From the TCJ Archives

Jason Lutes’ Berlin #1

This review by Christopher Brayshaw was originally published in The Comics Journal #187 (May 1996).

BERLIN IS JASON LUTES' follow-up to his unmistakably ambitious two-volume graphic novel, Jar of Fools. While Jar's first volume evoked widespread, and well-deserved, critical acclaim, the second volume was met with puzzling (and for Lutes, undoubtedly frustrating) silence. The indifferent response to Jar's second volume seemed to indicate a falling-off, or relaxation of the formidable cartooning skills Lutes brought to bear in the first volume, which still stands as a benchmark of Lutes' achievement. If its companion volume, or, for that matter, Berlin fails to reach it, it's as important to acknowledge that early success as it is to note that, while Berlin still falls short of Lutes' personal best, it's nonetheless a competently conceived and executed read.

Geography and psychology are interchangeable for Lutes — the places in which his characters find themselves are invariably related to their lives and emotional conditions. Jar of Fools was set in rainy Seattle; much of that book took place in the dark beneath elevated portions of the I-5, where the characters' invisibility from the traffic overhead served as a reflection on their marginal lives. Berlin is not set in the present day, but in Germany, circa 1928. Two strangers, man and woman, meet on a train bound for Berlin. Kurt Severing is a journalist returning to the city from a clandestine visit to an airfield where military planes are being tested, in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibits Germany from maintaining an air force; Marthe Muller is an artist from the small city of Koln, who might simply be traveling for pleasure, though Lutes hints that she is more likely fleeing an incident in her past involving her father, a major in the German army. Kurt and Marthe talk together on the train, wander through Berlin's streets, and finally arrive at separate destinations: Severing at the offices of his employer, the daily paper Die Weltbuhne, and Muller at the home of Herr Wolzendorf, an ex-soldier who formerly served under her father's command.

Two lovely full-page panels dominate Berlin's first issue: an elevated shot of the train carrying Kurt and Marthe toward Berlin; and, later on, a bird's eye view of the city's downtown core. These images illuminate two of Berlin's central themes: the impossibility of escaping from time and one's past; and the productive opportunities a cultural center like Berlin offers to expand one's life beyond the bounds of what a smaller city like Koln can offer. In both instances, Lutes uses rail tracks to symbolize different conceptions of time. In Berlin's first sequence — a long conversation between Kurt and Marthe inside a train car bound for Berlin —  time, like the tracks under the train, only moves forward, toward the future. A completely black page, blank save for the story's title, separates this opening sequence from the train's arrival in Berlin. But the black page also alludes to the as-yet unexplained relationship between Marthe and her father, which Lutes at one point represents as a vast darkness inside Marthe's skull, broken by a soldier's silhouette, whose back is turned to us. Lutes' juxtaposition of the soldier's figure with darkness in turn links the all-black page with the still-recent First World War, whose signs are scattered everywhere in the September countryside, like harbingers of the Second World War to come. In the second full-page panel, rail tracks fork and branch off through Berlin, symbolizing the variety of life choices offered by the specifically European notion of the great city. Lutes marks the richness and variety of Berlin life in a number of ways. "There is more of everything and everything moves faster than ever before," says Kurt to Marthe during their train conversation, and his observation is later confirmed as the two walk along Berlin's streets. "Into the flow of [the city] as into a river. Through warring currents of flesh and smell: cigars and sausage, lavender and roses, the sourness of neglect." Lutes' panels encompass a number of historically accurate details: street architecture; expressions on the faces of passersby; the nearby clamor of traffic and streetcars. "I am losing myself," thinks Marthe, and, as if to underscore her observation, Lutes' camera pulls back to a full-page view of Berlin and its branching streets, from an angle so high that Kurt and Marthe vanish in the rush.

There's real pleasure in Lutes' detailed evocation of Berlin's streets. A brief acknowledgment calls attention to Lutes' judicious citation of photographs by August Sander, and art works by Otto Dix, Rudolf Dischinger, and other Weimar Republic artists. And in the book's most impressive sequence, Lutes employs a kind of literary expressionism, reminiscent of the early chapters of Joyce's Ulysses, to map the thoughts of the "poor fellow" operating the signals at a traffic roundabout, whose disgust with the drivers below him is contrasted with Kurt and Marthe's enthusiastic views of the city. Not all of Berlin is as successful as this sequence, which to my mind ranks with Lutes' best. In particular, I note two tendencies in Berlin which represent a step down from Lutes' best work. First is Lutes' inclusion of panels whose odd angles seem designed not to simply convey information, but to inflect readers' responses to them. For example, a tall panel on page 11 depicts Kurt and Marthe walking through the Berlin train station. The panel's point of view is skewed to emphasize the sunlight falling through the station's high windows overhead, which seems unnecessary. In this case, Lutes seems to think that the components of the scene aren't sufficient to influence readers' responses to it, so he interferes, and the panel consequently stands out from his more dispassionate views elsewhere. A second, related problem is Lutes' pacing. Some scenes, like Kurt and Marthe's long conversation on the train, are punctuated by panels that don't provide any new visual information, but rather seem inserted arbitrarily, to pace the sequence more slowly. Obviously, Lutes is trying to develop slower, more complicated rhythms than the stylish cuts of Jar of Fools’ action sequences. But I don't think his present solutions to this problem are successful. As David Mamet indicates in On Directing Film (a tiny book which, page for page, provides more useful information for professional cartoonists than all of Burne Hogarth and Will Eisner's books do together), cuts can pace a slow scene just as effectively as a fast one. Lutes needs to think more carefully about how his signature cuts (which he employs to good effect in sequences like the one involving the traffic light controller) can contribute to his newfound interest in slower, subtler scenes.

Problems like these give Berlin a kind of workbook quality. I find myself less interested in the story's characters than in Lutes' thoughtful play with different kinds of pacing. Coming after Jar of Fools' bravura pacing, this can't help but feel like a bit of a letdown. But Lutes' commitment to experimentation and to refining his storytelling techniques bodes well for his continued development as a cartoonist. I'm consequently willing to accept my minor reservations about Berlin for now, in return for the more innovative work that Lutes' present experiments promise in the future.