You know that feeling when you're watching cable news and you realize the power of propaganda so totally eclipses the power of journalism that you don't even know what's real anymore? You know, those mornings when you look out the window, if you're lucky enough to have a window, and you feel like it's all going to collapse, or maybe it already did and you're just watching the fallout in slow motion?
That feeling pervades former Seattle cartoonist Jason Lutes's exquisitely drawn historical graphic novel Berlin, which tracks the fall of the Weimar Republic and the clashes between fascists and communists in the city. Drawn and Quarterly has just published the final part of Lutes's municipal trilogy in a single, gorgeous, door stopper of a collection. The project took Lutes more than 20 years to complete, an accomplishment reflected in the depth of the storytelling and the detail of his drawings. (He will appear in conversation with comic artist Megan Kelso at Elliott Bay Book Company on November 8.)
Lutes's story primarily follows an amateur artist from Cologne who has arrived in Berlin to find herself. The other main character is a hard-drinking but levelheaded journalist prone to purple prose who comes to represent the importance and impotence of journalism in the face of a politics of chaos.
Through their eyes and the eyes of others—middle-class art students, queers in the underground scene, journalists, paperboys, paupers, the leaders and grunts of the National Socialist and Communists Parties, jazz musicians from America, and a mean-ass girl looking to avenge her mother's murder—we see a cast of characters desperately seeking to maintain some kind of barrier between the personal and the political.
The potential of the utter collapse of that barrier, that moment when absolutely everything you do becomes a political act or a matter of survival, drives all of the tension between the people in this book. This emotional register separates Berlin so completely from Art Spiegelman's neurotic, heartbreaking, deeply personal Maus series that you forget Lutes is working under the pressure of that comparison.
The city of Berlin between the world wars is Lutes's first love and main character. Every dirty corner is either a refuge or a death trap, the broad streets run with blood and gleam with commerce, tenements stack up like fortifications but also like monsters come to destroy the populace. I would not be at all surprised if Lutes said he drew five hundred thousand million individual bricks and cobblestones over the course of Berlin's nearly 600 pages.
The effect is a reading experience so immersive that when you walk outside afterward, you feel like things look different. You see the way he sees.
Last weekend, I was looking down at my copy of Berlin and saw a drawing of a Nazi kicking a communist in the street and slinging Jewish slurs while the cops do nothing. Then I looked at Twitter and saw a video of a Proud Boy kicking a protester while the cops did nothing. The book offers no consolation for this moment, because it can't. You know what happens after the Reichstag burns.