Pads and Panels | Bill Jones | May 5, 2009
BERLIN BOOK ONE reviewed by Pads and Panels
Berlin: City of Stones collects the first eight issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin, a planned 24-issue series of historical fiction taking place in Berlin from 1928 to 1933, during the decline of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Nazi Party. The book has many successes, including a great cinematic feel created by Lutes, but its biggest fault, with the big one-word title of Berlin, is that in its first eight issues it doesn’t give the reader a great feel for the city during this historic time.
Instead, Lutes focuses on two fictional characters, Kurt Severing, a journalist, and Marthe Muller, an art student who moves away from an affluent family to Berlin. The two quickly kindle a relationship and become the center of attention for Lutes’ tale. Their professions are interesting choices, because they ultimately work together to form the components of comics, words and images.
But the characters themselves are not as interesting. The reader gets snippets of happenings involving them, but not fully fleshed motivations. Muller does have a few conversations about the purpose of art, which again feels a bit meta in its reflection of the comics medium. Lutes takes this further by including a few art classes with lessons on perspectives. But Severing is less interesting, and the aspects of their relationship are fringe elements to the bigger historical happenings.
Lutes presents the historical context through a secondary storyline involving a working class family struggling with its political views in the face of the turmoil. The story is much more engaging than that of the book’s main characters, but gets less attention. Another side story with a police officer had potential, but flops.
Lutes has a great hand for action, which he presents in a clash with the police in the third chapter and a war scene in fourth, but the action is far and few between the relationship drama that pervades the debut book. Again, Lutes’ presentation is phenomenal and brings to it a flair laden with film techniques, but the writing, organization and pacing of the story fall behind.
It is quite possible Lutes is trying to make comment on the journalists and the artists, who are somewhat detached from the real hardships of the time, despite living and working in the midst of them, but their stories are simply less interesting than the others, and yet they are the focus.
City of Stones ends with the massacre of May 1, International Workers Day in Germany, and it is powerful, but Lutes takes a very indirect route in getting to the good stuff. He has the ability to be an engaging storyteller; he just needs a better story to tell.