This week’s webcomic originates out of Germany and has a unique twist on the superhero genre: it’s a photocomic. Union of Heroes is a serialized photocomic that follows Marc, the Erzengel from his world to a parallel Earth where he must take over for his missing counterpart, a superhero who can manipulate metals. Clever photography and special effects give this photocomic the look and feel of a run-of-the-mill superhero comic, but there is nothing ordinary about Union of Heroes.
While it has been translated into English from German, and there may be a bit of a road bump here and there in grammar or syntax, it will in no way alienate readers. I found the story compelling and the pacing just right. If I had to pick, my favorite aspect of the comic is that you do get angles, expressions, and even the cheesy dialogue you would want from such a story; however, it is not done as a parody of the genre, but as a sincere portrayal of the characters. Arne Schulenberg, the creator of Union of Heroes, was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the production of his comic and the significance of super heroes in Germany.
Kelly Melcher: Would you please introduce yourself and tell us how you became interested in creating webcomics?
Arne Schulenberg: My name is Arne Schulenberg, I am 33 years old and I work as a freelance graphic designer, copywriter and comic producer in Dortmund, Germany. I am a longtime reader and collector of print comics. Mainly American superhero stuff but also a huge bunch of European comics, many graphic novels and lots of cartoons — my parents started collecting comics before I was born. Somewhere around 2002 I started reading webcomics, too.
One thing which always annoyed me: There were no stories about superheroes from Germany that were not parodies. I wanted to change this but my drawing style was not “heroic” enough for the stories I am trying to tell. But then one day photographer Jens Sundheim, a classmate from university, approached me and proposed that we could do a project together. I told him that the best idea would be to create a photographed webcomic about superheroes from Germany: Union der Helden/Union of Heroes! A little research without any result later, we came to the conclusion that we were planning to create the only superhero photocomic regularly published on the web. This was the last argument I needed to convince Jens of the sheer brilliance/lunacy of my idea and so we started to make our necessary preparations.
KM: How does Union of Heroes go from an idea in your head to the story we enjoy on the website?
AS: At the beginning of the project I created some short storylines. Now I follow these ideas and create my storyboards from photoshooting to photoshooting. The storyboards are rough sketches of the pages we later see in the comic. Then the pictures for these pages are photographed “on set” with the actors. Normally our photo shoots last one, sometimes two days. The resulting photos are enough for 10 to 28 pages.
Jens produces more than 1000 photos during these shootings. Almost every motive is photographed between 10 and 20 times. Facial expressions, for example: we always try to bring our actors to the point where they look exactly like we want them to look. That can take quite a while depending on what they have to say in the particular scene — but it really has to fit! Otherwise it would either look overacted or unrealistic or plain silly. Thus far I think that most of the time we have managed to avoid these pitfalls. After the photo shoot I choose the best pictures and place them into the pages. Then Jens does his work in Photoshop — cleaning the photos and changing the colors so that the pictures fit together. After that I create the special effects, choose the exact position of the speech bubbles, translate the German words into English, save everything for the web, and upload the pages to the website.
KM: How many people have been involved in Union of Heroes so far?
AS: Oh quite a few… Two photographers, two illustrators, one programmer, one costume designer, 10 “main” actors, a huge number of supporting actors, and 21 guest artists for our “interludes” between the main episodes.
KM: In the US superhero comics are quite common. What is the cultural significance of a super hero comic in Germany?
AS: Well… you may have seen the guest lecture I did with my character “The One Who Knows” for the webcomic “Surviving the World” a few days back. It’s a sad fact that we don’t have any superhero comics on our own here in Germany.
We only have translations: Marvel, DC, etc. The few original superhero comics we have are parodies — and they are lame. The reasons for this are historical ones: back in the days of World War II where in America the superheroes were used to support the troops — over here in Germany most caricatures and comics were banned by the Nazi regime. After WWII when the first superhero comics where imported to Germany, the “Seduction of the innocent” debate accompanied them. In America this debate aimed at brutal crime and horror comics and lead to the comic book censorship crusade and the formation of the Comics Code Authority which brought the end to most of these horror titles. Remember: these comics did not even exist in Germany! But the Germans conveyed this debate to comic books in general! Sad and stupid, but true. Thus led to another generation of non-comic-readers.
So there are at the least two generations of comic readers and creators missing over here. Combine this with the fact that the “superhero” image is heading in a similar direction like the superior Aryan image of the Third Empire… It’s quite understandable that most German comic artists of the past did not start to create superhero stories.
Today we have quite a lot of talented artists over here who create great comics, funny cartoons or self-centred black and white stories about their daily life — or all of it in combination! It’s not a joke when I say that the American comic underground is the German comic mainstream — and vice versa!
KM: What do you enjoy most about creating Union of Heroes?
AS: I love the photoshoots with the actors and photographers [doing] their best to bring my little sketches to life. Seeing my visions come true in a way like this is absolutely amazing. And of course we have lots of fun during these photoshootings, too.
KM: What is the future of Union of Heroes?
AS: Hopefully it is a great and long one! We finished our first 1 1/2 years now. But just take a look: These first episodes represent only one day in the life of Marc, the new Erzengel and some other heroes — together with some flashbacks. This is only the first day, the first characters! Later I want to see heroes from all over Germany fighting for the Union of Heroes! Not only in the Ruhr area where we started our story. But also in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, etc. There are lots of cool places with background stories for unique superheroes here. And there are still lots of untold stories waiting for our readers…
KM: At Fandomania, we like to know what sorts of things are you a fan of?
AS: I am a comic addict. Hence I am a fan of the German comic artists Flix and Mawil. I adore the work of Scott McCloud, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Goscinny and Uderzo, Morris, Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, Will Eisner, Bill Willingham and Marc Buckingham, Craig Thompson, Waren Ellis, Moebius/Giraud, Bilal and many, many more.
Online I follow most of my fellows of the Webcomic Planet Collective (My favorites there are my two superhero pals: Johnny Saturn by Scott and Benita Story and Heroes Inc. by Scott Austin), the creators of the Flight anthologies, Wapsi Square by Pablo Wapsi, Questionable Content by Jeff Jacques, Girls with Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto, Goblins by Thunt and again many, many more.
I am a big fan of the old Star Wars trilogy and I have collected Star Wars merchandise for many years. I really enjoy watching The Simpsons and Heroes on TV and I have all the episodes of Babylon 5 and most of the films of Studio Ghibli on DVD.
On behalf of myself and my associates here at Fandomania I would like to say: Danke schön! Thank you Arne for taking the time to answer my questions.
All pictures here were used with permission of Arne Schulenberg and can be found at UnionOfHeroes.com.