Book Review: Jan Soeken ‘Friends’
Friends by Jan Soeken, tells the story of two extremely naive German police officers who, in an ill-fated attempt to meet women, accidentally join a spin-off group of the Klu Klux Klan.
The graphic novel, which is based on a true story, was originally published in German by Avant-Verlag in 2014 before being translated and republished this year by Centrala. Jan Soeken read about the true events on which the book is based in a newspaper article when the information was released years after the events themselves.
“I was seriously shocked when I read the article.” Soeksen reveals. “Apparently they were questioned about their political views as part of the police investigation. They claimed that they weren’t racists and only joined the clan because, for example, they liked their religious views and the prospect of getting to know females! They didn’t get fired and are still in the German police force. At one point they complained about the initiation ritual, which took place in a forest. It was too remote, their robes got dirty and so on! Suddenly I just had to laugh really really hard. I right away thought it was a powerful setting for a narration.
All the surreal madness of the story accumulated in the image of these guys walking through the woods. I wanted to focus on that.
After reading the article, and whilst busy working on other project for a few months, a way of telling the story began to form in Jan’s mind. Building on this “randomly collaged” setting, Jan began fabricating some equally random additional details – such as a cage guarded by a three-legged dog – to create a complete story. The process of physically creating the the visuals took 6 months, two of which were spent working intensely for days on end. Interestingly, Jan chose not to create a storyboard for the complete novel, instead only sketching a few pages in advance at the one time, inventing the story organically as he went along.
The resulting graphic novel is simplistic story layered with dark humour, unspoken context and unexpected plot points.
Harsh visual contrast is used within the book’s aesthetic to highlight the contrast within the story; the balance between the humour which it evokes and dark history which it touches upon. Speaking about the books creation, Jan names striking this balance and a telling the controversial story in a sympathetic, delicate way as one of his main obstacles. “I thought a lot about how to tell the story because it is obviously very delicate.” continues Soeksen. “So, what interested me, was the question of what is comical about the whole thing, even though it is so fucked up. It was clear that it was not their racism that was funny to me. What I thought was comical, was them blocking out their racism so brutally, when they were interviewed. I wanted to go with that. So I knew I had to ignore the connotations of the image of two guys in Ku Klux Klan outfits while telling the story. It was not going to be about racism but about two friends and their adventure and the conflicts between them which arise. Simple as that.” You can order a copy of Friends by Jan Soeken here.