Funnybook Babylon

January 6, 2009

This Is Not A Review

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 11:31 am

Why? Because I’m far from qualified to review anything this good. I almost want to hire Kakutani or Hitchens for this one. One of the things that I tend to forget when innundated by the flood of mediocre or terrible comics that will always have a disproportionately large place in our discussion is that we (as comics fans) are blessed with access to a wider array of amazing work than ever before. In earlier eras, ‘mainstream’ creators may have had more latitude to be formally innovative, or introduce themes and concepts that were unfamiliar to most comics readers of the time. Nowadays, the comics industry has become far more professional, and this kind of experimentation is far less common, especially in superhero books. There’s a romance that’s just not there anymore. But at the same time, I also remember an era when most books published by any non-Marvel or DC company were almost completely unavailable to the average reader. All of this is to say that an era that produces Berlin: City of Stone can’t be all bad.

Berlin: City of Stone cover
Berlin: City of Stone, written and drawn by Jason Lutes, was published eight years ago by Drawn and Quarterly. It’s the first of a projected trilogy focused on the Weimar Republic, an era that (in my experience) has usually been treated as a time of libertine abandon or as a long prelude to the nightmare of fascism. Lutes opts for a sensitive portrayal of the forces striving to define what it meant to be German while recovering from the humiliations of the Great War. One would imagine that the specter of the Holocaust would hang over every panel, but Lutes uses his art and his command of dialogue and language to focus your attention on the seemingly petty sagas of romance and self discovery. These expertly crafted narratives serve to flesh out characters, such as the weary idealistic journalist or the oppressed housewife, who would have otherwise seemed like types. As the story progresses, the reader slowly begins to inhabit Berlin in the 1920’s, and almost detect its consciousness, an experience reminiscent of Moore’s work in From Hell. However, while Moore and Campbell made their fictional London real through a collection of historical details, lies and myths, Lutes brings life to Berlin through an unsentimental glimpse into the lives of a cross section of ordinary Berliners.

He accomplishes this in in traditional ways, as seen in the burgeoning relationship between Kurt Severing, the journalist, and Marthe Muller, a young artist who recently emigrated to Berlin, or in the parallel tales of the Braun and the Schwartz family. These narratives are interwoven with several smaller tales, and a handful of moments when lutes gives readers the omniscient perspective, showing us the thoughts of participants in a crowd scene. As an aside, this is one of the best uses of thought balloons I’ve ever seen. I think this may be due to the relative insignificance of almost any of the thoughts to the plot. is is possibly b/c none (or almost none) of the thoughts shown are particularly significant to the plot. Although the different narratives do occasionally overlap, they rarely do so in a significant way. In a conventional story, the Severing/Muller storyline would comprise a single narrative. In City of Stone, their stories never quite merge, highlighting the isolation that is often a feature of urban life.

If this kind of competent storytelling was all Lutes had to offer in this book, it would still be one of the most moving works that I’ve read since returning to comics seven years ago. But he does so much more than that with his visual storytelling. He conveys the complex blend of emotions that citizens of a defeated nation feel through his visual storytelling. a series of wordless passages and images seeded throughout the book. The weariness that is visible in the faces of morning commuters. A young woman’s transformation from a traumatized family member of dead soldiers into a bored and debauched socialite. The humiliation and resentment on the faces of the National Socialists. (Another aside – I’ve been reading Nixonland on and off the last few weeks, and it gives one a new perspective on everything. You start to see the shadows everywhere, and empathize with those who feel constantly humiliated by life.) These moments in which Lutes intensely focuses on the plight or joy or struggle of some anonymous individual serve to humanize what may have otherwise been a disengaged epic.

I also find myself dwelling on the politics of this book. It’s easy to imagine that the road from World War One to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich was inevitable. But Lutes does not allow one to forget the political and cultural diversity in interregnum Germany. There were committed communists, socialists, and democrats who all seemed to have an equally good chance of success. I really hoped, along with Severing, that reasonableness and rationality would overcome the forces of extremism. But Lutes’ narrative also deepens ones’ understanding of why that was never truly possible. By the time the book opens, there is already little value for either side in reaching any kind of consensus, as German politics had become something of a zero-sum game. If either side won a decisive victory, there would be no second chances.

