Picking up the first issue of Berlin in April 1996 was like coming upon something one had imagined but never expected to encounter: historical fiction in the form of a comic book bearing both literary aspirations and compelling, art historically savvy imagery. Published initially by the now-defunct Canadian Black Eye Productions, it was ahead of its time as a comic book dealing with history not in an alternative manner, neither using fantasy elements, nor as a work of autobiography. It was a black-and-white scrupulously researched graphic novel in utero, produced in twenty-four page issues, promising a story of historical sweep beginning in September 1928 and with an uncertain endpoint. Each issue was $2.50 and bore an ominous fragment of a swastika wrapped across its covers. Three and a half years later with issue number six, the Montreal-based publishing house Drawn & Quarterly picked it up. Although gaps in publication sometimes stretched to over three years, by the time the twenty-second, and final, comic emerged in March of 2018, the cover price was up to $5.95, and with it, the full majesty of Lutes’s creation was visible at last. The collected edition is a handsomely produced, formidable, 580-page read ($49.95), and if there is any justice it will, like Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina (2018), at least make the Man Booker Prize longlist. It should go further.
Lutes’s achievement is remarkable as a card-carrying work of historical fiction, and as the product of intense research, both visual and textual. It bears a graduate course level bibliography at the back, and a deep awareness of German painting and photography of the period, as well as the stamp of cultural touchstones such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen and a half hour television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel of 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which Lutes has cited as an influence. An American contemporary association might be David Simon’s television series The Wire (2002-2008), as Lutes deftly interweaves the stories of a large ensemble cast through the entire book in order to trace the economics, culture, and politics of Berlin as Simon did for Baltimore in that show.
Berlin is also, unintentionally, a reflection of the twenty-three years it has been in production. Begun in Bill Clinton’s first term, it connects the 1990s and the present in a measured way that few works of art can rival. Maybe only The Simpsons, now near age thirty, could be parsed for similarly spanning cultural trends and political relevance. But despite responding to changing times, The Simpsons has no narrative arc, no one ever ages, and it is written by a revolving group of creators, not a single person working away in studios in Seattle, North Carolina, and Vermont. Berlin is more a modern Bildungsroman in the style of Balzac, set in 1928-1933, that follows the experiences and maturation of the fictional Marthe Müeller. We first meet her as a twenty-nine-year-old bourgeois woman from Köln who journeys to the capital to escape her suffocating family and the memory of her beloved cousin who was killed in the Great War. She is seeking to expand her world, and possibly to become an artist.
Although Lutes’s epic narrative is like a 19th century novel, it is also cinematic because the point of view shifts from character to character, sweeping people up as they pass, in the manner of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Robert Altman’s films, Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), or Gus Van Sandt’s Elephant (2003). For example, in Berlin, a sexually frustrated art student crumples up a drawing of a woman and tosses it out a window into the rain. It lands on a sidewalk and is trod upon by Gudrun Braun, a working-class mother of three who is rushing to her job at a zeppelin factory and whose story we then pick up. She lends her umbrella to a stranger, a young Jewish boy named David Schwartz, who is selling AIZ, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung or The Workers Pictorial Newspaper (1924-1933), later known for its scathing John Heartfield photomontage covers. He gives her a copy. He is then chased by anti-Semitic kids, and this is witnessed from an upper-floor window by Marthe and a fellow art student, Anna Lencke (pp. 40-46). The conceit allows Lutes not only to introduce characters who will intersect meaningfully in the story to follow, but also to establish the key, eponymous, character of the tale: Berlin. Not the fabric of the city, for the settings are rarely landmarks, but rather its dense web of citizens and visitors. In other words, the interconnectedness of urban life. It also urges the reader to pay close attention to the cartooning and the words. This is a challenging, visually intricate book, comprised of regular small panels featuring densely worked imagery and a concentration on faces and expressions. But Lutes provides some guidance in the form of a helpful portrait gallery of the large cast that reveals who is invented and who was a real person. The latter include Hitler, Goebbels, Josephine Baker, the performer, artist, and poet Joachim Ringelnatz, and the editor-in-chief of the weekly publication Die Weltbühne (“The World Stage”), Carl van Ossietzky.
