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Conflicting Desires In Matthias Lehmann’s Parallel

Writer & artist: Matthias Lehmann
Translator: Ivanka Hahnenberger
Design: Carey Soucy
Editor: Chris Cerasi
Oni Press
$29.99 / 458 pages

Matthias Lehmann’s Parallel is an exploration of identity and the need for connection with family and friends and how that need is impacted by society and government. After many hard years of manual labor work Karl Kling’s retirement is at hand and he will have nothing but time on his hands. An evening celebration finds Karl being both affable and vague with his envious work friends despite an underlying apprehension about his future. Afterwards Karl reflects with his closest friend Adam about an estranged relationship that he feels powerless to mend yet wants to do just that. The next morning finds Karl looking through a box of old photos and reminiscing about his past; a past which saw Karl leading a double life out of necessity. Both sides brought him joy and also heartache by trying to have it all before everything inevitably came crashing down time and again. Competing and conflicting desires are the crux of Karl’s double life: one part of Karl wanted a family while another part desperately wanted romance and sex with other men.

In his younger days Karl is at times wistful, tender, and happy but these feelings are fleeting. Rather, Lehmann is unsparing in showing how afraid, tenuous, angry, and bitter he can be when circumstances arise to infringe upon or thwart his emotional desires or deliver blows to his ego. To Karl’s alienated daughter Hella he’s a selfish person. For his former wife Lilo he was a source of momentary joy and also hurt and betrayal. From the point of view of arguably his first lover, Paul, he’s a coward for going back to his wife instead of attempting some sort of relationship. In his father in law’s eyes Karl is a disgrace and degenerate, proclaiming that a few short years before he’d have been executed. To the man in the street whose gaze Karl meets he is a furtive stranger in search of sex. To best friend Adam and his coworkers he’s simply a man who likes his privacy. To the post World War II German government Karl is a target because the infamous Paragraph 175 is still law during the four decade span in which Lehmann has set Karl’s story.

What makes Karl’s life an engrossing story is the evolution of his character conveyed in a non linear fashion as Lehmann cuts back and forth between earlier periods in Karl’s life when he was often miserable and his present day with a more mellowed and introspective attitude coupled with the desire to make amends and finally to be himself. Along the way Lehmann creates other glimpses into queer life which speak to the persistence of queer people despite oppressive realities. These include a pivotal relationship with found family that creates a measure of comfort in addition to the realities of male prostitution.

The look and feel of the period setting is captured perfectly by Lehmann’s elegant line work and grey washes. This is especially true of the sequences taking place during the 1940s and 1950s. Karl and the cast of characters are brought to life with a fluid, gestural energy that appears to be deceptively effortless. The style evoked pleasant memories from my youth of visits to my grandparents’ home and looking through slim hardcover books filled with the work of various cartoonists. All but two of those cartoonists’ names are lost to time: Charles Addams, most well known as the creator of the Addams Family, and Al Hirschfeld, famous for his celebrity caricature portraits. Those books gave me the first glimmer into both art being something more than 1960s style Dick and Jane children’s books as well as some small sense of the past, something more than the daily pop culture cartoon imagery of my childhood, if only from a generation or two before.

Illustration from the back cover.

Parallel belongs to, what is to my knowledge, a small list of graphic fiction available in English that explores the experiences of queer love and identity in twentieth century Germany. Jason Lute’s epic Berlin offers insights into queer life and society in the Weimar Republic leading up to its decline in recounting the intertwined relationships of Anna Lencke, Marthe Muller, and Kurt Severing. Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings’ short story “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.” was published at The Nib in January 2019. Beck’s plan to rescue his first boyfriend Manfred Lewin from a pre-deportation camp failed only because Lewin ultimately chose not to leave his family behind. Beck went on numerous more missions and found love and a relationship with another resistance fighter. Liebestrasse by Greg Lockard and Hector Barros relates the tragic story of American banker Sam meeting and falling in love with German art critic Philip as the Weimar Republic falls and is replaced by the fascist Nazi government.

Parallel will be of interest if any of the above stories resonated with you or if you have an affinity for period fiction or LGBTQA history. Parallel may have excaped your notice since it was among the numerous graphic novels and anthology comics vying for attention in bookstores and comic shops this past June during Pride month. The original German edition of Lehmann’s Parallel was published by Reprodukt in October 2021 and the following year was nominated for a GINCO award (German Inclusive Independent Comic Award (GINCO) for best print work. It is available for the first time in English thanks to the work of Ivanka Hahnenberger and US publisher Oni Press. Parallel seems to be the sole work by Lehmann translated into English and one can hope for other existing or future work to be available in English.

Look for a copy in your local comic shop or bookstore. Ask your bookstore to order a copy using this ISBN: 9781637151006 or order a copy from Bookshop. If all else fails, order a copy from Amazon.

This belated review is a result of personal matters and should not be seen as reflecting negatively on the quality of the work.

September 6, 2023
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