In 1984, when she was 17, Ulli Schneider went to Italy on a lark. She returned to Austria two months later, a changed woman. The following year she had a child and went on with life. She attended art school in Vienna, became an illustrator and produced several children’s books, eventually assuming her mother’s maiden name Lust. In 1995, she moved to Berlin to study graphic design. She fell in with the notable Berlin collective Monogatari and started drawing short comics, invariably in non-fiction: reportage, documentary, observational. She refrained from doing straight autobiography, however, regarding it as a somewhat hackneyed default shortcut for budding comics “auteurs.” But that defining journey through Italy evidently lurked somewhere, and in 2005 she decided to tell the story in comics form. She started serializing it on her online comics site, electrocomics, completing about half there before reworking it, adding a second color, and publishing to it great critical acclaim in Germany in 2009 as Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens (‘Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life’).
Told with great confidence and uncomfortable frankness across a sprawling 450 pages, it is a coming-of-age narrative that inevitably places itself in the tradition of German travel literature, perhaps unwittingly joining the company of such august figures as Goethe and Hesse. Lust’s ambition, though great, never overtly shows literary pretense, however: hers is a story of two young punks — Ulli and her friend Edi — traveling with no money, no passports, and no more than a change of clothes; a story of two girls seeking adventure and getting in over their heads. Almost from the outset, it becomes clear that their main asset is their bodies — something the reckless, allegedly nymphomaniac, Edi is quick to exploit, and which Ulli seems unconscionably to accept almost at once.
The Italy they encounter is the one of so many infamous travel stories, where Northern European women bring the promise of easy, uncompromising sex to young men repressed by a conservative social order. And Ulli and Edi rush headlong into it, finding their place among a largely rootless community of ex-pats and outcasts, living hand-to-mouth, sleeping in parks, selling their bodies for a meal, and experimenting with heroin. They are young and their carefree wanderlust carries them far beyond breaking point before they realize the fatality of their endeavor. Finding themselves in the most conservative region of Italy, Sicily, where they consort with local mafiosi for whom they are uniquely an asset, their journey becomes a test of their mettle in the face of menacing odds, and ultimately their very friendship. In other words, less an Italienische Reise than a sort of Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo on the road.
Lust asserts that the story is entirely authentic, including the remarkable coincidences that end Ulli’s journey. And it certainly feels that way: the book is rich in lived detail — stacks of coins on a mantelpiece, being roused from sleep under a park stage by mounted police, sharing a joint on the Spanish Steps — and an acute recall of conversations sparkling with local color, revealing the youthful avidity with which it was all experienced. Equally important is the life Lust breathes into the motley panoply of fellow travelers, enablers, johns, and antagonists to the girls. Especially the recovering, frequently lapsing addict Andreas, who becomes a kind of protector to them, is so fully realized that one cannot help but imagine his travels beyond the book.
Lust’s cartooning is clear and proficient, capturing gesture and facial expression with precision, despite her shaky grasp on anatomy and inconsistent attention to detail from sequence to sequence and even panel to panel. For a comic describing a journey, one might have wished for greater evocativeness in her somewhat spare rendering of localities and milieus — there is a distinct rise in quality to the sequences based on more careful visual research: especially her rendering of the squats and squares of Palermo is compelling in its specificity.
Essential to the success of such a narrative is the author’s self-portrayal — Ulli is in every scene and we follow her on what is almost a day-to-day basis for the two months covered by the book. Wisely, Lust has chosen to approach this by keeping a certain distance to the inner life of Ulli. Expressive effects, such as depicting the many predatory men circling her as dark beasts, eventually of distinctly phallic quality, are used judiciously and to great effect, but her thoughts are mostly kept indistinct. The astonishing carelessness with which she at times conducts herself and her detached reaction to fairly traumatic experience are merely observed. In fact, one gets the distinct sense that Lust herself works from a curiosity similar to the one she engenders in the reader. The result is a fascinating study of human behavior under duress — we for example witness Ulli befriending an assailant of hers, despite his deplorable actions, and come to understand it partly as a way of ensuring her safety in an exposed situation and partly because she sees in the boy an ordinary, fairly innocent person.
Despite its trauma, the journey ends up being one of liberation. Though its description of the risks inherent to the only semi-aware need for independence characteristic of youth is sobering, the book is never judgmental. There is a distinct undertone of empowerment to this story of one woman’s instinctive search for enlightenment. It is a grand tour.
Originally published on TCJ.com in September 2010. Heute will be published in English by Fantagraphics next year. In the meantime, Lust’s website includes her illustrated poetry and a number of short non-fiction comics. Her electrocomics site makes available a large number of comics from different authors, amongst them a number of works by Lust including the serialized version of Heute The German version of which comprises about two thirds of the printed book, while the English-language version contains what amounts to the first 100 pages or so. Please not that the cyan second color seen in these images is from a promotional PDF and does not reflect the printed version, in which it is olive drab.