Berlin is a masterpiece of a graphic novel – books
The problems of ‘Berlin’ are frightening today.
YesDo you know that feeling when you watch the cable news and realize that the power of propaganda eclipses the power of journalism so much that you don’t even know what’s real anymore? You know those mornings when you look out the window, if you’re lucky enough to have a window, and you feel like it’s all going to fall apart, or maybe it’s already done and you just watch the spinoff in slow motion?
This sentiment permeates the exquisitely drawn historical graphic novel by former Seattle cartoonist Jason Lutes. Berlin, which traces the fall of the Weimar Republic and the clashes between fascists and communists in the city. Drawn and Quarterly has just released the last part of the Lutes Municipal Trilogy in One Beautiful Doorstop in a Collection. The project took Lutes over 20 years, an accomplishment reflected in the depth of storytelling and detail of his designs. (He will appear in a conversation with comic book designer Megan Kelso at Elliott Bay Book Company on November 8.)
The story of Lutes mainly follows an amateur artist from Cologne who arrived in Berlin to find herself. The other main character is an alcoholic but level-headed journalist prone to purple prose that comes to represent the importance and powerlessness of journalism in the face of a politics of chaos.
Through their eyes and the eyes of others – middle-class art students, queers of the underground scene, journalists, paperboys, the poor, the leaders and grunts of National Socialist and Communist parties, jazz musicians from America and a mean girl seeking revenge for the murder of her mother, we see a group of characters desperate to maintain some sort of barrier between the personal and the political.
The potential for that barrier to completely collapse, that moment when absolutely everything you do becomes a political act or a matter of survival, is at the root of all the tension between the people in this book. This emotional register separates Berlin so completely neurotic, heartbreaking, deeply personal art of Art Spiegelman Maus series that you forget Lutes is working under the pressure of this comparison.
The interwar city of Berlin is the first love and the main character of Lutes. Every dirty corner is either a refuge or a death trap, the broad streets are streaming with blood and sparkle with commerce, the buildings pile up like fortifications but also like monsters that have come to destroy the population. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lutes said he drew five hundred thousand million individual bricks and pavers over the course of Berlin‘s nearly 600 pages.
The effect is such an immersive reading experience that when you step outside afterwards, you feel like things look different. You see as he sees.
Last weekend I was looking at my copy of Berlin and I saw a picture of a Nazi kicking a Communist in the street and throwing Jewish slurs while the cops do nothing. Then I looked at Twitter and saw a video of a Proud Boy kicking a protester while the cops were doing nothing. The book offers no consolation at this time, because it cannot. You know what happens after the Reichstag fire.