Berlin, by Jason Lutes is a masterpiece of a historical novel that happens to be a graphic novel. Booksellers will be displaying the new work by this award-winning artist in the graphic novel section, but if any book published in the last decade or so illustrates the astoundingly powerful potential of storytelling in this format, Berlin is it. The 580-page hardbound book, which was previously issued in serial form by Drawn & Quarterly starting back in 1994, tells the story of Germany’s Weimar Republic period from the viewpoint of a group of ordinary Germans living in Berlin during the brief cultural efflorescence of progressive art, music, literature, theatre, and nightlife in what was once the jewel of the Continent. The tragic irony is that during that same period, the German state began to collapse as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, aka the Nazis, viciously exploited every I seam of racism, resentment, and paranoia that existed in the settling gloom that infected German society in the aftermath of the nation’s crushing defeat in the First World War.
Do I need to point out the creepy familiarity of the political climate in Weimar Berlin, with its right-wing agitators and intellectual-hating thugs in both high places and the streets? No, I didn’t think it would be necessary to point out anything so obvious.
I find it difficult to find words to describe Berlin to readers, especially those of you who haven’t bothered to explore the graphic novel genre. Even the uninitiated may have heard of Art Speigelman’s classic Maus, which covers much of the same ground. Lutes’ work, however, is rooted in a kind of monochrome realism that can create a home theatre inside the reader’s head. His artwork has a 3-D look and a cinematic feel. His characters are fleshed out brilliantly. I really cared about the lives of these people, the thrills they felt during the early blush of youth and freedom of expression, and the fear and anger they experienced as fascist repression and violence began to tear apart German society. A handful of historical figures are vivid presences: Josephine Baker, magazine editor Carl von Ossietzky (persecuted by the Nazis), poet Joachim Ringelnatz, Joseph Goebbels, and of course, Adolf Hitler. The Cocoa Kids, a band of African-American jazz cats from America are fictional, but their role effectively evokes the experience of many black ex-pats in Europe in the early 1930s.
There are plenty of villains here, but on the good-guy side, Lutes doesn’t give us any superheroes or miracle workers, just ordinary people trying to figure out how to survive as their world catches fire. Berlin, a beautiful, heart-breaking book, will set you back $49.95 list price, but I wouldn’t trade it for a dozen books – fiction or nonfiction – from the current best-sellers list.