Germany during the war. What did people see? What did people say or not say? What did people do? Those are the questions at the heart of Barbara Yelin’s beautifully drawn new graphic novel Irmina, which takes on one of the most distressing questions of the Second World War; the complicity of the German people in what was carried out in their name.

Yelin,,who was born in Munich in 1977, has delved into the past of her country and her own family to tell a story that covers decades but never loses sight of the smallest details of what it means to be human. The result is potent and painful.

For Graphic Content, Yelin talks about the book’s origins, the research she undertook and the power of the comic strip.

What is the origin of your graphic novel Irmina? Is her story based on your grandmother’s?

Ten years ago, I found a box with letters and diaries, stuffed under a cupboard, around the things of my late grandmother. Combing these, they made me realise that there was a period of her life, when she was a young woman in the 1930s, that she hadn't told us about, or at least very little.

I started to profoundly try to put her story together through these little pieces, like a puzzle. But there were many missing parts, so I started doing specific archive research and also a lot of general historical research about that time, the 1930s in England and later in Berlin, to combine and imagine a possible reconstruction.

But the book isn’t a biography. The general question which drove me is how was someone like her, who seemed to be such a modern, ambitious young woman, was changed so much by the culture, betraying her former dreams and beliefs? It became a novel, a character study, in which I used a lot of artistic license.

HeraldScotland:

 
What kind of research did you have to do to undertake to tell the story?

Aside from the family documents I did a lot of historic research via archives, books, all kind of digital archives and the internet. I also had the advice of Dr Alexander Korb [Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies], who also wrote the afterword, which was a very essential help. But there is also a kind of artistic research just by the act of drawing itself.

To imagine and find out about Irmina’s possible actions and reactions I also had to start to draw her, showing different scenes, from different angles. Dialogues and behaviour - hers and other characters - developed more and more when I saw how my protagonists look and behave.

Making a drawing is always to think about a background, surroundings, about clothes, materials, furniture, architecture and so on. This urges you to go back to research, and this brings you again back to the circumstances of the time and what did people see (and what they didn’t want to see) and how did they behave. The drawing itself is an important process for me to climb into the story.

How long did it take to draw?

The research, building the story, doing the storyboards (different versions) needed maybe two years. The final drawing needed less, about one and a half years. But as a freelancer you have of course to do some other work and commissions in between, so it’s never a process without interruption.

HeraldScotland:

What does working in the comics form allow you to do that maybe prose would not?

Well, I’m not sure if it’s true to say that comics are able to do anything that prose is not. But I think they can perfectly reach a similar intensity and profundity – but in a very different way, by using different tools.

By drawing, it is of course wonderfully possible to conjure the atmosphere of the story and the time. And using the speech balloons, all dialogues have to be precisely on the point.

In my comic, there was an important aspect, too, which I wanted to show by my drawings: the absence of words, and the fact of looking away by the protagonist.

My most important scenes are trying to tell the fact that people like Irmina and her German husband have been ignoring. They could have known about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Also afterwards, in the 1980s, Irmina was not able to speak about her memories. For the absence of words there is for example a very visible tool in the comics language: an empty speech balloon. I tried to make the fact of looking away visible in my drawings.

Also, the sequence of the panels is just a magic tool to provoke the readers’ imagination and thoughts: the gap, the gutter, between the panels is always to be filled by the reader, and so he or she dives into the story too.

Irmina by Barbara Yelin is published by SelfMadeHero, priced £16.99. You should read it as soon as you can because it is very good.