eventual first frontispiece. This renders the Fronius sketch not only labyrinthine and shaped by its predecessor but also a tangible node to which Kafka’s original text, Starke’s illustration, and the more modern explicit approach are brought. The Fronius sketch physicalizes the intertextual labyrinth of Kafka adaptations. Hohlbaum in addition overlooks the fact that Fronius’ despairing figure has the form of a stick insect, which emulates both Gregor and the vegetarian Kafka.

Hohlbaum’s argument disempowers the intermedial boundaries that communicate a message and simultaneously strengthens insoluble intertextual tensions, simply because...


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pp. 134-136
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