For all that, the Nazis are somewhat enigmatic throughout City of Stone, as the reader gets little indication of why some of the characters chose to become Nazis. Although some of the characters who are members of the party are also anti-semites, Lutes doesn’t establish a sufficient link between this xenophobic hatred and party loyalty. Does he believe that the party was something of a secular religious cult, or that its success was tied to anti-semitic strains in German society, or European culture as a whole? Was it all just a historical accident? I wonder if Lutes will remain agnostic about this issue for the remainder of the series. Given the complex treatment of other elements of German life in City of Stone, I expected that Lutes would address the seductive appeal of fascism in more detail. He may do so in future volumes of the book. Despite this minor quibble, Berlin: City of Stones is a bonified masterpiece. It is painful to read at times, but it is a compelling read. For people interested in a more academic take on the subject, check out Richard Evans’ trilogy on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. I haven’t read it yet (it comes after I finish French Milk, Accidents, and the second volume of the Amazing Joy Buzzards), but it comes highly recommended.

5 Comments »

  1. Jamaal,

    Just finished this over the weekend. Glad I’m not the only latecomer! Like you, I was very impressed with the book; perhaps because I liked it so much, I’ve also got some tough love. Some thoughts:

    I agree that his historical analysis is a bit fuzzy. It’s an important fault: the book clearly shares generic affiliations with the historical novel, a genre that, at its best, is known for producing significant insights into its subject matter. I find an insight into this shortcoming near the end of BERLIN, when Severing gives a little speech on the diversity of the city (a point you picked up in your review and in a Lutes’ interview at Newsarama). It struck me as very, very shallow, as if Lutes had just walked out of an in-service on multiculturalism. A city that is being slowly overrun by National Socialism is not adequately described as ‘diverse.’ I’d even say it’s a fault of multiculuralist-diversity rhetoric that can’t address the fact that there are real social elements that are *not acceptable* (Nazis being a clear example). There was simply much more analysis needed in the book and historical forces that need addressing, such as the crippling economic conditions imposed on the country after the war. As you note, a lot may still be covered as the work progresses.

    On the other hand, I loved the self-reflexive moments in the story. The many frames within the panels–windows on speeding trains, etc.–remind us of the medium itself, as does the photo-narrative-book and the discourse on art. It’s hard to be self-reflexive without coming off as either heavy handed or self-absorbed, but Lutes hits it just right. Also love his command of perspective. There are some really great angles of perspective in his artwork (I totally lack a language to describe visual art. Forgive me)

    A quibble: I think it was a bad choice to use a working class, British accent to try to simulate the language of working class Germans. He does it consistently throughout the book and it’s really jarring.

    Thanks for your review!

    Comment by nick — January 6, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  2. Ur…wait, you said this wasn’t a review.

    Thanks for the blurb!

    Comment by nick — January 6, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  3. It can be a little overwhelming to delve into both back-to-back, but I hope you pick up the second volume, City of Smoke as soon as you possibly can. Easily the narrative equal, it also shows a marked improvement in Lutes’ already able draftsmanship. I think one of the strengths of Berlin has always been its refusal to focus on politics in the abstract, choosing instead to deal with the plights of individuals. The rise of fascism and its pull on individuals is charted in the second volume with the same kind of elegance and ground-up perspective as in the first.

    I think the only possible competitor for current works of historical fiction in comics is Age of Bronze, but unlike Shanower, whose characters shape history, Lutes is able to show characters shaped by the processes of history and interacting with the mechanisms of nation. The only downside is waiting another eight or so years for the final volume.

    Comment by Bob Proehl — January 6, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  4. I bought this as a Christmas present for one of my sisters, and failed to read the bloody thing!

    Will rectify my error in the very near future

    Comment by Zom — January 7, 2009 @ 6:15 am

  5. Okay, so I read City of Smoke, and was duly impressed. I have to meditate on the significance of the African American jazz group, and the fact that Margarethe annoyed the hell out of me for the entire book. I still think that Lutes is being exceptionally careful about the rise of fascism, but I really respect his choice.

    The art in the second volume improves by a quantum leap, but still doesn’t call attention to itself (why do I find it a little bit less intimate than the first volume, though? is it the nature of the story?).

    Lutes has a great interview here, where he discusses the series and his feelings about the industry. He has some very cool things to say about the Berlin series. I think that his views on the creators that are “getting the most mainstream attention” are also interesting (even though I disagree with almost all of what he says).

    Another part of the interview I’d like to point out was one of his responses that may be particularly relevant to one of Nick’s points. Lutes says “[s]ometimes [Severing] articulates how I feel and sometimes he articulates how he feels”. I think that we were supposed to think that Severing’s paean to diversity was naive.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — January 7, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

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