I’m going to say something a reviewer should never say about a series still in development: Berlin is a great book.
We’re only up to book two [Berlin Book One: City Of Stones and Berlin Book Two: City Of Smoke] in a three book series, so I could be shooting myself in the foot later, but right now I can say that Jason Lutes’ work so far is nothing short of amazing.
Yes, it’s graphic novel, and the stink of “good for a graphic novel” still hangs over recommending one, but just at the technical level, Berlin is a work of genius. This is a gorgeous book, the B&W style suggests a grown-up Tintin with a hint of Erté. You can’t say it lack ambition either, seeking to tell the entire story of the fall of Wiemar Republic from the point of view of everyone, from radical writers to businessmen to streetwalkers. The deep historical detail, from building decoration to homosexual cruising spots, to the engines of fashion give Lutes’ (admittedly overwhelming) cast a real place to live and breathe. This feels like a Berlin you could go and visit for a day, but like Alan Moore’s London in From Hell maybe not one you would want to.
Part of the problem of historical novels is knowing how they turn out. We know the rebels lose, the boat sinks, the south does not rise again, and Marie Antoinette gets a really severe haircut. Berlin solves this problem by having the political strife of the Wiemar Republic provide the soundtrack for a host of sparing characters. Half the story concerns a young artist and her older paramour, his growing disgust with the government and her exploration of Berlin’s infamous nightlife. Americans usually forget the situations leading up to the rise of Nazism and Berlin shows us the slow progression of massacres and poverty that gave them such fertile ground to grow in. In a neat twist, the icons and emblems of the Nazi party are disguised as white or black bots. Its hard for a modern reader to see a swastika and not flinch, but Lutes wants us to be with the characters, for whom a swastika would be nothing more then yet another symbol held up by a yet another waring faction.
That last tidbit brings me to another issue: why is this a graphic novel? Too often graphic novels are like movies that sit still or illustrated novels. Lutes quietly pushes the boundaries of the medium, the pace is kept by clever panel placement and composition that never feels flashy or obvious. The format allows for lengthy digressions and inner monologues that would be distracting in a novel or confusing on film. Lutes holds back on clever experiments, breaking form just when needed. An art-nerd discussion on the power of perspective in creating depth is made even greater by being able to illustrate it in front of you.
The second book, City Of Smoke, ends with the line “What is the fate of Wiemar Republic?” Since we all know the answer to that, the real question is what is the fate of Berlin? I hope the third and final book is just as engrossing and illuminating as the last two, for my own sake at least.