Home > Graphic Novels > ‘Berlin: City of Smoke’: A Graphic Novel Review

‘Berlin: City of Smoke’: A Graphic Novel Review

Berlin: City of Smoke is the second volume of the Berlin series, collecting issues #9-16. It’s written and drawn by Jason Lutes (Berlin, Jar of Fools). Because this review jumps right into the (literal) middle of the series I’ll do a bit of a recap without major spoilers. The series is focused on the mid-war period of Germany, with this volume taking place a year after the May Day event (1929) that served as the climax of the prior volume in Issue #8. The May Day event pitted the Communists and NSDAP (we know them as Nazis) parties simultaneously marching through Berlin as the police open fire on the communists. The main protagonists of the series are Karl, an aging leftist-leaning reporter, and Marthe, who moved from the country to the city for art school, to quit and formed a relationship with Karl at the end of the first volume. With that I’ll get started.

Writing:

In the second volume of Berlin the narrative focuses less on the characters as they had in the previous volume and more of the political and social changes in 1930, as well as the city life of Berlin. While the former was present in the prior volume, it was so successful and interesting because the primary characters interacted with it directly. In the second volume that is seen less. In fact we hardly see Karl in this volume except for the first two issues or so. A good chunk of the political aspect is discussed in a meeting which Karl attends at his newspaper, and hardly participates. This goes on for a few pages and begins to feel more like a lecture than narrative. Marthe is exploring the city for most of the volume. This part I find somewhat tedious. While it serves as a good period study, I don’t feel like there is substantial development given to Marthe in this volume, instead just throwing her into situations. The supporting cast is far more interesting in this volume. They see more development than the primary characters. There’s still historical nods as fictional (sans one of them), whereas the primary characters feel more like historical figures that give nods to fictional roles.

Though I may seem a bit critical of the historiography in this volume, I must praise Lutes on taking this approach. He is attentive to social and political issues of the time. This is a subject hardly anyone addresses, even by historians, and it’s nice to see a work on the subject that takes it seriously. His use of historical foreshadowing is great, and often parallels the visual media during the Weimar period. Lutes’ use of Horst Wessel was fantastic; it was incredibly subtle, but when looks at the overall importance of Wessel in Germany during the 30s it makes the use of him in the narrative more notable. (Wessel, a Nazi, was killed by communists, and a song/poem he wrote was used as propaganda by the NSDAP. Yay history!) The jazz band arc in the book was also really good. A nice touch for the period in general, as well the reaction to them a good narrative use at examining divisiveness.

Design:

Lutes is conventional in his use of panels for the most part. The panels don’t have a standardized length, but do have a defined panel size in terms of height. The number of panels per page aren’t regularized. But for the most part mostly conventional. The only exception to this is the murder of Horst Wessel. There are only two small-ish panels, and the rest is white space (this isn’t even the end of an issue either). It’s a good manipulation of the panels to serve the narrative.

Art:

While the characterization is off from the first volume, the art is not. Jason Lutes is always super consistent in terms of the artistic side of his works. From the infrequent releases of published works, including issues of Berlin, I can only assume that Lutes spends a considerable amount of time working on his art. He has this trend to draw in the same way a camera would in cinema. This was very apparent in Jar of Fools and it’s visible in Berlin. My particular favorites are his landscapes and his portrait shots. Lutes always prints in black and white. It’s hard for me to add anything to the review in that aspect. Except, Lutes uses this for equity purposes in this volume. The members of the jazz band don’t look at first glance to be black, but it’s only established by reading more about the characters (or very fine examination) that they’re any different. There is some tonal differences, but it was interesting use of equity.

my favorite landscape in this volume

A portrait of Karl

Final Opinion:

Berlin is a fantastic series, by a great writer/artist. This particular volume isn’t as strong as the prior volume due to weaker characterization on the part of the primary characters. The art is just as good. The supporting cast follows the sub-plots from the first volume well. The jazz subplot is introduced and concluded fairly well too. It still serves as a great means of understanding Weimar Germany in the form of sequential art. If you pick up the first volume (or have already read it) I still recommend this volume as a means of continuing the story and the social and historical examination. Not the best thing I’ve read by Jason Lutes, but fairly good on the whole.

This volume was published August 2008 and since then there has only been one more issue of the series (#17) released. I told you Lutes takes his time.

Berlin: City of Smoke belongs to Jason Lutes and is published by Drawn and Quarterly.

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