The German nineteenth-century artist Wilhelm Busch is regarded as one of the founders of modern-day comics. He pioneered several elements which have become staples of the medium, such as onomatopeia and expressive movement lines. His iconic series 'Max und Moritz' (1865), about two naughty young boys, was the first children's comic in history. Its success proved that young readers were the most important market for comics, which has been both a blessing as well as a curse for the medium. 'Max und Moritz' were translated all across the globe and inspired countless gag comics about mischievous children, some even blatant rip-offs like Rudolph Dirks' 'Der Katzenjammer Kids'. Because of their subversive tone Busch' series also became the first comics to be subject of a media scare. In some countries his work was even banned. Busch is the first significant German comics artist and therefore the historical starting point of all German-language comics that followed. He is also one of the few 19th-century comics artists whose work is still read today and recognizable to a large cultivated audience. Particularly in his home country he is revered with the same awe and respect usually reserved for novelists, writers and graphic artists.
Born in 1832 in Wiedensahl, Germany, he started studying mechanical engineering in Hanover in 1847. However, in 1851 -a few months before graduation- he dropped these studies in favor of a course in lithography in Düsseldorf. A year later, he moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where he continued his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but discontinued these too in 1853, after running out of money and suffering from tyfus. He did have the ability to study Flemish classical painters such as Frans Hals, Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers and Peter Paul Rubens. An attempt to continue his studies in Münich once again failed.
While in Münich, Busch met several artists with connections to magazines. Thanks to them he could publish cartoons and caricatures in the satirical newspapers Münchener Bilderbogen and Fliegende Blätter, which also enabled him to make a living. Initially influenced by the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer, Busch's art style eventually developed into a more fluid one, while his storytelling became more satirical. In 1865, he drew his "pictorial stories" with the characters 'Max und Moritz', two unscrupulous and sadistic boys. Historically 'Max und Moritz' are important for being one of the earliest comic strips and the birth point of German comics.
The stories can be classified as text comics, where the images were accompanied by rhyming couplets beneath, which explained what happened in the pictures. Busch also pioneered the use of onomatopeia, another element closely associated with comics, though he used them in the text rather than in the illustrations. Max and Moritz are also the earliest child characters in comics. Their antics caused controversy among some pedagogues, who felt their naughtiness made them bad role models for the youth. In some countries the stories were banned as a result. Yet, despite their anti-authoritarian streak, 'Max und Moritz' is still a moralistic tale. After their seventh prank, the boys are put inside a grain sack and mashed to death in a mill in Ebergötzen, after which their remains are eaten up by ducks.
Although the characters only appeared in one story (which consisted of seven episodes) 'Max und Moritz' were a smash success. Their adventures entertained audiences all throughout the German-speaking world and are still read to children to this day. Many parents named their twin sons after the characters. One of their celebrity fans was German emperor Wilhelm II who praised Busch's "exquisite works full of genuine humour", which he predicted would "last forever". Another fan was military pilot Manfred von Richthofen, better known as "The Red Baron", who named his pet dogs Max and Moritz. Even military material often carried the boys' names. Allied forces during World War II noticed that two German military cars in North Africa, as well as two self-propelled guns at the Eastern Front, had the names "Max" or "Moritz" written on the side of them. A proposed Focke-Wulf Ta 183 jet fighter was to be named "Hans Huckebein", after one of Busch's other characters, but never built. German composer Richard Mohaupt and choreographer Alfredo Bortoluzzi co-wrote a dance burlesque called 'Max und Moritz' in 1949.
'Max und Moritz' were not just a local phenomenon, though. Their antics were translated in over 30 languages and were the first foreign children's book to be imported and published in Japan in 1887. Even more significantly is the impact they had on gag comics centered around naughty children. Most notably, the American artist Rudolph Dirks based his 'Katzenjammer Kids' on the two mischievous boys, down to their designs and German accents. Harold Knerr further copied the copy with his series 'The Fineheimer Twins' (1903-1914) and 'The Captain and the Kids' (1914-1949). Comics such as George van Raemdonck's 'Bulletje en Boonestaak' (1922), Martin Branner's 'Perry and the Rinkydinks' (1923), Hergé's 'Quick and Flupke' (1930), Eugeen Hermans' 'Filipke en de Rakkers' (1933), Frans Piët's 'Sjors en Sjimmie' (1936), Ronald Searle's 'St. Trinians' (1946), José Escobar Saliente's 'Zipi y Zape' (1947), Willy Vandersteen's 'De Vrolijke Bengels' (1947), Marc Sleen's 'De Lustige Kapoentjes' (1950), David Law's 'Dennis the Menace and Gnasher' (1951), Barrie Appleby's 'Roger the Dodger' (1953), Leo Baxendale's 'Minnie the Minx' (1953) and 'The Bash Street Kids' (1954), Tome and Janry's 'Le Petit Spirou' (1987) and Urbanus and Dirk Stallaert's 'Plankgas en Plastronneke' (2004) can all be seen as the great-great grandchildren of Max and Moritz.
