I really like the comics of Ralf König. The drawings are charming, the dialogues range from funny to hilarious and his books show the – maybe surprising – amount of humor woven into everyday spoken German.
Most of König’s work has a gay sensibility to it, painting a comedic picture of gay guys. While in Yaoi (“boys’ love”) manga the men are all overwhelmingly effeminate and in a lot of other gay comics the men are all ridiculously fit, König’s big-nosed queens are primarily goofy. They tend to be superficial, a bit too heavy on the drugs and sex and obsessed with masculinity while they cackle like hens, lusting after those more butch than them. Not exactly the gays-next-door you see these days on Looking and a caricature for sure, but they allow König to reflect on the stereotypical gay scene. Crucially, the main characters stay likeable despite their flaws. The tone of some of his comics needs to be seen in context of the time they were made, as König has been publishing since the 80’s. It’s a level playing field as not just the gay men get painted larger than life. Straight men tend to be boorish and stupid, especially the hot ones, and the women are either matronly or floozies (think Madonna-whore).
Not all of König’s work is available in English, unfortunately. There are The Killer Condom, Maybe, Maybe Not… and its sequel Maybe, Maybe Not Again! (not the best of titles) as well as Bull’s Balls, Roy & Al and To the Bones (sequel to The Killer Condom). I read König’s books in German as I think something of the original voice tends to get lost in translation, but as there is some dialect, I can only recommend that if you’re pretty fluent. An upside of the translations is that the lettering wasn’t done by König himself and is easier to read. König’s scribblings fit in more organically with his drawings, but can be hard to decipher, especially if German is not your first language to begin with. Some of the comics were adapted into movies: Der Bewegte Mann, Kondom des Grauens and Wie die Karnickel. If you want to get a look behind the drawing board, there is an interesting documentary called König des Comics.
Of the various characters König has created, my favorites are the couple Konrad and Paul. I like the juxtaposition of the high-cultured piano-teacher and the overly randy, short and hairy dude that he has found himself paired with. This against-the-odds loving duo is somewhat cynical but also sweet at the core. The two men sometimes annoy each other and their romantic interests and bodies may wander occasionally, but they naturally gravitate back to each other. Unfortunately, not all of the books focused on them have been translated. The main books are Ist Der Ruf Erst Ruiniert (collection of the first stories), Bullenklöten!, Superparadise, Sie Dürfen Sich Jetzt Küssen and most recently (2014) Raumstation Sehnsücht. Superparadise in particular is well done, the topics of death and HIV mixed skillfully with comedic beats. It absolutely deserves a translation and a wider audience.
Raumstation Sehnsücht is not the first Konrad & Paul volume you should read. Chronology is one reason, though you won’t be completely lost no matter where you start. But it is also not the best of the books. The main thread is that both Konrad and Paul encounter someone they could possibly fall for or fall in bed with. This plot has been done before by König and this book isn’t the smoothest execution of it. Another problem for me was that a raunchy scifi text written by Paul is inserted every so often. I’ve never been a fan of comics that drop in complete pages of regular text among the images. Not even in otherwise brilliant books like Watchmen and Strangers in Paradise. It’s a different reading rhythm and it disrupts the flow, in this case even more so for me because of the language barrier. Every full page of text would cause a sudden slowdown.
The conceit is that Paul’s fiction is influenced by what is happening in the real world – well, in Paul’s fictional real world, in any case. This is interesting in theory, but it doesn’t work so well. The scifi story is a bit simple, lacks forward momentum and doesn’t entertain as much as it should, considering the amount of time spent on it. Having said that – more Konrad & Paul will always be welcome, even if the dynamic has gotten familiar and the element of surprise is missing. Checking out Ralf König’s work is highly recommended, though Raumstation Sehnsücht may not be the optimal book to start with.