Fritz Gareis Jr.’s Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens (literally, “Broadsheet of the Little Life,” but a better loose rendering might be “Scenes from ordinary life”) may well be the first regularly appearing continental European comic strip with speech balloons, and is almost certainly the first in German. The strip, which always consisted of six panels, first appeared in the left-liberal Viennese weekly newspaper Der Götz von Berlichingen on 2 November 1923, introducing Herr and Frau Riebeisel (or Riebeisl—the last ‘e’ was soon added in the series’ subtitles, but usually remained absent in the characters’ speech balloons). In their first adventure, the young couple buy an adorable puppy who quickly grows absurdly and dangerously large; they have to sell him back to the breeder, who can resell him as a “comfortable steed” (a Komfortabel was a one-horse carriage).
Already by the following week, Gareis had figured out how to wrangle speech balloons and letter them more intelligibly. The stage was set for further disasters to come.
“Riebeisel” is a dialect word for a grater or rasp, such as a cheese grater. The Riebeisels seem to be middle-class, teetering precariously on the edge of poverty in the middle of Austria’s post-World War I economic troubles, but trying hard to keep up appearances. Thanks to inflation, the Austrian Krone was worth little; a copy of Der Götz von Berlichingen, eight pages of newsprint, cost 2,000 Kronen in 1924, and the Riebeisels regularly mention sums in the millions of Kronen for food, clothing and other everyday purchases. This situation lasted until currency reform was imposed, and from 1 March 1925 the Krone was replaced by the Schilling; the price of Der Götz became 20 Groschen, or one-fifth of a Schilling. All that this meant for the Riebeisels was that they were usually broke in a new currency.
Gareis was a painter’s son and a painter himself, and a master of realistic depiction, but his Riebeisel strips are drawn in a loose, sketchy but expressive and energetic pen style midway between Rodolphe Töpffer and Jules Feiffer. Herr Riebeisel himself is a masterpiece of character design: with his Oscar Wilde haircut, his toothbrush moustache (which unlike Chaplin’s or Hitler’s is clearly parted in the middle), his ever-present monocle and spats and elegant outfits highlighting his svelte figure, he is a dandy through and through—though sadly he generally turns out to be incompetent at almost anything, hobby, sport or job, he turns his hand to. One strip depicts him at his office as, ironically, a bank director (29 Feb. 1924, 4), but this job never manifests itself so concretely again. Frau Riebeisel is more generic, a pretty blonde whose reaction to almost any situation, including the dire need to economize, is to buy a new dress or hat, or an entirely new wardrobe. Their large heads relative to their bodies are a key to their essentially childlike characters; resisting temptation is largely foreign to them. After only three months’ adventures as a couple, Frau Riebeisel announces her pregnancy on 25 January 1924, giving birth to twins—a boy and a girl—the next week. The babies have become toddlers only a month later, are uttering intelligible words on 7 March, and speak in full sentences on 11 April, when they appear to be four or five years old. By 3 May, they look between eight and ten, and are capable of Max and Moritz-like mischief; they start school on 3 October. They then refuse to grow any further. How Gareis hit upon this common principle of child figures in comic strips, like his inspiration for taking up an American-style speech-balloon dominated strip, remains unknown. Curiously, although they closely resemble their respective parents, the children are more realistically proportioned, with smaller heads; we eventually learn that they are named Hansl and Gretl. The elder Riebeisels remain nameless, only referring to each other with endearments such as “Schatzi” and the quintessentially Austrian “Schatzerl,” both diminutive forms of the word for “treasure.”
The strip’s great charm lies largely in the characters’ expressions and gestures as they deal with largely self-made crises; recurring themes include the couple’s inability to be on time for trains or shows, often due to Frau Riebeisel’s having to go through her entire wardrobe; Herr Riebeisel’s vain attempts to rein in his wife’s spending, which often end up costing more than doing nothing would have; family outings or evenings out as a couple, which generally end in disaster one way or another; and Herr Riebeisel’s infidelities. Both Riebeisels are easily distracted by attractive members of the opposite sex, in fact, although only Herr Riebeisel goes out of his way to cheat; Frau Riebeisel, however, frequently goes off on another man’s arm, leaving her husband in some predicament. They regularly threaten each other with divorce, but the one time they actually meet with a divorce lawyer, they end up reconciling by ganging up against him (25 April 1924, 4).
Although Der Götz von Berlichingen was an openly political satirical paper—its motto was “eine lustige Streitschrift gegen Alle,” or “a humorous polemic against everybody”—Gareis’s Bilderbogen was generally apolitical, with only occasional references to current political figures, to anti-Semitism or to German National Socialism (both of which the paper regularly criticized in no uncertain terms). The Bilderbogen was clearly a popular feature, appearing in every single issue, usually on page four; now and then the strip mentions the Riebeisels as stars of “Der Götz,” and as Bernhard Denscher points out, they were well-known enough that they appeared in advertisements for Aristophon radio receivers. In one tongue-in-cheek article, the paper itself suggests that the Riebeisels “rank with the great figures of contemporary literature: [Thomas Mann’s] Buddenbrooks, [Leo Tolstoy’s] Anna Karenina, [Gerhart Hauptmann’s] Rose Bernd, and [Oswald Spengler’s] Decline of the West” (1 Aug. 1924, 7)!
Unfortunately, after less than two years of producing the strip, Fritz Gareis passed away suddenly on 5 October 1925, just over two weeks short of his 53rd birthday. In his 101st, and last, Bilderbogen strip, on 25 September, the Riebeisels fear that their house is being burgled—it appears that Herr Riebeisel wears his monocle even in bed!—but the noise turns out to be only their housekeeper’s lover.
Gareis’s colleagues posted his obituary in Der Götz von Berlichingen on 9 October, with a caricature of the artist. And the adventures of the Riebeisels came to an end, at least for a short while.
A lengthy article by Eckart Sackmann and Harald Havas is devoted to the strip in the 2009 volume of Sackmann’s Deutsche Comicforschung. Gareis’s entire run of the strip is available in digitalized form at the website of the Austrian National Library/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
Denscher, Bernhard. “Fritz Gareis junior.” Austrian Posters: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Visuellen Kommunikation. 28 April 2015. http://www.austrianposters.at/2015/04/28/fritzgareisjunior/
“Riebeisels fahren Schlitten.” Der Götz von Berlichingen 31 (1 Aug. 1924): 7.
Sackmann, Eckart, and Harald Havas. “Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens: Familie Riebeisel.” Deutsche Comicforschung 2009. Hildesheim: Comicplus+ Verlag Sackmann und Hörndl, 2008. 51-61.