Berlin opens with a train speeding through the outskirts of Berlin, that ubiquitous cinematic motif from Fritz Lang to Alfred Hitchcock, and a meet-cute in a compartment between Marthe and Kurt Severing, a journalist at Die Weltbühne. But they have been brought together by the spectre of National Socialism, and what ensues is no conventional romance. Kurt becomes a secondary narrator of sorts for the reader along with Marthe, and he is the political interpreter of the tale. Wide-eyed Marthe enters the city, “Into the flow of it as into a river,” as she writes in her journal (p. 16), and the Spree and other waterways play key roles as places of solitary refuge, or watery graves for political martyrs like Rosa Luxembourg and suicidal Jews. But trains, more redolent of coming change, also factor greatly. They are the means of mobility and escape for characters such as Marthe and for the Jewish vagrant Pavel who hops a freight to seek a new life, as does the fleeing Schwartz family who make their way to Calais and then America. The recent German TV series Babylon Berlin on Netflix, which takes place in the exact same historical moment, even makes a train the critical MacGuffin that the whole plot revolves around. But as is typical of Lutes’s comic, trains also serve as foreboding elements, alluding to their employment in the execution of the Final Solution in World War II. The mind of the informed reader will sense such menace on nearly every page, as Lutes reveals the small and large events that conspired to allow the National Socialists under Hitler to assume power. The Nazi party becomes a more central element of the plot, Jews see their worlds and freedoms more and more encroached upon, and the reader realizes, as does the viewer of Babylon Berlin, that such stories will not have happy endings—that the events in this city of four million people would soon have an effect on hundreds of millions around the world.
Marthe takes studio classes where she meets Anna, a transgender artist who eventually introduces her to the lesbian subculture of the city after Marthe grows apart from Kurt. As in the nineteenth century historical novel tradition, character paths interact and expand, and reflect and respond to historical moments. Working-class Gudrun is married to the brutal nationalist Otto and becomes receptive to the arguments of the KPD, the Communist party. After losing her job, she leaves her household with her two daughters and becomes a member of Berlin’s itinerant poor. Eventually, she is brought into communal housing and gets a job as a roadworker, but is killed by a policeman’s bullet in the May Day march of 1929. Her death leads her youngest daughter to return to Otto, now a Nazi, and her Hitler Youth brother, while twelve-year-old Silvia takes to the streets. Silvia’s ensuing Dickensian adventures bring her into contact with Pavel, the highly educated Jewish peddler who is the fiery soul of human kindness of the story. She also meets the AIZ paperboy David Schwartz and his family who take her in, the man who drafted her mother into the KPD and whom she accuses of her murder, and eventually Marthe.
Lutes’s Berlin is replete with vivid characters: pontificating artists, earnest art teachers, an African-American jazz band called The Cocoa Kids, officers in the police force (the Schupo), communist paperboys, a Sally Bowles-like performer/prostitute/model, wealthy supporters of the National Socialists (NSDAP), and others, all of whom play key roles in the narrative. He treats them with a naturalism that reflects Christopher Isherwood’s approach in Goodbye to Berlin (1939) about his experiences in the city in 1929-33. In one memorable section, Severing interviews witnesses to the May Day massacre for a public inquiry while Marthe sketches them. After each meeting, Lutes shows the interviewees returning to a job in an automobile plant (surely soon to be converted for war production) and then to his family for dinner, or to a public lavatory for a hook-up with another man, or to a petit bourgeois walk-up to sit and read with her husband. Each of these scenes is presented as a series of extended tableaux without words. In this way, Lutes lets us consider the quiet lives of the common people, in parallel to August Sander’s project of photographing Berlin’s everyday citizens in the period, in publications such as Face of Our Time (1929), works that Lukes acknowledges as an important source. These become the various intertwined citizens of the city who, if they did not soon take leave of Berlin, would likely be doomed: by 1945 the population had been halved. Marthe notes in her diary: “I imagine a higher force that binds us, into a greater, unified whole” (96), and Kurt writes that “One thing I love about this city is the way all of our different worlds rub shoulders every day” (173). But this utopian ideal of urban unity is precisely what will soon be fractured by the rise of fascism.
