Three new works of graphic literature recreate the harrowing years of Hitler’s Germany, an era when a once-proud country and its people descended into an abyss of fascism, race hatred and mass murder. Victims, villains and heroes — they’re all represented in these singular books.
Jason Lutes’ graphic novel “Berlin” (Drawn & Quarterly, 580 pp., $49.95) is a masterpiece of the form. Lutes worked 20 years on his story, publishing it in installments, and this omnibus edition is the sum of his efforts, the saga of a city’s transformation from a liberal cultural metropolis to a community in the complete grip of fascism.
The black-and-white illustrations are evocative and somber, appropriate to the stories of people whose options narrow to nothing in the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s. There are more than 40 characters, including historical figures such as imprisoned newspaper publisher Carl von Ossietzky, Nazi propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler himself. There’s a young woman artist making her way in the city, a disillusioned journalist, a Communist organizer, a Nazi storm trooper recruit, a family of middle-class Jews, an American jazz band thrust into the chaos.
Lutes immerses the reader in the poverty, desperation and financial panic that drove people to choose sides in the battle for Germany’s soul. He tells stories of love, parental devotion, desperation and betrayal.
And poetry. In one panel Lutes sets the words of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” to visual music: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed/and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” “Berlin” will make you shiver with recognition at some dark and all-too-recognizable currents of history. If there was ever any doubt of a graphic novel’s ability to achieve a high level of storytelling, this book blows it away.