Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones is illustrated within an inch of its life. Painstakingly researched and precisely drawn, its pictures work overtime to breathe life into history and the fictional persons of its sprawling, yet relatively schematic narrative. The story opens with the arrival of Marthe Muller, an upper class, unmarried woman, who plans to take art classes in Berlin and escape the spectre of an arranged marriage. On the train, she encounters Kurt Severing, a jaded journalist who is struck by her innocence and her self-taught drawing skill, (and presumably how these inform each other.) The book orbits around their transforming relationship, while hopping through the private lives, memories and dreams of disparate citizens scattered throughout the city. Sometimes these characters are revisited, sometimes not. Some lives intertwine in mundane coincidences, others in large fateful clashes, like the violently suppressed Communist march on May Day 1929.
City of Stones attempts a faithful visual portrayal of post WWI Berlin in all its tumult, but misses the mark in spirit. Lutes rewards his characters for their impartiality, ignorance and doubt, and punishes those who embrace the frenzy of ideologies that was its zeitgeist. Marthe drops out of art school, declaring, “there’s a lot for me to learn, but I don’t want to know any of it… I can’t reconcile these things with what I see…. more what I feel. But for me [seeing and feeling] are not so far apart,” and this is treated like a heroic act. Her unfamiliarity with the figures of Trotsky and Stalin, while fascists and communists battle around her, is treated by Kurt as both revelatory and charming. But rather than remain two perspectives among many, Marthe and Kurt’s diaries become the book’s most authoritative voices, giving City of Stones its title and articulating its major themes. The only major character seduced by the communists, a weary and sensitive mother, is shot to death during the march that closes the book, while her husband is progressively vilified as a Nazi. Oftentimes, Lutes’ breathtaking mastery of expression and body language is of more interest than the stock protagonists themselves.
More powerful than the characters is Lutes’ recreation of the city in ink. When people walk, they pass through the city, individual block by individual block. Figures are rarely shown apart from their environment, which is rendered with startling specificity and care. Lutes makes good on his characters’ claims that the city envelops them; he often drafts the foreground and background with equal line-weight, which feels like a deliberate philosophical decision.
On one hand, Lutes’ treatment of Berlin celebrates a crucial freedom the comic medium affords its creators; aside from time and training, everything is as equally ‘expensive’ to draw. Lutes is able to realize visuals that would have required a mammoth budget and manpower in any other medium. City of Stones is also less ‘comic-y’ than many books, as it doesn’t immediately participate in the ‘genre’ of comics or its concerns. (However, the romantic union of a drawer and a writer, and their self-exile from art-school and the rest of Berlin, suggests that City of Stones could secretly be about comics after all.) Lutes doesn’t push the envelope on what comics can do, although he achieves some great effects, often in pursuit of cinematic pacing. It begs the question whether Lutes draws comics in order make something similar to film, while retaining ultimate control. This also leaves him with the responsibility to know and accurately represent the story world he has chosen, which in the case of Berlin, exists outside of Lutes. This ‘auterism’ is far from a bad thing: imagine the variety and ambition of comics produced, if more creators made comics for this reason. Its fair to assume many already do.
Yet Lutes’ choice neglects, or even rejects, another freedom of comics– the ability to select what is represented. While a camera necessarily records all it can within range, a cartoonist can obliviate a background, stylize its objects, and can render objects into icons or types. Comics resembles memory, where only the essential elements are remembered, or rendered. The act of rendering itself makes what is drawn relevant to the ‘telling.’ For example, in Paul Hornschmeier’s book Mother Come Home, a child builds a snowfort out of flat, immaculate snowbricks.
Hornschemeier doesn’t describe the snowbricks, (crumbling, melting or made in various sizes,) and he barely describes the fort or the activity of building it, in favor of simply depicting the concept of ‘making a snowfort.’ Compared to speed lines, sweat bubbles, and the hundreds of symbols that have been developed in diverse comics traditions, this is a very minor shorthand– Hornschemeier is telling the reader that the child is making a snowfort, without going into detail of what that experience is like. This is left up to the reader, should he or she choose to dwell on it.
Alternatively, this freedom of selection resembles prose writing, where the descriptions add to the fabric, effect and significance of the story, and where a gratuity of description is not appreciated. City of Stones avoids seeming overindulgent because the drawings don’t have to be actively read. They can be visually absorbed (or passed over, unnoticed). At these times, the comic acts more like a film than like a novel. Lutes commits himself to draw like a camera. There’s a tragic nobility here; as a ‘rememberer’ of his narrative, it’s as if Lutes is trying to restore or break through to the world outside of the plot, while working in a medium where this is impossible. By choosing a historical period, Lutes appears to reach for a place independent of his imagination, or the reader’s. Yet the more he reaches and renders, the less room he leaves for his reader to imagine a world outside of Lutes– or late 20s Berlin via Lutes. The act of reading switches over from an active reading to a passive reading, where his audience is not responsible for assembling a sense of the world themselves. This is facilitated by Lute’s tight reign over the pacing.
This core irony is joined by two others. While City of Stones frequently criticizes the cult of “New Objectivity” which beset post-WWI Germany, Lutes works to draw as objectively and as similarly to a camera as possible. Lutes draws with anatomical and perspectival precision, yet he heroicizes a character who refuses to learn to draw this way. Judging only from the first volume, it’s up in the air as to whether Lutes crafted Berlin so as to criticize this visual oppression, to showcase its inescapability, or to capitilize on it.
This review was written without reference to Lute’s interviews or other writing about Lutes, and without reading the following issues or second compilation of Berlin, which the New York Public Library has so far not made readily available. Its possible that the story’s development will make some of these critiques pointless– perhaps Marthe will get a massive comeuppance for her solipsism. More likely she will lose her innocence. The most tantalizing thread is whether Kurt’s noble political non-commitment will spill over into an ambivalence about Marthe, something City of Stones confronts with subtlety and bite. If only more of the narrative threads carried this sense of mystery. The reader watches so many characters think and do so many private things, in such specific streets and houses, yet the book never achieves real, raw intimacy. Perhaps Lutes tries to show too much for a book that is ironic at its core. Which would be a sad conclusion, because his quest to truly, earnestly represent Berlin is the book’s most remarkable quality.