The imagery throughout is naturalistic not photographic. The characters are visually recognizable and deeply expressive without being cartoonish. The exception is Hitler, who is only in a couple of scenes, but is impassive by design—more waxwork than man. His mouth never moves as he dictates policy to Goebbels and underlings, as opposed to the fully human depiction of Severing, whose face ages over the course of the comic, increasingly communicating the worries of humankind. The settings are opulently detailed, as for example in a two-page splash of Alexanderplatz in almost Futurist rays of light (412-413). In a few instances Lutes worked from photographs for architectural forms. He looked at period photos and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) paintings from the Weimar Republic by Otto Dix, Grosz, Beckmann, and especially Christian Schad, whose sense of realistic character and costume was clearly important. It is not the case of copying, but rather channeling general appearances, and with a sharp monochromatic aesthetic that emulates modernist kiosk posters of the period.
As with Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (1989-1998) or Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991), and the work of Joe Sacco or Marjane Satrapi, Lutes’s visual storytelling is equal to the writing, but he achieves this without conjuring fantastical beings or depending on autobiography. Where Lutes is most masterful is in the use of attenuated panels denoting movement and interstitial panels absent of text for emphasis, an impossibility in a conventional novel limited to words. Both storytelling techniques are on display on page 123, when a melancholy Marthe first seeks out Severing. Period music permeates the book from cabaret acts to jazz bands, including one sensational, wordless, four-page sequence when the Cocoa Kids play Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s “Sugar Foot Stomp.” The panels are shorn of musical notes floating through the air; it is through the body language of the musicians and the movements of their instruments that we hear the music (227-230). Unsurprisingly, Lutes’s style does shift over the course of five hundred plus pages produced over two decades. He developed an economy of form and gesture in later issues, a simplification of hatching and detail in backgrounds and negative space that serve to better focus the emotional tenor of the characters, as on page 528 when a world-weary and resigned Severing walks through the near-deserted city, over a canal, through a tunnel, and past propagandistic political posters, as he heads towards his former lover’s house to see if she truly is a supporter of the Nazis.
Berlin ends in late 1932, with its characters heading in separate directions and towards uncertain fates, in scenes intercut with Hitler assuming power from President Hindenburg. It concludes with four visionary two-page spreads that thunderously telescope time into the present. And here the book is prescient of our current historical moment. In a recent New York Times article, Andrew Ross Sorkin discussed parallels between the decade after the Great Depression of 1929 and what the United States has endured since the financial crisis of 2008. Lutes’s book traces this very development in Weimar Germany—the failure of the American financial system in 1929 leads to a run on German banks and repercussions at all levels of society, from the industrialist who commits suicide, to the seamstress forced to live on the streets (304). A heightened political situation follows, a radicalized electorate, intolerance of minorities, a rise of nationalism, a coldness in international relations. It is a particular strength of Lutes’s work that it reveals in the minutest human terms, the cost of fluctuating fiscal inequality and exclusionary politics, and it is remarkable that he now seems to have anticipated a similar reaction in our own country. But the difference between Berlin and Babylon Berlin, which is ultimately an atmospheric but conventional dramatic police procedural, or Isherwood’s elegant recounting of his brief stay in the city, is that Lutes has persuasively recreated the world of late-Weimar Berlin through cartooning. His visually enthralling, emotionally engaging comic is an artistic achievement of the highest order, and one that is expressly urgent.