The artist is also significant for breathing life in his drawings. While his predecessors mostly drew characters frozen in one stiff motion, Busch had the ability to suggest movement, just by adding a few extra suggestive lines. This is most noteworthy in 'Der Virtuos' (1865), a story about a pianist. As the story progresses the musician plays faster and more energetic, which is very reminscent of later comic strips. In the story 'Bilder zur Jobsiade' (1872), a man is interrogated by twelve clergymen, which again shows a progression of different actions. German painter August Macke, most famous as part of the "Blaue Reiter" movement, said that Busch's skills in capturing time and movement make him almost a predecessor to the early 20th century art movement Futurism.
Bilder zur Jobsiade (1872)
Busch drew several other picture-stories: 'Drei Bilderbogen' (1860-62), 'Bilderpossen' (1864), 'Die Kühnen Müllerstöchter' (1868), 'Pater Filuzius' (1872), 'Die Fromme Helene' (1872), 'Dideldum!' (1874), 'Flipps der Affe' (1879), 'Mahler Klecksel' (1884), 'Von mir über mich' (1879), 'Eduards Traum' (1891), 'Der Schmetterling' (1895), 'Zu Guter Letzt' (1904), 'Hernach' (1908) and the posthumous released 'Schein und Sein'. Several of these proto-comics featured satirical attacks against the Church and hypocritical moral guardians. One of his stories, 'Der Heilige Antonius of Padua' (1870), was accused of "vilificating religion and offending public decency" and banned. While the publisher Moritz Schauenberg was acquitted in 1871, he refused to bring out more of Busch's books. In Austria the comic remained banned until 1902.
Busch's trilogy with the character 'Tobias Knopp' is also ranked among his best-known work. We follow the main character, a prototype of the wealthy philistine, in his search for a wife, and his subsequent first steps in marriage and fatherhood. The series consists of the stories 'Abenteuer eines Junggesellen' (1875), 'Herr und Frau Knopp' (1876) and 'Julchen' (1877). He also contributed about 50 "Münchener Bilderbogen" to this series of popular prints by the Verlag Braun und Schneider.
Apart from being a graphical artist, Busch was also a poet, playwright and collector of folk tales. He was so famous that he became the first comics artist to have a biography published about him, while he was still alive, in 1886. The book, 'Über Wilhelm Busch und seine Bedeutung' ('About Wilhelm Busch and His Importance') praised the artist, but still Busch felt some things needed to be corrected. He wrote his own essay, 'Von mir über mich', which consequently also makes him the first comics artist in history to publish an autobiography. He died in 1908, after battling alcoholism for many decades.
Busch never really recognized the historical value of his comics. He deemed his poetry, plays and paintings far superior and regarded his comics as worthless children's entertainment, whose only value lay in the public demand. In 1930, fans and admirers of Busch founded the Wilhelm Busch society. Seven years later, they turned his former house in Hanover into a museum. It can still be visited today. Apart from Busch's own work the museum also harbors satirical illustration work by many of the most famous illustrators, cartoonists and comics artists in the world.
In 1978 two animated TV specials were produced around 'Max und Moritz', with narration by Heinz Rühmann. Among the people who worked on this special was Harold Whitaker. In 1984 the Max und Moritz Preis was established, an award for comics artists. Busch's name also lives on in the annual satirical literature award: the Wilhelm Busch Prize, that was established in 2006. In 2003 Germany organized the "Unsere Besten" contest, where people could vote for "The Greatest German". Wilhelm Busch was elected to a 118th place. Together with Loriot (Victor von Bülow) at number 54, he was the only comic artist in that list.
Busch's drawings were also a source of inspiration for Walt Disney's animators, particularly when creating adaptations of European fairy tales. The raven in Busch's story 'Hans Huckebein' (1867), for instance, inspired the design of the raven who listens to the Wicked Witch in 'Snow White'.