Let’s get the most pressing issue out of the way first, so we can understand what she’s talking about. The anorexia, the constant tormenting desire to eat until she’s full; and then the binges that make her want to vomit, though she’s too exhausted to manage it – BLAD is Regina Hofer’s account of the eating disorders that have plagued her since childhood. The book contains two stories of almost equal length, each narrated in a strict grid of four square panels per page, drawn in breathtaking black and white. The first of these stories confronts the reader with anorexia nervosa and bulimia, without any beating about the bush or regard for sensitivities. Above all, it shows what these illnesses can do to the inside of a person – both their gut and their psyche. »I’ve seen monsters!« the narrator says at one point.

The sparse but precisely written captions read like sober status reports. »I‘m hungry and afraid of eating.« Or: »Anorexics aren’t always thin.« They are accompanied by pictures of a woman, distorted and stiff-looking, who seems to be speaking the words in the panels, sometimes as an adult, then as a child or teenager. These are interspersed with pictures of quite different things, symbols and symbolic objects. One drawing is simply black. »At the time, I didn’t yet know why I was ashamed,« the caption reads. Regina Hofer finds wonderful pictorial expression for those things that can’t be drawn, producing images that are often ambiguous and thus allow the reader their own interpretation.

»This is me about two weeks ago,« the titular story begins, head-on. The first panel shows a face: indefinable, strange, in a bathroom. The tiles on the wall feature a repeating pattern of a circle with a dot at the center – a pattern that will return again and again, in a whole host of variations. It quickly becomes clear that Regina Hofer is telling her own story in an almost oppressive way, as forthright as it is intimate. »I think about food a lot,« she says. »What I’m allowed to eat today … If I’m allowed to eat today, or how much … But I already know that.« By the end, the reader has walked a mile in her shoes and is therefore equipped for the second part.

It’s almost paradoxical: only now, when you know the author’s state of mind, the labyrinth of her fears and her torment, do you realize that you’ve learned almost nothing about her. Yes, there is the claustrophobic atmosphere of her home, the Mühlviertel area of Linz in Austria where Regina Hofer was born and grew up, her problematic father. But beyond this, the elements which go to make up her personality, who she is, only come to light in the second part which is entitled »To War«, with reference to Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays. She moves to Salzburg and studies arts, majoring in graphic design at the Mozerteum, cuts the umbilical cord tying her to her parents‘ house and stand on her own two feet. Later, she will go on to work as a cartoon animator.

Blad, the title, is a derogatory colloquial Austrian word meaning »chubby« or »fat«. The girl pictured on the cover, however, looks slender, capturing in a single image the whole of the dilemma in which Regina Hofer is caught – something that, admittedly, you only understand after reading the book. BLAD is Hofer’s first graphic novel, and a masterful debut: she succeeds brillantly in making tangible and comprehensible even those things that can’t be shown or precisely named, and does so with a rare intensity. That‘s truly a great talent.

Regina Hofer: BLAD, Luftschacht Verlag, Wien 2018, 120 pages

(Books First: Comic/Graphic Novel, Goethe Institut 2019)

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