Berlin, a sprawling historical drama by Jason Lutes due out September 4 from Drawn and Quarterly, takes place during the years when Germany was collapsing into the chaos that led to the rise of the Nazis. It's the kind of specific set of time, place and circumstance that you usually don't choose unless you have a larger point to make, which may lead some people to assume Lutes intended Berlin to be an allegory for today's contentious politics.
If so, he was uncannily prescient. Lutes, an independent cartoonist and faculty member at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, began work on Berlin in the final years of the previous century – 1996 to be exact, long before 9/11 or the election of Donald Trump. I had the opportunity to discuss the work with Lutes at a panel at San Diego Comic-Con in July, and he told me that, at the time he first came up with the idea for Berlin, the ominous historical setting seemed interesting, though not particularly relevant.
He said that he was initially drawn to 1920s Germany because he didn’t encounter much about Nazism or the Holocaust in his high school history class. Once he started reading about it on his own, he became fascinated and wanted to explore the subject of how a modern society that seemed so open and tolerant of new forms of expression could transform overnight into something so barbarous. He read extensively, but only work that was written before 1933, so he could recreate the mindset of people who did not yet know what was in store for them.
Lutes said he spent two years doing research, then envisioned the completion of the work as a 15-year project but “as usual, I was a little behind on the deadline,” he joked.
The series begins in 1928, following the lives of a handful of ordinary Berliners experiencing the exhilaration, confusion and alienation of modernity in one of the world’s great cities. Aspiring artist Marthe Müller comes to the capital from Koln, seeking something beyond the future as a bourgeoise housefrau that her parents have planned for her. On the train, she encounters a cynical journalist, Kurt Severing, who is one of the thousands of scribes chronicling the cutthroat political maneuverings of Germany’s unruly democracy.
This simple incident evolves into a complex story encompassing politics, sexuality, gender identity, economic relationships and the first emergence of the modern urban experience that we can still recognize nearly a century later. The cast expands to include various bohemians, aristocrats, trade unionists, middle class burghers, street urchins, a band of black American jazz musicians on tour, and a Jewish family eager to assimilate, despite the prejudices of German culture. Lutes said he built the cast with an eye toward representing as broad a spectrum of German society as he could to convey the complexity of the world from many points of view.
He released chapters roughly annually in comic book form – not an ideal format for such a rich and complex narrative. Two collected volumes – Berlin 1: City of Stone and Berlin 2: City of Smoke – came out in 2000 and 2008 respectively. Fans have been waiting patiently for the third collection, compiling the final 8 issues, for nearly a decade.
Now the wait is over. Berlin 3: City of Light comes out September 4 as a $24.95 trade paperback edition from Montreal-based publisher Drawn and Quarterly. A better choice for both old and new readers is the omnibus just titled Berlin, a handsome hardcover edition comprising all three trades, for $49.95.
Though Berlin is technically a compilation of previously-released material, the ability to approach the entire story at once completely transforms the reading experience. It allows us for the first time to see Lutes’ achievement for what it is: one of the most ambitious, important and fully-realized works of graphic literature yet created, a real masterpiece of both story and art.
Lutes combines a keen eye for character and setting with a cartoonist’s skill for storytelling and pictorial composition. Berlin is drawn in crisp, clean black and white: European in its pacing, austere in its linework, and architectural in its simplicity, but full of brilliant details. Amazingly, his drawing style remains consistent throughout the two decades he worked on the book; any evolution in his technique is subtle enough not to distract from the work. Equally impressive, Berlin still looks distinctive and original, even though the stylistic vocabulary of graphic literature has expanded dramatically since Lutes first started the work in the mid-1990s.
Such tight control of his craft allows Lutes to layer a complex story full of subtle moments, tonal shifts and poignant emotion, bringing different characters to the foreground like featured players in a symphony. In the final third – the story told in Berlin: City of Light – the tone darkens with the quickening approach of Nazism. Though the situation is bad enough for the characters in the moment, the drama is heightened because we the readers know what lies ahead, and what’s likely to become of anyone who is a political dissident, gender-queer, or member of a targeted religious minority or immigrant community.
Current events in the real world may have amplified the sense of dread beyond what Lutes originally intended when he began working on Berlin in the now-inconceivably prehistoric year of 1996. But even without today’s troubling parallels to the political conditions of 1920s Germany, Berlin captures the drama of ordinary people living through a turning point in history, contributing to our understanding of what happened without intruding on the individual stories of human struggle.
The last few years have seen a lot of great graphic literature released, including Nick Drasno’s minimalistic Sabrina, which was just long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Berlin belongs right there in that conversation: a major work, a long time coming, that arrived just in time.