Thursday, March 19, 2009

On The Precipice: Berlin, City of Smoke

Rob reviews the latest collection of Jason Lutes' work of historical fiction, BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE (Drawn & Quarterly).

Jason Lutes' series BERLIN is one of the last holdouts in the world of alt-comics in terms of its serialization. The first issue of the series debuted in 1996 with a different publisher (Black Eye Press) and he's released a new issue every fifteen months or so ever since. The painstaking nature of both the research involved in thinking about Berlin between the world wars along with Lutes' exacting clear-line style have made it a slow grind in terms of its production, though Lutes did step up the frequency of each issue as he neared the end of volume 2. In terms of style, it's one of the most easily approachable of all alt-comics, recognizable as a Robert Altman-esque blend of different characters' stories and the ways in which they intersect. Lutes' dedication to clarity on the page means that one can either linger on individual images or zip down a page and still take in the information needed to understand the story. Of course, the subject matter in some ways is a bit obscure, at least at first, until one sees that Berlin's decay and eventual embrace of fascism is a story that's been repeated any number of times, in any number of places.

Lutes aims at telling the larger story of the tremendous upheaval in Berlin through a number of characters from all walks of life. There's the pacifist journalist Kurt Severing, who can see what's coming from the fascists but feels helpless to stop it. There's Horst, whose wife Gudrun was drawn to communism and killed by police in the May Day riot that ended the first volume. There's Marthe, the naive art student drawn into a relationship with Kurt and later finding herself exploring other aspects of identity and sexuality. There's Silvia, Gudrun's daughter who became a runaway after the riot and who falls in with a scavenger. This volume introduces an American jazz band ("the Cocoa Kids") on the road in Berlin, eventually connecting them with a minor character from the first volume and some unexpected plot twists. We see Berlin through the eyes of rich and poor, communist and Nazi, educated and street-smart, cynical and romantic, idealistic and world-weary. Lutes weaves the events of history and lets it flow and wash around his characters, some of whom are directly involved with the events and others who prefer to ignore it altogether.

The title could refer to any number of possibilities, but my take relates to how one can't grab on or hold on to smoke. It appears, it may linger, but it eventually dissipates. One simply has to wait for the smoke to clear, as it were, revealing harsh truths. This book ends with the National Socialist party having gained a majority in the German parliament, a harsh truth that was about to have grave effects. In the meantime, this book deals with that lingering smoke: nights spent in jazz clubs, days spent with fellow pacifists or communists or artists in cafes and parlors--all of whom spoke passionately but to no end; days spent not having to worry about how the world was going to immediately affect you. As in smoke and mirrors, it's all an illusion. And it perhaps alludes to the Reichstag going up in smoke a couple of years later, allowing Hitler to seize total control.

If Lutes has remarkable control over the flow of each character's story and how he drifts from one narrative to the next, he's a bit more clunky when introducing new characters. That was certainly true in the first few issues of the series as well as when the jazz musicians were introduced; as a reader, I felt the author's narrative hand nudging me and telling me "Look! New characters! They're introducing themselves to you!" It stands out because Lutes otherwise is a paragon of restraint in his storytelling, making acts of violence all the more visceral when they do occur.

The slow pace of the story allows Lutes to delve deeply into each character's inner life. Even the most brutish of characters have moments of tenderness, like a scene where Horst is bathing his on and daughter. Severing seems to be the closest thing Lutes has a mouthpiece in this story, but he's also portrayed as increasingly weak and ineffectual--both as a viable lover and as a difference-maker in his world. One interesting formal trick Lutes employs on occasion is showing the reader a crowd scene, revealing the thoughts that grip each character at that one moment in time, and then follow one character from that group and their thoughts into the next scene. Those thoughts range from thinking about food, sex, going to the bathroom to quite deeper thoughts. It reinforces Lutes' sense of trying to capture a series of moments in a specific time and place, that this could be anyone's story in the city.

BERLIN features an interesting premise and setting, a rich array of characters, and a complex storyline rife with room for discussion of all sorts of ideas. None of this would be effective without Lutes' amazing line. He manages to pull off the rare trick of using a line that is distinctive and clear without being overly slick. It's naturalistic but with a slightly rubbery quality that makes each page and each character feel like an organic entity. The city of Berlin itself is most decidedly its own character, from the crowded intersections to run-down buildings to blood-soaked stones. Lutes' line makes the reader feel the life in the city. No degree of "realism" in an art style can bring the past to life (something he jabs it in his depiction of the artists obsessed with Objectivism), but Lutes' organic style evokes a feeling of what it might have been like to have lived in Germany at that time.

The central theme to the book is how each individual tries to make sense of chaos. A number of characters, both educated and ignorant, are sick of the corruption and chaos of Weimar Republic Germany and so latch on to the tenets of National Socialism because it promises order. A number of Germans, resentful of the way the Treaty of Versailles defanged the nation after World War I, clung deeply to the notion of "Germany for Germans" and targeted immigrants and Jews in particular as their scapegoats. Marthe embraces the chaos, letting it sweep her along without questioning. Kurt clings to his ideals but despairs of his tools, eventually burning all of his work in progress because he came to realize that his words were futile in stopping the fascists. The Jewish characters close ranks around each other and their faith, while the idealogues (Communists and Fascists alike) employ the same sort of emotive, rabble-rousing speeches to draw support--both of which appeal to a central authority even as each preaches its own brand of brotherhood. At its heart, BERLIN speaks to the meeting-point of dogma and desperation and how the former appeals to those afflicted by the latter.

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