Sex, Death and Rock ’n’ Roll in Peter Pontiac’s Cartoons

When Peter Pontiac was ten years old, his aunt took him to a music shop to look for a guitar. At last it was all going to happen. But the shopkeeper gave him a disparaging look and told him to come back when his hands were bigger. He left the guitar shop disappointed. Before his hands were big enough, his aunt committed suicide. Pontiac became not a musician but a cartoon artist.

Peter Pontiac (Peter Pollmann, b. 1951 in the Netherlands) would still rather be a musician. He has been drawing now for more than forty years, but he would still like to strike a bargain with the devil and swap his pencil for a guitar. Speaking of the devil – he doesn’t exist in 2012, but in Pontiac’s Catholic childhood he was all over the place. Now the lord of darkness appears only in his comic strips, with a swishing tail and usually in the company of a group of pretty girls. It’s a good thing the devil has disappeared because otherwise Holland would have had to do without one of its finest draughtsmen. Pontiac creates strip cartoons, graphic novels and illustrations for newspapers, books and record sleeves. He has added something to the Dutch comic strip that was not there before: a combination of authorship skills and artistry. For this he was awarded the Marten Toonder Prize in 2011, the most important Dutch prize for comic strips (worth 25,000 euros) and intended for strip cartoonists who have made a contribution to Dutch heritage with their work.

For Pontiac, who had never had any training, the deciding factor was the record sleeve Cheap Thrills, which the American strip cartoonist Robert Crumb drew in 1968 for Big Brother & the Holding Company (which Janis Joplin once sang with). ‘A sign, a revelation. That you could have something like that on a record sleeve!’ It was a sleeve, but at the same time a strip cartoon. Every number was depicted visually. He wanted to do that too. He wanted to draw like Crumb, as an underground artist. The underground was unashamedly autobiographical and critical of society. In his early years Pontiac focussed on the themes to which he is still faithful: sex, death and music. In his opinion art has little do with anything other than sex and death. And in his case there is music too, or rather rock’n’ roll. Rebellious and mutinous music that really took hold of the general public in the sixties and is, of course, about sex and death. The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and later the Ramones: lots of lovely noise. Just as the rockers and punkers were doing their own thing without giving a damn about anybody else, that was how he wanted to draw. ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking too much space’, says Pontiac.

He drew his own lonely path. And that provided him with a multitude of faithful fans and national and international admiration. The Marten Toonder Prize is not the first accolade for Pontiac. He exhibited in Amsterdam, Angoulême, Brussels, Barcelona, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro. In October 2011 the collection 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die by Paul Gravett, was published (with a preface by Terry Gilliam). Pontiac is one of the seven Dutch cartoonists in it. Gravett recommends that everyone should be sure to read Kraut.

Kraut isn’t a strip cartoon in the classical sense of the word, with text balloons, but it is certainly a graphic novel. It’s designed in the same way as one of the very greatest of graphic novels, A Contract With God, by the American Will Eisner, who coined the term ‘graphic novel’. The drawings are no longer constantly imprisoned in frames, as in the usual strips, but can also stand free of the text. In this way Eisner demonstrated that text is an extension of image, a narrative bridge. The lettering is an important medium for the artist to give a page atmosphere, depth and dynamic. Therefore it is important that the lettering is not computer-originated but that the text is written in the hand of the artist. Pontiac took this advice of Eisner’s to heart. For Kraut he was even urged on by Eisner, who scribbled on a packet of cigarettes: ‘Please keep going. Do a graphic novel too… I need company it’s too lonely out there.’ Pontiac had already carried the idea in his head for a long time. He speaks about it an interview in 1983. Even strip cartoons need time to incubate. Kraut did not appear until 2000.

Kraut is a letter to his father, a biographical work, as he himself says. It’s a long letter because he has an awful lot of questions. To begin with: where is his father? He disappeared in 1978 in Daaibooi Beach, on Curaçao. Only the car he had hired was found, along with all his personal belongings. The key was still in the ignition. If he deliberately wanted to disappear why? Was it a staged vanishing trick? Had he become unwell while swimming? And there are other unanswered questions. His father was an SS Storm trooper in the Second World War. He worked as a War Reporter for the Waffen-SS. What did he find so attractive in national socialism? Why was he a fascist? In Kraut Pontiac provides himself and his readers with pictorial answers. In Kraut we see the answers to the questions we read. We see his father walking into the sea, though whether that is exactly how it happened we don’t know. There are witnesses who saw someone walking into the sea. But Pontiac is a master in the art of asking questions. Was it his father they saw, or was it a different middle-aged white man? Beneath a fragment from the police report (‘It is not known whether Mr J.J.A. Pollmann could swim’) we see the skeleton of Mr Pollmann stuck between the rocks. He still has his glasses on. Image and text vie with each other and that is what makes Kraut so exceptional. The tension between the questions and the answers, between text and image increases enormously. This design makes Kraut a masterpiece, a book that you must indeed read before you die, the best graphic novel in Dutch. Drawings and text complement each other and contradict each other at the same time. Pontiac tests the limits of his story and the story of his father as well as the limits of the comic strip medium.

Pontiac’s style of writing and drawing is baroque. Almost every plate is a treasure chest which he fills with as much information as possible. ‘Nothing’s lovelier than a drawing where there’s a lot to see’, he says. What distinguishes this book from most graphic novels is that the text is equally ambitious and baroque. Pontiac is not content just to write. His father is neither a drowned person nor a drunkard, but a victim of the sea ‘a prey of Poseidon’. The book is mercilessly frank. Every aspect of his father’s life is touched on. Pontiac quotes from his diaries and does not hide his affairs with other women. Pontiac waited for publication until after the death of his mother. ‘It also had something to do with her “feeling for Germany”.’

When Pontiac started to create comic strips in the late sixties they were open-hearted stories, but mainly about his own life, his addiction and his relationships. He observes and questions himself and the world at large. Why do we do what we do? The world could come to an end at any time. Pontiac doesn’t see any horsemen of the Apocalypse, but tanks of destruction. ‘I am sailing on the Styx.’ His longer story Requiem Fortissimo, from 1985, is exquisite and taut but far from joyful. It is jet black romantic, which indicates a preference for the sublime wherein desire and suffering, pleasure and pain, blend into shivering enjoyment. It is pain of the world, pain about the world. Just like Nescio’s Young Titans, Pontiac wants to do everything differently. He wants to use not only reason but also his feelings and imagination as the norm. To that principle he has remained true. He is lord of a rainy kingdom, where the sun shines now and then. ‘I’m pessimistic about the world, but not about life.’

By Gert Jan Pos
Translated by Sheila M. Dale

First published in The Low Countries, 2012