Berlin (Drawn & Quarterly) is an imposing book. It’s nearly two inches thick and the size of a hefty textbook, the kind that takes effort to read. The title aptly indicates exactly what the book is about: though there are more than a dozen characters that flow through the story, Berlin itself is the star of the show, struggling under the weight of the Great War and subsequent political and social upheaval. It’s the dying days of the Weimar Republic, and Berlin is a decent and intimate history lesson.
The personal intimacy is what makes Berlin worth the literal and figurative effort to read. The cast of characters that author and artist Jason Lutes features is extensive, some of them real people. But the majority of the book is concerned with the small stories of personal stakes, setting them in the context of larger conflict in order to explain the very real issues Berlin’s residents struggled to manage. It gives readers something to invest in emotionally, allowing them to identify similarities between their lives and the characters, in everything from resenting a boss to forcing kids out of bed in the morning. But this is also part of what makes Berlin so difficult to read. Readers know what happens in 1930 and beyond, how people are going to suffer—and so does Lutes. There’s an anticipation that comes with this kind of story, and while it’s not quite the same as horror, it’s raw in a way that’s uncommon outside of horror books. This dread is balanced by an unexpected story about love that is not really a love story, but serves to demonstrate how intentional Lutes is with his craft.
Lutes’ strengths artistically are in his backgrounds and the character expressions. Working in stark black-and-white does pose some challenges with character design, but it allows for highly detailed buildings and parks that impart a sense of place. Lutes includes a helpful character guide in the back of the book, which is especially good early on, when it’s easy to confuse some people for each other; there’s none of the “same-face syndrome” that happens in some comics, but there are a lot of characters introduced in a fairly short amount of time, many of them wearing uniforms or clothes that may as well be one. His faces convey meaning in every panel, body language and minor shifts in the shape of a mouth or the arch of an eyebrow doing more than dialog. There are text-heavy pages providing historical context, taken from private papers and newspapers, but the best pages are the ones with little text, characters drawn in context to and reacting with one another.
If Berlin was published at any other time, it would still be a masterful historical graphic novel, a fictional story about a nonfiction time. In fact, it was originally printed as a trilogy that premiered in 2000, with the second book following in 2008, and the third at the same time as this collected edition.
But 2018 gives Berlin a specific kind of weight as characters struggle not only against institutional, state-sponsored violence, but also an increasing hopelessness in a world that seems to be falling apart. Lutes unflinchingly documents the fascism, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia that helped to fuel Hitler’s rise, and with few exceptions none of the sympathetic characters he created are completely without fault. There are small minds and fickle hearts, and rage enough to burn the whole city to the ground. But there is also affection, altruism, and bravery, a drive to help others and a refusal to stop trying to make things better. Readers will likely find Berlin unsettlingly familiar, and while it may not have been the intention from the beginning, Lutes’ measured, deft work appeals to humanity’s better angels. Berlin’s story ends before World War II begins, but knowing what comes next makes it all the more clear how vital small choices and unremarkable lives are in times of upheaval and unrest.