The New York Times reviews Berlin

“A Long Vist to Weimar Era Berlin Through an Epic Graphic Novel ” / The New York Times / Ed Park / November 30, 2018

Every 40 pages or so in Jason Lutes’s BERLIN (Drawn + Quarterly, $49.95), a sequence appears that seems to hold the key to this massive graphic novel. In one of the earliest, a drawing instructor stands before a chalkboard, lecturing on the use of perspective. “The observer’s location is what really determines the placement of a vanishing point,” he explains, and asks his students to consider the views out of three adjacent windows in the studio. “Stand still in front of each and imagine it as a framed picture.” The same scene looks different depending on the observer’s position. It’s a metaphor, of course, for the book itself — an opus of more than 500 pages set in the late 1920s in the titular city, teeming with journalists and junkmen, artists and runaways, fiery rabble-rousers and burnt-out cases from the First World War, perceiving the city with their own nervous systems.

Lutes’s labors are the stuff of legend. After the publication of his acclaimed debut, “Jar of Fools” (1994), Lutes — an American who had never been to Germany — had a eureka moment upon spotting a magazine ad for a book on Weimar Berlin. He would spend the next 22 years realizing his version of that world. “Jar of Fools” was both of the ’90s and timeless, a slim fable of magicians on the lam in Seattle. The magic in “Berlin” is in the way Lutes conjures, out of old newspapers and photographs, a city so remote from him in space and time.

He populates “Berlin” with characters of every age, social class, and political persuasion: Gudrun Braun, newly unemployed by the zeppelin factory and a mother of three, desperate to make ends meet; three generations of the Jewish Schwartz family, including David, a paperboy hawking the communist periodical A.I.Z.; and Pola Mosse, a nude artists’ model who moonlights as a cabaret performer, singing cheeky paeans to modernity.

At times Lutes bridges his characters’ disparate story lines with dreams, fleeting thoughts and scraps of mass media. In this way “Berlin” invokes the polyphonic techniques found in such modernist works as “Ulysses,” “U.S.A.,” and most pertinent, Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” of 1929. Real-life figures such as Josephine Baker, Adolf Hitler and the jailed editor Carl von Ossietzky (a Nobel Peace Prize laureate) make cameos, mingling with Lutes’s invented lives.

Our guides through this welter of voices and episodes are Kurt Severing, a grizzled journalist for Ossietzky’s paper Die Weltbühne, and Marthe Müller, a young woman escaping her stifling bourgeois upbringing in Köln to launch her sentimental education in the capital. The two meet on a train at the very start, and we know before they do that their lives are now linked.

With a cigarette welded to his lips, the bespectacled Severing resembles a more dashing Barton Fink. He’s witnessed how Germany, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, has been developing military aircraft. He’s concerned yet politically uncommitted, trusting his own judgment “over any decrees handed down from Munich or Moscow.” In a bravura passage, sitting at his desk listening to the clacking of typewriters up and down the street, Severing muses that he can “pick out the coded signatures of men whose work I know: a cuckold theater critic, a dime novelist at play, a shut-in literary essayist, a freelance advertising writer.” He imagines that each page is like a stone, set against the river of time, perhaps one day reaching critical mass and diverting the course of history. But will it happen soon enough?

Anyone who’s watched 10 minutes of the news in the last two years will feel the tug of relevance in these pages, something Lutes couldn’t have predicted back in the 1990s, when he began the series. Actual swastikas don’t appear until late in the book; Lutes simply adorns the Nazi flags with white circles, an omission that’s perversely effective, making us see the moment when people still might have thought fascism couldn’t win.

From its topical concerns to its appendix of historical notes, “Berlin” screams Important Graphic Novel. And it is: Lutes is incapable of drawing a lazy panel. His scrupulous style makes everything from the font of a store sign to a parlor wallpaper pattern worthy of study, and even his onomotopeia has the ring of genius: the “takka tak tak” of typewriter, the sudden “AHOOGA!” of a car horn on a busy street. But “Berlin” is an unpredictable, at times difficult read. Not all of the characters exist in three dimensions; occasionally the airtight aesthetic screams for something less objective.

The dirty secret about graphic novels is how fast they read; it’s rare for one to require more than a day or two to finish. (“I hated the lifetime of pain and struggle it took to create a thing that anyone could read in an hour,” sighs the cartoonist in Matthew Klam’s novel “Who Is Rich?”) Strange as it sounds, one of the virtues of “Berlin” is how it resists completion. It took me weeks to get through, at times backtracking in order to clarify who was who, always returning at last to a greater appreciation of Lutes’s vision and humanity. In the last pages, the book pitches suddenly, violently forward through time, as though to meet us — an ending so electrifying that I gasped.

Olivier Schrauwen, a Belgian artist based in Berlin, has come up with a simpler way to manipulate time. In “Arsène Schrauwen” (2014), a sort of hallucinated account of a chapter in his grandfather’s life, the action halts 50 pages in. “Please wait one week before reading further,” runs a message over a patterned backdrop. I acquiesced, returning seven days later to the message on the facing page: “Thanks for waiting.”

Such politeness is at odds with the anarchic rudeness of Schrauwen’s books, which exist on the other side of the mirror from “Berlin.” His latest, PARALLEL LIVES (Fantagraphics, $24.99), is a slim but potent volume of linked and mangled autofictions, with delirious color chords you only find in dreams. In the first of the new stories, “O. Schrauwen” offers an account of his abduction by “‘Grey Aliens’ or ‘Greys,’” and the drawings are aptly monochrome. On the spacecraft, he’s forced to watch a movie about the entirety of human history, and things slide toward gibbering insanity until Schrauwen concludes with a deadpan tribute to his art form.

Also in this garden of unearthly delights: an app that “allows you to experience life as a cartoon character in an animated world,” a two-page story of 70 one-inch panels each, and a long final tale in which everything seems up for grabs, from sexuality and physics to the rules of storytelling itself. “I’m relaying what is happening to me in the form of a first person narrative,” says one interstellar explorer brightly. “The audience, wherever, whoever, and whenever it is, will be captivated by my space adventure story.” What nerve! And yet it’s true. He gives his name as Olivier Schrauwen.

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