Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort. If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this. He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s: some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen; and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.
Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration. The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable: poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence. At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew? Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh? After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…
A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata. How did they perceive the chaos? What did they fear, want, hope for? Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?
But it’s not all politics. The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.