In the nineties, a frustrated artist in Berlin went on a crime spree—building bombs, extorting high-end stores, and styling his persona after Scrooge McDuck. He soon became a German folk hero.
Arno Funke wanted to be a cartoonist, but it wasn’t working out. He grew up in a working-class family in Berlin, West Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, and spent his childhood tinkering with chemistry kits and sending gunpowder rockets whizzing into the sky. In school, he was mischievous. Because of his sense of humor, a kindergarten teacher called him “Micky Maus.” He left school at fifteen to become an apprentice sign-maker, spent time sketching, and tried his hand at caricatures of politicians and celebrities. “I was born with a talent for drawing,” he told me. When he was twenty-one, he mailed his sketches to a satirical magazine along with a letter asking for advice on how to become a cartoonist. “I never got a reply,” he said.
By 1988, he had become depressed. He was almost thirty-eight, with a bushy mustache and bleached blond hair. He had been married and divorced, and he was struggling for money. He found occasional work painting billboards, airbrushing illustrations onto motorcycles, and varnishing cars at a local garage. He feared that the fumes he inhaled from the solvents were giving him brain damage. “I had this feeling of not being clear in my head,” he told me. “Like when you’ve drunk a bottle of whiskey, but without the positive feelings.” He came to believe that, if he had enough money, he would be able to focus on his art. He decided to turn to a life of crime, but didn’t want to risk the violence of a stickup. “I didn’t want to harm anyone physically,” he later wrote, in a memoir. Then came an idea: he would become an Erpresser—an extortionist.