BERLIN, BOOK TWO reviewed by Newsarama

Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke

Newsarama    |    Michael C Lorah    |    November 10, 2008

The worst thing about Berlin, and I mean the absolute pits, is how painfully and laboriously slow is its release schedule. Following 2000’s Berlin vol. 1: City of Stones, cartoonist Jason Lutes recently finished work on the second part of the eventual Berlin trilogy. Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke charts the lives of fictional residents of Berlin, Germany, from June 1929 until September of 1930. Charting the fade of the Weimar Republic fades and the rise of the National Socialist party (more commonly known as the Nazis), Lutes is authoring the most engaging and remarkably historical fiction in the history of the comics medium.

Praise simply must be heaped on Lutes’s incredible research. Though the characters themselves are fiction, the scenarios they face, the crumbling social structures that surround them, the often violent political rallies, the daily struggle to feed one’s family, all of the turmoil of a society on the edge is there on the page. Leftist writer Kurt Severing and newly arrived in the city artist Marthe Müller provide distinctly realized viewpoints into the chaos. Marthe, an outsider, provides background to readers unfamiliar with the history of the time, while simultaneously being absorbed into the distracting nightlife and upper class frivolity of Berlin. Dour Kurt provides the intellectual view of Berlin’s struggles, witnessing the carnage of the May Day massacre, writing futilely against the brutality of the German police in dealing with Communist rallies.

Lutes’ ability to engage readers in the day-to-day drama of his characters allows the political elements to seep into the narrative, with a half dozen major storylines weaving through the city’s socio-economic and cultural strata. A homeless Jewish girl bounces learns to trust one benefactor, only to face new challenges when he is forced to pass her on to a more affluent family. A group of African-American jazz musicians touring Berlin cope with inter-racial relations, questionable business practices and meeting famed Josephine Baker. Marte herself dives headlong into the debauch Berlin nightlife, distracted from the troubles of the time by drugs and sexual experimentation. Lutes captures the nuances of each of these characters and their situations with deft and subtle human understanding, refusing to caricature anybody or paint them as wholly unsympathetic or unlikeable.

Artistically, Lutes is a master. His style, straightforward and naturalistic, grounds the scene in a clear realism, and his adherence to three-panel page structures keeps the visual storytelling rock solid throughout. Moving the reader’s eye around the page by switching perspectives on characters, Lutes frequently uses close-ups or long-shots to provide detail and perspective, or by holding a single shot over the course of a series of panels consistently to enforce the moment. From capturing historic likenesses to depicting the full range of emotions among his fictional characters, Lutes’ character acting is second to none.

Smart and sophisticated, humorous and tragic, Jason Lutes’ Berlin is challenging and engaging on many levels. Fans of comic book art and followers of history will find equal pleasures in its pages, but mostly, any reader who embraces stories of humanity and the role of humanity in societal turmoil. Berlin is the work of a masterful cartoonist at the top of his game. Get it.

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