Stones, smoke, and light
A lot of my writing in this blog is retrospective, keeping most of the content removed from my present-day circumstance and present-day events in comics. But this one’s pretty close to home and I’ll share. The series Berlin nears its completion with the publication of issue #20, presaging the conclusion of the trilogy thus far seen in City of Stones and City of Smoke with City of Light.
As with so many comics-related things in the 1990s, I was first introduced to Jason Lutes’ work in the back pages of Cerebus, specifically his Jar of Fools, which I bought the instant I saw the collected paperback. Anyone who read Inking is sexy will instantly recognize that Jason’s work is right in my zone. Granted, I like almost any comics art with a ton of the stuff in it, but his combo of even lines, strong outlining, and solid blacks is special, managing to be both detailed and clear. He’s right in there with Hergé, and in my mind, there’s a cluster which also includes Rick Geary and Alison Bechdel.
What he brings to it even more so, though, is ambition. Berlin began in 1996, aiming at a detailed political account of the city from 1928 through 1933, shooting for the highest possible visual and cultural detail. And like I said, first published by Black Eye Productions and now by Drawn & Quarterly, it’s getting close to the conclusion planned in #22.
Isn’t that kind of … slow? Hey – you ask me, a person can do a comic when and how they want. This one, as well as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze, goes slow and steady, well, mostly steady, considering other work like Houdini: The Handcuff King and Jason’s prof job at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
There’s something important about the time in this case: how much has happened here-and-now from 1996 to today, which the book comments on substantively. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fascism! fascism! alarmist, Trump is Teh Nazis guy … no, I’m a lot worse than that. You don’t want to know how I think the term fascism, strictly defined, applies to the country I was born in. Just sing that anthem at the football game and be happy. What I’m referring to is the issue of small-d democracy, i.e., the simple fact of voting within some kind of governmental framework, and how it intersects with but does not represent either individual experiences or social organizing. Weimar’s a good example, and so are we – it’s not about specific purported parallels, or a predicted outcome, but about different examples of the same phenomenon.
Now I’ll shift back to the virtues of the comic, subtopic: style. First is its diversity of pace, ranging from a whole page dedicated to nuances of a glance, or a clarinet solo; to landscape poems and way-of-life portraiture; to complex dialogue full of shifting relationships; to explosive action.
The story also plays fun and loose with its focus, diving into the thoughts of any character whenever (in fact, justifying the existence of the thought balloon as a unique contributor), careening into surrealism to show a character’s musings and perceptions, using sound effects when it seems to work and not when not. Yet the effect is profoundly naturalistic, in part due to the meticulous – hell, monolithic – architecture, but also because the thoughts and effects are so familiar. A surreal imagined effect is how the mind really does it, so it’s naturalistic after all.
So what’s this about me and Berlin? It began with a 2004 essay which included a toss-it-in protogame as an example, using grey-spy literature for maximum moral crisis. Later, I decided I might have been onto something and thought about maybe doing a game, so dove into that literature, which I hadn’t done before, and from there into the equally grey world of Cold War spy-everything. Oddly, when I read Markus Wolf’s Man Without a Face., something snapped – and I embarked on a genuinely insane project to combine education, non-fiction writing, and role-playing, which I called Spione (German for “spies”).
The overall saga of Spione is both successful and upsetting, as I think I wrote a damn good book (hell, buy it here) and the game in it broke all kinds of ground, but the more general web project fell apart – and I lost the incredible Wiki I built that cross-referenced an insane amount of spy fiction, non-fiction, and journalism. For me personally, the project was incredibly life-changing. The relevant point here is that during its production during 2005-2006, I had visited Berlin five times, embarked on learning conversational German, and developed a network of friends and chance acquaintances across the country.
Back to the comic (again) and how it relates. Wait, the fall of the Weimar Republic is a wee couple-three events earlier than Spione‘s Cold War focus, right? And it’s true, the political culture and the cityscape were so shattered in the interim that not much really translates directly. However, as with all the great divided cities, Berlin is profoundly layered by events, and if you know the history, get to know locals who care about it, and walk and look carefully, the just-previous past is extremely important for viewing your primary period of interest.
Once I began visiting there – five times in 2005-2006, as well as trips to other regions – the comic took on more power in my mind, and I combed through it with care. That’s how I knew where to stand at the bridge on the Spree where Rosa Luxemburg was killed, or why I demanded we drive slowly through the roundabout on the way to the stadium. Or for the opposite case, how I knew what had been leveled to make way for the Soviet War Memorial in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
It’s no surprise that a fair amount of the scenes and characters’ situations concern the nightlife, as the single touchpoint for the period in American culture is Cabaret. If you don’t showcase how gaudy and desperate it was as the Nazi menace looms in the background, then according to the culture, you’re not “doing” Weimar. Trouble is, that narrative is both superficial and shopworn, and it’s not just a matter of other arts. It’s about the depth.
Ronald Taylor’s Berlin and its Culture and especially Charles W. Haxthausen and Heidren Suhr (editors), Berlin: Culture and Metropolis challenge the general notion that pre-WWII Germany, and especially Berlin, was a pathologically distorted culture. The logic of that notion runs, well, the Nazis and the war and the Holocaust were such horrible things that only a “sick” culture could have produced them, so now let’s dig about in the previous twenty years and show how sick it was. And then there’s the over-specific flipped version, which is to point to this-or-that national leader, or to problems in one’s own society, and say, see, see, there’s the sickness, rising again.
Whereas these books, and I submit, Jason’s Berlin as a whole, examine the period from the perspective that everything happening in it is – while historically specific – completely normally human, and worth discussing right in-and-among the raft of other social-political circumstances of our lifetimes and just before, rather than as the separated outlier. This is both less gaudy and more disturbing than the pathology-based viewpoint, which has lasted way longer than the circumstances of the propaganda that spawned it, and serves to distract from a clear conversation about what modern social life and politics are actually like.
Disclosure: The reader has probably already noticed that I use first names for the comics creators I know personally and surnames for those I don’t. Jason and I have not met or talked much, but we follow and comment at one another’s social media.
Some more good books: David Clay Large, Berlin; Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.
Next column: Two villains (May 21, if the actually-happening-now move to Sweden doesn’t entirely flatten me)
Posted on May 14, 2017, in Politics dammit and tagged Berlin: City of Light, Berlin: City of Smoke, Berlin: City of Stones, Black Eye Productions, Cold War, Drawn & Quarterly, Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes, Spione RPG, Story Now. Bookmark the permalink. 105 Comments.