Seth Hahne's Reviews > Berlin, Vol. 1: City of Stones

Berlin, Vol. 1 by Jason Lutes
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Sep 30, 08

bookshelves: comics
Read in September, 2008, read count: 3

Every now and again, a comic comes out that assures me that the medium can tell certain kinds of stories in a way that no other medium can touch. Every now and again, a comic comes out that despite its natural humility asserts itself as a model to which the medium should aspire. Every now and again, a comic comes out that just flat-out knocks me off my feet and makes me think that everything is going to be alright after all.

That comic this time round is Jason Lutes' Berlin: City of Stones.

It's not that Berlin presents such a rosie vista of the panoply of human history. It doesn't. It's not that Berlin offers a solution to the din of political strife that will always wrack the tired bones of human society. It doesn't. And it's not even that Berlin allows true love to conquer even the dankest moments of our human despair. It can't.

What Lutes' book does, however, is demonstrate that creative geniuses still stalk the earth. The great classical composers are dead and gone. The sculptors who decorated the world with marble and jade are survived only by their stones. The giants of the jazz era have passed into mere memory. Bach. Beethoven. Mozart. Michelangelo. Bernini. Rodin. Satch. Bird. Trane.

And Jason Lutes.

Among the geniuses of the comic form (Ware, Smith, Eisner, Hernandez, etc.), Lutes is in the top tier. His work is careful, planned, and makes use of so many narrative tricks that they cease to be tricks and exist merely as natural part of his extensive visual vocabulary. Recently having taught an introduction to comics creation, I had a hard time not using Lutes' work in every example I had prepared to illustrate technique. There is so much story built into every page that his works are the kinds that continue unfolding upon subsequent readings.

With the recent release of the second book of the trilogy, Berlin: City of Smoke , I thought it'd be best to reread City of Stones so I could jump right into its sequel. This was my third complete read of the book and fresh narrative details continued to make themselves known. With the story and plot developments more or less solid in mind, I was able to pay closer attention to some of the methodology behind Lutes' work here, taking special care to follow his panel transitions and the way he allows the story to flit from character to character. This is all the product of a special kind of genius.

For those unaware, Berlin follows numerous characters through the end of the Twenties and the start of the Thirties in Wiemar's Germany. The economy is a disaster. The government is breaking the terms of armistice. Political turmoil grips the city as communists and fascists fight to save their country from its fate. And of course, there are the Jews, living under the quiet threat of a future none could predict. Yet despite it all, Berlin is still trying to be a Great City. There is still wealth and privilege (even while the workers begin falling to poverty and starvation) and the veiled acceptance of the libertines. And the press is still free. Somewhat.

Berlin follows a Marxist journalist, a country-mouse art student, a nightclub singer, a family divided over politics, a Jewish tramp, the boy with whom he trades goods, a lesbian, a socialite, a policeman, and a handful of political radicals (both communist and fascist). Its weavings can chart a difficult path to traverse, but the work pays well and is worth every moment of inspection.

My only complaint is now that I have finished Volume II, I've got a good half-decade's wait to see Lutes' conclusion.
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