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Arne Bellstorf: The Smallest Unit of Life

Work / Illustration

“We’re all telling stories, all the time”: Arne Bellstorf on his latest comic, The Smallest Unit of Time

German illustrator Arne Bellstorf fell in love with his craft at an early age. He thinks back fondly to long afternoons at his grandma’s house during childhood, countless sunlit afternoons flying by in a whirr, a blur of comic creations and putting together his own super-DIY board games. Like many of us, he decided to funnel these youthful enthusiasms into the academic world, studying communication design, where he discovered an aptitude for constructing visually-oriented works with a long-form narrative. Or comics, to you and us.

Despite still being best known internationally for his comics – which include Baby’s in Black the 2017 graphic novel which focused on The Beatles’ time in Hamburg, the city Arne calls home – his practice now incorporates identities (for the likes of the German Comics Association) and regular editorial commissions for Die Zeit, when speaking to It’s Nice That, he says he feels like he’s shifted more towards illustration and graphic design.

That being said, it was a recent 28-page comic which reminded us of why we like Arne and his clean and precise visual world so much. Titled The Smallest Unit of Life Arne’s new comic is a small, strange, charming thing. Clocking in at just 24 pages, it concerns itself with life at a molecular level. A literal and metaphorical micro-narrative, it is a timely reminder that all of us are bodies – and bodies composed of 37.2 trillion individual cells, at that – and that the physical impacts on the mental, and vice-versa.

It is also a great example of how Arne, and other cartoonists, use the form to approach broad, difficult and ultimately human concerns, a million miles away from the Marvel universe. The whole idea of cartooning is actually a very abstract and intellectual approach of looking at and communicating things," he says. “It feels like writing very complex hieroglyphs, like developing your own sign language based on a kind of collective semiotic knowledge.”

Paraphrasing the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Arne says that when it comes to elucidating what exactly it is he’s trying to communicate and convey in his body of work: “To me, the medium is always part of the message. I think that’s why I chose comics to communicate. They have always, or at least a long time, existed outside every art canon, and I liked that because it felt like walking off the beaten path, working with a non-established aesthetics and put it into a different context.

“We’re all telling stories, all the time, it’s probably been there since the dawn of mankind, since the first cave paintings and the beginning of visual communication,” Arne says when we gently probe him about the centrality of narratology to the human race. “I think it’s fascinating how we can’t really escape our search for meaning in things we see and experience, that we’re trying to make sense out of even the most incoherent things. Our brain just seems to be made for that, and without our ability to communicate with very complex visual languages we definitely wouldn’t have ruled this planet for so long.”

He notes, quite accurately, that storytelling is one of the few things left that AI can’t do properly, but then adds that he’d be “curious to read a graphic memoir by a robot.”

Then again, wouldn’t we all?

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Arne Bellstorf: The Smallest Unit of Life

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Arne Bellstorf: The Smallest Unit of Life

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Arne Bellstorf: The Smallest Unit of Life

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Arne Bellstorf

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Arne Bellstorf

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Arne Bellstorf