— He has rippling muscles, a
cloak and the standard-issue briefs, but "Superhobo" is not your
average comic-book hero: his torn bodysuit, shaggy beard and the
bottle of beer in his fist all tell of a hard life on the streets.
"His muscles are firm but he has no fixed abode" proclaims
the slogan of "Superhobo" comic ("Superpenner" in the original
German), which hit the streets of Berlin on Monday in an attempt
to boost sales of a newspaper sold by down-and-outs.
The humor is dark: The craggy-faced superhero sleeps on a bench
in his woolen cap, dreaming of beer, and the people he rescues
gag at his foul breath.
But the homeless, the unemployed and the poor immigrants who
picked up an armful of the "Strassenfeger" newspapers to sell
around Berlin, with the comic as a free supplement, did not seem
to find the idea offensive.
"It's just a bit of fun," said Daniela, a 40-year-old who has
been touting the "Strassenfeger" (Street Sweeper) at a central
Berlin train station for the past two years.
Her customers are commuters, people waiting for a taxi and
forecourt smokers. For each copy she sells at 1.50 euros ($2),
she gets to keep 90 cents ($1.20).
Muffled against the cold with a fleece over an overcoat, the
unemployed kitchen worker — who would not give her surname for
fear of putting her welfare payments at risk — said the comic
seemed to be good for business, grabbing people's attention.
Lots of people shook their heads when Daniela approached but
Frank Henseler, a 56-year-old in a tie and scarf visiting Berlin
on business, leafed through the Superpenner, his cigarette smoke
billowing in the cold air, and bought a copy.
"The comic is interesting and I'd like to have a look, and I
happen to be reading a book right now about homeless people in
Paris," he told Reuters.
EAST EUROPEANS TOO
In the best Marvel comic tradition, the hobo gets superpowers by
accident when an intern at a secret service lab takes a bottle
of mysterious green liquid, which "looks like a urine sample",
and gives it to the tramp by mistake.
Endowed with superhuman strength when he downs a beer, he and
his sidekick "Gutter Girl" take on "The Baddies".
When he's close to defeat, "Convenience Store Man" — identified
none too subtly as a member of Berlin's largest minority by his
moustache and a Turkish flag — saves him by providing a beer in
the nick of time.
But the aim is serious: "Not every hobo is a Superhobo", read
the posters advertising the new comic, inviting people to buy
the paper or donate via the website www.strassenfeger.org.
The comic is the brainchild of Robert Krause, creative director
of advertising agency Scholz & Friends, who hopes the polemic style
will draw attention to the plight of the homeless.
"The important thing is that people buy the comic, because we want
to help the homeless simply by increasing their sales and generating
more donations," he said in an interview.
Although Europe's largest economy has proved resilient to the euro
crisis, German charities warn that poverty is on the rise. The aid
agency BAGW says the number of people without a home rose 15 percent
to 284,000 between 2010 and 2012, and could rise a further 30
percent by 2016.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city had plentiful cheap
housing, especially in the east. But the city sold off many flats,
and locals say gentrification is driving up rents. In last year's
German election, both sides promised to cap rent rises.
Helmut Cladders, a volunteer at Strassenfeger, which has a
fortnightly run of 15,000 copies and is one of the two biggest such
publications on the streets of Berlin, said lots of Polish
immigrants sell the paper and more East Europeans are arriving.
"Lots of people coming to Berlin from Romania and Bulgaria are
selling Strassenfeger too," he said, distributing the paper to
vendors from an old caravan in a street behind Zoo Station, an area
once renowned for drugs and prostitution.
Marta, a young Polish woman with no apparent superpowers and hardly
a word of German, said that after five years in Berlin she had "no
home, no family and no money". Taking 10 copies on a sale-or-return
basis, she disappeared with a smile.
($1 = 0.7314 euros)
(Additional reporting by Jasmin Rietdorf;
editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Trevelyan)