Berlin is written and drawn by the extremely talented comics creator Jason Lutes, who also previously brought us Jar of Fools. It is one of the true classics of modern comics, on a par with the “greats” of the medium, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. So far, there have been eighteen issues out of a projected twenty-four, and two trade paperback collections, taking us up to Issue 12, the half-way point of the story.
Berlin: City of Stones is the first of the two trade paperbacks, published by Drawn & Quarterly, and collects the first six issues of the series. The level of attention to realistic detail in this story is remarkable. For history buffs (and the historical accuracy in this series is also spot on), Berlin is set in Germany during the final years of the Weimar Republic (end of the 1920s – start of the 1930s), as things start to go down the tubes, and the various factions (Jews, communists, nationalists, socialists, republicans, First World War veterans, and others) are battling it out in a vicious near-civil war to see who comes out as top dog in this cut-throat grab for power.
The narrative details the tragic inability of the German government and society in the chaotic inter-war period to adjust to and sustain their fragile fledgling democracy in the face of determined extremists. Starting in September 1928, the story follows the hopes and struggles of a small group of people, normal everyday folk of various ethnic groups, all trying to live their lives in a turbulent Germany, as the future becomes ever darker and grimmer against a background over which looms the ever-growing menace of Nazism.
Lutes always concentrates on the people first, the dreams, hopes, emotions and personal suffering of the average man and woman, the groups and individuals comprising the citizens of the city of Berlin, as their plight grows ever worse. The reader, aware of the dark chapter of history that is about to unfold, cannot help but feel sympathy for the various characters trapped in this ever-worsening situation, amidst all the conflicts, demonstrations, and the rapid, spiralling descent into lawlessness and chaos, as democracy is overthrown and ruthless dictatorship takes over.
I’ve often heard many “enlightened” types criticize the German population, and their inability to see where things were heading. How could they ever let animals like the Nazis come to power and get away with the atrocities that they committed? Were they stupid? Did they not see how things would turn out? It’s all too easy for anyone to look back from our cosy vantage point of eighty years after the events, and ask accusing questions like this. But we weren’t there. We didn’t live through those dark days. And everyone’s a genius in hindsight, right?
Berlin: City of Stones is a remarkable piece of work, a perfect example of comics at their best, as both a work of art and “literature”. If you want to impress someone who is not a fan of comics (or is positively derogatory about them), you don’t hand them Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman or Superman. These people will laugh in your face, as the guys and gals in tights are a particular focus of their ridicule. Instead, you give these people something like Maus or Berlin, or A Jew in Communist Prague, and watch the amazed expressions grow on their faces. This is serious stuff, the comics equivalent of real literature/art, the “real deal”.
What we don’t have here is your typical, silly, mindless superhero crap published by Marvel or DC. If you don’t like to tax your mind too much, and that kind of thing is your limit with comics, then Berlin is most likely not for you. This type of graphic storytelling is aimed at readers who prefer comics of a more realistic, intelligent, and serious nature, and who aren’t fans of the more juvenile examples of the medium. People who like their reading material to be something a bit more substantial than endless moronic superhero punchfests.
And if you’re like me, and read all kinds of comics, and like to read something different from mainstream superhero stuff every now and again, Berlin is a perfect change of tone. As a huge history fan, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s easily one of my favourite comic books, ever.