Jason Lutes’ ‘Berlin’ Sets a New Standard for Graphic Novels

Travel between two differing worlds has been one the core motifs of comics since the baby future-Superman rocketed from Krypton to Earth in 1938. Over the 80 years since, comics of almost every kind—from mainstream superhero titles to longform graphic books—have been packed with alien worlds, parallel universes, and myriad dimensions and zones. Wonder Woman floats out of Greek mythology and into America. The Black Panther pops back and forth between Oakland and the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda.

The same motif of traversing worlds recurs in the most overtly literary works of graphic fiction and nonfiction. In Maus, Art Spiegelman’s narrative of his father’s memories of the Holocaust, Spiegelman crosses the spheres of species in his indelible rendering of Nazis as predatory cats and Jews as mice, their prey. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s memoir of a childhood shrouded by family mysteries, her closeted father toggles back and forth from his public life in rural Pennsylvania and a secret gay life. And now, in Berlin, Jason Lutes’ sweeping, ambitious new work of historical graphic fiction, an array of characters in the Weimar Republic struggle to find their way in a cultural and political landscape changing beneath their feet.

Berlin begins in the fall of 1928, with the image of a passenger train steaming across the German countryside—toward Berlin, we soon learn—and it ends, in the spring of 1933, with another train leaving the city with one of the original passengers on board. Lutes’ lovely black-and-white ink drawing of a steam locomotive conjures a nostalgic conception of the past for contemporary readers while reminding us that rail travel represented the wonders of the modern age in the time of the book. Roaring along the tracks in 1928, the passengers were travelling not only to Berlin, but to the future. Reading this book knowing what the coming war would lead to, one can’t help but be reminded of the cattle-car trains that would carry Jews to the death camps, as well.

Jason Lutes dedicated over 20 years to the making of this work of more than 550 pages of nuanced, exactingly rendered pen-and-ink drawings and dialogue. (According to Lutes, he was inspired to write about Germany between the wars after reading an advertisement for a photography book dealing with the period in The Nation.) He was not yet thirty when he started the first volume, and he was over fifty and the father of two when the final book was published this fall. Lutes spent the time well, crafting multidimensional, true-feeling characters in a set of stories connected by the unstable circumstances of their time and place. The events surrounding them are historically factual: the fall of the kaiser, the launch of the Hindenburg, the debates over Marxism in Marx’s homeland, the sexual and cultural freedoms of the Weimar age, and the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. What Lutes contributes to the exhaustively documented, utterly familiar history of this time is a set of fictional characters from everyday life who ground the period with such intimacy and so much veracity that we feel as if we’re seeing it through new eyes, observing it so closely that we feel it directly.

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