Berlin: City of Stones, a review by John Fellows
with additional editorial material by Steven Williams
What are comics capable of? In the hands of a creator as accomplished as Jason Lutes, it seems comics can build entire cities, right from the tallest building to the smallest dream. Wilkommen bei Berlin.
Writer/Artist: Jason Lutes
Berlin: City of Stones
Collecting BERLIN issues 1 through 8
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Berlin: City of Stones is both the story of a city - a pile of stones - and a comprehensive biography - an amassing of private moments. The city itself is as much a character as any walking talking individual appearing within the pages of Jason Lutes exhaustive masterpiece.
Leaving the city of Koln by train, Marthe Muller bumps into journalist Kurt Severing. He lightens their dull journey to Berlin. One is returning as to a loving, but often harsh mother, while the other is discarding the parental influence for daunting pastures new. The year is 1928, and the city is facing massive social and political change.
Arriving in Berlin, the duo part company for their respective lives; Marthe has come to study as an artist and Kurt is there to complete his report on Germany's secretive attempts to reinstate its air-force. As they become just another part of a larger story, their burgeoning romance develops slowly over the course of the next 209 pages.
From here, the strata of German society spread out in front of them, from the Houdini-loving son of the German Jewish family to the foppish upper-class artists so caught up in the rules that they are unable to see the art. In this book collecting the first eight issues of Berlin: City of Stones, the intertwining narratives come fully to the fore. The only thing that binds these disparate threads together is the city itself.
Shifting from the close encounters of political discussions, artistic ideologies and confused passion to dispassionate bird's-eye views gives the impression that it's the city that is telling this story. It almost seems as though the only individual that could possibly understand how these incongruent lives could so effortlessly slot together is the city of Berlin itself.
While Lutes displays his effortless structural draftsmanship with these sweeping vistas of Germany's capital, he is equally skilled at the subtext-heavy close-ups. Eschewing the backgrounds for the talking heads segments focuses the eye on Lutes' strict lines and almost iconic displays of hidden meaning.
It is only during the first passionate grasp between Marthe and Kurt that the artwork loses it's trademark integrity and becomes pure iconography. This doesn't mean that Lutes was otherwise comfortable to sit back and let others innovate; the entire collection is filled with fascinating uses of panel structure. The most obvious is his integration of sound effects into the images as if they were part of the landscape itself.
A work such as this could easily have digressed into a political diatribe on what went wrong with Berlin and Germany prior to the Second World War, which would make it very dry and propaganda-driven, but Lutes dodges this potential problem effortlessly. While each of the characters has some loose connection to the political movements building in the city, none of them are given the opportunity to get on their soapbox, and thus they avoid being reduced to mouthpieces or ciphers.
Indeed, most of the characters find the entire situation rather distracting. Kurt becomes increasingly disenfranchised with politics as a whole, even as he watches his old friend Immenthaler become more focused on his political goals. Marthe is portrayed as a woman who knows little and cares less about the events unfolding around her.
It's the character of Gudrun that most cleverly delivers the political message. Hers is the tale of a single mother who falls into Communism not because of her political views, but because the Communists are the only people willing to help her out during a bad phase of her life.
The flashback to the end of World War One demonstrates Lutes' disdain for war and his general incomprehension of its absurdity. That civilians under fire would rather risk being shot than walk across palace lawns is endemic of upper-class short-sightedness. Both the Communists and the burgeoning Nazi front are portrayed as groups composed solely of the working class, with the upper class remaining aloof or uncaring.
While Berlin: City of Stones sets out to cover a broad cross-section of Berlin society, it never feels as though its characters are getting short shrift. A lot of the changes in their lives occur off-panel - for example, Gudrun leaves her husband, moves out, and finds a job, and we only ever see her after these events occur - yet the collection always has time to stop for quiet character moments. In one particularly poignant scene, a young Jewish boy exchanges a story of Houdini for a poster of the same from a travelling salesman.
As Lutes will readily admit, Berlin: City of Stones is an epic undertaking. Planned as twenty-five issues, to be collected in three two-hundred page collections, his work will attempt to document a city under immense stress. He didn't visit the city until he was close to completing the issues collected in this first collection, but his depiction of the city is so convincing that this fact serves only as a testament to his depth of research and the genius of his architectural imagination.
Acclaimed by Time Magazine as one of the top five comic books published in 2000, Berlin: City of Stones is already making great waves, even though it is only one-third complete. (This first volume can be enjoyed on its own, however, and issue nine will be reaching comic stores soon.) While Berlin: City of Stones bears all the hallmarks of Lutes' previous work in Jar of Fools, the scope of this undertaking will only grow with time. Berlin: City of Stones is a work that should not be missed by anyone who appreciates what comics are truly capable of.
John Fellows is a television and media student at Newcastle College.
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Book two, Berlin: City of Smoke was released in August, 20008.
Writer/Artist: Jason Lutes
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
A Review by Rob Clough
Jason Lutes' series Berlin is one of the last holdouts in the world of alt-comics in terms of its serialization. The first issue of the series debuted in 1996 with a different publisher (Black Eye Press) and he's released a new issue every fifteen months or so ever since. The painstaking nature of both the research involved in thinking about Berlin between the world wars along with Lutes' exacting clear-line style have made it a slow grind in terms of its production, though Lutes did step up the frequency of each issue as he neared the end of volume 2. In terms of style, it's one of the most easily approachable of all alt-comics, recognizable as a Robert Altman-esque blend of different characters' stories and the ways in which they intersect. Lutes' dedication to clarity on the page means that one can either linger on individual images or zip down a page and still take in the information needed to understand the story. Of course, the subject matter in some ways is a bit obscure, at least at first, until one sees that Berlin's decay and eventual embrace of fascism is a story that's been repeated any number of times, in any number of places.
Lutes aims at telling the larger story of the tremendous upheaval in Berlin through a number of characters from all walks of life. There's the pacifist journalist Kurt Severing, who can see what's coming from the fascists but feels helpless to stop it. There's Horst, whose wife Gudrun was drawn to communism and killed by police in the May Day riot that ended the first volume. There's Marthe, the naive art student drawn into a relationship with Kurt and later finding herself exploring other aspects of identity and sexuality. There's Silvia, Gudrun's daughter who became a runaway after the riot and who falls in with a scavenger. This volume introduces an American jazz band ("the Cocoa Kids") on the road in Berlin, eventually connecting them with a minor character from the first volume and some unexpected plot twists. We see Berlin through the eyes of rich and poor, communist and Nazi, educated and street-smart, cynical and romantic, idealistic and world-weary. Lutes weaves the events of history and lets it flow and wash around his characters, some of whom are directly involved with the events and others who prefer to ignore it altogether.
The title could refer to any number of possibilities, but my take relates to how one can't grab on or hold on to smoke. It appears, it may linger, but it eventually dissipates. One simply has to wait for the smoke to clear, as it were, revealing harsh truths. This book ends with the National Socialist party having gained a majority in the German parliament, a harsh truth that was about to have grave effects. In the meantime, this book deals with that lingering smoke: nights spent in jazz clubs, days spent with fellow pacifists or communists or artists in cafes and parlors--all of whom spoke passionately but to no end; days spent not having to worry about how the world was going to immediately affect you. As in smoke and mirrors, it's all an illusion. And it perhaps alludes to the Reichstag going up in smoke a couple of years later, allowing Hitler to seize total control.
If Lutes has remarkable control over the flow of each character's story and how he drifts from one narrative to the next, he's a bit more clunky when introducing new characters. That was certainly true in the first few issues of the series as well as when the jazz musicians were introduced; as a reader, I felt the author's narrative hand nudging me and telling me "Look! New characters! They're introducing themselves to you!" It stands out because Lutes otherwise is a paragon of restraint in his storytelling, making acts of violence all the more visceral when they do occur.
The slow pace of the story allows Lutes to delve deeply into each character's inner life. Even the most brutish of characters have moments of tenderness, like a scene where Horst is bathing his on and daughter. Severing seems to be the closest thing Lutes has a mouthpiece in this story, but he's also portrayed as increasingly weak and ineffectual--both as a viable lover and as a difference-maker in his world. One interesting formal trick Lutes employs on occasion is showing the reader a crowd scene, revealing the thoughts that grip each character at that one moment in time, and then follow one character from that group and their thoughts into the next scene. Those thoughts range from thinking about food, sex, going to the bathroom to quite deeper thoughts. It reinforces Lutes' sense of trying to capture a series of moments in a specific time and place, that this could be anyone's story in the city.
Berlin: City of Smoke features an interesting premise and setting, a rich array of characters, and a complex storyline rife with room for discussion of all sorts of ideas. None of this would be effective without Lutes' amazing line. He manages to pull off the rare trick of using a line that is distinctive and clear without being overly slick. It's naturalistic but with a slightly rubbery quality that makes each page and each character feel like an organic entity. The city of Berlin itself is most decidedly its own character, from the crowded intersections to run-down buildings to blood-soaked stones. Lutes' line makes the reader feel the life in the city. No degree of "realism" in an art style can bring the past to life (something he jabs it in his depiction of the artists obsessed with Objectivism), but Lutes' organic style evokes a feeling of what it might have been like.
The central theme to the book is how each individual tries to make sense of chaos. A number of characters, both educated and ignorant, are sick of the corruption and chaos of Weimar Republic Germany and so latch on to the tenets of National Socialism because it promises order. A number of Germans, resentful of the way the Treaty of Versailles defanged the nation after World War I, clung deeply to the notion of "Germany for Germans" and targeted immigrants and Jews in particular as their scapegoats. Marthe embraces the chaos, letting it sweep her along without questioning. Kurt clings to his ideals but despairs of his tools, eventually burning all of his work in progress because he came to realize that his words were futile in stopping the fascists. The Jewish characters close ranks around each other and their faith, while the idealogues (Communists and Fascists alike) employ the same sort of emotive, rabble-rousing speeches to draw support--both of which appeal to a central authority even as each preaches its own brand of brotherhood. At its heart, Berlin: City of Smoke speaks to the meeting-point of dogma and desperation and how the former appeals to those afflicted by the latter.