US-born cartoonist draws the Zurich crowds

Mike can see Zurich through a foreigner's eyes. Mike van Audenhove/Edition Moderne

The people of Zurich have spent the past decade chuckling at their own quirks in a popular newspaper comic strip by the artist known as Mike.

This content was published on April 18, 2006 - 16:12

The illustrator, who was born in the United States but who has lived most of his life in Switzerland, believes his insider-outsider status is the perfect platform to send up Zurich society.

This year Mike van Audenhove celebrates the tenth anniversary of his weekly "Zürich by Mike" comic strip in the Tages-Anzeiger's züritipp section.

The occasion represents the realisation of a boyhood dream for Mike, who first began drawing comic characters at the age of 12.

Zürich by Mike takes a satirical look at the city's underbelly. It reflects local views on topical subjects through the eyes of fictitious characters such as football fan Grizzly and the family Huber.

The comic strip has attained a cult status in the city. Its creator believes cartoons have a greater significance than merely frivolous drawings for children.

"Comic strips are a mirror that allows people to look at themselves and accept their foibles and weaknesses," he told swissinfo.

"My work often has moral connotations, but I think humour is a good way of putting that across. People don't need to read philosophy books to figure out what is happening in society."

Outsider

Mike was born in 1957 in North Carolina to Belgian immigrant parents, moved to Switzerland when he was ten, returned to the States to study at college, but soon came back to Switzerland for good.

It is precisely this nomadic, multicultural lifestyle that has enabled him to understand the mannerisms and traits of Zurich people.

"It's sometimes fun to speak and act like an American tourist to see how differently people react to me," he said. "It can be an advantage to be an outsider and I can see things the Swiss themselves can't see about themselves."

Comics were a big part of US culture when Mike was growing up and he would gorge himself on Marvel comics and Peanuts as a boy.

"Most kids of that age would dream of being a pilot, but I just wanted to be a comic illustrator. Many parents might rather wish their children would become a lawyer, but mine were incredibly supportive and were very proud of what I was doing," he said.

Belgium has a strong tradition of comic books, led by Tintin.

Mike returned to the US to study studio art in New York when he was 18. But it was during that hiatus that he discovered he belonged in Switzerland.

"I was desperate to get back to the States as a teenager, but I returned after studying because I was homesick for Switzerland," he said.

Mike remains a US citizen although he says he doesn't feel particularly American or Swiss – "but Switzerland feels more like my home".

Return

The Switzerland that Mike came back to was changing, driven by the rising punk scene that led to civil unrest, particularly in Zurich in the early 1980s. The turbulent movement also fuelled an alternative comic scene to which Mike was instantly attracted.

However, a series of dead-end jobs lay between Mike and his dream of being a professional cartoon illustrator.

It was not until 1988 that his first comic strip appeared in the Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich paper and a further eight years before he hit the big time.

In 1996 Zürich by Mike was commissioned by the Tages-Anzeiger's weekly events and listings section. Since then he has observed the lives and habits of Zurich residents in detail, but he finds it easier to say what they are like in pictures rather than words.

"It is difficult to say, but most of the clichés are untrue. There is far more to Zurich than banks," he said.

"People in Zurich, Basel and other cities have a bit of a rivalry going on, but their perceived differences are illusory. They may speak a different language, do things at a different speed or take a different slant on things, but they are essentially the same."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

In brief

Switzerland has a thriving comic strip scene with many favourite characters, including Titeuf (by Zep), Papa Moll (by Edith Oppenheim-Jonas), Phantom (by Thomas Ott) and Yakari (by Derib).

Zürich by Mike is now available in ten anthologies plus special editions, including a special, entitled 10 Years Zürich, by Mike.

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Key facts

Mike van Audenhove was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1957 to Belgian immigrant parents.
He moved to Switzerland in 1966 and started drawing comic strips at the age of 12.
In 1975 Mike moved back to America to study for a BA in studio art/economics in Hamilton College, New York state.
He moved back to Switzerland in 1980 and tried his hand as a baker, roofer and carpenter before his comic strips made their first appearance in the Zürcher Tagblatt newspaper in 1988.
His comic strip Zürich by Mike first appeared in the Tages-Anzeiger's züritipp section in 1996.

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