BERLIN 2 reviewed by ComicMix

Review: 'Berlin: City of Smoke' by Jason Lutes

ComicMix    |    Andrew Wheeler    |    November 3, 2008

Continuing the story of 1929

More than ten years ago, Jason Lutes began serializing his long graphic novel Berlin in a comic of the same name. Making long-form comics is long, hard work – more like an ultramarathon than any other art form – and this year finally sees the publication of the second part of that story. Even now, the end is still probably four or five years away –although we can certainly know what will happen in Berlin, and guess what will happen to these people, as 1929 slides into ‘30 into ‘31.

Berlin is a dense, complicated story with a large cast of characters, told in a naturalistic, cinematic way, without identifying captions or explanatory notes. That keeps from slowing down the reading experience, and the characters are always recognizable – but it does make it hard to review the book, when I realize that “the Jewish orphan girl” was probably named twice in the entire two hundred pages. (And with two different names at that.)

Berlin takes place in the last days of the post-Great War Weimar Republic, and its implicit theme is the battle between fascism and communism. (Given the time and the place, one need not even pause a moment to guess which side Lutes comes down on. This is unfortunate, though – and more so the more a reader knows about history – since we all know the fascists will win, and that things aren’t going to get better for a long time. And even if the Communists flee to the Soviet Union, they won’t escape the Nazis that way – much less escape oppression, war, and mass death.) The characters are mostly at the lower end of middle-class, if not outright poor, with some secondary characters higher up the income ladder, and they also tend to be outcasts and bohemians of one sort or another: musicians, reporters, artists, lesbians, Jews, tramps, black Americans. Again, one notes that these are all people who will not fare well under Nazi rule.

Sexuality is important in Berlin in a way rare in comics: it’s part of the world, neither caricatured nor exploited for titillation. Love affairs aren’t the basis for cheap melodrama or door-slamming farces, but wrenching events that break existing relationships and create new ones. Sex is also power and control; there’s quite a bit of commercial sex in Berlin, as well as a few near-rapes.

The center of Berlin in the first book was the relationship of journalist Kurt Severing and artist Marthe Muller, but they don’t stay as tightly bound in City of Smoke. And many of the characters from the first book return, such as that Jewish orphan girl, Silvia, who is another center to this second volume.

An American jazz band – five black men performing under the name “Cocoa Kids” – are the center of a third set of characters, with their own various loves (male and female) and relations with the authorities.

But, really, what Berlin does is flow – like water, or, given the title of this book, perhaps more like smoke – from one plot thread to another, through the lives of all of the characters, out one side and back to the other. Scenes follow scenes mostly through movie-style transitions – the viewpoint pulls out and then back in somewhere else, or jump-cut during page transitions. Berlin is a Robert Altman movie in print: a large cast set against a striking background live out their own individual stories, some touching each other, some separate. We may know that all of these people are doomed, more or less – they’re on the wrong side of history and it’s only going to get worse for the next fifteen years – but they don’t know that, and that’s what makes Berlin work.

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