It's difficult to think of a story with a greater sense of elegant, nuanced foreboding than Jason Lutes's Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
. Set in the Weimar Republic-era of German history, Lutes's story takes an unimaginably large and historically important time and observes it through the small lives of a band of sympathetic protagonists. The author spends the most time with his main characters, Kurt Severing and Marthe Müller, but the quality of Berlin
is such that the reader cares emphatically about the fate of the rest of the cast: the lovelorn dyke art student, the recently separated single mother, even fleeting characters like the street policeman or the overworked newspaper editor. Even so, the shadow of the coming war cautions us not to get too attached to these people. They are imperfect, bickering, and naïve in their ideologies--just like real people. Brutality will soon follow, and the vulnerability of each of the characters haunts the pages.
Using the graphic novel form to tackle an issue like the rise of Nazi Germany is fraught with traps, not least of which are comparisons to other works, such as Maus, as well as literary criticism for minimizing such an important topic. Lutes navigates these hazards well, creating sparse black-and-white sketches that often render a mood wordlessly. Whole pages go without text, and it serves the story well. As much can be told by showing a character in a window's evening reflection, eyes inked as darkened sockets, than through retelling details of (now) familiar historical events. The story itself has a rambling and philosophical feel, focused on details that become all the more poignant for their insignificance. One segment--where Lutes shows Marthe's walk onto a newly snow-covered street--tells us everything we need to know about this character, without much actual action occurring. Lutes doesn't use moments of transcendence to make a point or add sentimentality; instead, he firmly grounds us in this time and place.
Without knowing more about the next volumes, it's impossible to say whether Lutes will use this attachment against the readers later, knocking down his characters cheaply, allowing the shortcuts demanded by the burden of history. The last pages of this book--with a disappointingly predictable resolution--hinted in that direction, but the overall tone of the book indicates that something much richer and deeper will happen along with the inevitable loss. --Jennifer Buckendorff
About the Author
Born in 1967, Jason Lutes is an American cartoonist whose work includes the ongoing Berlin trilogy, and the graphic novel Jar of Fools. Jason lives with his partner and daughter in rural Vermont, where he teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies.