Berlin, an ongoing series by American creator Jason Lutes, was one I first heard about it in 1996 when it was originally published by Black Eye Press (it is now published by Drawn & Quarterly).
Berlin is a historically set comic; the first chapter in the collected volume City of Stones opens in 1928. It follows one of the main characters, Marthe Müller, a young woman from Köln, travelling on a train to Berlin to begin studying at art school. What follows is a grand, elaborate and complex view of what will become the final days of democracy in the Weimar Republic as the fascist NSDAP (the National Socialist Party) becomes the leading political and cultural force in the country.
There are many elements to Berlin that make it stand out; it is a serious, even bleak, and intensive read due to the focus on the effects of the politic changes of late 1920s Germany. What makes it a brilliant look at this time period is the sheer range of characters that appear; the gossipy and extrovert lives of a group of art students, the struggles of journalists, as seen through the eyes of another main character Kurt Severing, trying to bring awareness to the public about the actions of politicians. There is the street fighting and activism between groups of German Communist Party and NSDAP supporters, a wealthy factory owner effected by the Wall Street crash, the middle-classes and the grinding poverty of the slums, but most of all it is the depiction of a society that appears busily modern on the surface but is lost, defeated and often without hope underneath. The dilemmas and situations the characters face in their personal lives is very much related to the critical place and time in which they live.
The historical research is thorough, even if readers only have the most passing knowledge of the events that led up to World War Two, you can see the authenticity that is at the heart of this storytelling. The detail of the lives of Berlin’s citizens (and, by implication, that of greater Germany) and daily events all add to the feel of reality.
With the second collected volume, City of Smoke, it takes the reader in a slightly different direction which features more dream-like, allegorical imagery, that marks the introduction of a group of African-American jazz musicians who are to play in Berlin. Here the storyline introduces something closer to the I Am A Camera depiction of the Berlin Jazz Age; the nightclub life, sexual expression, and the underground clubs as safe havens for gay, lesbian and genderqueer people.
Berlin is very much an adult read with its themes of politics, racism, violence, sexuality and gender. The art style too reflects the serious intent of the story in black and white with its detailed architectural backgrounds and the line work expressing each characters’ emotions. As a work of art on both human lives and political history, I have never read anything like it and believe it is a masterpiece.
All artwork is by Jason Lutes and reproduced here for review purposes only.